An allegory may not dictate to the foundation, on the contrary, its purpose is to build on it.
Introduction: The Jonah Debate
First, let’s acknowledge that there are at least three main views regarding the interpretation of Jonah. There are those who consider the book of Jonah—along with many other Biblical accounts—to be a myth, purely allegorical, entirely unhistorical. In opposition to this is the historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary, making theirs an untenable position.
The remaining two opposing views are argued by those who accept the literal historical nature of the book of Jonah: one view sees the p’shat (literal) reading of Jonah 2 as indicating Jonah’s death, while the opposing view says that Jonah 2 is simply written in poetic language which is intended to give emotion to a harrowing near death experience.
Those who take the poetic-interpretive view of Jonah 2 have much in common with those who treat the entire book as a non-historical myth. I consider it a tragic irony, that some of those who accept the historical legitimacy of the Jonah account, claim that an entire chapter of that literal, historical account can only be interpreted metaphorically or allegorically. It’s like saying:
“This is a video taken two years ago, of my child playing with his pet puppy. In part of the video my son describes the fun he had playing with Bruno, however you can plainly see that the puppy isn’t present during this explanation, therefore the puppy doesn’t actually exist, he’s simply a metaphorical puppy at this point.”
Presumption is self-deception. We might believe that a glass filled with vodka is a glass of water, and for all intents and purposes it may well appear that way. However, when we taste it, our belief is undone.
It’s important to understand the four methods of Hebraic interpretation when approaching a text like Jonah 2. The P’shat (Literal, contextual, historical), Remez (hint or allegory), D’rash (comparison, illumination) and the Sod (mystery) are all valid tools for interpreting Jonah 2, however, the latter three must not contradict the P’shat (Literal, contextual, historical) interpretation. If our Remez, D’rash or Sod contradict the P’shat we know we are in error.
Those who claim Jonah was alive in the fish, site Hebrew poetry in general, as proof that the metaphors used in Jonah’s prayer can represent emotional turmoil and near death experience. They refer to the Psalms and the use of Sheol as a metaphor. However they don’t pay close attention to the circumstantial differences between the Psalmists’ and Jonah. Nor are they able to explain the hundreds of literal uses of Sheol and the grave throughout Scripture, which mirror Jonah’s us of the same terminology. The Psalmists speak about Sheol (Holding place for the deceased), but Jonah speaks from Sheol. The Hebrew poets speak from life about Sheol, but Jonah speaks from Sheol about death and resurrection.
Unlike many of the poetic verses of the Psalms, Jonah’s song is not an expression of post event emotion alone, as much as it is an accurate account of the event itself. Unlike many of the Psalms, Jonah’s prayer is part of the chronology of events as recorded after the fact within the historical narrative itself. Whereas the Psalms are a collection of poetic responses brought together outside of the context of the events that they recall. There are numerous other examples in Scripture of Hebrew poetry depicting literal historic events within the chronology of the narrative, some of these are: Exodus 15; Judges 5; 2 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 3:17-39.
It’s important to note that Jonah’s prayer is in the past tense. Hence, Jonah is not recording it while alive in the fish, rather he is telling the events of his death experience to his scribe: the poetry records actual events after the fact. In fact the vast majority of the Psalms and poetic writings speak of Sheol in the future tense and when they do speak of Sheol in the past tense it is clearly identified as a construct rather than an experience.
David says, “I made my bed in Sheol” (Psalm 139), note that he made his bed, and yet he is not saying he died but that he felt as though he had lead himself to a place of emotional death: on the other hand, Jonah, “cried out from Sheol,” This makes Sheol the location (literal) that births Jonah’s cry, as opposed to David’s cry which is expressed from David’s heart, a representation of Sheol (a metaphorical location). This is the key difference between Hebrew poetry as literal record and Hebrew poetry as emotional expression. Jonah’s poetic prayer is the unity of these things, but the metaphor is directed by the literal event and not the other way around.
Those who oppose the idea of Jonah being dead inside the fish suggest that a dead man can’t pray. The idea that a dead soul can’t converse (be in prayer conversation) with G-d is ridiculous (I am not suggesting that dead souls can converse with living human beings). Those who make this claim also tend to believe that the mind is the seat of consciousness (A Greek concept). From a Hebraic perspective the mind is not understood to be the seat of consciousness, the lev (core being, heart—not emotion—centre) of our being where all parts converge is the seat of consciousness. Yeshua said to the thief on the cross, today you will be with me in the bosom of Avraham (Paradise/A section of Sheol). If a man can be with Messiah instantaneously following death then He remains in relationship with and therefore may converse with G-d. All things exist and have their being in G-d (Colossians 1:15-17), therefore we are never truly separated from G-d. We see in the mashal/parable of the rich man (Luke 16:22-24) that Abraham converses with the rich man concerning Lazarus the beggar, all of which takes place after death and in Sheol. We should note that this is the only mashal/parable Yeshua tells where He uses proper nouns to name the characters: this is because it is more than a teaching story, it’s a literal account of the spiritual realm.
22 “Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and his soul went to the place of the dead (Sheol).There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side.24 The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’” –Luke 16:22-24
To say that Jonah couldn’t have prayed if he were dead in the fish is utter nonsense.
Perhaps one of the most convincing proofs of Jonah’s death and resurrection are the words of Yeshua Himself:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” –Mattitiyahu/Matthew 12:40-41
“This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.”--Luke 11:29-30
The sign Yeshua (Jesus) is speaking of is His resurrection. A person who has never been dead can never be resurrected. As we examine the words of Jonah’s prayer we will see that he does indeed use metaphor, he uses it to describe his physical death and resurrection.
Opponents of the interpretation that Jonah was dead inside the fish, say, “But a sign or a parable doesn’t need to be true in every aspect, it only needs to convey the key concepts and represent the key components of the literal reality it represents.” I agree, however, this is a poor argument for rejecting the literal nature of the sign/mashal that Yeshua spoke of regarding Jonah. Let’s think it through, Yeshua was specifically referring to the sign as being representative of His death and resurrection, why then would He use a symbol/mashal that didn’t include death and resurrection? He wouldn’t. The Hebrew understanding of His day was that the book of Jonah was an historical account and that the prophet Jonah was raised from the dead in a miraculous event mirroring the ministry of Elijah—another prophet who Yeshua identified with.
Having said all this, there will be those who are unconvinced. I don’t intend to follow what I believe is a flawed and unsubstantiated interpretation of these verses, based on the foolish majority opinion that Jonah was alive inside the fish. I believe, based on both the P’shat, literal interpretation and the proof texts both within and without, and by the revelation of the Ruach Ha-Kodesh, that any poetic or allegorical interpretation that refuses to acknowledge the literal significance of Jonah’s death and resurrection is an interpretation of grave error. Therefore the following examination will presume only one valid P’shat and the subsequent Remez, D’rash and Sod which are born of it. An allegory may not dictate to the foundation, on the contrary, its purpose is to build on it.
THE TEXT: Jonah 2 & 3
2:1 Jonah (Dove) prayed to HaShem (YHVH) his Elohim (G-d) from the stomach (May’eh) of the fish: 2 And said, “I called out to HaShem in my adversity, and He answered me.
From the belly (beten/womb) of Sheol (Holding place of the dead: which is divided into the place of torment and the bosom of Avraham) I cried out for freedom; You heard my voice.
P’shat (literal): Notice that the writer differentiates between the stomach (May’eh) of the fish and the belly (beten/womb) of Sheol. The stomach (May’eh) is the location of Jonah’s drowned body but the belly (beten/womb) of Sheol is the location of his soul. This is why the Hebrew beten is used, because the womb is a metaphor for the place beneath the earth, the place of the dead. Jonah cries out from both locations, therefore he is not only inside the fish, he is also inside Sheol.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel (Jonah) has suffered great loss, even death (Shoah/Holocaust—literal death), and she, like Jonah has cried out. HaShem has answered her, The G-d of Israel has heard her cry for freedom.
D’rash (comparison): Notice the phrases, “I called out, I cried out,” and their counter points, “He answered me, You heard my voice.” What a wonderful hope filled dialogue. In our personal afflictions we cry out to a faithful G-d Who is willing and able to respond to our cries.
Sod (Mystery): Yeshua died literally just as Jonah did, He cried out from Sheol for the sake of the lost ones of Israel and the nations and He returned to life victorious, having made a way for the resurrection unto life of every human being who would receive the salvation He offers, which is of the Father G-d.
3 You cast me into the depths (metaphor describing death), into the heart of the roaring ocean (metaphor describing death), and the current encircled me (a metaphor for the bonds of death).
All Your breakers and Your waves covered over me. (Metaphor for sacrificial death and kipurot/covering)”
P’shat (literal): One of the first things we should notice is that while the Psalmists may use one or two metaphorical references to describe death from a position of life, Jonah, to the contrary, uses multiple, specific and eternal references to describe death from within the arms of death (Sheol). When He says, “encircled me” he invokes the circle of eternity, when he says, “depths, heart of, covered over me” he speaks of what he perceives of as the finality of death. If he were not recounting a literal experience, why would he describe it with such detail?
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Throughout her persecuted history Israel has experienced death in all its forms and yet, we cry out to HaShem and He answers. The day of our redemption is nearer than it was at first.
D’rash (comparison): Notice that the text states, “You cast me into the depths… Your waves covered over me”. It is G-d Who possesses our destiny, He alone Who counsels the path of His children. We must be careful not to give glory to the adversary in our suffering. We are secure in life and in death, and further still, in life after death.
Sod (Mystery): The progression of these verses shows us a redemptive allegory. We are cast into the depths as a result of our sin, however, the text says, “Your waves covered over me”. The Hebrew Kippur (cover) denotes sacrificial covering. Without covering there is no hope of salvation. This links the text to Yeshua’s covering sacrificial death. The sign of Jonah.
4 But I said: “I have been cast out of Your sight (a euphemism for death), yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.
P’shat (literal): Jonah’s consciousness says, “I said, ‘I’ve been cast out of your sight”. This is his way of describing death from the location of Sheol, as stated in the previous verses. This is overcome by the words, “yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.” This is the first of two references to the Temple that act as the counterpoints to the two references allocated to his location in death. The first reference to the Temple, like the first reference to Jonah crying out from the belly of the fish, is a physical reference. Meaning that he is speaking of physical death and a physical resurrection that will allow him to look upon the physical Temple of G-d in Jerusalem.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel will rebuild the physical Temple. This happened following Israel’s Exile to Babylon and will happen again according to the Revelation of John.
D’rash (comparison): Our physical lives and our physical suffering and healing are important to G-d. He does not divide His love for us between the physical and the spiritual (that is a gnostic heresy). He cares for both our spiritual and physical wellbeing. His love for us is holistic.
Sod (Mystery): Our being cast out of G-d’s sight is a delusion we live under when we fail to realize that even the darkness is as light to Him. We are never out of His sight.
5 The waters engulfed even my soul (nephesh); the abyss closed around me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 I sank below the mountains; the earth with its prison bars closed behind me perpetually (l’olam va’id)!
P’shat (literal): Just in case we don’t already have the point firmly established in our minds and hearts, Jonah emphasizes the reality of the physical death he has experienced. A single metaphor or even two is standard practice in Hebrew poetry, but we have now seen more than seven metaphors for physical death and the holding place of the spirit. There is therefore no doubt that the writer is making sure that the reader knows that he is referring to physical and not metaphorical death. We use a metaphor to describe something beyond literal understanding, this is why Jonah uses multiple metaphors to describe the holding place of the dead: a place beyond death that has no physical reference point.
