In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared brings us the second installment of his solo series on Jonah as he explores the following questions:
- What is the significance of Jonah going up and down throughout the book?
- Who is Rashi and what does he say about the interpretation of Jonah?
- Where did Jonah really descend to once he is thrown off the boat?
- Is “three days and three nights” meant to be taken literally?
- What does the fish in Jonah represent?
- Did Jonah get swallowed immediately once he got thrown off the boat?
- Why does Jared think Jonah descends into hell?
- What is the Descent of Inanna and why is it relevant to understanding Jonah?
- In the ancient world, how long did it take to journey to the underworld?
- Why is it important to understand the fish as salvation?
- How does the text of Jonah tie into the creation narratives in Genesis?
- How does the sex of the fish influence how we understand the story?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared you can share.
- “It’s important that it’s poetry here, because it blurs the line between historical or narrative and mysticism, this world and otherworldliness, and in the ancient world, there’s no better setting to blur that line than the mystical, the terrifying ocean.” @jbyas
- ”The fish is literally the vehicle for salvation in this story for Jonah.” @jbyas
- “It’s about being away from the presence of God. Where can you go to get away from God? What’s the furthest down you can go?” @jbyas
- “[Jonah] continues to sink and as he physically drowns, he metaphorically goes down to Sheol and is shut out of creation.” @jbyas
- “There’s almost nothing original about this prayer of Jonah. It’s actually a pastiche, it’s a stitching together of a whole bunch of Psalms.” @jbyas
- “The writer has put the songs of Israel into the mouth of Jonah.” @jbyas
Mentioned in This Episode
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Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and welcome to part two of my series on that little but powerful book of Jonah. Before we get started, you may notice here in this episode that we have ads now on the podcast. If you’d like to receive an ad-free version of the podcast, just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, but we also appreciate your support just listening to the episode. All right, now back to Jonah.
Part one of this series came out April 13th, it’s Episode 123 in case you wanted to go back and listen, though you’ll be fine not doing that, you can just keep listening to this one as well. We will review a little bit here at the beginning. Just enough to say, if you remember we talked in part one about Jonah’s descent. As one of the main threads to this little narrative in this story that we have in the book of Jonah. Jonah is going down, literally and figuratively. We think we’re getting a prophetic book by the first sentence of the book, the word of Yahweh came to Jonah, son of Amittai, Jonah is then to, the Hebrew word is qum lekh, to get up and go. So far, so good, that’s what we’ve come to expect from all those wonderful prophetic books we had read before Jonah, but Jonah gets up and flees from Yahweh’s service. Now we know we’re in new territory. That’s not what we would expect from these other prophetic books. He goes down to Joppa and he goes down to the ship. Yahweh hurls a great wind and while the sailors are desperately crying out to their god and running around doing what they can to save the ship, Jonah calmly walks down into the innermost recesses, is how it’s translated, the word used there wants us to make sure we understand that Jonah has gone as far away from the surface of the boat as possible. And then, he goes to sleep. The captain calls him up, but Jonah doesn’t comply. He continues his descent. He tells the men, this is an important point, to throw him overboard. And after trying to save themselves and Jonah, they finally relent and throw him overboard. The bottom of the boat is not far enough down, it is not far enough away from Yahweh. He must go below the boat and into the sea. And we end as we talked about last time, chapter 1, with the conversion of the pagan sailors and Jonah continuing to run away from Yahweh. Jonah’s descent continues and the pagan sailors have been converted by, we know this by their making vows and offering sacrifices.
So, a little introduction, then, to chapter two as we wrap up the review. Just a quick note here, that the Hebrew and English part ways at this point in the story, and I make no promises as to be consistent in how I refer to it. So, the English has a seventeenth verse of the first chapter, while the Hebrew only has sixteen verses and then starts with 2:1. So, I tend to be partial to the Hebrew verses so the conversion to the pagans, in my mind, ends chapter one and Yahweh appoints a huge fish, is the beginning of chapter two.
