Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.
The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.
For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.
Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.
Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.
Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.