The Book of Jonah records the prophet’s flight from God and his three days in the “belly of the whale” (literally, “great fish”). Jonah is subsequently “vomited” by the whale onto dry land (2:11), where he grudgingly completes his divine mission. Jonah’s experience conveys two complementary lessons.

From the belly of the whale, Jonah offers a protracted, saccharine prayer for divine relief. The whale’s immediate response is to expel the prophet as a digestive irritant. Given the prophet’s repeated attempts to evade God’s call, even the whale found Jonah’s opportunistic morality, his transparently transactional piety simply nauseating!

Jonah’s experience is also suggestive of ambergris, the pungent, waxy substance produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales, from which it is regurgitated… and generally found on beaches. Even if superficially unappealing, ambergris (essentially, petrified whale vomit) is highly prized as a source of fuel, pharmaceuticals, perfume and cosmetics. The Prophet Jonah was human ambergris! God’s revealed will, with all its moral constraints and demands on our freedom, is a treasure… even if a less encumbered lifestyle may – deceptively – appear more appealing.

Jonah reminds us: an affected, ostentatious piety is sickening… and, seemingly more attractive alternatives notwithstanding, God’s Word is an invaluable discovery. Absent these moral insights, Jonah is just another big fish story.

(Rabbi Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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