So, chapter two begins with Yahweh appointing a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah is in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Now, that’s a very significant detail. We get the timeline wrong if we miss that detail, three days and three nights. It seems, at first glance, that Jonah is dumped overboard, and a fish comes immediately to swallow Jonah and then swims around for three days and three nights so that Jonah can get his act together and then the fish vomits Jonah on dry land. That’s how I would’ve understood the story, just intuitively, I think. I don’t know if anyone ever actually said that to me, but that’s just how I always imagined the story of Jonah going from when I was a kid. Jonah’s dumped overboard, a fish comes, scoops up Jonah as he, as soon as he basically hits the water, swims around for three days and nights as we wait for Jonah to pray his prayer and get his life turned around and then the fish vomits him up on dry land.
Jared: But there’s a few reasons why this isn’t the case, we know this isn’t the case. The first is this phrase “three days and three nights.” It’s foreshadowing the harrowing experience we’re about to learn about in the poem of chapter two. But you may not know that, so, the second is found in the poem of chapter two which recounts exactly what did happen and it’s a lot more than what we bargained for. And more importantly, it recounts where Jonah went in his final descent. But let’s go back to the first reason here, let’s talk a little bit about this three days and three nights.
You see, that phrase is a common way of saying a long journey. We see this in 3:3-4 when Nineveh is described as a three days walk. Three days and three nights really isn’t about time, but it’s a way to talk about distance for a journey. We see this in other places in the Hebrew Bible too in Genesis 22 and in Exodus 3 and 5 and then the book of Numbers and then on and on. So, it was Jonah and the fish just tooling around for three days with no particular destination? You know, no. Spoiler alert, Jonah didn’t get picked up by the fish as soon as he went into the water. It took the fish three days and three nights to bring Jonah up from the underworld. We see this, actually, more starkly in a similar story. This is how we sort of know that there was an ancient shorthand around the time that Jonah was written, and possibly into, well into the Second Temple Period, the shorthand of the phrase three days and three nights, and we get this from a Sumerian myth called the Descent of Inanna to the netherworld. And just so you know as a disclaimer, I’m probably going to get a lot of these pronunciations of Sumerian words wrong because I’ve only ever read them and never had to say them out loud. So, it’s a little embarrassing, but bear with me here. So, in this myth, Inanna is planning to take a trip to the underworld; it’s a very dangerous intention, any time, just so you know. Any time you descend into hell, it’s pretty dangerous. So, before she goes, she knows this, she’s pretty smart. So, before she goes, she tells her messenger Ninshubur to use a lament to get Enlil, Nanna, and Enki, so these are divine beings, these are gods, Enlil, Nanna, and Enki, to help her if anything goes wrong. Of course, of course, when you descend to hell, you can expect things to go wrong. So, of course, things do go wrong and Inanna is killed by the goddess Ereshkigal and at this point, the text reads, “after three days and three nights had passed, her messenger, Ninshubur, fills the heaven with complaints for her.” Scholars look at this construction and see that three days and three nights are actually an indication of how long it takes to get to the underworld. So, if this is true, then the phrase “Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights” is foreshadowing the journey that Jonah and then later, Jonah and the fish go on. So, if you’re reading this in the ancient world, you might’ve perked up and said, oh, three days and three nights, things are about to get interesting!
Now, before we even get into the poem, I want to mention how this is significant in how we read the story of the fish. The fish, you see, is a vehicle for salvation in the story of Jonah, not destruction. And that, too, would’ve been different than how I would’ve been taught this story. In my Sunday school version, God sent the fish because Jonah disobeyed God, but that’s not actually how it’s presented. Jonah, essentially, commits suicide in his attempt to run away from Yahweh, and the fish is the means of salvation and life. And there are a number of reasons that scholars think this, so here are a few, I’ll outline just a couple here.
First, we know Jonah wants to run away from Yahweh, which, we know biblically is a desire to die, to run away, to be outside of God’s presence is to die. We see this in the Psalms and Genesis and other places. And so, his desire to run away from Yahweh in chapter one provides the context for understanding what happens here on the boat.
Jared: This desire to die is confirmed in chapter four in two verses, verse three and verse eight where Jonah asks Yahweh to kill him and begs for death.
A third reason scholars think this is because it’s the fish who brings Jonah up from the underworld. So, the fish is literally the vehicle for salvation in this story for Jonah.
