Jonah

A series reflecting on the biblical story of the prophet Jonah through the lens of trauma.

Jonah and the Great Fish

Jonah and the Great Fish, 2019
Felt marker, Sharpie, pencil crayon, white ink, metallic water colour, 7 x 9″

The initial inspiration for this work comes from The Christian Plummet, a sonnet by Malcolm Guite. What caught my thoughts in encountering Guite’s poem was the way it re-frames the original Jonah story, making it “personal” while teasing out its Christological interpretations.

In Guite’s poem, the plummet, discarded by the community “to save them from the wreck”, parallels and points to Jesus, thrown to the Powers to save the powers.

A plummet is a traditional tool used to sound the depths of water below the ship. In the poem, the Jonah figure is sounding the depths of depression; Guite is imagining “my own and other people’s experience of what it is suddenly to plummet down in the light of prayer.” (This aspect is more explicit in my earlier study, below.)

In the final image, I chose to focus on the final lines of the sonnet:

One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe
The everlasting arms are underneath

Jonah, study, The Scapegoat

You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,
Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck, 
A stone cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,
A sacrifice to save them from the wreck

Malcolm Guite,The Christian Plummet

The Scapegoat (study for Jonah)

I initially drew Jonah falling as the plummet; however on paper it looked like a shackled figure. I then broke that sounding line…

Reflections

The early church understood Jonah as a type of Christ. The most evident parallel lies in the motif of three days and nights: Jonah survives three days before being vomited forth; Jesus lies dead in the tomb three days before coming forth as resurrected. This connection is made in the words of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke.

At that time some of the legal experts and the Pharisees requested of Jesus, “Teacher, we would like to see a sign from you.” But he replied, “An evil and unfaithful generation searches for a sign, but it won’t receive any sign except Jonah’s sign. Just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Human One will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 

Matthew 12:38-41(CEB); see also Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-32

However, a further parallel may be found in the common scapegoating. Jonah serves here as “scapegoat”, one onto whom disorder or crisis is projected by a community. By expelling or killing the scapegoat, the situation is alleviated and unanimity and order is restored. According to Rene Girard:

“What we see here is a reflection of the sacrificial crisis and its resolution. The victim is chosen by lot; his expulsion saves the community, as represented by the ship’s crew; and a new god is acknowledged through the crew’s sacrifice to the Lord whom they did not know before.”  

Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, p.24

My drawing imagines Jonah as a scapegoat in the Girardian sense; the community celebrating their deliverance on that sunlit deck, without thought for the one lost–or cast?–overboard. Here the subject of the poem serves as the classic scapegoat, whose role as fall-guy during chaos or crisis allows for a re-stabilization of the group.

What is interesting about Jonah is that he colludes with those who seek to restore order to the chaos of the sea. When chosen by lot, he insists that he must be thrown overboard; here, it is the sailors of the ship who resist his death.

And he said to them, “Lift me up and cast me into the sea that the sea calm for you, for I know that on my account this great storm is upon you.” And the men rowed to get back to the dry land and were not able, for the sea was storming upon them more and more.

And they called out to the LORD and said, “Please, O LORD, pray let us not perish on account of the life of this man, and do not exact from us the blood of the innocent, for You, O LORD, as You desire You do.” And they lifted up Jonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its fury.”

Within the narrative, Jonah is not entirely innocent. The storm has arisen because Jonah has chosen to flee rather than take his ministry to Nineveh: “… the LORD cast a great wind upon the sea, and there was a great storm on the sea, and the ship threatened to break up.”

One could say that like Christ Jonah is a willing victim, willing to sacrifice himself for the well-being of others. If so, who is the perpetrator? God? The sailors?

Scripture quotes: Robert Alter, Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

In the Belly of Sheol

In the Belly of Sheol, 2019
Felt marker, Sharpie, pencil crayon, wax crayon, whale bone rubbings, metallic water colour, 7.5″ x 10″

The imagery for this picture draws upon the psalm of Jonah chapter 2.

Jonah finds himself cast out into the chaos of the seas– and sinks to the bottom, as to the place of the dead, apparently abandoned by God.

