Jonah’s Misdirected Message

[Originally published in The Fort Bend Herald]

 Perhaps no Old Testament narrative receives quite the beating Jonah does by those who are unable to accept its account.  It is, after all, the story of a great miracle.  Strangely enough, most of those who reject it as truth are denying the wrong miracle altogether, as Jonah’s story is not the commonly cartooned account of a man making s’mores inside the belly of a whale by campfire.

The key issue of the account by most who reject it seems to be oriented around the fact that a man cannot live for three days in the digestive system of a great fish.  Of course, that which cannot be done – yet is – is the very essence of a “miracle.”  Yet, the real miracle of Jonah has nothing to do with a man living in a fish.  It is, for the doubter, actually much worse.

If one looks carefully at the Hebrew text of the story, the book in no way depicts a man “living” in a fish for three days, but rather a man dying and being resurrected three days later.    The miracle of Jonah is resurrection, not extreme survival “fish edition.”

The gist of the story is commonly upheld correctly:  Jonah, in disobedience to God’s call to preach to Nineveh (a large Syrian city, Israel’s greatest enemy of the time), flees by ocean in the opposite direction where he is cast overboard and swallowed by a great fish.  He prays to God and is three days later regurgitated onto dry ground by the fish, after which he returns to complete his mission.  Jonah was alive when cast from the boat.  He was alive when he was regurgitated onto dry ground.  The incorrect assumption is thus that he was alive for the duration of the ordeal.  He was not.

Chapter two accounts that Jonah, “prayed to the LORD…from the belly of the fish.”  In fact, Jonah was in the belly of the fish, but his account goes on to inform the reader that his body was in fact quite dead there while his spirit went to the “place of the dead.”  Verse 2 notes Jonah’s prayer (after the fact), “out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”  Sheol is the Hebrew name for the spiritual abode of the dead.  While the term can be used metaphorically, continued reading of this text informs us that a literal usage of Sheol is in fact what Jonah intended.  Verses 3-5 note Jonah being surrounded by flood waters, which “closed in over me to take my life” (v5) and that weeds (which would be on the bottom of the sea) “wrapped about my head.”  Finally, in verse 6 he notes “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit.”

“The pit” is translated from the Hebrew term shahat (shakh’-ath), which is another term related to Sheol in the Old Testament (Ps 55:23, Isa 51:14).  It is where the spirits of dead people went; the “place of the dead.”  Jonah clearly depicts his condition as that of having drowned, then having been swallowed by a fish, and then having been “brought up from the pit,” or resurrected at some point (likely immediately) before being spit out onto dry ground by the fish.

The story of Jonah is that he died and was resurrected on the third day.  Any other understanding misses the whole point of what Jesus later said to the Pharisees:

(Matthew 12:39-40 (ESV))  …“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40  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.

Jesus did not build a campfire and make s’mores in the grave any more than Jonah did.  He was dead and raised, just as Jonah was dead and raised.

The message of Jonah is one of resurrection from death.  For this reason alone it was a worthy archetype for Christ to fulfill in full view of his generation of unbelieving Jews.

May our generation understand that denying one miracle – especially in light of Jesus’ own acceptance of it – is to deny the power of the same God who performed the latter as its fruition in Christ.

To deny Jonah because of its miraculous claims is to deny Christ of his.  But if one can believe Christ was dead and three days later raised to life, one should have no problem with Jonah – whose story Christ referenced as his own script.

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