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. Jonah 1:17
If Jonah had been saved or rerouted just about any other way most people today wouldn’t care that he existed. He can thank this “fish” for his fame. Picking up where we left off last week, we ask: so, what was it? The Hebrew word used in Jonah is the basic word used for a fish—anything that swims in the water really—dag (דָּ֣ג). At first it’s given a modifier dag gadol (דָּ֣ג גָּדֹ֔ול)—a great/giant fish.
Though not used here, another Hebrew word is taneen (תַּנִּין), which is used in other places in the Hebrew Bible to mean a serpent, a dragon, or some sort of a sea/river monster. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, that same Hebrew word taneen was rendered in two different ways among the various passages. One Greek word used is drakon (δράκων), which means “dragon” or “serpent.” It’s used to represent the Devil—the picture we see in Revelation. It appears in Exodus 7:12 when Aaron and Moses throw their staff down during a match against Pharaoh’s magicians. All of their staffs turn into drakon—probably referring to crocodiles given the context. Psalm 74:12–14 says, “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters (drakon) on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan (another big sea creature); you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”
Taneen is also translated into Greek as ketos (κῆτος). It’s used in Genesis 1:21, which says, “So God created the great sea creatures (ketos) and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” This word ketos means “sea-monster.” It’s also the word used here in the Greek translation of Jonah 1:17. Whereas the Hebrew text of Jonah gives this animal a rather broad description, the ancient Greek translation is slightly more specific. Later on in history the same word was used in Greek mythology. Hercules spent three days in the belly of the ketos hundreds of years after Jonah. The root of the word is related to a yawn of the mouth or a wide opening. It’s actually where we get the word chasm. So, it’s something that swims in the water and has a really big mouth.
Escaping the Creator
Beyond that the book of Jonah gives no real description. This took place about 2,800 years ago. They didn’t have submarines or underwater cameras. They didn’t have taxonomical charts. They weren’t tagging wild animals. The ancient Israelites weren’t interested in knowing much about sea creatures. In fact, it’s thought that they were terrified of the water. The sea was the place of God’s enemies. It’s the origin of the Philistines. It’s no accident that the first beast in Revelation comes out of the sea, that Satan is described as drakon—sea-dragon. At the very end of Revelation, once Jesus has won the battle and the new creation has begun, John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
It plays into the way that the ancient Hebrews understood the creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” This was the very beginning of creation—the primordial chaos in the endless, dark waters of nothingness. Jonah wasn’t just fleeing the presence of the Lord in Israel, by going to Tarshish—to the other side of the known world. Jonah is fleeing from the presence of his creator by running as fast as he can into the place of un-creation. But, the Lord is God even over the sea, and he forces Jonah to face the chaos head on.
Once Jonah is cast out into the turbulent waves of this dangerous storm, he’s facing the most frightening thing that anyone from his culture could ever imagine, an absolute horror story in his culture. And now he’s in the belly of this monster—whatever it is. The world is closing in on Jonah, and he’s going deeper into the darkness—deeper into the chaos. He was fleeing the presence of the Lord, and it appears as if he got way more than he ever wanted.
God is still there
Have you ever been there? Have you ever experienced the darkness, when it seemed as if the world was closing in, as if your life was falling apart around you—like the descent into un-creation? You’re not the only one. Matthew 12:38–40 states, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Jesus, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 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 (ketos), so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” The world around Jesus came crashing down. He experienced it too; you’re not alone.
When Jonah is in the belly of the monster, being brought down to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea—the largest body of water that the Hebrews had ever known—staring into the face of the chaos of un-creation, he finally cries out to God. Jonah prays. “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (normal Hebrew word for fish), saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and you heard my voice.” God hears Jonah as he cries from the depths of darkness, because he’s there. It echoes Psalm 139: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”
Jonah prays, “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Jesus is our Salvation
After Jonah’s prayer, Jonah 2:10 says, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Just like that, Jonah was safe again. And that fish was used for Jonah’s own salvation. Our God answered Jonah’s prayer, and he answers ours as well. Jesus himself suffered death—suffered in the belly of a very dark, broken world. He faced the chaos of un-creation head on and came out victorious. Our God has answered our prayers for forgiveness—our prayers for liberation from spiritual oppression—in Jesus. Because when we are suffering that same darkness, as we are carried deeper and deeper into the sea, when we are drowning in the depths of worry and consumed by despair as the walls are caving in and nothing else seems to matter, Jesus is there too. He will always be there for us, because only he can lead us through it.