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No, Jonah Didn’t Die in the Whale

Let's take a dive into the source material to see why.

Jimmy Akin

Yesterday we looked at the Jonah Death Hypothesis—the proposal that Jonah died and rose from the dead while he was in the whale—and arguments that could be used for it.

We saw that the arguments were weak and unconvincing, but there is a greater problem with the proposal, which is that it fundamentally misunderstands what is happening in the book of Jonah.

To see this, we need to walk through the key events, starting at the beginning of the book.

The word of the Lord comes to Jonah and tells him, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2).

However, Jonah disobeys and takes a ship bound for Tarshish, “away from the presence of the Lord” (v. 3).

Then “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up (v. 4).

This causes the sailors to cry out to their gods, but they get no relief. Jonah is asleep in the hold of the ship, so the captain wakes him up and tells him to call on his God, who may pay attention to their plight and save them (v. 6). The sailors also decide to draw lots to find out who brought the calamity on them, and the lot falls on Jonah (v. 7). They then ask Jonah who is he and where he is from (v. 8).

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them (vv. 9-10).

They then ask what they need to do to him so that the sea will quiet, and he says, “Take me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you” (v. 12).

At this point, Jonah knows nothing about the big fish, so when he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea, he is expecting to drown. They understand this, too, and they are reluctant to take human life, so “[n]evertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them” (v. 13).

They then pray to God, saying, “We beg you, O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” (v. 14). Notice that they ask not to be held guilty of Jonah’s blood, because God is doing as he pleases in this situation.

Having been thwarted in their attempt to get back to land, and with the sea growing worse, they then throw Jonah into it, and it quiets down. “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (v. 16).

At this point, both the sailors and Jonah know that his fate is going to be death unless God does something miraculous. But the sailors have just prayed for God not to lay the guilt of Jonah’s blood on them, and perhaps in response to that prayer, we read,

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (1:17).

The fish is thus the means that God has “appointed” to save Jonah from drowning. Being in the whale is not what kills him. It’s what saves him.

The idea that Jonah died in the whale thus fundamentally misreads what the whale is doing in the book. It isn’t an agent of death, but the means of God’s salvation for Jonah.

The next thing we read is, “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish” (2:1), and what follows is a psalm of thanksgiving.

Psalms of thanksgiving have a common structure, and they frequently begin with a short statement that summarizes the whole psalm. This is what happens in Jonah’s prayer. It begins:

I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice (2:2).

That’s a summary of the entire psalm we’re about to read: Jonah called out to God when he was in distress, and God responded. As we saw yesterday, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” is a hyperbolic, figurative way of illustrating the extreme danger of death that Jonah was in. It does not mean that he literally died, as we shall see.

Psalms of thanksgiving then commonly back up in time and give a description of the kind of distress the person was in, which happens here:

For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.

Then I said, “I am cast out
from your presence;
how shall I again look
upon your holy temple?”

The waters closed in over me,
the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains (vv. 3-5).

Notice what this is describing. It is not Jonah’s experience in the whale. It is what happened before that. Jonah says God “cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas.” “The flood” surrounded him, and he was submerged by “all your waves and your billows.”

Jonah perceived himself as abandoned by God and despaired of seeing God’s temple again. He’s expecting to die.

He’s now covered by “the waters,” in the midst of “the deep,” and then he gets down to the bottom of the sea, “at the roots of the mountains,” where “weeds wrapped about my head.”

None of this is describing Jonah being dead. It’s describing what happened to him while he was alive in the waters—before the whale swallowed him. We then get the statement:

I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever (v. 6a).

This is an allusion to death, but it’s clearly meant hyperbolically, for the gates of death did not literally “close upon me forever,” because we then read,

[Y]et you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God (v. 6b).

The message is that Jonah almost died, but he didn’t. Because God sent the whale, and that’s what “brought up my life from the Pit.” Jonah was down at the bottom of the sea, with his head being entangled in seaweed, he was about to drown, and then the whale from God swooped in and saved him.