Note that the waters engulf his nephesh (soul). This is a powerful metaphor that solidifies the fact of literal death by speaking of the ceasing of the core being. “The abyss closed around me” is understood by the Hebrew reader to refer to the sealing of death following the three day transition that is said to allow the spirit to stay near the body as it transitions to the holding place. While this may be a superstitious concept, it is important, because it has been widely accepted in Jewish culture from ancient times.
The dying soul is represented, followed by the extinguished body and then the deceased mind, seen in the wrapping of the head in seaweed. Finally the entire being, heart, soul and mind are locked in the prison of Sheol for perpetuity. The reason an eternal reference is used is to show that Jonah understood his physical death to be final during his time in Sheol. This is yet another affirmation of the fact that Jonah died literally.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel has experienced the death of soul, action, mind and nation but has always been allowed a remnant from which her roots are able to birth hope and resurrection in G-d.
D’rash (comparison): When we critique our journey toward death we are able to accept its physical finality in exchange for a future renewed physical, spiritual eternity. What was seen dissolves into what is unseen. What was temporary gives way to what is eternal.
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.” –2 Corinthians 4:18
Sod (Mystery): Eternity exists outside of time and space. Therefore in Messiah, Who is eternal, we are already participating in eternity. Even in Sheol, in Avraham’s bosom, we are in Messiah until the end of days. Those of us who remain at His coming will be changed.
But You resurrected me from the shachat (grave), HaShem (YHVH) my Elohim (G-d)!
7 When my soul was shrouded within me, I remembered HaShem (YHVH).
My prayer came in to You, in to Your holy temple.
8 Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love,
9 but as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfil what I have vowed.
Salvation (Yeshua) is from HaShem (YHVH)!
10 Then HaShem (YHVH) spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
P’shat (literal): Death has been clearly defined by the prophet, he now turns to victory. How does one who sees this text as a metaphor for suffering alone and not a description of literal death, celebrate the joy of Jonah’s resurrection and all that it entails both symbolically and prophetically?
Messiah did not chose Jonah’s journey as a metaphorical sign alone, He knew the reality of Jonah’s literal experience from outside of time and space, He (the Word) had come to Jonah and journeyed with him through his physical death. He knew full well the impact that this sign would have upon His hearers.
“You resurrected me from the shachat (grave).” It is important that Jonah uses the Hebrew shachat (a pit (especially as a trap); figuratively destruction: - corruption, destruction, ditch, grave, pit.) This word is rarely used as a metaphor, it is a term that refers to physical death.
“HaShem (YHVH) my Elohim (G-d)!” Is a well-known compounded use of G-d’s holy name alongside the term Elohim (G-d, gods, judges, angels etc.) It is understood by Judaism to represent G-d as the Merciful (YHVH) Judge (Elohim).
“My soul was shrouded within me, I remembered HaShem (YHVH).” This shows that Jonah’s consciousness remembered G-d even after the soul within him was deceased.
“My prayer came in to You, in to Your holy temple.” This is the second reference to the Temple, which corresponds to the second reference to death, being the reference to Sheol a spiritual location, the place of the dead. This is the counterpoint to Sheol and is therefore a reference to the heavenly Temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love.” Jonah maintains his dislike for idolatry. He rightly sees it as an empty, loveless practice of self-deception. Idolatry pretends to offer us the opportunity to become gods. However, in its pursuit we become faithless, forsaking faithful love and exchanging it for temporary delusion.
”But as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfil what I have vowed.
