The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jonah

One Sam's radical approach to the "Sign of Jonah"

Posted Monday, July 31, 2006 by Sam Yeiter
Almost certainly it will happen to me again this week.  I will get that look…the one that asks, “Is he serious?  He can’t possibly believe that, can he?  Where did we find this guy?  Who was his Hermeneutics instructor?”  Yes, that look is filled with questions.  But I have endured it before, and I will endure it again…and nothing Josh and Adam can say will shake me.  For I believe Jonah rose from the dead.

          Ok, let me say up front, that I wouldn’t go to the stake for this one, but I think I have as good a chance of being right as anyone.  I have been teaching through the minor prophets and have come to Jonah again.  This coming Sunday I am going to suggest that the “Sign of Jonah,” which sounds like it could be a new M. Night Shyamalan movie, actually refers to the entombment of Jonah in the belly of the great fish, his resurrection, and then regurgitation to resume his mission.


In Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32, Jesus says that no sign would be given to “this wicked generation (meaning, the religious leaders of his day, primarily),” except the sign of Jonah.  So what is that sign?  Well, that’s where we run into difficulties…the most explicit Jesus gets is by saying that there is some relationship between Jonah being in the belly of the sea monster for three days and nights and Christ’s own burial.  In both cases, the presumed dead resurface to complete their mission.  I do not necessarily think that the similarity has to be that both die, but that does seem to be a fairly obvious possibility.  Another possible similarity is that both are presumed dead.  This might make some nervous, seeming to suggest that Jesus didn’t really die.  Another possibility is that both endured something harrowing that left them bearing distinct marks, in Jonah’s case, perhaps the bleaching/partial digestion of his skin and hair, and in Jesus’ case, the marks of his execution, or whatever it is that keeps his disciples from recognizing him at first.


For now, let me appeal to the second chapter of Jonah.  First, I’ve always thought that Jonah was thrown over the boat, practically into the mouth of the great fish.  However, as I read through chapter 2:3-7, its seems that he was likely adrift for a while: “For You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me.  So I said, 'I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.'  Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head.  I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.  While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple.”


The picture here is of Jonah slowly sinking to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  Finally, when he is moments away from drowning to death he remembers Yahweh and the covenant relationship they have.  He says that the bars of the earth closed around him and that God had to bring his life up from the pit.  Let me suggest that Jonah died there and God then appointed a mobile burial spot…the great fish.  Three days later God raises him from the dead.  He awakes to the startling reality that he is in a sea monster, and then he calls out to the Lord…because what else could he do?  The beast feels nauseated (he had some bad Israelite a couple nights back), and the rest of the story is history.


So, how does this fit in the book.  Well, let me suggest that there is a strong undercurrent of justice and life and death in Jonah.  Nineveh deserves death and Jonah is afraid that God will spare them and so he runs away.  When the storm comes Jonah knows that he has sinned with a high hand and deserves death, and is thus thrown over.  The men know that life is not theirs for the taking and so pray earnestly to Yahweh for forgiveness, and are apparently granted it.  Jonah, who really did deserve death (and perhaps did die), is given new life.  Nineveh, slated for a just execution, is let free due to their repentance and God’s compassion.  Jonah cares greatly for a plant that God appoints to die, and in the end God explains that his hand of justice was stayed because of his compassion for a blind people.


In the end, Jesus’ resurrection is meant to have the same impact.  For those who were unbelieving before his death, it should have been the final wake up call when he was found alive.  It is a great condemnation of the religious leaders of the day, that hearing of (and perhaps seeing?) the living Christ did not move them to the same repentance as Nineveh.  I love the king’s ignorant hope, “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”


So what do you think?  Did Jonah die and rise again, or am I all wet?


8/1/2006 8:50:00 AM

Charlie wrote:  Well, obviously I have to disagree with you on several counts. The main count is that I dislike reading the NT back into the OT. If we follow your train of thought more consistently with how the NT uses the OT, you get some pretty strange texts in the OT. I think that the NT authors often alluded to similar events in the OT (although we would often not think they were very similar!), and this is another case of that style of allusion.

8/1/2006 9:38:00 AM

Sam wrote:  Well, that's fine... But, what then, is the sign of Jonah?  I base my claim of his death on his own words...not on the connection between him and Jesus, or anything else in the NT.  I think maybe you read my post too quickly, or perhaps i was not clear enough....

8/1/2006 3:26:00 PM

Charlie wrote:  Ok, you're right, I read it a little too quickly. Now I'll just complain that you are misreading Hebrew poetry. It's poetry. Let it be poetry. For example, Psalm 103:4 has a similar idea with a different verb: "redeem your life from the pit." So I would think that your view is possible, I'm not sure it is probable. But maybe I'm just an old crank who likes to argue.

