1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. 16 Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. 2:1 But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Interestingly, many modern translations position Jonah 2:1 as Jonah 1:17, including it with the previous chapter where it makes more sense from a literary point of view. It is good to be reminded that chapters/verses were assigned by Robert Estienne in 1551 for the New Testament and 1571 for the Hebrew Scriptures for his print editions and so chapter/verse is not sacrosanct. But if you read other Bibles and commentaries and are wondering why the verses are “off” by a single digit…now you know.
What about the whale? Query “Book of Jonah” in Googles image search and look what comes up:
Hard to make the case that people’s perception of the Book of Jonah does not center on the whale in the popular imagination. The Hebrew is dāḡ gā·ḏôl – literally, “great fish.” It may well be that its use refers to a creature so large only God could control it. In any case, its size accomplishes the task at hand: swallow Jonah, whole and in one piece. Either way, great fish or whale, Jonah continues his journey “down.” And even jettisoned and sinking, God is present and mounting a rescue mission…the nature of which is not yet clear. In chapter 1 Jonah was pretty clear he wanted “exile” from God and God’s plans. What’s the old saying? “Be careful what one wishes for.” Jonah’s desire has been ratified by a divine “so be it” and he is banished from the living world to “the belly of Sheol” (2:3) or šeʾôl in the Hebrew, also translated as “the nether world,” “Hades,” and other expressions of the land of the dead: “he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
The significance of the period of three days and three nights is uncertain. Modern-day Christians quickly point to the same period Jesus spent in the tomb. Some scholars point to a Sumerian myth that describes a three-day journey back from Sheol to the land of the living. Some have tried to explain it as the maximum amount of time possible to be in the belly of a whale due to the limitations of oxygen and the corrosive effect of stomach acid. But normally-formed whales do not breathe into their stomachs, but rather their lungs where the oxygen is hyper-efficiently stored in their blood’s hemoglobin. The stomach is more likely to have methane gas. There are myriad other attempted explanations. If this is indeed a prophetic parable, then the concerns about the historicity of the whale are misplaced.
I would suggest that the large fish/whale serves as a connection to an older Biblical tradition. In the context of a narrative, the storyteller knows the audience. He knows the stories that came before, key phrases and words, symbols, and narrative flow of other stories. In our own context, what if I simply said, “Oh say can you see…”? Five simple words that bring up our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, the battle at Ft. Monroe and more. Think about the context of those who first encountered the story of Jonah, something not likely to immediately jump to our mind. The author has already introduced Assyria/Nineveh that raises in the background the war/siege/exile by the Assyrians, but also the Babylonians. The opening of the book brings in the prophet, a character well associated with time of war/siege/exile. The entire sequence of the storm at sea points to the chaos before creation and hoists up the dread of the great denizens of the deep, the sea monsters. All of this swirls in the memory of the original listeners. What were they expected to see in the “character” of the fish?
And there is also a historical context. The people of Judah, having survived the Babylonian exile know well their own history. They were a people chosen and called to live in the covenant relationship with God. But the people gave their allegiance to other kings, gods, things, possessions…. and so, come the prophets who warn (a) change your way, (b) live righteously, or (c) face consequences. Consequences in this case a long chain of conquering nations. Righteous living is the same warning and story line in all prophets – Jonah too.
Hosea – one of the earliest prophets developed a body of languages and images that later prophets use.
“1…Since they have violated my covenant, and sinned against my law,2 While to me they cry out, ‘O, God of Israel, we know you!’ 3 The men of Israel have thrown away what is good” (Hosea 8:1–3)
Verses 3-7 list the faithless actions and choices of the covenant people and v.8 announces the judgment and consequences: “Israel is swallowed up; he is now among the nations a thing of no value.” (Hos 8:8)
The idea and image of being swallowed whole as a consequence of turning away from God is repeated in the Biblical tradition and would have been an image well understood by the listeners. The prophet Jeremiah continues that tradition as a warning against the coming of Babylon against Jerusalem: “He consumed me, defeated me, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon; he left me like an empty vessel, swallowed me like a sea monster, filled his belly with my delicacies and cast me out.” (Jer 51:43)
The language is also found in the post-exilic psalms. “2 Had not the LORD been with us, when people rose against us,3 They would have swallowed us alive, for their fury blazed against us.4 The waters would have engulfed us, the torrent overwhelmed us;5 seething waters would have drowned us.” (Ps 124:2-5)
Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this exactly what Jonah is experiencing? Remember that the word “Jonah” means “dove” a common symbol for the covenant people. What we are hearing is a common way to describe the covenant people’s sin: drowned in a flood, swallowed by a sea monster. The author takes these images and incorporates them into the narrative.
All of it works to bring the narrative to a point of great tension. The turning away from God, the great storm overtaking the people, cast into the sea and now being swallowed alive by this sea monster. The great fish/whale serves a purpose in the way it connects the story of Jonah to the larger biblical narrative of the covenant people.
Now what? Now 3 days and nights in the belly of dāḡ gā·ḏôli, the whale that stars on so many book covers.
Back in high school – half a century ago – it was always fun at the school dances when the slow music was played – you got to dance close to your partner, which the 1960s in a Catholic high school was quite progressive. From time to time one of the Religious Sisters would approach a couple dancing too close. She would smile and insert a 12-inch ruler between the dance partners and say, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” I might suggest this for a role of the dāḡ gā·ḏôl – certainly larger than Sister’s ruler, but now Jonah has lots of “room” for the movement of God’s grace in his life.
It is here inside the whale, with lots of “room,” that Jonah finally prays.