Reflection : Belly of the Beast

Reflection : Belly of the Beast

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Nineveh was settled on the banks of the Tigris River approximately five hundred miles northeast of Israel. According to historians, magnificent walls almost eight miles long enveloped the inner city, with the rest of the city and surrounding district occupying an area with a circumference of some sixty miles. The name Nineveh is thought to derive from Nimrod, the city’s founder and Nimrod means fish. The people worshipped the fish gods. Fish were of particular significance to the Ninevites – which might explain why they took such great interest in Jonah and his fish story.

It’s estimated that over 600 thousand people lived in Nineveh, that’s the same as Glasgow and this is the only recorded time that a prophet was sent to preach repentance in a foreign land. It’s easy to skim over this part of the story with a couple of sentences in Sunday school but it’s a very powerful image of God’s grace and mercy.

A variety of resources on the story of Jonah are included here, feel free to use whatever is appropriate for your context.

Reading – the book of Jonah

It is worth reading the entire story of Jonah and using some different versions of the bible to compare the language used and emphasis placed.


What do you already know about the story of Jonah?

What do you think are the main themes of the story?

Which part of the story most draws your attention?

Who are the other characters in the story, why are they important?

Did this really happen or is it more of a myth?

What similarities to the gospels can be drawn?

What is the relevance of the vine?

What lessons can we learn from the story?

What does this story have to say about mission in the 21st Century?


A purple whale, Proudly sweeps his tail

Towards Nineveh; Glassy green

Surges between, A mile of roaring sea.

“O town of gold, Of splendour multifold,

Lucre and lust, Leviathan’s eye

Can surely spy, Thy doom of death and dust.”

On curving sands, Vengeful Jonah stands.

“Yet forty days, Then down, down,

Tumbles the town, In flaming ruin ablaze.”

With swift lament, Those Ninevites repent.

They cry in tears, “Our hearts fail!”

The whale, the whale! Our sins prick us like spears.”

Jonah is vexed; He cries, “What next? what next?”

And shakes his fist. “Stupid city,

The shame, the pity, The glorious crash I’ve missed.”

Away goes Jonah grumbling, Murmuring and mumbling;

Off ploughs the purple whale, With disappointed tail.

By Robert von Ranke Graves

Reflection (Richard Rohr)

We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster such as the death of a friend or spouse or the loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. Mature religion shows us how to enter willingly and trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers.

We would prefer clear and easy answers, but questions hold the greatest potential for opening us to transformation. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the perilous dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to the state of emptiness—to a momentary sense of meaninglessness—in which we ask, “What is it all for?” The spaciousness within the question allows Love to fill and enliven us.

Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, hibernation, initiation, and transformation. Yet we avoid this sacred space. When we avoid such darkness, we miss out on spiritual creativity and new awareness. Let’s be honest: there has been little solid teaching on darkness in Western Christianity for the last five hundred years. We have instead sought light, order, certitude, and theological “answers” for everything, which by themselves do not teach us very much.

The way up is down.


Heavenly Father, thank you that even when we are faithless You remain faithful. I pray that I would be ready and willing to hear and obey Your call on my life, no matter how difficult or unusual it may be. AMEN.

Jonah’s prayer

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
    and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
    swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished
    from your sight;
yet I will look again
    toward your holy temple.’
5 The engulfing waters threatened me,[b]
    the deep surrounded me;
    seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
    the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
    brought my life up from the pit.

7 “When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
    turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”


Alma Sheppard-Matsuo

Arpad Illes

Eugene Ivanov

Pieta Lastman (1621)

Reflection Questions

What do the different images say about the story?

Do any of them accurately portray the story?

Which is your favorite and why?

How would you choose to depict the story in one image?

Further Resources