Number four, this gets a little bit nerdy, so bear with me here. But if we look at the times that Yahweh appoints things, that word that we see in the beginning of chapter two that God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, that phrase is used four times in this little short story of Jonah. So, Yahweh appoints four things and it’s really important to notice the different words for whether it’s God, Elohim, or whether it’s Yahweh who appoints. In 2:1 here, Yahweh appoints a great fish, in 4:6, Yahweh God, or Yahweh Elohim, appoints a qiqayon plant and then in 4:6 at the end of that verse, it says God, well, technically it says the God, the Elohim, appoints a worm, and then just a few verses later in verse eight, God, Elohim, appoints a scorching east wind. So, it’s pretty clear from that structure that the first two things God appoints are appointed for salvation, and the second two are appointed for judgement. And when Yahweh appoints, it’s salvation, it’s salvific we might say, but when Elohim appoints, it’s for judgment. And so, for that structure to work, then Yahweh appointing a great fish would be, again, a means of salvation just like Yahweh appointing the qiqayon plant is a means of relief, life, or salvation. And it then flows naturally that the other two, where Elohim appoints, the worm and the scorching east wind, are for judgment, but that depends upon seeing the fish as a means of salvation.
Okay, the fifth and final reason why we should think about the fish as a way of salvation and not destruction is the prayer, or the poem, of chapter two. Once we recognize everything we just talked about, this poem makes a lot more sense as a poetic and dramatic retelling of Jonah’s descent into the underworld. It’s important that it’s poetry here, because it blurs the line between historical or narrative and mysticism, this world and otherworldliness, and in the ancient world, there’s no better setting to blur that line than the mystical, the terrifying ocean.
Okay, one last thing to talk about before we actually start to unpack the poem of chapter two. Without reading the Hebrew, you would miss something here in the first two verses of chapter two. When Yahweh appoints a huge fish in 2:1, and again, in English that would be 1:17, it’s a male fish. However, in verse two, when Jonah prays from the belly of the fish, it’s a female fish. In Hebrew, the word for fish, the male fish is dag, and the word for female fish is dagah. So, in 2:1 it’s a dag, and then when Jonah prays in verse two, it’s a dagah. And then when Jonah is vomited, or maybe I’ll show my cards here and we’ll say rebirthed, the fish becomes male again, it becomes a dag.
Now, back in the day scholars suggested that it may have just been a scribal error. But even before the scholars who suggested a scribal error, another influential Jewish interpreter all the way back in the medieval times, Rashi, taking his que from another rabbi actually even earlier, suggested that there were actually two fish, that’s why there’s one male and one female. And he has this wonderful midrash I thought I would share. The way he says the story is this: “It was male fish, and since it’s insides were quite spacious, Jonah gave no thought to prayer. The holy one, blessed be he, gestured to the fish to vomit into the mouth of a female fish, which was heavily pregnant. Jonah was then uncomfortable and prayed, as it is said, and Jonah prayed from the loins of the female fish.”
Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.
[Producer’s group endorsement]
Jared: So, Rashi, creatively wondering why is it that we have a male fish and then a female fish. His take is he was inside a male fish, but since the insides of the fish were so spacious, Jonah was too comfortable. He gave no thought to prayer. Why need to be saved from the belly of the fish if the belly of the fish is, you know, you’re living in luxury? So, God had the male fish vomit Jonah into the mouth of a female fish who was heavily pregnant, and things were really tight because there were thousands of little fish inside the womb of the female fish and so Jonah got to be really uncomfortable, and that’s when he prayed. Now, of course, in my opinion I think that’s taking things a little too far, and it’s also based on the idea that the fish, again, was just swimming around waiting for Jonah to come to his senses, but I do appreciate Rashi mentioning pregnancy, because I think it’s a nod here, to Jonah’s rebirth. I think that’s why we have the male fish, then the female fish once Jonah is swallowed, then the male fish again, and most scholars today would actually recognize that as well. They would recognize that as intentional. It’s to reinforce that this is Jonah’s salvation; it is a rebirth. The writer uses other womb words and birthing words throughout this section and in 2:3, we find the unique phrase the womb or the belly of Sheol, of the underworld. So, there’s definitely a lot of birthing language going on, so it makes a lot of sense that we would have a male fish, a female fish, and then a male fish. It also is just somewhat humorous as we would come to expect from this book, it’s kind of a funny book. So, it has a children’s story kind of tone here as the fish becomes pregnant with Jonah.
