Did God Raise Jonah from the Dead?

‘Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.’ (Jonah 1:17)

Pieter Lastman, “Jonah and the Whale,” 1621
Pieter Lastman, “Jonah and the Whale,” 1621 (photo: Public Domain)

The Book of Jonah says in Chapter 2:

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. ... The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about 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 thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple.’ ... And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Those trained in biology and zoology inform us that whales actually have very small throats, because most of them are vegetarians and eat tiny organisms in the sea. But there is a big exception to the rule. Sperm whales are carnivorous, and eat squid, sharks, shrimp and other fish. Because of this sort of diet of large animals, their throat is much larger than other whales — about two feet across, which is large enough to swallow a man.

Jonah took a ship from Joppa on the coast of Israel (Jonah 1:3), trying to get away from God. This was the Mediterranean Sea. Were there sperm whales in that body of water during Old Testament times?

Yes. Not only were they present in ancient days, but they are still present now, with estimates of as many as 2,500. 

I think we can immediately rule out natural survival in a whale’s belly for two or three days, because there simply isn’t enough breathable oxygen (if there is any at all). Therefore, if we are to believe the biblical account at all, and believe in its inspiration from an omniscient God, we have no choice but to adopt some form of miraculous preservation or resurrection.

First is the question of whether Jonah drowned, and later described his own drowning. I think the text actually offers eight different clues that he did indeed drown. It appears to describe the process of drowning.

One might argue, I suppose, that Jonah was describing the process of the initial conscious phase of drowning but didn’t actually succumb. But two aspects of the above text seem to work directly against that. First, he refers to a “land” (Sheol, or the netherworld) “whose bars closed upon me forever.” Second, he refers to being brought back (“thou didst bring up my life”) from “the Pit” — a common name for Sheol in the Old Testament.

The text, then, seems to assert that Jonah drowned and was then swallowed by the sperm whale. We don’t have to explain how he could live inside a whale. God raised him while in the whale’s belly, and then he prayed the prayer that we have, describing his death by drowning, descent to Sheol, and being brought back by God’s mercy and lovingkindness. Once having been brought back, the whale would have to spit him out very soon, due to the lack of oxygen. 

Now what is even more interesting is the very close, if not exact, analogy to Jesus’ references to the incident in relation to his own resurrection:

But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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.’ (Matthew 12:39-40; cf. Luke 11:29-32)

If we follow my proposed interpretation, the analogy (apart from Jonah’s disobedience) is virtually exact:

  • Jonah died, delivered up and forsaken. Jesus died, delivered up and forsaken.
  • Jonah, after drowning and going to Sheol, was “swallowed up” by the whale, for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Jesus was buried three days and three nights “in the heart of the earth.”
  • Jonah was raised by the Father while his body was still in the belly of the whale (“he answered me ... thou didst hear my voice … thou didst bring up my life from the Pit”). Jesus was raised by the Father while his body was still in his tomb (Acts 5:30; Galatians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; cf. Acts 1:27: “For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption”).
  • Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale, raised again after drowning and having visited Sheol, and preaches repentance and salvation to the Ninevites (Jonah 3:1-4), who do indeed repent (Jonah 3:5-10). Jesus emerges from the tomb, resurrected after having been crucified, and having visited Sheol, and commissions his disciples to preach the gospel of repentance and salvation (which they successfully do, with 3,000 converts on the day of Pentecost alone: Acts 2:41).

Being resurrected after dying and being buried is the heart of the entire analogy. If Jonah hadn’t actually died in the sea, I submit that “the sign of Lazarus” would be closer to Jesus’ resurrection than the sign of Jonah, and would have been, in my humble opinion, the analogy that Jesus would have highlighted. The emphasis in a “non-dead Jonah scenario” shifts to the mere length of time, rather than the thing itself (resurrection).

This and the other factors noted above have caused me to change my mind regarding Jonah and the whale.