The Sign of Jonah, Biblical Archaeology, and Lent

I came across an article broadcasting the latest “amazing find” in biblical archaeology–a report of the discovery of an ossuary with an image of a whale spewing something out, and an inscription suggesting something about revelation. The story of the discovery is actually quite interesting, involving a tomb that was first excavated in 1981, then sealed up because of a building constructed on top of it. Using a high definition camera, archaeologists were able in recent years to explore the tomb and make pictures of its contents. Images of the tomb are available here. I’m not qualified to comment on either the archaeology or the inscriptions, but if you want to know how scholars are reacting, the blog at the American Society of Oriental Research is the place to explore. Needless to say, they’re skeptical. And frankly, to me the image doesn’t much look like a whale or fish.

I’m more interested in the coincidence. Yesterday was Wednesday in the First Week of Lent and the daily eucharistic readings focused on the “Sign of Jonah.” We heard Jonah 3:1-10, the story of Jonah’s proclamation and Nineveh’s repentance, and Luke 12:29-32, Luke’s version of Jesus saying concerning the “sign of Jonah.”

For Luke, the sign of Jonah has nothing to do with his survival for three days in the belly of a whale, which was how Matthew used it and explains why Jonah became a popular iconographic image in early Christianity. Instead, what Luke cares about is the power of Jonah’s proclamation, and the response of Nineveh, both human and beast. Jesus contrasts that response with the response to his own preaching.

Lent invites us into repentance, but I’m not sure how comfortable we are with that idea in the twenty-first century. But if we think about it in somewhat other terms, as an opportunity or invitation to experience God’s power to change our lives (change your mind is the Greek root of “Repent”), we might be more receptive. What burdens do we carry with us? What habits, attitudes, past experiences and actions continue to weigh us down and prevent our full experience of the love of Christ?

Jesus used the “sign of Jonah” to point out the amazing power of the good news. Can we see in that message good news that can change our lives just as powerfully?





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