The Jonah Whale Lie: The Sign of Jonah, Derek Peterson

Excellent article that covers some of the themes that have been subverted in order to perpetuate this lie.

The Sign of Jonah

They say if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Which is well enough. But if you give a fish a man, well, then you have yourself a fun story to tell. Indeed, commenting on Jonah’s popularity in pre-Constantinian art Graydon Snider observes “there can be no doubt that the primary artistic representation of early Christianity was the Jonah cycle.”1 Representations in frescoes, mosaics, and sarcophagi of one or another aspect of the Jonah story outpace their closest competitor Noah by a factor of nearly fourteen (one-hundred and eight to eight).2 So popular was the story that when Jerome altered the Latin translation of the traditional “gourd plant,” (curcurbita) to “ivy plant,” (hedera) riots nearly broke out in North Africa, and Jerome complained that Rome accused him of sacrilege.3 Yet today, outside of the Sunday school room’s flannel board, or the occasional bemusing apologetics debate about the logistics of surviving inside of a fish (or related business discussion of just how this might be marketed to travel agencies) it seems rare that a word might get in edgewise about the coughed-up prophet.

As Jonah is the only prophet Jesus ever directly compared himself to, this negligence appears as a double loss. We are not simply bereaved of the complexities of what seemed to be a (prima facie) quaint and even simple story, one that is actually “from beginning to end, in form and content, in diction, phraseology and style a masterpiece . . . [where] every word is in place, every sentence.”4 Also, when in Matthew 12:39-41 (and 16:1-4) Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees and the Sadducees to produce a sign, to which he responds enigmatically that no sign would be given “except the sign of Jonah,” we simply glide across the surface of this text. For certainly the tale of Jonah and the Whale has enough press for the popular consciousness through flannel-graph and Veggie-Tales (not to mention Pinocchio and Moby-Dick) that “superficially this passage comparing the experiences of Jonah and Jesus appears straightforward.”5 In fact Jesus himself appears to provide the context for his own saying by noting, “that just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea- monster for three days and three nights, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Mt. 12:40), so extra effort may perhaps seem unnecessary or superfluous.

Nonetheless this “sign of Jonah” has been the object of much speculation by scholars under its multiple aspects: What does the sign itself refer to specifically? Jonah’s preaching? His sojourn in the fish? His being spat up on the land?6 Moreover other scholars debate the precision of the “three days,” reference as by our current time management standards Jesus’ death and resurrection cut some chronological corners. And a third observation relates to the analogy of the fish as Sheol and Jesus going into the “heart of the earth.” The apparent problem is that Jonah did not die, while Jesus on the other hand, most certainly did.

On further analysis we will show these all appear to be cases of men dividing what God has joined, so to speak. It is the contention of this essay that the “sign of Jonah” is to be taken epexegetically or as a genitive of apposition: the sign is Jonah, not merely this or that action or detail of his.7 By this I do not mean to base my essay claim on a slender grammatical point. Rather I am using a grammatical point’s terminology to help make an analogous theological claim: one does not have to parse between “Jonah’s preaching,” or “death” or “resurrection,” because all of these are included within the unity of the single “sign [which is] the man Jonah.” The “sign [which is] Jonah” is thus a complex, narratively rich, “thick descriptor.”8 The “sign of Jonah,” indicates no single static referent, but points to a narrative trajectory or dramatic context with many rich details to be embodied in the person of Jesus. As part of elaborating this thesis, we will see that the sign of Jonah as a dramatic movement contains images of sacrificial death, judgment, and ultimately salvation. Boldly stated, the sign of Jonah can be seen as a circumlocution for the gospel itself. We must not (like Jonah) go overboard however. This thick-description or narrative trajectory is not an allegorical free-for-all but is rule governed and bracketed by three coordinates: Death, Sheoul, Resurrection. It is the narrative movement between these three coordinates which is summarized by the epithet “sign of Jonah,” and thus constitutes the analogate sequence for Christ.

Thus in this essay we will first display the Greek text along with our translation of it in the first section. Then in the second section we will briefly go over the three problems noted above. In the third section, we will analyze the actual details of the parallel between Christ and Jonah, and in the fourth and final section we will summarize our findings and situate them in their proper context within the overall flow of Matthew’s narrative.

