Saturday, July 19, 2014

To Swallow or to Spit (Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10)

Now the Lord had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights.
   Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish:
   "I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.
   I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol (land of the dead);
   You heard my voice…

Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10

Says Pieper of his artwork, "I created this three dimensional encaustic/mixed media piece to spotlight God's love for all humankind…" Jonah's perplexity is that of a person who cannot forgive and therefore rejects the God of mercy and forgiveness. As a consequence of this rejection Jonah devolves from a child of God into a tortuous creature of revenge and retribution.

Scholars are eager to note that the verb "to swallow up" never has a positive connotation in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pharaoh and his chariots were swallowed up by the waters of the Reed Sea (Ex. 15:12) and the rebellious Korah was swallowed up by the earth (Nu. 16:28-34). The threat of being swallowed up is always a possibility for those who self-identify as a sexual minority (or for any minority group). The pressure to "confirm" to sexual expectations has included legal, social, and religious sanctions. This is nothing new for those who are forced to deny our inner compass and to see ourselves as something less than whole.

Yet this swallowing into oblivion is not what Jonah's story points us to. Jonah's swallowing is transformational. The literary critic Janet Howe Gaines notes, "The fish is … awesome but not horrific. It represents our internal struggles, our daily battles that we are capable of overcoming." Gaines' insight helps us understand that the fish does not annihilate the prophet, but rather serves as a holy place where the prophet is reestablished. 

To be reestablished Jonah surrenders an extremely valuable commodity - his wounds and his righteous indignation. Many of us can talk of the wounds we receive because we are queer. Everyone has a story of their journey. Sometimes this story becomes so strong that we begin to identify ourselves not by our skills or passions or loves, but by our wounds. We encrust ourselves in the scabs that we, in part, will not let heal, for we pick them afresh each day. 

The heart of Jonah's prayer is verse 7: "As my life was ebbing away / I remembered Our God / and my prayer came to you / in your holy temple." What is being alluded to is what the anthropologist and philosopher Madronna Holden has noted - what determines the outcome of our lives is not our physical power, but our spiritual alliance. Jonah's story at this junction implies that the path to wholeness/reestablishment leads us into the belly of our own beasts so we may discover, or rediscover, our own sacred and God-given identity. 

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