“What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.'”
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.Jonah 2:9b-10
And here we arrive at the point that the children’s bibles are always leading: Jonah leaving the fish for dry land and “making good” what he has “vowed”. Yet there’s something quite curious about this moment in the story that we miss when we know it too well: the juxtaposition of salvation and vomit. It sounds sacrilegious, but there it is in the Bible. Jonah declares that salvation comes from the Lord, and then God commands the fish to vomit him up. If anything, in this moment of scripture vomit is the way in which salvation occurs: God saves Jonah from death inside the fish by being vomited up.
The fact that we might be squeamish at the idea, that discussions of vomit do not fit neatly inside our theology, says two things. First, it shows that we are uncomfortable with our own bodies, a fact that points both to the vomit-free glory that we instinctively feel we deserve. If our bodies as they are, inclined towards all kinds of abject and unpleasant fluids and the like, are all that humanity has ever or will ever know, then our discomfort seems odd. I have Philip Yancey and C.S. Lewis to thank for pointing this out to me. But secondly it also shows that we really don’t understand just how physical and visceral God’s saving work for us is. God gets down in the mud to make Adam. God breaths into Adam’s nostrils. God walks in the garden to find Adam naked and ashamed. God enters a womb and spends nine months drinking amnioitic fluid and kicking against his mother’s stomach before entering the world kicking, screaming, covered in blood and vernix. God spends thirty-three years as a man, experiencing all the glories and indignities that this entails, including the particularly awkward teenage years. And then God is nailed onto a cross, with scars that He still bears into eternity, has to heave Himself up and down, up and down, for hours in the body’s desperate bid to keep breathing, and then, as He dies, a soldier stabs Him in the side and blood and water flow from Him out onto the ground. The story of scripture is physical, earthy and messy. So yes, vomit and salvation go together, because God is not afraid of our mess.
But there’s another curious thing about this verse and a half that relates again to this word “vomit”. The Hebrew word qow is used only a handful of times in the Old Testament, unsurprisingly. Most of the times that it is used, it’s metaphorical: a figure of speech to describe land rejecting people from its midst. These three uses from Leviticus will show you what I mean:
Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Lev 18:25)
And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Lev 18:28)
Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Lev 20:22)
In these three verses we see a story of God rejecting the people who lived in the land before Israel because of their sins, and the warning that He will do the same if they fail to follow His commands. And the image that God uses here is of the land vomiting out the people.
Well, here Jonah – a prophet of Israel – is vomited out, not as rejection, but as salvation. Jonah disobeyed God, but he has returned to Him and so the fish vomits Jonah out onto land – but significantly, not onto Israel’s land, but onto land near Nineveh, the capital city of his worst enemies. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and He chooses whom to save and how.
Yet this fact is as uncomfortable for us as reading about vomit: we do not want to confront what it means for salvation to be entirely on God’s terms, not ours. And Jonah, sad to say, still doesn’t get it, as he washes the fish vomit from his clothes and sets foot once more on dry land, determined now to do the right thing.