1. The Text

Matt. 12:38 π To/te aÓpekri÷qhsan aujtwˆ◊ tineß tw◊n grammate÷wn kai« Farisai÷wn le÷gonteß: dida¿skale, qe÷lomen aÓpo\ souv shmei√on i ̇dei√n. Matt. 12:39 oJ de« aÓpokriqei«ß ei•pen aujtoi√ß: genea» ponhra» kai« moicali«ß shmei√on e ̇pizhtei√, kai« shmei√on ouj doqh/setai aujthØv ei ̇ mh\ to\ shmei√on Δ∆Iwna◊ touv profh/tou.

Matt. 12:40 w‚sper ga»r hTMn Δ∆Iwna◊ß e ̇n thØv koili÷aˆ touv kh/touß trei√ß hJme÷raß kai« trei√ß nu/ktaß, ou¢twß e¶stai oJ ui ̊o\ß touv aÓnqrw¿pou e ̇n thØv kardi÷aˆ thvß ghvß trei√ß hJme÷raß kai« trei√ß nu/ktaß.
Matt. 12:41 a‡ndreß Nineui√tai aÓnasth/sontai e ̇n thØv kri÷sei meta» thvß genea◊ß tau/thß kai« katakrinouvsin aujth/n, o¢ti meteno/hsan ei ̇ß to\ kh/rugma Δ∆Iwna◊, kai« i ̇dou\ plei√on Δ∆Iwna◊ w—de.

Then some among the Scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we desire to see a sign from you.” But Jesus answered and said to them, “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and it shall not receive a sign except for the sign of Jonah, the prophet. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the great sea-monster three days and three nights, so also shall be the Son of Man in the earth’s heart three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the Judgment with this generation and shall judge them, for the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and behold!

Something greater than Jonah is here [now].

II. Prolegomena: What is a Σημειον?

Before we search for the “sign” of Jonah, it behooves us to ask just what a sign itself is in general. The full gamut of its meaning and significance cannot be expounded here,9 nor is a complete word-study really needed. For our purposes, to summarize the term we suggest: “a miraculous meaning-filled act/event/object/person designed to produce faith in the recipient.” This picks up on two elements of Σημειον as noted in BDAG.10 The first is a more general usage: “a distinguishing mark, whereby something is known, [e.g.] sign, token, indication.” (BDAG, 920). Hence part of the working definition here is “meaning filled act/event/object/person.” A sign fundamentally turns these things into conveyors of information. For example Σημειον is used like this in Luke 2:12 (kai« touvto uJmi√n to\ shmei√on, euJrh/sete bre÷foß e ̇sparganwme÷non kai« kei÷menon e ̇n fa¿tnhØ.); or Matthew 26:48 uses “sign” to indicate a signal which gains meaning qua signal from the context of previous agreement between parties: oJ de« paradidou\ß aujto\n e¶dwken aujtoi√ß shmei√on le÷gwn: o§n a·n filh/sw aujto/ß e ̇stin, krath/sate aujto/n.

The second aspect BDAG notes (920) however is that Σημειον is used to indicate “miracles,” i.e. supernatural acts of God which are not just interventions by God or a supernatural agent, but whose meaning confirms and references the agent (for example in Matt. 24:3: i ̇pe« hJmi√n, po/te tauvta e¶stai kai« ti÷ to\ shmei√on thvß shvß parousi÷aß kai« suntelei÷aß touv ai ̇w◊noß). That is, not all miracles are technically signs, since it is conceivable a miracle could occur that no one noticed, or was able to “read” as indicating God (conversely not all signs are miracles; some are false miracles a la Mt. 24:24). Thus when we determine exactly what the “Sign of Jonah,” refers to, the sign itself, whatever its object, is in fact a miraculous meaning- filled thing which points to God’s power. Once again, it is the thesis of this essay that the sign is itself Jonah, i.e. the genitive construction is epexegetical: the sign (which is) Jonah. As we shall see this is not merely a grammatical point, but has a corresponding theological component which makes the sign not any single thing, but a dramatic movement.

