The Book of Jonah - one of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament - tells the story of a man’s attempt to escape his religious calling, followed by his repentance, forgiveness, and struggle to accept God’s will.
God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and prophesy against the wickedness of its inhabitants. But the task is daunting, and Jonah refuses the call. Instead of departing for Nineveh, he heads to the port of Jaffa and books passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean.
When a terrible storm strikes the ship, the sailors suspect divine punishment and question Jonah. He admits that he has attempted to escape from God, takes the blame for the storm, and convinces the sailors to throw him overboard. As soon as they do, the sea calms, and a “great fish” appears and swallows Jonah whole. He spends three days and nights in its belly, praying to God and giving thanks that the whale saved him from drowning, at which point God causes the whale to spit Jonah out on shore.
Again God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and this time he obeys. He warns the city that they will be overthrown in forty days, and the people quickly repent and proclaim a fast. When God is moved to spare Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry and depressed because his prophecy of doom is rendered false.
The story of Jonah appears in the scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and many interpretations exist. Jewish and Muslim views tend to focus on the repentance and forgiveness aspects; for Christians, Jonah’s experience with the whale also prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mythologist Joseph Campbell noted certain parallels with the stories of Gilgamesh and Jason. In an old sailors’ superstition, someone who brings bad luck to a ship is called “a Jonah.”
Sam Hunter’s play, The Whale, interweaves many whale-related stories from literature, from the story of Jonah to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The story of Jonah plays an important role in Moby Dick, as the topic of the sermon Father Mapple delivers to the protagonists before they embark on their voyage. In his sermon, he presents a dual moral message: Jonah’s lesson to Mapple himself is to “preach the Truth to the face of falsehood,” while the message for the congregation is that Jonah is a “model for repentance,” accepting his punishment and praying in thanksgiving rather than asking forgiveness.
In this excerpt from Chapter 9 of Moby Dick, Father Mapple analyzes Jonah’s repentance inside the whale:
"And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish's belly. But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah."