Studying Jonah: Part VIII
iv. God shows mercy to Jonah, 1:17
1:17. While the (no doubt relieved) sailors are worshipping Yahweh, offering him sacrifices and vows, Jonah is sinking into the now-calm sea. God, however, was not yet finished with his wayward prophet and, just as he had stopped the prophet’s attempt to flee and had delivered the sailors by miraculous means, so he exercises his sovereign freedom to deliver Jonah. With another demonstration of his divine control, Yahweh appointed (וַיְמַן, cf. 4:6, 7, 8) a great fish to swallow Jonah, to not only snatch him from his watery grave but to also serve as his life raft for three days and three nights (1).
A great fish to swallow Jonah. Many hours and much ink has been spilled in speculation as to what it was that took on the prophet and thereafter served as his divinely-ordained vehicle of salvation (דָּג, as vague as the English “great fish”). Some have creatively made the case for the Leviathan (cf. Job 41:1, 5; Isa. 27:1) or even an unidentifiable sea monster (2). It seems much of the scholarship focused on defining and identifying the exact species of דָּג גָּדוֹל begins not with the understanding of Jonah as inerrant (classically defined) history, but as some sort of allegorical tale. These attempts, in the view of this author, are largely pointless, serving only to cloud and distract from the authors’ main point (3)—that the prodigal prophet was rescued by the God from whom he ran via miraculous means that could only be attributed to a sovereign God (4).
Understandably, the notion that a human being was swallowed by a great fish is viewed with a great deal of skepticism and has caused many scholars (even “biblical” scholars) to question the genre of the entire book. The line of thinking goes, if the part about the great fish is suspect and, thus, too fantastical to be taken seriously, then the rest of the narrative should be viewed likewise.
However, by this author’s estimation, this view is perhaps emphasizing the fish more than the A/author intended. Estelle, like many others, would rather have readers focus not on the identity of the fish but, rather, on the role of the fish as this “is crucial to understanding the psalm of Jonah” to follow immediately (5). The fish is the means of deliverance—not of punishment—for Jonah and the method by which he will experience the mercy of God that will serve as the ironic backdrop for the closing scene of the narrative.
For a helpful discussion of Jonah’s time in the fish as it relates to the Lord Jesus Christ’s time in the grave, as well as the sign of Jonah (cf. Matt. 12:38–45; Luke 11:29–32) see Eugene H. Merrill, “The Sign of Jonah” JETS 23 (1980): 23–30.
See, for example, Scott B. Noegel, “Jonah and Leviathan: Inner-Biblical Allusions and the Problem with Dragons,” Hen 37 (2015): 236–60; Lowell K. Handy, “Joining Leviathan, Behemoth and the Dragons: Jonah’s Fish as Monster,” Proceedings Egl & MWBS 25 (2005): 77–85.
Michael Ben Zehabe, A Commentary on Jonah (Los Angeles, CA: Shema Publishing Company, 2017), 38.
Indeed, it is an entirely different conversation if it is the fish miracle of Jonah that is the proverbial straw that breaks the back of verbal plenary inspiration. What of the creation of the world? What of Jesus’ raising from the dead? Surely if the atoning, vicarious death and victorious resurrection of Christ is to be believed (and, it is to be believed if salvation is to be received [John 3:16; 6:40]), the use of a great fish to transport a disobedient prophet is not beyond the reach of our faith. This author is unconvinced by any literary and/or critical examination of Jonah that concludes that its form necessitates anything other than a literal and historical understanding of the events therein recorded.
Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy, 65.
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