III. Which sign is the sign?

Just above we noted our thesis that the “sign of Jonah,” is not a single thing but refers to the person of Jonah-as-sign. And as we mentioned in the intro Jonah- as-sign is interpreted through a narrative path within three main “topographical” features: death, Sheol, resurrection. Thus the “sign of Jonah” is Jonah and not merely one or another of Jonah’s actions—yet Jonah’s person is the sign of Jonah only insofar as it is bracketed by the three points and hence is limited or rule governed by these coordinates which guard against allegorical speculation on any and every detail. However, our thesis is debated among scholars and needs justification before specific details can be brought forth.

We can immediately notice that thematically the number three runs through this entire section. “Jonah was in the belly of the great sea-monster11 for three days and three nights.” The phraseology of which, Gundry notes, appears to be an explicit nod by Matthew to assimilate Jesus’ words to the Old Testament, as this is a verbatim copy of the LXX. More evidence for Matthew’s particular composition comes in contrast to the Lukan account, where Matthew adds the words “touv profh/tou,” so as to apparently hammer home that Jesus is fulfilling the prophetic typology characterized by Jonah.12 Thus will Christ be in the “earth’s heart” for three days and three nights. The basic movement has three parts as well: going-to the sea monster (by being thrown overboard), in the sea-monster, tossed-out of the sea monster. So too then we have a triadic pattern of Christ’s death, in the “earth’s heart,” and resurrection. And finally Christ repeats the word sign three times. Bruner suggests that the triple repetition of the word “sign” by Jesus is to emphasize “the evil of the search for [the sign],”13 which is possible but seems a difficult thing to ascertain from the text with certainty. It seems just as likely that the triple repetition is a literary device playing off and so again emphasizing the three days and three nights thematic thus perhaps alluding to the sign’s diachronic nature.

The “three” thematic is interesting, but of course is meager evidence in itself for the thesis that the “sign of Jonah” is a typological movement rather than a specific event. Several commentators believe, in fact, that the sign is not as we have suggested—namely the whole of Jonah’s life distinguished by the three coordinates of death, Sheol, resurrection—but is in fact Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh specifically. Just as Jonah came preaching judgment and repentance (however vaguely) so too has the Son of Man come and is now preaching the same things. Bultmann, H.B Green, Krister Stendhal, and J.P. Meier are all to some extent of this opinion.14 Their general argument stems from Mt. 12:41 in which Nineveh’s repentance is alluded to specifically via Jonah’s preaching. Bultmann also specifically makes the argument that this would help account for Mark’s version (8:12) where no sign at all will be given,15 as the original and Matthew’s “addition” as a sort of creative exegesis which gives justification for the triduum tradition.

Yet Bultmann’s arguments specifically do not seem very compelling unless one accepts the whole of his system of demythologization. His argument for the creative addition of a physical sign (death and resurrection) by Matthew (one that is thus not authentic) fits his general distaste for the significance of particular historical events as opposed to the existential proclamation of the Word. The isolation of Jonah’s preaching from the context of the “three days and three nights” by these commentators seems not only reductionist, but causes us to miss key thematic elements in Jonah (and hence in Matthew) as well. Eugene H. Merril has argued persuasively that while certainly preaching is included within the sign, the “sign of Jonah,” itself is Jonah’s travels in, and being regurgitated by, the fish.16 Indeed, argues Merril, that this in particular would be the sign God chose to display to Nineveh is given increased significance when understood against the background of Nineveh itself. The details are quite interesting and so it behooves us to quote him at some length:

Nineveh was one of the most ancient of the Assyrian cities, with traceable roots going back to the Uruk period (ca. 4300-3100 B.C.). Its name from the earliest times was composed of the composite Sumerian logogram NINUA (=NINA), the interior sign of which is…in Akkadian, nünu, “fish.”…A town of identical name (Nina) near Lagash worshipped the fish-goddess Nanshe, so it is suggested that she was also the chief deity of early Nineveh. The logogram NINUA can also be read NANSÊ, an obvious support for this connection. The name of Nineveh, “Fishtown,” is highly intriguing then in considering the meaning of Jonah as a sign to Nineveh….Berossus has preserved an Assyrian tradition to the effect that Assyria’s arts and sciences were brought from the Persian Gulf by a half-fish, half-man deity, called in the Greek, Oannes. A representation of this God may be detected on bas-reliefs from Kouyunjok … Place names are commonly aetiological in nature, so the myth describing the founding of Nineveh by a fish-god is incidentally confirmed by the name [Fishtown] itself.17

