Jonah 1:17-2:2 — A Great Fish “Tale”

But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God, from the belly of the fish, and said:

“Out of my distress, I called to Yahweh,

and he answered me.

From the womb of Sheol, I cried for help;

you heard my voice.”

(Jonah 1:17-2:2, my translation).

The sailors prayed, but Jonah did not. The sailors rowed toward land to save Jonah, but Jonah suggested they throw him into the sea. The sailors praised Yahweh, but Jonah did not. The sailors were rescued, and a “great fish” swallowed Jonah.

The Hebrew text has an accent in the middle of the first sentence (Jonah 1:17), which instructs the reader to pause. In other words, one follows “But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” with a dramatic pause. Jonah’s life is in the balance. Is the swallowing a mercy or death?

“Swallow” has a long history in biblical narrative. For example, the earth “swallowed” Pharoah’s army (Ex. 15:12). Korah and his allies were “swallowed” up, and they went down to Sheol (Num. 16:30-32).

The most interesting example is Jeremiah 51:34 which pictures King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon swallowing Judah “like a monster” and then vomiting Judah out. Jeremiah and Jonah use the same language for swallowing and vomiting (Jonah 2:1, 10). Theologically, Jonah’s experience in the great fish is analogous to Israel’s experience in exile. It is God’s judgment but for the sake of mercy and salvation. Like Israel in the exile, God sent Jonah on a journey to Sheol to reorient his life.

The pause gives the reader time to anticipate–is it death or life? And it was life; the “great fish” is Yahweh’s deliverance.

The “great fish” rescues Jonah from death by taking him on a journey from Sheol. The fish saves Jonah from drowning in the “womb” of chaos or Sheol, the realm of the dead. Jonah is “swallowed up,” and it appeared Jonah was headed for death, sinking into the “deep.” However, God appointed the fish to save Jonah from the chaos, from Sheol. It was purposed for deliverance rather than destruction, for salvation rather than death.

The “great fish,” whatever that is and we can only speculate, is the vehicle for deliverance. While the ship took Jonah away from the presence of Yahweh, the “great fish” becomes a rescue vessel, which carries Jonah toward Yahweh and the safety of the land. The “great fish” is a grace in the midst of the chaotic sea; it rescues Jonah. Whether the “great fish” refers to one of the great sea monsters or not, this large animal—no doubt a terror to sailors—is Yahweh’s appointed means of deliverance. Chaos, sea monsters, or a “great fish” do not threaten Yahweh. On the contrary, they serve Yahweh, the maker of land and sea.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights.” In the context of the Ancient Near East, the temporal indicator assumes a particular kind of journey. George Landes (JBL [1967] 446-450) illuminates this language in significant ways. In the Sumerian myth The Descent of Inanna to the Nether world,  “three days and three nights” is the time it takes for “Inanna to arrive within the nether world” from the land of the living (Descent, 173-175) It is a three-day journey there and a three-day return trip. In this case, “the fish is assigned the same time span to return Jonah from Sheol to dry land” (Landes, 449). The “great fish” carries Jonah from Sheol to land in “three days and three nights.” As Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 103), this three-day journey motif is also present in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:4) and Israel’s three days in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:22). It also lies behind Hosea’s promise of restoration—though Yahweh has essentially killed Israel, nevertheless “on the third day” Yahweh will restore them (Hosea 6:1-2).

The “great fish,” then, is Jonah’s boat ride from the deepest parts of the sea (Sheol) to life on land. The “great fish” is a rescue animal rather than an “attack dog.” The “great fish” saves Jonah from death. Consequently, within the “great fish,” Jonah sings a thanksgiving prayer. He offers thanks for the rescue with his prayer in Jonah 2:2-9.

Jonah prays to God twice in this short book. The first time is Jonah 2:1, which highlights the fact Jonah did not pray in the first chapter though the sailors prayed. The second time is Jonah 4:2, which indicates Jonah’s heart has not changed since the opening of book. Jonah’s experience in Sheol did not transform Jonah’s heart, though he is thankful for Yahweh’s rescue from death.