Okay, chapter two. A lot of scholars feel like verse three, which in English would be verse two, is an introduction and a summary of the rest of the prayer. So, Jonah doesn’t refer to God directly, but in the third person, and then it just kind of gives us an overview of what happened. “In my trouble, I called to Yahweh and he answered me. From the belly of Sheol, I cried out and you heard my voice.” And then we get to verse four, and again, this may require you to get your Bibles out at some point, because we’re going to take a deep dive to try to understand a little bit of what’s going on here. So, starting in verse four, we pick up where we left off after Jonah was thrown overboard. So, verse three is kind of giving us an overview of the whole prayer, and verse four is gonna pick up the narrative. But now it’s going to be in poetry, so things are going to get weird.
We continue Jonah’s descent. We start to blur the lines between physical reality, he really is in the water, he’s been thrown off the boat, and a spiritual metaphorical reality, right? Water symbolizes his descent into chaos and death. If you remember from other parts of the Bible, water is really important to the imagery and the symbolism of ancient Israelites. Pay attention when you read your Bible to how water is used. It’s often scary and troubling on a personal level, and it represents the mythical undoing of creation on a cosmic level.
Jared: And this is why in Genesis 7, the flood, it’s why it’s a flood because that’s how God undoes creation, is takes is back to that beginning state of creation, which if you read the creation story carefully, you realize that there wasn’t nothing in the beginning, but in the beginning, there was this primordial chaotic water called the tehom. And guess what? Surprise, surprise, that word is found here in our poem. We get both of these, the personal and physical drowning of Jonah, and this mythical undoing of creation. We get both of these senses in Jonah’s prayer. But rather than nerd out too much here, I’m just going to focus on verses 6-7, so we don’t get too far into the weeds. This is where things get really deep, pun intended. So far, Jonah has continued to go down into the water. Verse four says, he goes into the depths and into the heart of the sea, so he continues to go down in the water. Verse five gives us a hint that we’re talking about something more than just drowning. It’s about being away from the presence of God. Where can you go to get away from God? What’s the furthest down you can go? You can go out of creation itself, down into the underworld, down to death, this is where Jonah is headed.
So, in verse six, we have this word tehom, the great deep of Genesis, the primordial water of pre-creation that often symbolizes the chaos and terror of that time. This terrifying water engulfs Jonah. Then there’s an interesting word, suph. It’s a strange word here, because it refers, literally, to the reeds that grow in Egypt on the riverbank. So, if you see this word suph if you’re reading Hebrew, it hearkens back to the sea of reeds, or as we grew up thinking of it, the Red Sea, which was a mistranslation, but the sea of reeds that drowned Pharaoh’s men when God also undid creation on them. It seems intentional here because it’s really out of place. In, you wouldn’t have reeds, which would be growing near fresh water, in the ocean, and certainly not at the bottom of the ocean. So, it seems a little out of place just to give us that sea of reeds hint and nod. But of course, in the context of this narrative, it’s translated something like seaweed, right? And I think that’s translated right given the context, but it’s technically reeds. And again, I think it’s a nod to this water ordeal that redeemed Israel from slavery.
