This essay on Jonah 2:1-9, will discuss the passage’s poetic nature, its authenticity and intertextuality, the theological implications, as well as an analysis of its overall meaning. The book of Jonah was written around 784-772BC, by the prophet Jonah who was an inhabitant of the town of Gath-Hepher (4Kg 14:25) in Ancient Israel. The prophet’s experience occurred during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (790-750BC). Jonah 2:1-9 offers the most extravagant use of ‘water and pit’ imagery in biblical poetry and is intertextually linked with the Psalms.
The chosen passage forms a classic example of a song of thanksgiving, in which the worshiper recounts great distress, followed by his cry to God for help, and concludes with God’s response and intervention. The poem draws on semitic mythological tradition in picturing death as an entrance into the underworld, and a submersion into the cosmic and dark waters. This is particularly appropriate to Jonah’s situation, as he is ‘cast..into the deep’(2:3, RSV), ‘cast out’(2:4) from divine presence, ‘down to the land whose bars closed upon’ him (2:6). This point is central to the book of Jonah, as he also begins his account by descending into Joppa (1:3) after disobeying the Lords command. This is drastically reversed, as he cries to God for help from the pit of distress and despair, which he freely chose to be in, emphasising the gratuitousness of Yahweh’s great mercy and saving intervention. Through his cry of repentance, Jonah experiences God’s compassion and forgiveness. There is an understandable debate among scholars with regard to the authenticity and function of Jonah’s poem, or ‘song of thanksgiving.’ It is embedded in the middle of a prose narrative, and its pious theme seems to contradict Jonah’s quarrelsome behaviour throughout the surrounding text. Until recently, the majority of scholars viewed the poem as inappropriate in its context - with ‘a pastiche of quotations from the psalter badly fitted into its present context.’ Today however, the common view is that the poem is in fact authentic and original, with the clear echo of the book of Psalms being deliberate, and the incongruity disappearing as the sense of piety is perceived ironically. The view of the text being authentic seems more realistic, as it is important to remember that God, throughout the holy scriptures, is a merciful and compassionate deity Who intervenes in order to save and help His people (Deut 4:31). Though His servants may continue to transgress and disobey His commandments, the Lord gives His people opportunities of repentance and confession, in order to ‘create a clean heart,…a new and right spirit’ (Psalm 51) restoring their relationship with Yahweh. Lacocque affirms this understanding of the passage, describing Jonah’s experience as a journey ‘from nothingness into being.’ Through repentance, pain and struggle comes forgiveness, joy and resurrection - as is emphasised within the Orthodox Christian tradition.
In the Orthodox Church’s liturgical tradition, the book of Jonah is read on Holy Saturday, connecting the prophet’s ‘three days and three nights’ (1:17) in the ‘belly of the fish’ (2:1) with Christ’s three-day sojourn in sheol (hades). ‘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 12:40). Jonah’s deliverance from the fish (2:9) resembles the deliverance from death and spiritual rebirth in the waters of baptism. This rebirth and renewal results in the repentance and salvation of the Ninevites, just as Christ’s Resurrection from the dead makes possible our own salvation and spiritual renewal. Contrary to popular interpretation, often perceiving the fish as a means of punishment, the great fish acts as God’s agent in order to save Jonah, snatching him from ‘the belly of sheol’(2:2). At the same time, the metaphor ‘belly of Sheol’ is unique to Jonah, conveying darkness and despair. The poet perhaps found it appropriate to the passages wider context, connecting the ‘belly of the fish’ with the ‘inner part of the ship’ (1:5). Sheol permits no communication with the other realms of Heaven and earth, and so Jonah is deeply entombed. He pleads, humbles himself, and is heard by God. The switch to the second person (in Hebrew) instantly directs the reader to Heaven’s response upon appeal.
The Septuagint refers to Jonah being lodged into a sea-monster (το κῆτος) which is the origin of the common association of Jonah and the whale. Animals are commonly used in the Old Testament scriptures, as devices by which to reveal the biblical theme, or main character. However, by contrast, in this passage of Jonah the fish is clearly linked with the protagonist. In other words other passages use animals simply as a means of portraying a theme, or based loosely on the central character. In this case, the fish plays a more significant role, and is inextricably linked to Jonah himself. Understandably, there are questions surrounding the literal accuracy of Jonah’s experience with this great sea creature. Saint Jerome highlights similar passages which seem unrealistic and unbelievable ( such as Dan 3:94-27, Ex 14:22, Dan 6:23 ) and emphasises that the importance does not lie in the literal possibility of such stories, but in the honest and fruitful deeds and prayers within the passages - such as Jonah’s fervent prayers to the Lord. For early Christian exegetes like St Jerome, the central theme of this passage is the forgiving God coming to Jonah’s aid, answering his prayer. The chosen text also reminds the reader of the negative and powerful impact of sin. William Caldwell writes that this passage’s ‘view of sin as dreadful in God’s sight, dreadful in its consequences, dreadful in its subtle working, even within God’s servant is worthy of most serious consideration.’ The passage therefore asserts the importance of turning away from sin and alienation from God and His will, and the turning back to the Lord with ‘the voice of thanksgiving’ (2:9) as deliverance only ‘belongs to the Lord’(2:9). The goal of every human being is salvation, and this passage certainly stresses the fact that Yahweh alone can grant us this. Although Jonah flees from God’s presence (1:3), he confesses his mistake, realising that God is indeed the source of life and salvation to which he had previously ignored. The Lord Who is our ‘rock, fortress, salvation’ (Psalm 18:2) and stronghold awaits Jonah in order to deliver him from the pit of selflessness and claustrophobic discomfort (2:5-6).
Most verses of the chosen passage (2:1-9) have an identical, or at least closely parallel counterpart in the Psalms. Jonah 2.3 corresponds with Ps 22:3, 31:23, 118:5 and 130:1; 2:4 with Ps 42:8, 88:8 and 18; 2:5 with Ps 31:23; 2:6 with Ps 113:3 and 69:2; 2:7 with Ps 30:10; 2:8 with Ps 42:7 and 142:4, and finally 2:9 with Ps 31:7. Furthermore, Jonah’s poem appears to have similarities with Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam 2:1-10). This is perhaps the closest parallel to this passage, as a plot break occurs in both poems - with the link between prose and poem being thematically problematic in both texts.
This essay has broadly explored the passage’s poetry, authenticity and intertextuality, and its theological implications. In addition, its overall meaning has been discussed, portraying Yahweh’s merciful and compassionate nature.
Bolin T, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness (Sheffield: SAP, 1997)
Brenner A, ’Jonah’s Poem out of and within its Context.’ In Among the Prophets (Sheffield: SAP, 1993) 183.
Ceresko A, ‘Jonah and the Great Fish.’ In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Bloomsbury, 1995) 583.
Caldwell W, ‘The Theology of the Book of Jonah’ in The Biblical World Vol. 19, No. 5 (May, 1902), 378-383
‘Jonah’ in The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008) 1022.
Ancient Bible Commentaries in English: Commentary on Jonah by St Jerome (Kentucky, 2014)