Jonah and Jesus: Descending to the Abode of the Invisible Fish of Death

A recent paper I handed in for my class on the Prophets.

The Early Church Fathers read the story of Jonah being swallowed by the fish as a type of Christ’s burial and resurrection. Paulinus compares the fish’s belly to the tomb of Jesus, while Ambrose compares it to the womb of Mary. Theodoret and Cyril highlight the hell-like nature of the fish’s innards to find a type of Christ’s descent into hell. Finally, in a crude analogy, Tertullian compares the vomitting of Jonah out of the fish to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly, the Fathers’ readings are based on the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke:

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. (40) 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. (41) The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matt 12:39-41 ESV)

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Matt 16:4)

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. (30) For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (31) The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (32) The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29-32)

The Fathers’ interpretations underscore their Cristo-centric hermeneutic. Yet they also reveal an interpretive tradition which cites Jesus as its first exegete. The validity of their reading depends wholly on Christ’s teaching. For them, all of Scripture points to Christ and Jonah is merely an example. It is fascinating that especially in this instance it appears that Jesus himself relates all Scripture to himself as the ultimate point of reference.

Paulinus of Nola comments that Jonah “walked in the cavern of the whale’s body, a prisoner both captive and free….and though physically incarcerated, the prophet emerged in spirit to return to God.”1 The prophet was prisoner in that he was trapped inside the whale, but free in that he was floating on the open waters, albeit in a rather confined way. Paulinus pulls out a brilliant spiritual understanding of the passage: Jonah transcended his situation by going out of himself through prayer in order to “return to God.” The disgruntled prophet who had rejected his calling and run away from God makes his return in a spiritual manner though he is physically limited. According to Paulinus, Jonah “broke out of his prison by prayer and reached God’s ears” (ACCS 138). This interpretation effectively demonstrates the Fathers’ understanding of Christian life and Christian prayer as a transcendant act. Jonah “believed that the Lord was with him even inside that whale” (ACCS 138). The transcendant nature of of Jonah’s prayer connects with Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus goes beyond his own suffering in order to return all of mankind to God. His physical confinement in the tomb cannot restrict the spiritual return which his sacrifice effects. For Jonah, “who typifies the holy mystery, foreshadowed the death which lasted three days and the salvation it restored” (ACCS 138). The Fathers’ read the life of Jonah through a Christological lens which opens a deep allegorical interpretation.

Ambrose’s comments about Jonah and the fish are unique among the Fathers, but give a useful insight into Christ’s life. He delicately compares the “belly of the fish” to Mary’s womb in this prayer: “Like Jonah when he was in the belly of the fish, I prayed to you on behalf of the people. Similarly Christ was with God from his mother’s womb” (ACCS 138). Ambrose takes Jonah’s “return” to God in the belly of the whale as a spiritual example. This example is fully typified in Christ’s oneness with God in Mary’s womb. Therefore Ambrose uses a typological reading of Jonah through Christ to make a tropological application. As Jonah was with God in the belly of the fish, so Christ was with God in the womb, so should the Christian be with God in prayer. Significantly, the word for “womb” in the NT is ??????,2 which is the word Jesus uses when referring to the “belly of the great fish.” (Matt 12:40) It is also the same word used for the fish’s belly in the LXX version of Jonah (Jonah 1:17; 2:1,2 – Hebrew numbering). This lexical connection strengthens Ambrose’s reading and the link he draws between the fish’s belly and Mary’s womb.

While meditating on Jonah’s prayer, Theodoret makes an insightful observation about Christ’s mention the prophet. He brings out the fact that Jonah calls the fish’s stomach the “belly of Sheol,” (Jonah 2:2) but Jesus compares the “belly of the fish” to the “heart of the earth” (Matt 12). Jonah becomes a dual type. First, he foreshadows those redeemed by Christ. For he was “already presumed dead” but “survived only by God’s grace” (ACCS 138). He is saved from the belly of the fish, but more significantly from the belly of Sheol, from Hell itself. Second, he is a type of Christ for the three days he spent in the fish like Christ’s three days in the tomb. Yet Theodoret draws out the fact that Jonah was an imperfect type. He was in the “belly of Sheol” but Christ was in the “heart of the earth” (ACCS 138). This difference exists “because the life of Jonah was beyond his control, while in the case of the Lord both his death and resurrection were voluntary” (ACCS 138). Jonah’s lack of freedom indicated his powerlessness and dependence on God’s grace. But Christ’s entombment was his own choice. The one is in need of grace because of his confinement, while the other gives grace through his confinement.

