In last Sunday’s sermon on Jonah 1:17-2:10, I completely glossed over two potential head scratching topics because they were not really the focus of the passage and what we wanted to emphasize: namely that God graciously comes to us in our most desperate times and meets us in our suffering, even if that suffering is caused by our own sin.
And so, I promised I would jot down a few thoughts upon those matters which I dodged Sunday. So, here goes.
1.What’s the deal with the whale/fish? Do we seriously believe that Jonah survived in the belly of a monstrous sea beast for three days and lived to tell about it?
First of all, let me just remind you that we said the point of this book was not Jonah getting swallowed by the whale. It’s about God’s scandalous grace toward an unbelievably wicked people and an incredibly stubborn prophet. The fish is included almost as an afterthought. Don’t get hung up on the fish!
So what manner of creature was it? Simply put, we don’t know! (This is really helpful so far, isn’t it). The Hebrew word used here for “fish” is the normal word for fish used in the Old Testament with the modifier “great” in front of it. It could have been a whale shark or some other monstrosity which has since become extinct. Your guess is as good as mine.
Christians have searched for natural ways to explain this – for other stories of castaways surviving similar ordeals (as a quick Google search will reveal). But no one has ever substantiated these stories. Why? Because this sort of thing just doesn’t happen. People don’t naturally get swallowed by gigantic sea creatures and live to tell the story. That’s why skeptics have questioned whether this literally happened and that maybe this great fish is simply some metaphor for having a seriously bad day.
But I do believe the simplest explanation for this account is that it was a miraculous event. Feeding 5,000 from five loaves and two fishes isn’t natural. Having a sea part so an entire nation of people can walk across on dry ground isn’t natural. God is the God of the miraculous. As Rosemary Nixon points out, scripture is filled with stories of animals doing the bidding of God: "an ass more accustomed to recognizing God’s word than a prophet (Num. 22:22–30), birds serving as messengers of God (Gen. 8:10–12; 1 Kgs. 17:6), and lions being obedient to the heavenly messenger (Dan. 6)." In the same way, God sovereignly “appointed” this great fish to accomplish his plan of saving Jonah in a most miraculous way.
2.Did Jonah die?
A second question which could legitimately be asked about this text is whether or not Jonah died while he was in the deep.
Two primary reasons people think Jonah died:
First, Jonah refers to being in Sheol, which is the realm of the dead.
I called to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. I cried out for help from deep inside Sheol; you heard my voice. (Jonah 2:2).
If taken literally, one could see how Jonah may be expressing that he died way down there.
Second, later in the gospels, Jesus draws a parallel between his coming three-day stay in the grave and Jonah’s experience:
For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:40).
While at the end of the day, it’s not an incredibly important how one feels about this one, I don’t think that Jonah died for a few reasons:
First, it seems to do away with the point of him being swallowed by the fish. The appointing (1:17) of the fish seems to indicate the creature was God’s way to save Jonah from death.
Second, remember that Sheol can be figurative. The Psalmist wrote:
The ropes of death were wrapped around me, and the torments of Sheol overcame me; I encountered trouble and sorrow. (Psalm 116:3). (Also, check out Psalm 18:4-5). In English, we have the crass expression “that was living hell.” Hebrew could express the same concept as a way to express the utter hopelessness of one’s plight.
Finally, in Matthew 12, nowhere does Jesus say that Jonah died. His comparison is simply the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the deep would parallel his three days and three nights in the grave.
 Rosemary A. Nixon, The Message of Jonah: Presence in the Storm, ed. Alec Motyer, Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 126.