Okay, another quick side note. This is another reason why scholars recognize that Jonah is not in the belly of the fish in chapter two, for the first half of chapter two. In this part of the poem, Rashi again, noticed this almost a thousand year ago, he asked, “how could Jonah get seaweed around his head if he’s in the belly of a fish? It sounds like all of this is happening in the free water, not inside of the fish.” And exactly, that’s exactly right. So, verse seven is actually the climax of this descent that we’ve been going on since the very beginning of the book. “He sinks to the roots of the mountains,” the text says. So, he’s at the bottom of creation. Then it says, well, in English translations, it says something like “the earth beneath barred me in forever.” It’s such an anti-climactic translation, and it actually misses the point of what’s going on here. So, scholars who bend over backward making sure that this is a historical account missed the profound reality of what’s happening to Jonah in this mystical sense. They might say, they often in commentaries of this sort, they’ll say something like “he hit the ocean floor” and they talk about the bars as being, like, sand bars. So, this climactic moment is just Jonah hitting the bottom, the ocean floor. But that’s not, that’s not what happened, that’s not what’s happening here. Scholars would now agree that earth, here, in the translation, “the earth beneath barred me in forever,” is meant to be translated as underworld or Sheol. We see this word used in the same way in Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 46 and in the book of Job, which also has this deep, mythical creation language, this poetic profound language. In other words, in a lot of poetic instances, that word earth would be properly translated underworld or Sheol.
Jared: So, the bar is not a sand bar, but it’s the gates of Sheol. It’s the gates of the underworld, and Jonah is now shut out of creation forever and shut into Sheol, the place of the dead. So, Jonah has effectively died here. The finality of Jonah’s predicament makes the climax of the prayer that much more powerful. So, the end of verse seven is the climax of the first two chapters, “but you, Yahweh, my God, brought my life up from the pit.” It’s our first up word since the very beginning of our story, if we don’t count the captain’s feeble attempt to get Jonah up, of course. Jonah’s descent is over. God has raised him up. And Jonah’s resurrection, physically and spiritually, is solidified by his reconversion in verse ten, when he makes sacrifices and vows. And it’s the exact same phrase we see in the conversion of the pagan sailors in 1:16. Jonah had second thoughts about wanting to die, but it felt too late. He had been thrown overboard and he was headed down, but not for God, who sends a fish to Sheol, to the underworld, to rescue Jonah from death and separation from God. And then Yahweh commands the fish and it vomits Jonah up on dry land. Now, this is the same phrase used in Genesis 1:9, perhaps again, a nod to Jonah being a new creation, to God as the creator, God no longer undoing the creation for Jonah, but now a new creation on dry land.
All right. So, that was a lot. That was a lot to cover, but that’s chapter two, that’s the verses where Jonah has a prayer. Jonah is swallowed by the fish, but again, we learn, we think in the beginning that Jonah has been swallowed by the fish as soon as he hits the water, but we learn in the prayer that this is a longer journey for Jonah. He has sunk down so that the sailors throw him over, the fish does not come right away. Instead, Jonah sinks down into the heart of the ocean. He continues to sink and as he physically drowns, he metaphorically goes down to Sheol and is shut out of creation and it’s at that point that God sends the fish, who then swallows Jonah and takes that three day and three night journey, that’s how long it takes to get from Sheol back to the surface, and they go on this journey together. And on that ascent, Jonah comes to his senses and this is where we find the prayer.
Now, there’s one last thing. Did you notice anything odd about the prayer that Jonah prays? I’ll tell you. You probably didn’t notice it, but the whole thing is plagiarized. There’s almost nothing original about this prayer of Jonah. It’s actually a pastiche, it’s a stitching together of a whole bunch of Psalms. And this is, of course, another reason scholars think that it wasn’t intended to be seen as a historically accurate account. Now sure, some people say, wow, Jonah just really knew his Bible, but that kind of misses the point. It’s a symbol. But what’s this a symbol for? Well, we’ll talk about that later in another part here, but it’s important thing to notice, the writer has put the songs of Israel into the mouth of Jonah. Now, here’s just a few. So, in Jonah 2:3, we have the following Psalms that are referenced: Psalm 18:7, 30:33, 118:5, 120:1, 130:2, that’s just one verse. Psalm 2:4 is Psalm 42:8, Psalm 2:5 is Psalm 31:23, and on and on it goes through this entire prayer. That’s important to recognize, and again, something we would probably miss if we’re trying to squeeze this book into the box of a historically accurate account. There’s just too much richness to this story to let it be bound by that one genre.
Jared: All right. Well, thanks everyone, for coming along on the journey with me through one of my favorite books. We’ll be headed here again in just a little while, so until next time, see ya later.
Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and all of us here at The Bible for Normal People – thanks for listening.
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