He continues by noting that the relevance of this myth in connection with the story of Jonah is significant as it points toward the indication that the “sign of Jonah” as Jonah being swallowed and spat out by a fish, would have had high contextual relevance given the “religious imagination,” of the long-standing heritage of the Ninevites. As part of his argument Meril points out as well that the Old Testament theme of YHWH proving himself to be more powerful than other deities—thereby coopting their traditional functions for Himself (e.g. His disputes with the Ba’als)— can now be seen as a theme in Jonah as well. When viewed against this historical background the sign if taken as Jonah and the Fish, is quite explicitly a declaration that YHWH is in fact the true-God, dominant over NANSE as He commands her minions, and indeed He even turns the “fish-man” who was the supposed progenitor-deity of Nineveh into His messenger in the person of Jonah. Against this background, says Meril, that the Ninevites would have recognized Jonah’s peculiar arrival as of immense religious significance would explain their near-immediate repentance at Jonah’s somewhat lackluster prophetic message.

Regardless of the validity (however interesting) of this historical background, that Jonah and the Fish were together taken as the sign, at least in Jewish interpretation, and not just Jonah’s preaching alone, is confirmed by the judgment of Michael Licona18 and H.F. Bayer19 in their respective analyses on the resurrection. They both note that several Jewish texts (3 Macc. 6:8; Pirque R. El. 1, 10; and Ta’an 2:(1)4.; Josephus, Antiquities 9.10.2 sec.208-214) have the tendency to identify Jonah’s miraculous journey and resuscitation with the sign. In fact, highly relevant for our discussion Pirque R. Elohim uses σημειον for the miraculous resuscitation. Moreover while undoubtedly the preaching is an important element, it seems quite reductive to focus solely on the preaching when Matthew’s Christ indeed seems to have the “three days and three nights” of the Noah story clearly in view. This form/content distinction, or sign-act/proclamation distinction appears wholly unnecessary to explain the differences amongst the Synoptics, moreover. The absolute refusal of a sign in Mark comes just before Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah, and seems to serve to emphasize the faithlessness of the Pharisees to an even further degree. And in fact the absence in Luke is itself an absence still pregnant with meaning, as Luke’s Jesus says “Jonah [i.e. the man himself] was a sign” for the Ninevites (Lk. 11:30), which would fit seamlessly into our thesis.20

Feasibly the “three days” occurs in Matthew, but is absent in Luke and Mark, because Matthew is particularly interested in Christ fulfilling and in many cases “being greater” than Old Testament figures and events.21 This fits as well with the “upward” trend in Matthew’s narrative to this point as Bruner notes: “the stories go higher and higher: from visible institutions [Sabbath controversy] to invisible powers [accusing Christ of using Satan’s power] to God [sign of Jonah]”22 and eventually up into Christ’s “who do you say I am?” in Mt. 16. It thus seems Darrell Bock’s judgment (which parallels our thesis above) is correct when he notes “the sign [of Jonah] is a message that comes with verification,”23 and not the message alone. A more parsimonious argument for the differences therefore seems to be to assume that Matthew records the full event, or possibly merely elaborates on the cryptic idea in Luke that Jonah was the sign, which would argue for a prior origin for Matthew and Luke’s versions in Q independent of Mark.24

IV. Death (and Resurrection?)

So far the argument has vindicated our thesis that the “Sign of Jonah” is more of an encompassing narrative sequence than it is a specific discrete event “sliced” from the narrative. Above we saw that isolating Christ’s proclamation by itself does not seem viable, while at the same time Christ’s preaching does indeed seem to be an important part within the scope delimited by the “Sign of Jonah.” Again motivated by an attempt to explain the Synoptic discontinuity, especially Mark’s version where Jesus unilaterally denies a sign, Pierre Bonnard25 and David Hill,26 argue that the sign is Jesus’ death. Their argument is that this death would be a sort of “signless sign,” i.e. one that would be manifest only to the eyes of faith, but to the eyes of the world it would appear without this meaning and indeed as Christ’s failure. Thus the “signless sign” makes the (in their opinion) expanded versions of Luke and Matthew essentially harmless typological interpretation consonant with what they consider to be the original account in Mark, since no “publically visible” sign was given. The event of death later could be attributed prophetic meaning after Christ was raised when impetus to search for Old Testament parallels would have been high. Since we have already argued above that it appears more parsimonious to posit either Matthew’s recording of the full event, or merely elaborating on the idea of Jonah as sign present already in Q and Luke, a basic reason for the necessity of these gymnastics seems lost.