As we saw yesterday, in poetic psalms like this, references to going down to and brought up from “Sheol” and “the Pit” do not mean someone literally dying and rising. Thus, King David expressed thanks to God for saving him from a dangerous illness by saying, “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (Ps. 30:3).

After describing the individual’s great distress, thanksgiving psalms then give us a description of how the individual cried out to God, which is what we find here:

When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple (v. 7).

Notice when Jonah says he remembered the Lord and prayed to him: “When my soul fainted within me.”

Yesterday we saw that advocates of the Jonah Death Hypothesis have claimed this is a reference to his death, but it isn’t. The Hebrew word translated “fainted”—hit`attep—does not mean “died.” It means weakened or felt weak. This is the same meaning it has in other passages where it describes a person’s “spirit growing faint” or his “soul growing faint” (Ps. 77:4, 107:5, 142:4, 143:4).

This means Jonah was still alive! What he’s saying is that, when he was at the bottom of the sea, he was fainting (running out of oxygen!), and that’s when he remembered God and called out to him. That’s when God sent the whale to rescue him.

Psalms of thanksgiving then customarily end with things like praise, testimony to God as the true God, and a vow, which we find here:

Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.

But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (vv. 8-9).

The last statement uses the word yeshu`ah and would be more familiarly translated “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It is the point toward which the whole psalm has been driving, and it celebrates God sending the whale to rescue Jonah from drowning.

We then read, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (v. 10).

What we see is that Jonah ran away from God by ship; this brought on a severe storm; and when Jonah was identified as the cause, he was willing to die by being thrown into the sea. The sailors resisted and tried to get to land, but the storm got worse. They then prayed to God not to let them be guilty of Jonah’s blood and threw him overboard.

Jonah then almost drowned, and he is described as getting as far down as the bottom of the sea, but then he remembered God, he prayed for salvation, and God sent a whale to rescue him. He then spent three days and nights in the whale and prayed a psalm of thanksgiving for the salvation God had provided, upon which God spoke to the whale, and it spit him out on dry land.

This is the natural reading of the text. The Jonah Death Hypothesis takes it in a very unnatural sense that does not recognize the function of the whale in the story. Being swallowed by the whale is not what caused Jonah to die; it’s what saved him from death.

Notice also that the references to the realm of the dead all occur in the description of Jonah’s near-drowning in the sea. If he was dead at any point, it would have been before the whale swallowed him, not while he was in the whale.

But the text reveals that he was still alive at the bottom of the sea, “when my soul fainted within me” and he prayed to God. He also was alive inside the whale, when he prayed his hymn of thanksgiving, culminating with “Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

Indeed, the 1954 Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Bernard Orchard, ed.) notes, “As Jonas prayed in the belly of the fish, 2:2, it does not seem possible to hold that he died and was restored to life” (Jonah, §d 2:1–2).

Finally, if Jonah had died and resurrected, this would be an even more amazing miracle than being saved by a big fish, and the narrator would have told us about it explicitly—in the narrative.

He would not have done so merely in poetic allusions in a psalm. These are known for non-literal, hyperbolic speech and would not have been understood as indicating literal death, given the statements Jonah was still alive both at the bottom of the sea and in the whale, and given the book’s portrayal of the whale as the means of his salvation from death.

As this example illustrates, every text must be read and understood on its own terms before trying to relate it to other texts. If not, we risk fundamentally misreading it, as advocates of the Jonah Death Hypothesis have done by incautiously applying things from the story of Jesus back onto it.

All we can safely say that the two had in common is what Jesus told us they did: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Both of them were in something for three days, but beyond that, their experiences diverge.

Jonah almost died and was saved from death by the whale, while Jesus actually died and was saved from death by his resurrection. This was greater than the deliverance Jonah received, for “behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41).

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