14

I know the common understanding is that Jonah waited, alive and conscious, in the belly of the whale until he was spat out.

Has a euphemized "children's version" become accepted truth? Perhaps we can set preconceptions aside for the moment and take a fresh look at this question. In the text and from what is naturally possible, chapter 2 may depict a pretty grim condition for Jonah.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
3 For you cast me into the deep,
   into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6     at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever
;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

([Jonah 2, ESV][esv]; emphasis mine)

Deciding what type of writing Chapter 2 is may be helpful. Deciding when Jonah made this prayer may be helpful. Though your conclusion on whether Jonah is alive or not may have more influence on that question than the other way around. Is Jonah crying out from the belly of the whale (2:1) or from Sheol (2:2) or maybe in a way its both?

The presence of Sheol and Shachath (and some surrounding language) could be read as suggesting death.

Jonah 2:6 speaks of the pit, but that phrase using the word shachath for pit also translated "corruption" and is the same term used in Psalm 16:10

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption (or the pit)

A nonreligious first reaction seems to be that it makes no natural sense that a man could survive in a whale three days, not without supernatural intervention. Should that be our starting understanding instead? Should we demand the text specifically show that he was kept alive rather than show that he died because his death would be the normal expectation?

Main Question

Did Jonah actually die and, while dead or dying, cry out to God who heard him and resurrected him?

Also, given that Jesus later compares his death with Jonah's time in the fish, is it fair to say it means death for Jesus but not for Jonah?

  • I'm trying to figure out the point of your statement: "A nonreligious first reaction seems to be that it makes no natural sense that a man could survive in a whale three days, not without supernatural intervention. Should that [death] be our starting understanding instead?" Because one can equally say: "A nonreligious first reaction seems to be that it makes no natural sense that a man is resurrected from death inside a whale after three days, not without supernatural intervention. Should that [remaining alive] be our starting understanding instead?" Something supernatural occurs either way. – ScottS May 10 '16 at 3:42
  • @ScottS shouldn't a good hermeneutic assume the most natural meaning, the most natural result , until the text indicates otherwise? Name another miracle in Scripture that we assume happened? If a man was swallowed by a whale today we would assume he was dead. The Jonah story does not stop there, it says he was brought back up to the land of the living and the whale spat him out. If he was dead and is now alive, he must have been brought back to life. That simple. That is the most basic understanding as I see it. – Joshua May 10 '16 at 9:31
  • @ScottS so I'm asking what indicates in the text that he was kept alive, rather than simply Resurrected? It's not as though he had to keep him alive. For example Jesus was in no rush to get to Lazarus and heal him before he died. Resurrecting him 4 days later was no more difficult than healing him while alive. – Joshua May 10 '16 at 9:35
6

The text appears to indicate that Yona physically died at the point that the great fish swallowed him.

Yona indicates that he cried from the depths of "Sheol" (Jonah 2:2). That is, he appears to have been not only in the sea, but also "in the belly of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). Yona indicates that he had descended not to the depths of the sea, but to the "roots of the mountains" (Jonah 2:6), which are the far interior recesses of the earth.

The Hebrew word for Sheol is the same word used for the destination of the humanity of the Person of Jesus Christ (Psalm 16:10 <=> Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31). That is, the Septuagint of the Hebrew Bible uses the same word "Hades" in Psalm 16:10 as is found in Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31. The same Hebrew word "Sheol" occurs in Psalm 16:10 and Jonah 2:2. Thus Sheol = Hades.

In other words, Yona did NOT enter an earthly grave (but was in the belly of the great fish in the Mediterranean Sea), and of course Jesus was NOT buried at sea, but was laid to rest in an earthly tomb. Yet while one dead body was in the sea, and one dead body was in the tomb, they both were in Sheol/Hades. That is, Sheol/Hades was the destination of the souls of the dead in the Old Testament.

Finally, at not least, Yona indicates that the Lord brought his life from "the pit" (Jonah 2:6). (His "life" here was not his "nefesh" [soul] but his "Che" [body of life].) In the Septuagint this word for "the pit" is the same root word used in the NT in the context of the "corruption" (or decay) of the body of Jesus Christ, which did not happen (Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31). In other words, the parallel between the physical death of Yona and the physical death of Jesus was not only that they were both dead for three days and three nights (and that they both went to Sheol/Hades "in the belly of the earth") but that neither of their bodies saw "corruption."

