An In-Depth Biblical Study on the Biblical Narrative on Jonah
By Dr. Diego Sausa
A BIG FISH OR A WHALE?
Which was the miracle in the story of Jonah, the fact that he survived for three days in the belly of the fish, or the fact that he was resurrected after dying for three days in the belly of the fish? It's been a long held tradition that Jonah was alive inside the belly of a whale for three days and three nights before he was vomited out into the dry land. First of all Scripture says that Jonah was swallowed by a "great fish [da'g]" that the Lord had prepared (Jon. 1:17). The Hebrew word dag means "fish" and does not specifically mean a whale although in OT biblical parlance, a whales would also be considered a dag (fish). In Matthew 12:40 however, the KJV says that Jonah was in the "whale's belly" for three days and three nights. The Greek word for "whale" in this passage is ketos which also means "big fish." It seems consistent then in both the OT and the NT that a huge fish not necessarily a whale swallowed Jonah. The fact that many whales are filter feeders and have very small esophagi and therefore are not aggressive towards humans nor can they swallow humans whole, seem to favor the idea that it was really a big fish that swallowed Jonah.
THE LAST MOMENTS OF JONAH IN THE BELLY OF THE FISH
This difference is important because unlike whales which are mammals and which breathe oxygen into their lungs and thus some air may go into their stomach in the process, to the contrary fish have no lungs. They breathed through their gills which are highly vascularized and the oxygen that is extracted from the water through the gills goes directly into the fish's blood stream. The stomachs and intestines of fish therefore do not have breathable oxygen if a big fish swallows a human whole. The inside of the fish's digestive tract is highly acidic which aids in the digestion of the food that they swallow. If Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, he could only survive inside the stomach of the large fish for a very short time because of the absence of oxygen and the hyper-acidic environment inside the belly of the fish. Jonah narrates his experience inside the belly of the big fish after he was swallowed. Jonah 2:1 tells us that Jonah prayed to God inside the fish belly. Jonah got to the point when he was dying and during those times he was praying to God as his life "fainted ['ataph] within me" (Jon. 2:7).
THE MEANING AND GRAMMATICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF 'ATAPH
The Hebrew word 'ataph which means "to faint" is in the Hithpael stem and absolute infinitive (high intensity) mood, meaning that the action word is reflexive (Hithpael, i.e., happening to one's self) and the absolute infinitive mood is better described by the adverb "utterly" or "extremely" to express intensity.
The verb ‘ataph is not used as a verbal noun in this passage, instead, it is used as a regular verb expressing action that happens to the subject himself (Hithpael stem), it is therefore in the infinitive absolute mood instead of being in the infinitive construct mood (if used as verbal noun). Because of the obvious infinitive absolute mood of the verb in the Hithpael stem, the author’s emphasis is superlative intensity. So Jonah 2:7 should literally read like this in English: “When my life was utterly (adverb showing InfA mood intensity) fainting away [‘ataph] within myself [“within myself” added to show the reflexive action of Hithpael stem], I remembered the Lord.” Jonah’s emphasis using ‘ataph in the Hithpael stem and infinitive absolute (intensive) mood in Jonah 2:7 is therefore indicative that he prayed to the Lord as he was losing total consciousness or simply stated, Jonah prayed to God as he was nearing death. In other words, as Jonah was gasping for his last breath and ready to die, his thoughts were communicating to God as he was dying.
JONAH'S NARRATIVE ABOUT HIS DEATH AND RESURRECTION IN THE BELLY OF THE FISH
We always have very good traditions about significant stories in the Bible and Jonah is one of those stories that has been traditionally embellished with tales that don't seem to match with biblical data. And that traditional embellishment is that Jonah was alive for three days inside the belly of the fish. But what Jonah himself tells us seems to be to the contrary. He says in Jonah 2:6, "I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet you have brought up my life from the grave [shachath], O Lord my God." The Hebrew noun shachath means "the grave," or "the place where the dead decays." Psalm 30:9 for example says, " “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the grave [shachath]? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?" It is clear then that when Jonah says, "I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet you have brought up my life from the grave [shachath], O Lord my God," it means that Jonah was saying that he died inside the belly of the large fish"with the bars" of death "closed behind" him "forever" but the Lord "brought up" his "life from the grave" after three days. Jonah clearly tells us in this passage that he died and God caused him to rise up from the dead. Jonah's words, "yet you caused my life to rise up ['alah] from death [shachath]" are very emphatic of death and resurrection. The Hebrew word 'alah here for "brought up" means "to rise up," or "to shoot forth" as in a plant germinating from a seed. It is in the Hiphil (causative) stem not in the Qal (simple active) stem, meaning that Jonah did not "shoot forth" or "rise up" to life from the dead actively by himself, it was God who caused him to rise up to life from death.
SEMANTIC RANGE OF THE HEBREW VERB 'ALAH
The verb ‘alah is used 856 times in the OT. Of this total number, it is translated as “rise up” 676 times, as “ascend” 15 times, as “raised up” two times and as “arise” two times. In other words the idea is vertical movement instead of horizontal movement. The common verb for horizontal movement is yatsa which occurs 1,076 times in the OT, 1,068 usages of which convey the idea of horizontal movement. The Hebrew verb qum also occurs 628 times in the OT. Of the 628 occurrences, it is translated 240 times as “rise up,” 211 times as “arise,”, 47 times as “raise,” 27 times as “establish,” and 27 times as “perform.” Both ‘alah and qum, therefore, can be used synonymously to convey the idea of rising up from sleep. The idea conveyed is vertical movement instead of horizontal. Basing on these semantic ranges of the Hebrew verb ‘alah and qum, Jonah’s use of the verb ‘alah to describe his rising up from the dead [shachath] is perfectly in order.