Cyril uses this comparison to illustrate the nature of Jonah’s prayer as a type of Christ’s words. Jonah “prophesies in the person of Christ” (ACCS 138). Similar to Ps 22, Jonah’s prayer can be read as Christ’s own prayer. Just as Jonah sought the Lord from the belly of the whale, so Christ sought the Lord from his tomb. Cyril brings Jonah’s typological example to the fore by drawing out the fact that he says that he is in the “netherworld” (2:2) and that he went down to the “roots of the mountains” (2:6) while he was “in fact in the fish” (ACCS 138). Cyril goes so far as to suggest that Jonah was conscious of his typological role. He even quotes the prophet’s supposed thoughts, “I know…that I am a type of him who is to be laid in the sepulcher hewn out of rock” (ACCS 138). Cyril sees Jonah’s prayer as giving a clue to the reader that the story should be read in an allegorical manner. Jonah’s story does not exist for his own sake, but for Christ’s.

Tertullian, more than any other Father commenting on this passage, draws out details in Jonah to piece together a more comprehensive interpretation. He highlights Jonah’s flight from his “duty of preaching” to the Ninevites (ACCS 134). He argues that “it was because of a pagan city, which did not yet know God and which sinned i
n ignorance, that the prophet was almost lost. And he would have been lost, were it not for the fact that what he endured was a type of the Lord’s suffering, by which pagan penitents also would be redeemed” (ACCS 135). Tertullian’s comments emphasize the similarity of Jesus’ and Jonah’s callings. Cyril concurs that “Jesus was sent to preach repentence. So was Jonah” (ACCS 135). Jonah ran from his calling, but Jesus embraced his. In a paradoxical manner, Jonah’s unwillingness to fulfill God’s call prefigures Christ’s willingness. God would have eliminated Jonah, but for the fact that he was meant to be a type of Christ. Since Jonah avoided preaching to the pagans, God sent him to suffer. But since Jesus embraced his suffering and “descended to the abode of the invisible fish of death,”3 many pagans would be saved. Jonah is the only OT prophet who is sent exclusively to the Gentiles for their conversion. His calling is to reach the Ninevites with the message of repentence and begin the in-gathering of the nations mentioned throughout the prophetic books. This unique vocation aptly prefigures Christ’s redemptive suffering for all mankind, which frees both Jew and Gentile, prophets and pagans alike.

The story of Jonah is often deemed an “ironically didactic novella”4 without a shred of historicity. Modern commentators avoid even discussing the historicity of the book. Yet Augustine sets up an apt dichotomy which deals with the miraculous aspect of Jonah’s encounter with the big fish. He states that “either all the divine miracles are to be disbelieved or there is no reason why they should not be believed. We should not believe in Christ himself and that he rose on the third day, if the faith of the Christians feared the laughter of the pagans” (ACCS 135). Augustine senses the disintegration of biblical allegory if it is not based on factual history. If the stories are not true, they lose their power. We have seen how the Fathers view Jonah as a type of Christ. The belly of the fish prefigures Mary’s womb and the rock-hewn tomb. Jonah’s vocation as prophet to the Gentiles is a type of Christ’s vocation as Savior of the world. Jonah’s exaggeration that he is in the “belly of Sheol” (2:2) serves to strengthen his typological relationship with Jesus. Just as Jonah’s unrighteousness landed him in Sheol, so Christ’s righteousness will save many souls from Sheol. From the Fathers perspective, Jonah clearly though awkwardly acts as a type of Christ. The main point of confluence is the three days in the belly of the fish compared to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. This, of course, is the “sign of Jonah” which Jesus mentions in the gospels. The sign comes to a not-so-glorious end when Jonah is “vomited out again safe and sound”5 as “a symbol of the future mystery”6 of Christ’s resurrection.

1.Ferreiro, Alberto, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: The Twelve Prophets, Old Testament v. XIV (Downers Grove, IL: Innervarsity, 2003) 138. Henceforth ACCS. Matt 19:12; Luke 1:15,41,42,44; 2:21; 11:27; 23:29; John 3:4; Acts 3:2; 14:8; Gal 1:15.
3.Cyril of Jerusalem, ACCS 135.
4.Wolff, Hans W., Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augusburg, 1986) 85.
5.Tertullian, ACCS 139.
6.Ambrose, ACCS 139.

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