Their argument for this position continue, however, from the basis that the “three days and three nights” parallels are not actually chronologically comparable with one another, thus casting doubt on the truth that this would have been a prediction of Jesus due to its inaccuracy. Jesus was, they claim, at best dead for two days and two nights. Hence the analogy is fundamentally broken and is actually just Matthew’s mathematically unsuccessful attempt to draw out the details of the parallel.27 Yet this argument is quite weak and rests on the basis of an anachronistic and indeed non-Jewish standard for time keeping.28 Bock apparently thinks so little of these arguments he spends a mere one sentence in a footnote dismissing alternatives by noting “it is a Semitic custom to count such days inclusively, which means any part of a day involves counts as the whole day.”29 Bruner likewise endorses this time-synecdoche theory, and notes rather wryly that those who seek perfect symmetry between the three days and three nights are ironically “too close for comfort to the demand for a sign itself.”30 Even apart from the Jewish metonymic use of parts of days for the whole day (and parts of night for the whole night), Licona analyzes every instance and variation of “after three days,” or “after three days and three nights,” or “on the third day,” or “in three days” in the New Testament in regards to the resurrection, and notes that taken strictly literally they contradict each other. He concludes, “this seems to suggest that the three day motif…was a figure of speech meaning a short period of time.”31 Thus the specific complaint non-identity between the days is a non-sequitur.

V. Elements of Grave and Abyss

From these arguments it seems plausible to accept that the “sign of Jonah,” is in fact the entire dramatic sequence of his being thrown overboard, in a fish for three days and three nights, and spat out again on land. We have demonstrated that arguments for any piece of this sequence is reductive and is often supported by faulty arguments. In addition to those who think the sign is merely Jonah’s preaching, or merely Jonah’s death, some scholars like N.T. Wright and Michael Licona believe the “sign of Jonah” refers primarily to resurrection.32 Nonetheless their emphasis is not an exclusive one (indeed resurrection presupposes death), and the way this affects their exegesis to make it different from those like I. Howard Marshall, Gundry, and Bruner who argue for the full dramatic context, is negligible.33 It will thus be assumed here that both Wright and Licona themselves can serve as witnesses, and not opponents, to our general thesis that the entire dramatic sequence of Jonah and the fish constitute the “sign of Jonah.”

Since the general plausibility of our thesis has been established, let us look with more precision at what themes emerge from this sign. It is interesting to note that prior to this entire discussion of the sign of Jonah, Matthew has already made an allusion to Jesus in terms of the Jonah story in Mt. 8:23-27 where Jesus calms the storm.34 William Lane has argued that the similarities are merely coincidental, and are “dictated by the circumstances of describing a severe storm,” and its affect on the crew.35 Certainly while some of the descriptions are part of the exigencies of describing similar scenes, the parallels are of such a nature as to grab one’s attention. Indeed some agreeing parallels, such as both journeys across the water going from Jewish to Gentile territory, are difficult to dismiss as circumstantial. As in Jonah (1:5), while on a boat a great storm begins to rage, and Jesus, like Jonah, is asleep below deck (8:24). Like the crew aboard Jonah’s boat, Jesus’ disciples become incredibly distressed and wake Jesus (“Lord save us, we are perishing!”) just as the captain wakes Jonah, “so God will save us and we will not perish.” Jonah tells the men to toss him into the sea because God is angry with him. They reluctantly do this and “the waves stood from their raging” (Jon. 1:15). Here there is an interesting difference-within-similarity. Jesus, obviously, does not jump overboard but merely commands the storm to be quiet. When in Jonah the storm stills, the (Gentile!) crew praise God; when the storm is stilled in Matthew the disciples ask the very loaded question, “what sort of man is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?” (Mt. 8:27). As mentioned above this is part of the Matthean “elevating” narrative which leads to Peter’s confession in ch.16. The response to the disciples question then, is that this is “the Son of God.”