Jonah 1-2

Jonah 4

Jonah prays (2:1) Jonah prays (4:2)
Jonah wants to die (1:12) Jonah wants to die (4:3)
Jonah resists mercy (1:2-3) Jonah resents mercy (4:3)

Jonah is still the same person with the same heart. He resists mercy for Nineveh by fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, and in the presence of Yahweh at the end of the narrative, Jonah resents mercy for Nineveh. As Bobby Valentine says, “Jonah sounds incredibly pious [in his prayer] but his heart is incredibly hard.”

What, then, did Jonah pray in the “belly of the fish”?

Though Jonah prays from the “belly of the fish,” his prayer recalls his experience in the deep, the chaotic sea. It is almost as if Jonah’s prayer has a flashback to drowning in the sea when he called upon the Lord and now gives thanks for his ride within the belly of the fish. He prays a thanksgiving hymn; it is not a prayer of lament or repentance (more on this in another blog post). Jonah is thankful but not penitent.

The first lines of the prayer parallel three ideas (Jonah 2:2):

  • Jonah called to Yahweh and cried for help
  • Out of his distress, out of the womb of Sheol
  • Yahweh answered and heard his voice

This language echoes the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms.

  • “called…answered” appears in Psalms 3:4; 120:1
  • “out of my distress” appears in Psalms 118:5
  • “I cried for help” appears in Psalms 18:6; 28:2; 30:2; 31:22; 88:14
  • Sheol appears often, see Psalms 30:3; 88:3
  • “You have heard my voice” appears in Psalms 28:6; 33:22; 116:1

Jonah is well-versed in the prayer and liturgical language of Israel. He knows how to pray, and this prayer evokes the best of that language for thanksgiving hymns. Nevertheless, it is also specific to his circumstance rather than a generalized prayer from the tradition. It uses traditional language but it is crafted as an expression of Jonah’s experience.

While often translated “belly of Sheol,” as if this a reference to the belly of the fish, the word is different and it is feminine rather than masculine (the gender of “belly” of the fish is masculine). The “womb of Sheol” provides the “image of Sheol as an entity with a rapacious appetite that indiscriminately swallows everyone (Prov. 30:15-16),” and the “hyperbole is that Jonah wonders if he might be too far gone” and “so close to death that he couldn’t even tell whether he was still alive or not, whether he was still within YHWH’s reach” (Youngblood, 105).

Reeling in the chaos of the sea and sinking into the depths of Sheol (the realm of the dead), Jonah finally calls out to Yahweh, “his God.” While on the ship the captain pleaded with Jonah to “call” on Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:6), but he apparently refused. While the pagan sailors had earlier called on their own gods, they actually “call” on Yahweh as they throw Jonah overboard while Jonah did not (Jonah 1:14). Only in the depths of Sheol does Jonah “call” on Yahweh.

And, astonishingly, Yahweh hears and answers! Yahweh does not resent Jonah’s flight or his fight (resistance). Rather, Yahweh shows mercy and rescues Jonah from the sea.

Jonah’s boat ride in the belly of the fish returns him to land and life! The Lord God is merciful.

4 Responses to “Jonah 1:17-2:2 — A Great Fish “Tale””

  1.   Steve Says:

    JM–I recall some 14 years ago facing some significant personal issues the size of the “great fish,” and feeling like I was about to be consumed, not saved. I then came across Ps 104:25-26, and that helped put things into perspective. I do not recall if it was the NIV Study Bible comment or not, but when I realized “my leviathans” were compared to cuddly miniature lap dogs playfully ‘frolicing’ at the feet of my God, I was reminded of the greatness of my Lord and the comparatively smallness of my issues. Indeed, ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul!’

  2.   Ed Dodds Says:

    The Assyrian Dagon worship angle is intriguing

  3.   John Kenneth King Says:

    My wife, Debra, teaches Sunday School to 2-4 year olds. After hearing the story of Jonah and the great fish, a boy responded:

    “Jonah had to go to time out!”

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