“I called out from my straits to the LORD, and He answered me.
From the belly of Sheol I cried out— You heard my voice.
You flung me into the deep, in the heart of the sea,
and the current came round me.
All your breakers and waves streamed over me.
And I thought: I am banished from before Your eyes.
Yet again will I look on Your holy temple.
Water lapped about me to the neck,
the deep came round me, weed was bound round my head.
To the roots of the mountains I went down—
the underworld’s bolts against me forever.
But You brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.
As my life-breath grew faint within me, the LORD did I recall,
and my prayer came unto You, to Your holy temple.
Those who look to vaporous lies will turn away from their mercy.
And I with a voice of thanksgiving let me sacrifice to You.
What I vowed let me pay.
Rescue is the LORD’s.”

As with other images in the series, the underlying theme is the experience of trauma. It is suggested in recent work on the book that the story wrestles with the trauma of exile and return for the Hebrew people.*

The framework is developed from the ancient near eastern understanding of the world: with the dome of the sky arching over, the mountains rooted in the depths of the watery chaos, and Sheol, the place of the dead, found in the deeps.

This piece was developed and executed while at MISSA, held at Pearson College, at Metchosin on Vancouver Island.

The surprise element of the site: a full skeleton of a gray whale by the swimming pool, carefully rebuilt by the students. The skeleton found its way into the image in the stippling on the whale’s skin (bone rubbings), the rib bones that serve as the “underworld’s bolts”, and the human’s skeletal being in the whale’s belly.

Scripture quotes: Robert Alter, Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

*See for example L. Juliana M. Claassens, “Rethinking Humour in the Book of Jonah: Tragic Laughter as Resistance in the Context of Trauma, Ote 28/3 (2015): 655-673.


Jonah praises with the fishes

Jonah praises with the fishes
(Jonah #2, 2019)

This piece is inspired by Islamic commentary on the prophet Yunas (Jonah). Jonah is the only minor prophet to make an appearance in the Quran.

The story that develops in Islamic tradition diverges from the brief tale found in the Jewish scriptures. Jonah is from Ninevah. He is called to preach to the city; the city refuses his message so he leaves in anger. The sky turns red, and the people fear and repent. All is well, and the people pray for the prophets return. Meanwhile, Jonah gets on a ship, the storm comes, he is thrown overboard into the “darkness” and is swallowed by the fish. The darkness is understood by commentators to be three-fold: He is trapped in the darkness of night, in the darkness of the belly of the fish, and in a spiritual darkness of helplessness. 

He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” 

 Quran 21: 87

According to the ninth-century Persian historian Al-Taberi, Allah then turns the fish transparent, so that Yunas may see the “wonders of the deep”, and he hears the creatures singing praise to Allah. Because he glorifies God, he is set free from the fish:

Had he not been of them who glorify God, he would have indeed remained inside its belly (the fish) until the Day of Resurrection.   

Quran 37:143-144

Jonah is then returned to shore and continues his (successful) ministry.

I find the dramatically different ordering of the events, and the difference in when and how the people repent to be fascinating. Is it rooted in differing understandings of divine sovereignty, and the ways in which divine / human relationships are framed theologically?

Under the Gourd Vine

Under the Gourd Vine, 2019
Felt marker, Sharpie, pencil crayon, white ink, metallic water colour, 7.5″ x 10″

The story of Jonah is both a comedy and a tragedy. Having run away from God, been swallowed by a whale and spit back out on the shore, Jonah finally takes up the call to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh–representative of Assyria, a historic enemy of his people.

When the entire population (even the cattle) respond with repentance and mourning, God relents from the promised punishment. Jonah is not pleased: it is for this very reason that he fled God’s call in the first place.

“I beseech You, LORD, was it not my word when I was still in my land? Therefore did I hasten to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil. And now, LORD, take my life, pray, from me, for better my death than my life.”

Jonah sits down outside of the city to see what will happen. God is said to cause a vine to grow to give him shade; which gives joy to Jonah. The next day a worm is sent to eat the vine, which withers. Under the hot sun, Jonah is enraged, and wishes to die.

“Are you good and angry over the vine?” asks God.

And he said, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” And the LORD said, “You—you had pity over the [gourd vine] for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which overnight came and overnight was gone. And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than 120,000 human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts?”

Here is the challenge for Jonah: those who have traumatized his people will not be destroyed, they are not “getting what they deserve”, they too are the recipients of God’s grace.