The relevance of this story comes to the fore when we analyze the “sign of Jonah.” As the story goes, Jonah is tossed overboard to still the storm on behalf of the crew, to appease God’s anger. The immediate parallel that comes to mind is obviously Christ’s death for our sins. Yet this similarity itself has a unique wrinkle. In speaking of the “sign of Jonah,” Christ refers to himself as ο υιος του
ανθρωπου. It is in fact “the Son of Man” that will be in the “heart of the earth” for three days and three nights. It would be impossible to go over the nuances of this term “Son of Man,”36 for our purposes we can allude to the fact that this apocalyptic figure (e.g. in Daniel 7) became associated as the agent of the coming judgment (e.g. Mat. 19:28; c.f. Luke 12:8). The uniqueness of this is that if Jonah was the anti-type of “sacrificial death” (to a certain degree) Jesus, as the Son of Man now typified through this sign of Jonah, something along the lines of Barth’s “the Judge who is Judged,” on behalf of others appears. In the Matthew 8:27 parallel, Jesus has already established that He holds the authority that God did in Jonah to still the storm. He does what God does. Yet now also, in the very specific sense of dying to save others (ignoring Jonah’s petulant attitude and the fact he caused the mess in the first place) Jesus also is now seen to do what Jonah does. And he does this specifically by combining the sign of Jonah with the figure of the Son of Man. The Judge is taking judgment upon himself. Lessing notices this theme within the original context of Jonah itself. Commenting on the Hebrew he writes: “If the phrase…’but YHWH provided’ [a great fish] indicates that Jonah is receiving salvation from God, then what the great fish does with Jonah indicates that the prophet is also paradoxically placed under judgment by YHWH’s judgment. The Hebrew term ‘to swallow’ is never used in a positive context in the Old Testament…always a destructive one.”37 This is the first movement of the dramatic context of the sign of Jonah, ripe with the paradox of judgment and salvation, and indeed sacrificial death.

The second movement, obviously still being along the same trajectory as the first, is the Son of Man being “in the heart of the earth,” for three days and three nights. The phrase καρδια της γης does not merely mean “in his tomb,” or simply “dead.” Much more specifically Gundry notes that: “[heart of the earth] means the realm of the dead (c.f. Sir. 51:5; Eph. 4:9),”38 i.e. Sheol. (c.f. the LXX of Jonah 2:3: βαθη καρδιας θαλασσης.) Here the parallel seems to be with Jonah’s phrase “the heart of the seas” in 2:4. Lessing notes that “the land” in Jonah 2:7 is also strictly equivalent to Sheol (LXX: κατεβην εις γην), thus giving “heart of the earth” a mixture of equivalent images. Richard Clifford records that these images in ancient Near-Eastern literature pair with the previous verb used of the fish, “to swallow.”

He writes that Mot, the lord of the underworld, is portrayed as a voracious monster into whose gullet one goes, only to descend further into the underworld.39 Hence both the sea and the fish in some sense represent Sheol. This parallelism of both the sea and the fish as Sheol is to be expected given the ancient Near-Eastern context of Jonah. “The people of Israel, in common with other peoples of the Ancient Near East, conceived the world as an island surrounded by the waters of chaos, the Great Deep. This chaos to Israel represented a force radically opposed to God’s creative power.”40 Just as Baal defeated Yam (the sea), likewise God is sometimes pictured as overcoming the Sea and the Sea Monster at creation (Ps. 74:12-17; 89:10-15). Both the sea and the sea-monster remained one of the most common literary expressions for chaos or the grave. This idea of chaos bled into the idea of Sheol, as often death was seen as a reversal of creation, when God’s breath is taken from our nostrils we turn back into unbound dust (Eccl. 12:7); or the flood of the world as God’s removal of the boundaries he used to hold the chaos waters in place (Gen. 6). Moreover darkness was synonymous with chaos, often in the form of crime or wicked, treacherous deeds (Prov. 2:13). Night was when chaos was at its height of power, when the lawless did as they pleased (Job 24:14; Jer. 49:9; Matt. 24:43; 1 Thess. 5:2). Hence when Christ died the world went dark (Mt. 27:45), chaos encroached the world, as Christ, the Limen between order and chaos in whom all things hang together (Col. 1:17), is dead. Tellingly as a parallel between Christ and Jonah and their mutual descent into the dark waters of Sheol, Luke saw a special significance of Jesus’ arrest at night (Luke 22:53), and one wonders if this is so because the restless plotting of the wicked, much like that conspiracy which moved against Christ, could be likened to the movement of the sea (Is. 57:20).