8/2/2006 7:47:00 AM

Sam wrote:  A crank i can take...
Just for fun, since we've gotten off topic...on what basis do you say that it's poetry?  Honestly, i haven't looked at the Hebrew here, but why can it not be narrative, like the rest of Jonah?
Maybe you would say that it looks like different Psalms.  I can get behind this, i guess, but i'm not totally satisfied.  I am sure you will give me a completely satisfacory answer!  Assuming you are correct, poetry still reflects reality.  The question is to what degree is the poetic language reflecting the reality which it is decorating.  Given the fact that Jonah was thrown into the sea (salt water, i presume) and appears to have gone under and spends at least three days down there...why are we quick to assume that his words do not reflect his death?
Thanks for putting up with me!

8/3/2006 5:04:00 PM

Charlie wrote: 

That is an excellent question. Somewhere around here I have a list of things that define poetry, but I do not seem to know where it is at the moment. The difference between prose and poetry is a continuum, not a black and white division. Hence, there can be poetic prose and prosaic poetry. This ambiguity caused James Kugel to say that there was no poetry in the Hebrew Bible. But I think that this is a little extreme. Here are some characteristiscs that usually occur more frequently in poetry than in prose.

The text in chapter two is not pure narrative, but is a prayer of Jonah (verse 1).

Parallelism, as seen clearly in verse 2.

A compartive lack of connecting words. These occur in the first part of the chapter, but starting in verse 6 (ET 5) they occur less.

The theme and wording is similar than to psalms.  

I would compare this chapter to Judges 5, where there is a poetic account of the defeat of Sisera after the prose account of chapter 4. Both of these poems are more prosaic than other poems. But they are still poetry. They do reflect reality, but we should not try to press them into prose categories of interpreting. I think that the prayer reflects his traumatic experience of being thrown into the ocean during a storm. The pit here is not actual death, but the very closeness and expectation of death which I'm sure he felt.


8/3/2006 5:53:00 PM

Brian wrote:  Speaking of Prosaic

I don't want to get too prosaic here, but suggesting that Jonah actually died would actually make the miracle of Jonah resurrection instead of the strange, nameless miracle of keeping Jonah alive for three days in the belly of a fish.

I'm not saying that this justifies the interpretation. I am just saying that it seems tidier.

8/9/2006 11:57:00 AM

Josh wrote:  Once more into the whale...

Sam, my opinion on this discussion is well-known (I appreciate the toss of the bone) and unchanged.  I think the evidence is weightier for Jonah's living through the whole ordeal than that he died.

You are right that the strongest case for his death comes from the language of chapter 2, but I think that construing this as the normal figurative expression of poetry is just as likely, if not more so, than that it is grounded in reflecting the event of his death.

I note that in verses 15 and 17 of chapter 1, the term "Jonah" is used to refer to Jonah.  According to your understanding, the first "Jonah" in 1:17 would mean "Jonah's body" specifically.  I note that a personal name can be used to refer to a body post-death.  In 2 Sam 18:17 where they throw Absalom into a pit, the term is "Absalom" and not "Absalom's body" but we do have clear previous indications that Absalom had been killed.  So I wonder if it is legitimate to read a personal name as denoting the person's dead body if we have no textual indications of that occurrence?

Secondly, the book itself gives no specific indication that he died or that he remained alive.  His death is an inference, but I am not persuaded that it is a more necessary inference than the matter-of-fact flow of the text from which one would infer that he remained alive.

Third, resurrection seems to be a rather notable event in the Bible.  The resurrections which occurred during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus, and the Apostles all have the similarity of having participating agents (the prophets, Christ, or the apostles) by which the resurrection is mediated.  If we are to assume that Jonah was raised from the dead, this occurrence would seem to be unique and without parallel in terms of how it transpired (correct me if I have overlooked a resurrection, but I have been unable to come up with any that occured outside of the three groupings mentioned above).  Now, this is not to say that lack of parallel features means it couldn't occur; rather, it is simply additional terrain for a resurrectionist understanding to overcome.

As for the tidiness of the whole endeavor, I suppose that depends on how one looks at it.  Getting a fish to swallow a whole dead body and not digest it in its body for three days doesn't seem to have too many tidiness points in its favor.  No matter what happened, remaining alive or death, there was a lot of divine intervention/miraculous work occuring.

8/16/2006 6:36:00 PM

Michael Davis wrote:  Interesting post, Sam.   Way to think outside the box!

8/22/2006 5:46:00 PM

Sam wrote:  Thanks, Michael I like it outside the box.  I do intend to utterly refute our new father, Josh...but he's so smart, it's taking me a while.

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