  • I'm struggling with your statement "the 'roots of the mountains' (Jonah 2:6), which are the far interior recesses of the earth," when the verse appears to be locating "roots of the mountains" where "weeds were wrapped about my head," which does not seem to support your idea of "roots of the mountains" to be equivalent to "in the belly of the earth." Can you comment on that apparent discrepancy in your identification? – ScottS May 9 '16 at 16:25
  • @ScottS - My impression was that he was dead; that is, his physical head was wrapped in seaweed, and that his soul was in hades (Sheol), beneath the "roots of the mountains." In this sense we can say that he was in two places at the same time. – Joseph May 9 '16 at 16:29
  • 1
    @ScottS A double meaning is not out of the question. For example, when one is "gathered to his fathers" it is literal in the shared family grave, but also in Sheol. They return to dust, but Moses somehow is going to lie down with his fathers even though they undoubtedly died in Egypt. And so on, it describes both aspects, material and immaterial. – Joshua May 10 '16 at 1:20
  • 1
    My issue is that the _Hebrew text _ appears to be making a direct physical association between the location of the seaweed and the extremity of the mountains, so it seems to be eisegesis to read "roots of the mountains" = "belly of the earth" (or "far interior recesses of the earth") as an argument in support of this view. – ScottS May 10 '16 at 4:13
  • 1
    @ScottS Lied down, buried, gathered, return, the verb is not the point, they are all used (Gen 25:8) The point is 'with'. The only way a dead Moses is 'with' his fathers is in the state of death, abstractly, or maybe even spiritually, not physically. Can't answer for Joseph on the second part, but it seems to me both descriptions work and fit other descriptions of Sheol and Shachath, both of which are in the Hebrew text. – Joshua May 10 '16 at 10:05
12

Did Jonah actually die in the whale?

No, there is no reason to suppose that is how the text would have been understood at the time of writing, or the time of Jesus. It is a poetic figure of speech indicating a brush with death rather than actual physical death. David uses similar language in Psalms 18 and 86 for example:

  • 4The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; 5the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. Psalm 18, ESV

  • 13For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. Paslm 86, ESV

Furthermore,1 the verses you've highlighted as perhaps implying physical death for Jonah (2, 5 & 6), are before verse 7, which strongly implies his life never quite 'faded away':

7When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. ESV

So:

is it fair to say it means death for Jesus but not for Jonah?

Yes. Whenever an analogy is used, you have to ask yourself "how far is it intented to correspond".

In this case Jonah's 'near death' and existence in the 'sheol-like' darkness of the fish's belly corresponds to the actual physical death of Jesus but does not imply that Jonah physically died. Similarly for Jonah's return to the land of the living. However, the strongest correspondence is with the 'sign' of Jonah, not the death of Jonah — both signs signal impending judgement but unlike the pagan Ninevites, 'this generation' will not repent:

41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. ESV


1 Credit to @ScottS for his comment to this effect.

  • You make some great points, especially connecting the psalms of David. Of course, we always have the difficulty of discerning which are prophetic, like Psalm 16, and which aren't, but I think you have a good case with Psalm 18. Job also uses such language, however, he is generally speaking hypothetically, if he were to die.* Not poetically but of actual death. – Joshua Jun 15 '15 at 10:58
  • I don't mean to suggest (here) that the Psalms I cite here are prophetic - just to demonstrate that the poetic description of 'near death' by using the language of Sheol is common. – Jack Douglas Jun 15 '15 at 11:05
  • I understood, I meant that you could use Psalm 16:10 to support near death as well, but when understood as messianic, especially if you attribute it to Jesus, it suddenly becomes real death. So we have to discern what we are willing to say has double prophetic meaning or doesn't. – Joshua Jun 15 '15 at 11:11
  • 1
    I'm also thinking the resurrections in the OT are explicitly stated: 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4, and 2 Kings 13:21. If Jonah had died here, I'm thinking the writer would have told us so in clear terms. – Mathieu K. Feb 9 '16 at 3:41
  • 1
    @JackDouglas It seems like v.7 may add to your argument from the context, as "when my life was fainting away" is a statement of not yet reaching death. – ScottS May 9 '16 at 16:29
3

The sea as a metaphor for death is rather common. This was true in the Hebrew mind and others (think the gods of the underworld and how closely related they were to Poseidon)

When Jonah was tossed into the sea, he was given up for dead. In the belley of the whale, he was, to all outside appearances, dead and gone. Even from Jonah's prayer, we get the sense that Jonah thought he was dead- just waiting for death inside the fish.

That Jonah "came back" is the essence of the sign of Jonah being dead for three days and coming back.

  • I agree with your conclusion, but your answer needs support. How do you equate "crying from the depths of Sheol" as being figurative and not literal? – Tau Jun 18 '15 at 9:32
3

Jonah didn't die:

  1. When Jonah was thrown out of the boat: Jonah was still alive.

  2. When Jonah was in the fish belly: Jonah was still alive.

  3. When Jonah was praying to God in the belly: Jonah was still alive (he was crying too while he was praying).

  4. When the fish vomits him out: Jonah was still alive (because he has to go to Nineveh for preaching).

Matthew 12:40 says "for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly...". This refers to being alive, not being dead.

-1

I like what Michael Houdmann said in his website, gotquestions:

Those who accept the literal account of Jonah take one of two main views regarding what happened to Jonah during his time in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2). One view holds that Jonah died and later returned to life. The second view holds that Jonah remained alive for three days in the belly of the great fish. Both views agree on a literal reading of the book of Jonah and affirm God's supernatural ability to rescue His prophet. The difference is whether to see Jonah 2:10 as a description of a weak and bedraggled Jonah or as a truly resurrected Jonah.