We must recall that it is precisely the Son of Man who will be in Sheol, that same Sheol which is located beyond God’s presence (Amos 9:2; Prov. 15:11; Ps. 139:8), an absolute and final end (Jer. 51:39; Job 14:12). A place of captivity, with gates (Is. 38:10) and, in Jonah 2:7, bars. A place of darkness (Lam. 3:6) and silence (Ps. 31:17-18). It is these images that flesh out the concept of chaos seen above.

“Jonah’s use of Sheol in 2:3 thus indicates that he is under God’s judgment,” writes Lessing.41 Yet the Son of Man, the one under judgment bearing the “sign of Jonah,” as we have seen, is also the judge. We have also touched upon another double aspect: that the sign of Jonah is both a sign of judgment, yet also simultaneously a sign of God’s salvation. We saw this specifically in God sending the fish (salvation) and the fish swallowing Jonah (judgment). To extend this slightly further we must return to the concept of “three days and three nights.”

We saw above regarding “three days and three nights,” that 1.) Hebrews counted any part of the day as the whole, and 2.) that it is often idiomatic for “a short period of time.” Yet in specific reference to the underworld, there is a third idiomatic-type of reference: “in the ancient Near East there was a common understanding that in some contexts ‘three days and three nights’ could refer to the time it took to travel to what we call ‘hell.’”42 This was quite frequent, for example, in both Sumerian and Egyptian mythology. While again, this background is slightly tenuous, it does help make sense of Jonah’s somewhat strange psalm in chapter two. Why would Jonah be praising God inside of a fish? Writes Lessing: “If this interpretation is correct, the ‘three days and three nights’ is the time it takes the great fish to take Jonah back from Sheol and the brink of death (2:3, 7) to life and the worship of YHWH (2:8-10). This is not the time it took Jonah to sink to the depths of the nether region, as in the pagan myth of Inanna; rather, in this span, the great fish returns his passenger from Sheol to the dry land (2:11).”43 Even more, as the fish— the κητος–though not the Leviathan per se, was itself the general image along with the seas of both chaos and Sheol, here the image of the great fish saving Jonah from Sheol at God’s behest is an image of God using chaos against itself. Sheol has betrayed Sheol at the command of God. That is: he uses death to overcome death, YHWH “kills and makes alive; casts down to Sheol and brings back up.” (1 Sam. 2:6). Thus the Son of man being in the “heart of the earth” for three days and three nights is a sign of judgment, but also a movement toward resurrection. “The Sign of Jonah,” is itself a gospel proclamation.


We demonstrated in this essay that the best formal way to understand “the sign of Jonah,” is to take it as no one single thing, but the dramatic context surrounding Jonah being cast into the sea, being swallowed by a fish for three days and three nights, and finally being spat up on land. Materially, we saw that the parallel is referenced by Christ with the title “the Son of Man,” which further brings out the dialectic of judgment and salvation already contained in the Jonah story. Ultimately the sign of Jonah refers to Christ’s experience of death and descent into Sheol; but also and just as (if not more) importantly, the movement into life wrought by God. The sign of Jonah is now Christ crucified, raised and so justified by the Spirit of God (1 Tim. 3:16), who was appointed to be the Son of God in power via the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Just as Jonah’s cries in Sheol were heard by YHWH, a fortiori God did not forget His Son, the “one greater than Jonah.” We also saw that within the sign of Jonah lay a picture of God overcoming death by death’s own weapon and servant; overcoming chaos by chaos’ own agent. So too has the Son of Man, the judge, taken judgment upon Himself, and so uses death to overcome death in a sacrifice for us. As Lessing concludes, “in making reference to the sign of Jonah, Jesus is indicating to us that he is dying to live.” Which is to say, dying to live, for us.


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