‘ALAH MEANS RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD
That the verb ‘alah is used to portray resurrection from the dead is biblically concrete and irrefutable. Ezekiel 37:12 for example says, “Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up [‘alah] out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.” Jonah’s use of ’alah in Jonah 2:6, therefore, to describe his being caused to rise up (‘alah) from death (shachath) by God is grammatically appropriate and solid. Jonah himself is clear, God caused him to rise up from death. This is an explicit testimony of Jonah’s death and resurrection from Jonah himself. In other words, Jonah's story is another account of death and resurrection in the Old Testament.
THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JONAH AND THE SIGN OF THE MESSIAH
That Jonah died for three days and was resurrected from the dead after three days becomes even clearer when Christ Himself describes Jonah as a type of Him, and He describes His death as parallel to that of Jonah's, Christ says,"For 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" (Matt. 12:40). If Jonah was alive for three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, then if follows that Christ was alive for three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, meaning, Christ did not really die just as Jonah didn't die. But if Jonah really died in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, then it becomes true that Christ indeed died for three days and three nights in the belly of the earth just as Jonah did. Christ's parallel between His three days and three nights death to that of Jonah's three days and three nights death is striking. What is even more interesting is what Christ said prior to this parallelism. The scribes and Pharisees were asking for a sign from Jesus that He was the Messiah and He answered, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt. 12:39). What is that sign? The sign was what was implied in Jesus' following words, that is, Christ was virtually saying, "Just as Jonah was dead for three days and three nights in the belly of the fish and was resurrected, so will the Son of Man be dead three days and three nights in the heart of the earth and will be resurrected." That was the Jonah sign that became the Jesus' sign: the resurrection from the dead after three days in the belly of the earth.
WHAT THE JEWS IN JESUS' TIME BELIEVED ABOUT JONAH
It is interesting to note that Jonah was the only minor prophet mentioned by Jesus as a type of Him, and specifically of His three-day death and His resurrection. Already in the Jewish tradition in the time of Jesus, Jonah was already a significant prophet. He was not known as a man who lived in the belly of the fish for three days but the prophet who was resurrected from the dead. Jewish tradition already had it that Jonah was that son of the widow of Zarephath who was resurrected by God through the prophet Elijah. So the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus time most likely already believed that Jonah was resurrected twice, first when he died as a boy, and the second time when he died in the belly of the fish and was resurrected after three days. So when Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 that just like Jonah who was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, Jesus' listeners already understood that what Jesus meant was that He would be dead for three days and be resurrected thereafter just as Jonah died for three days and was resurrected on the third day. The Jewish midrash in Pirqe d’Rabbi Eliezer (פרקי דרבי אליעזר ג) says:
Rabbi Simeon said,
From the strength of a righteousness woman
are the dead to live in the future.
Whence do we learn (this)?
From Elijah the Tishbite
who walking from mountain to mountain
and from cave to cave,
walked on to Zarephath
and a widow woman received him
with great honor.
She was the mother of Jonah,
and from her morsel and from her oil they were eating,
and were drinking he and she and her son,
as it is said (1Kings 17:15),
“And she did eat he and she.”
PAUL USES JONAH'S DEATH AND RESURRECTION AS THE TYPOLOGICAL PROPHECY OF CHRIST'S DEATH AND RESURRECTION
Although this tradition that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath may not be true, nevertheless, it shows us that the Jews believed that Jonah was that son of the widow of Zarephath who God resurrected from the dead through the prophet Elijah based on the narrative in 1Kings 17:17-24. When Paul said in 1Corinthians 15:4 that Christ "was buried, and that He rose again the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES [i.e., according to the Tanakh or the Jewish Old Testament because there was no New Testament yet]," most likely Paul was alluding to Jonah as the type of Christ who died in the belly of the fish and was caused to rise from death by God (Jon. 2:6) on the third day because in Paul's time, there was no other "Scripture" that talked about resurrection on the third day except the book of Jonah. In other words, Paul was alluding to the death and resurrection of Jonah on the third day as the Scripture that typologically prophesied the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day.
What all these biblical and historical data tell us is that the story that Jonah was brewing coffee in the belly of the big fish for three days until he got vomited out into dry land is a myth and has no biblical backing. What Scriptures say is that Jonah died in the belly of the fish and was resurrected on the third day and he became the type of Jesus who died and was in the belly of the earth and was resurrected on the third day.
The death and resurrection of Jonah on the third day, was his sign, and the "sign of Jonah," that is his death and resurrection on the third day (Matt. 12:39) became the sign of the true Messiah because He also died and lived again on the third day (Matt. 12:40; 1Cor. 15:4). The Messiah who after being baptized in the Jordan River Scripture records, "Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove [i.e. "dove" is jonah in Hebrew] and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased'" (Matt. 3:16-17. Jonah (the dove) is indeed a favorite sign of God's salvific resurrection from the dead, allegorically, jonah (a dove) appeared at the death and resurrection of Jesus in the water at his baptism, and literally, the three-day physical death in the water and the literal resurrection of Jonah on the third day became the type for Jesus' three-day physical death and literal resurrection on the third day.