Those who argue that Jonah died and later rose again appeal to Jonah's prayer in Jonah 2:2: "From the depths of the grave I called for help." The use of Sheol, the Hebrew term for "the grave," could mean that Jonah actually died. Yet the words "the depths of the grave," seen as a poetic turn of phrase, could easily refer to an agonizing or horrifying experience.

There's another reason that some argue for Jonah's death and resurrection: Jesus said, "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). The reasoning is that, since Jesus' death and resurrection were actual, then Jonah must have also actually died and later returned to life. However, Jesus' comparison does not mandate perfect congruency between the two events. Jonah's hopeless situation was illustrative of Jesus' death; Jonah's sudden appearance at Nineveh was illustrative of Jesus' resurrection. The three days was an additional similarity. Jonah returned from the edge of death; Jesus, who is greater than Jonah, returned from actual death. Analogies do not require absolute agreement in every detail.

The Bible does not explicitly state that Jonah died in the belly of the great fish. Those who theorize that he did die rely on inference and speculation. What is the evidence that Jonah stayed alive for the three days he spent in the belly of the great fish?

First, it is clear that Jonah prayed from inside the fish: "Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish" (Jonah 2:1). At the very least, Jonah lived long enough to offer his prayer.

Second, the language of Jonah's prayer is poetic in nature. Terms such as Sheol and the reference to "the pit" (Jonah 2:6) do not have to be interpreted so literally as to require physical death.

Did Jonah die in the fish, or was he alive the whole time? Either interpretation is possible, but the traditional understanding, that Jonah was alive for three days in the belly of a great fish, is more likely. Jonah, who everyone thought was a "goner," emerged from the murky depths to bring God's message of salvation to a lost and dying people. In so doing, he became a wonderful representation of Jesus' death, resurrection, and life-giving message.

I agree that Jonah was alive the whole 3 days and 3 nights.

  • Couple thoughts: "Those who theorize that he did die rely on inference and speculation." My OP point was that the default should be he does, because that's what would have happened without Divine intervention. Therefore we need to prove the positive, not the negative. Next, you say Jonah prayed from the fish, but what he prayed from the fish is NOT the prayer we have. What we have is all past tense recounting. Which likely takes, as you note, poetic license. "When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple." A dying prayer fits as well – Joshua Jan 2 at 16:18
-3

We are told that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a 2nd time, because when he received the word from the Lord the 1st time he rebelled and ran away. In referring to his resurrection Jesus spoke of Jonah in the belly of the whale. And this speaks of life out of death then after Jonah had dealt with his fear he was able to be obedient to the word of God. Jonah means dove, which speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit. At first he resisted the Spirit because of his fear, which we all inherit from Adam. It means that we will never be obedient to the will or to the word of God as long we haven’t dealt with the old nature. In Isaiah 9:8 it says ‘The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it has lighted upon Israel’. The name speaks of a person’s character and the name Jacob means cheat, supplanter, and twister and after wrestling with the Lord he received a new name, a new character and he was called Israel meaning prince of God. Jacob speaks of the natural man and Israel speaks of the spiritual man. The word of the Lord could not come on to Jacob because the old sinful nature we received from Adam is disobedient to the word of God. Israel speaks of the spiritual man and only that which is born of the spirit can be obedient to the word of God. When Jacob was blessing his sons on his death bed he called them ‘sons of Jacob’ meaning sons of the old natural man but he told them to ‘listen to Israel your father’ listen to the spiritual man the hidden man of the heart. The natural man cannot understand the word of God. That’s why Jesus could not use any of the Scribes and Pharisees in his own day. They had all the understanding in their heads but they had no heart knowledge. Why didn’t they recognise the Messiah? All the Scriptures pointed to him. It doesn’t matter what theological college you have been to. It doesn’t matter how many degrees or letters you have acquired after your name, because your head knowledge, your intellect and your education will never give you the revelation that you need to discern what is written, for only the Holy Spirit can reveal Christ to you and only the Holy Spirit can enlighten this word to you, otherwise it is just a book of words. Whenever you try to interpret without the Spirit it may say something totally different to what it means.

Another example would be Gideon who was threshing the wheat in the wine-press for ‘fear’ of the Midianites. The Lord told Gideon to pull down the altar to Baal that belonged to his father and to cut down the sacred post at the side of it and then to take his father’s fattened calf and to sacrifice it to the Lord. Gideon was ‘threshing the wheat’. This represents the purging or the refining that goes on through the word of God. There has to be a sweeping and a cleansing of that which will contaminate the word. Sometimes you get a lot of dross that is mixed with the word of God. Just because something is traditional, doesn’t necessarily mean that it lines up with the word of God. Sometimes tradition can be man’s interpretation of the word of God and not the Holy Spirit’s interpretation. Gideon was sitting in the winepress which speaks of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. So this tells us that in order to rightly divide the word of truth, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He may have to use pressure or adversity so that we can get rid of all the husks away from the word. Like the prodigal son or Jonah, we may have to reach the pit before we can come to our senses and then He can get our attention.

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