Jonah and the Story of Israel

In the midst of Jonah’s larger-than-life elements, we might easily miss something: this story follows a common biblical plot line. Jonah is more than just a ‘fish story.’ It’s a story of sin, death, and resurrection.

In other words, Jonah’s story follows the pattern of humanity’s story.

But even more directly, it follows the story of Israel.

When we read the Scriptures, the first question we must always as is, “What would this have meant to the original audience.” Instead of beginning with the question of what a book or passage means to us, we ought to start with the question of what it would have meant for them.
We don’t know exactly when the book of Jonah was written, but there are reasons to believe that the book was probably first given to the people of the southern kingdom (Judah) either during their exile in Babylon or not long thereafter.

This context is absolutely crucial! As the Israelites were introduced to the story of Jonah, it was very much with their own situation in mind.

Israel maintained a measure of hope stored away, even as they were being carried away into the death of exile, in the words handed down by the prophets. God’s messengers had spoken of the coming tribulation and difficulty, but also of the promise of salvation and reconciliation and of a great “Day of Yahweh”, when the wicked would be judged and the righteous would be made alive again.

This same measure of hope is established in the beginning of the second section of Jonah (which begins with the final verse of chapter 1). Here, as Jonah found himself facing certain death, God brought salvation – in the strangest possible way. A fish.
This fish that swallowed Jonah is far more than it seems. It is both a living creature and it is also an extraordinary symbol.

The sea, as we have heard several times in this sermon series, carried an astonishing depth of meaning in the ancient world; and this meaning was almost universally negative. The sea was a place of chaos, danger, uncertainty, and death. This is why, as Jonah poetically describes his brief time in the sea, he does so in the language of death. The water was his grave.

Deeply woven into this symbolism of the sea was not just the ominous threat of a sudden storm or of becoming hopelessly lost and set adrift, but the danger of what might lurk in its mysterious depths. The sea was home, both in ancient mythology and in reality, to any number of great, mysterious, and dangerous creatures. This was the place of the Leviathan (Job 3:8; 41; Psa. 74:14; Psa. 104:26; Isa. 27:1), as well as the sea monster Rahab (Job 26:12; Psa. 89:10; Isa. 30:7; 51:9).
Rather than trying to figure out what known sea animals (or to ancient dinosaurs) these creatures were, we ought to see Leviathan and Rahab for what they were: sea monsters. They were beasts used to represent the unknown dangers of the sea – the “fish stories” told by ancient mariners. They represented the adversarial nature of the unseeable depths. And in Jonah’s story, remarkably, we find God using this symbol of danger and death for the purposes of salvation. We are meant to be stunned by the tremendous irony of it, and to marvel at the parallels to the story of Israel as a nation.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of an ancient Israelite, living in the shadow of exile, then the full weight of the symbol is made evident. When Israel, in her waning years, was being besieged by the hostile forces of the “sea” (the surrounding enemy nations), she saw the wind and the waves as forces leading to certain death. Indeed, she had been thrown violently into the sea, her cities conquered, her people carried off into captivity and exile, and her homeland “sunk” to the depths. It had meant, so it seemed, certain death for the people of Yahweh.
At last, in Jonah chapter two, Israel would have seen a sudden glimmer of hope. Just as Jonah found salvation in the fish, the people of Israel have not been utterly destroyed by their invaders; they have been taken by them. They have been, so to speak, swallowed up. Jonah is giving life to a common prophetic theme.
Because Scripture describes the nations as a roiling, dangerous sea, it is only natural that the villainous forces within those nations be portrayed as monsters threatening to swallow Israel.
Jeremiah, prophesying before the fall of Judah, looks back upon the siege of Jerusalem as if it were a past event: “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me; he has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel; he has swallowed me like a sea monster; he has filled his stomach with my delicacies; he has rinsed me out” (Jer. 51:34).
After the fall of Jerusalem, the author of Lamentations cries out, “All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: ‘We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; now we have seen it; we see it!” (Lam. 2:16; cf. 2:2, 2:5; cf. Psa 124:3).
The prophet Hosea (a near contemporary of the historical Jonah) wrote of the coming judgment of the northern kingdom (Israel) due to their apostasy, threatening: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no head; its hall yield no flour; if it were to yield, strangers would devour it. Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (Hos. 8:7-8).
Because Jonah rebelled, refusing to obey the Word of Yahweh, he was cast into a literal sea, where he was swallowed by a literal monster of the deep. In reading this book Israel was meant to reflect humbly on their own circumstances, but they were also meant to catch that obvious glimmer of hope. Jonah does not meet his death in the belly of the fish. That much is made clear even before the story continues – he is actually rescued by the fish, where he remains for an appointed time. This would inspire tremendous hope for the Jew in exile.

In our next blog post we'll look at the end of Jonah's fish experience - when he is 'vomited up.'