People have long wondered how Jonah could have lived for three days inside the belly of a fish. Upon being swallowed, he would have faced being crushed, digested, and suffocated.
It would have truly taken a miraculous intervention for Jonah to survive.
I have absolutely no doubt that God could have overridden the laws of nature to allow Jonah to stay alive during that time. But I wonder if that’s really the best explanation.
Let’s examine the text.
“Out of the Belly of Sheol”
Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Then Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God, out of the fish’s belly.
“I called because of my affliction to Yahweh.
He answered me.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried.
You heard my voice.” (Jonah 1:17–2:2, WEB)
Jonah said that he was in the belly of Sheol. Sheol is the place of the dead, where men go to await the resurrection and judgment.
So if we are to take his statement literally, Jonah said that he died.
Could he have been using figurative language? Sure, he might have been. Let’s continue.
“To the Point of Death”
“For you threw me into the depths,
in the heart of the seas.
The flood was all around me.
All your waves and your billows passed over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
The waters surrounded me,
even to the soul.
The deep was around me.
The weeds were wrapped around my head.” (Jonah 2:3–5, WEB)
The phrase, “even to the soul,” has also been translated as “to take my life” (Jonah 2:5, ESV) and “to the point of death” (Jonah 2:5, NASB).
Could this just mean that he almost died? Yes, that is a possible interpretation.
“The Gates of the Netherworld”
“I went down to the bottoms of the mountains.
The earth barred me in forever:” (Jonah 2:6a, WEB)
The word for “the earth” in similar contexts refers to “the netherworld.” Thus this phrase has also been translated, “The gates of the netherworld barred me in forever” (Jonah 2:6, NET).
Does it have to mean that he was literally dead? No, it does not have to.
“Bring up My Life from the Pit”
“Yet have you brought up my life from the pit,
Yahweh my God.” (Jonah 2:6b, WEB)
The pit is another term that was frequently used to refer to death.
The word for “brought” in this verse is actually in the future tense. Thus it is rightly translated, “You wilt bring up my life” (Jonah 2:6, CLV).
Jonah seems to have believed that God would raise him to life from death.
Could Jonah have simply meant that God would save his life from near death? That could be.
“My Life Fainted Within Me”
“When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered Yahweh.
My prayer came in to you,
into your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7, WEB)
The word for “soul” is the same word in verse 5 that is often translated as “life,” and many versions do translate it as such in this verse.
It seems that Jonah’s life had to faint away before he would repent. It seems that it took his death to bring him back to God.
Could his life just have just nearly fainted away? One could render this verse as such.
“Salvation Belongs to Yahweh”
“Those who regard lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving.
I will pay that which I have vowed.
Salvation belongs to Yahweh.”
Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land. (Jonah 2:8–10, WEB)
It could be that Jonah just referred to the general saving power of Yahweh. But I believe he spoke specifically of God’s saving power to raise him from the dead.
As one final piece of evidence for Jonah’s death and resurrection, let’s look at a reference by Jesus in the New Testament.
“The Sign of Jonah the Prophet”
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39–40, ESV)
Jesus said that he would be in the earth for three days and three nights in just the same way that Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights.
I don’t know about you, but I believe that Jesus truly died on the cross, and I believe that God raised him back to life. In fact, our salvation depends upon this truth.
Why then would it present a problem for God to do the same thing for Jonah?
Can I dogmatically state that Jonah absolutely and without a doubt died in the belly of the fish? No.
I do believe the combined evidence points very strongly in that direction.
What Do You Think?
Was Jonah killed and resurrected? Or did he miraculously survive?
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