Though verse and chapter divisions were not part of the original Hebrew manuscripts, their inclusion in our modern Bible has given rise to the question of where to place Jonah 1:17. Though many Bible translations and commentaries place 1:17 as an opening event to chapter 2, it seems best to keep it as a fitting conclusion to chapter 1. The choice of where to place verse 17, while seemingly insignificant, actually makes a difference on how one reads the story.[ref]Estelle, 64.[/ref] If it begins chapter 2, it simply sets the stage for the prayer of Jonah. Verse 17 is read this way: God delivered Jonah with a great fish, and now Jonah is going to thank God for it. But if the verse is the conclusion to the previous events, then the verse is read this way: Jonah asked to be thrown overboard and the reluctant sailors complied, but despite Jonah’s wishes, this was not the end of Jonah for God miraculously sent a great fish to keep Jonah from drowning. On the other hand, Stuart makes a good point that if the book of Jonah is a series of scenes, 1:17 fits best with chapter 2 since the entire scene takes place inside the great fish.[ref]Sasson, 148-149; Stuart, 469.[/ref] Maybe it is best to see 1:17 as a “hinge” verse which transports the reader from the recently-calmed surface of the sea to the spiritual storm deep under the surface which is now raging in the heart and mind of a prophet and the belly of a fish.
Jonah 1:17. After Jonah is cast into the sea, Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. If the sailors saw the fish, they likely would have viewed it as a personification of the sea god, Yamm.[ref]Walton, 109.[/ref] And though the terminology is different than the instructions of God to Jonah in 1:1-2, it seems that there may be a contrast between Jonah’s rebellion and how the fish obeys God (cf. also 2:11).
Many Bible stories portray this great fish as a whale, but it was most likely not. Some think the fish was a giant shark, and while there are sharks big enough to swallow a man whole, it is unlikely that such a man would survive being swallowed by a shark because of the jagged teeth. One of the biggest fish ever caught was 38 feet long, 18 feet around, weighing an estimated 26,000 pounds. Its mouth opened about five feet wide and two feet high, plenty big enough to swallow a man. Numerous studies have been done to try to figure out what sort of fish this was, and how it swallowed Jonah.
But none of this really matters for the story. The fact of Jonah being swallowed is another miraculous event, which need not have a scientific explanation or historical evidence. God had something He wanted Jonah to do, and He rescued Jonah from drowning in the sea by sending a fish to swallow him. The question, however, is how to view the fish. Is God delivering Jonah, or disciplining him? Is God preparing Jonah for the next step, or punishing Jonah for his disobedience? The text does not give clear indications one way or the other, and is likely an combination of both. God’s discipline sometimes comes through deliverance.
And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. There are numerous questions and theories around the significance of Jonah spending three days and three nights in the great fish, but we will not go into them here.[ref]For many of these theories, see Sasson, 152-154.[/ref] From a narrative perspective, being in the belly of the fish was equivalent to being in the netherworld, the realm of death. Being three days and three night in the abode of death “indicates that Jonah is at the threshold of death.”[ref]Walton, 109.[/ref] In the context of Jonah’s psalm in chapter 2, Jonah seems to have interpreted his three days in the fish as a journey to and from sheol.[ref]Allen, 213.[/ref]
Many believe Jonah’s three-day ordeal in the belly of the fish is a prophecy about the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Jesus Himself seems to refer to this verse in such a way (Matt 12:40), this verse was not originally read as a prophecy about the future Messiah (See the Appendix for more). The point for now is that Jonah did not die by drowning, and he did not die in the belly of the fish. Instead, the verse shows that God is preserving Jonah’s life despite Jonah’s frequent attempts to end it. Of course, from within the belly of the fish, Jonah does not yet know that he will survive his ordeal, and his uncertainty about his future helps explain some of what he prays to God in chapter 2.
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