Having been swallowed by a great fish, the prophet Jonah offers a lengthy prayer to God that in many ways marks the turning point in the eponymous biblical book. Erica Brown seeks to explain this frequently misunderstood, and even more frequently neglected, passage:
Jonah, ignoring God’s call for the prophet to rehabilitate Nineveh, “goes down” to Jaffa, down into a ship, and finally down into a deep sleep. This downward movement, represented in the Bible by the drumbeat of the Hebrew root yarad (“to descend”), demonstrates Jonah’s withdrawal from the world into himself. He ignores, [successively], God’s command, the storm raging around him, the sailors he imperiled, and the captain’s plea to pray. Unresponsive and unwilling to save himself, Jonah is equally unwilling to jump off the boat to save the lives of others. In his anguish and passivity, Jonah asks to be thrown overboard.
Jonah’s descent continues. Once thrown overboard, he sinks into the sea. . . . He is unable to die, and also unable to live, . . . until the great sea monster appears with its unexpected salvific powers. . . . At the lowest point in his life, at the lowest point of the earth—only then does Jonah understand all that he is about to forfeit. If engulfed by the deep, he would never be able to serve God again.
The very act of prayer, the attempt to close the abyss between himself and God, helped Jonah recognize this. Our capacity to ascend often only becomes apparent after we have traced our descent in prayer. “When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind, and my prayer came before You” (Jonah 2:8). Prayer ascends to God, and by it, we are lifted up.
Spiritual memoirs, narratives of addiction and recovery, and rags-to-riches stories take us through arcs of descent and ascent. They fascinate us because they give us hope that the monsters inside of us—and, in the case of Jonah’s fish, outside of us—need not imprison us.