Salvation (Yeshua) is from HaShem (YHVH)! Then HaShem (YHVH) spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Jonah’s sacrifice is his willingness to go to Nineveh to preach to those who hate his people. This is why his sacrifice is a sacrifice of his tongue, “a voice of thanksgiving.” He will go, he is returning, repenting of his disobedience, even before his resurrection. Salvation (Yeshua) is of HaShem. All creation is subject to HaShem’s command, therefore the fish coughs up Jonah’s body onto dry land.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel will be resurrected from the grave, both physically and spiritually in the last days. She will come into her full role as a light to the nations. She will see both the rebuilding of the physical Temple and the coming eternal Temple of G-d, G-d Himself will be her Temple and the New Jerusalem her dwelling place.
D’rash (comparison): Every believer has the opportunity to return to G-d in every situation. If we are trapped in perpetual sin, He is able to free us from the death that imprisons us. He is able to command that death vomit us out. Better we should be vomited out of the mouth of death, than be lukewarm and vomited out of the mouth of life (Revelation 3:16).
Sod (Mystery): Sheol (Fish) must obey the instruction of G-d, hence, at the end of the age, it will give up its dead.
“If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with Him;
if we deny Him, He will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, He will remain faithful--
for He cannot deny Himself.” –2 Timothy 2:11-13
3:1 Then the D’var (Word) HaShem (YHVH) came to Jonah (Dove) a second time: 2 “Arise! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the D’var (Word) HaShem’s (YHVH).
P’shat (literal): The Word HaShem comes to Jonah a second time and instructs him to arise and go to Nineveh and, “preach the message I tell you”. Jonah may not want to see Israel’s enemies saved but he is instructed to say exactly what HaShem tells him to say. Jonah rises instantly and goes up to Nineveh.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Yeshua (The Word) has come to Israel once and will come to her again. She will rise and go out in the Word (Yeshua) HaShem (Emanuel—G-d with us).
D’rash (comparison): There are times when we might be tempted to withhold truth from those we deem unworthy of salvation. The Word instructs us to speak the message He has given and not to cloud it with our own misguided words.
Sod (Mystery): Surrounded by enemies that number in the billions, how can Israel rise? “It’s not by might nor by power but by My Spirit,” says HaShem (Zechariah 4:6).
Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, it took three days walk to cross it.4 Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed G-d. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least.
P’shat (literal): Jonah proclaims a message of destruction. Some say that this means he was still holding back the message of mercy, however we see that the previous verse indicates that he is to say what the Word instructs him to. He is acting in repentance and doing exactly what is asked of him by G-d. Jonah was less than half way across the city when the people began to repent. This shows that the G-d of Israel was known to them and that they feared His authority. The 40 day warning is reminiscent of Noah, Moses, Israel and Yeshua. The number 40 is a number of completion and renewal, an end and an opportunity for a new beginning. The proclaiming of a fast and the wearing of sackcloth shows a response of both regret and deep mourning, a true grief over the wickedness of sin.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel is journeying through time like Jonah through a city which is bound by sin. She brings a message of warning. The nations are faced with a choice between repentance and destruction.
D’rash (comparison): As believers we must say only what the Spirit instructs and allow Him to guide our speech. At times this may mean that our gospel states only the consequences of sin. It’s in the genuine response of repentant hearts that G-d reveals the salvation He is offering through His Son.
Sod (Mystery): In time and space, where is Israel (Jonah) in her journey through the nations (City of Nineveh)? Is she half way? Two thirds? Nearing the other side of the city?
6 When the Word (Ha-D’var) reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to G-d. Each must turn (shuvah) from his evil ways and from the violence his hands. 9 Who knows? G-d may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.
P’shat (literal): The warning of the L-rd, spoken by Jonah, reached the kings ears quickly. This shows the great awe and fear that had consumed the people of Nineveh. This message cut straight to the heart of the king and he commanded an uncompromising repentance for the entire city. He considers Nineveh’s chances as being 50 /50, he says, “G-d may turn and relent.” This is the juxtaposition to Nineveh’s turning in repentance. G-d may turn from destroying. G-d doesn’t change His mind because He knows the end from the beginning.
Remez (Hint, Allegory): The nations must repent in heart and action in order to receive G-d’s mercy. Without humility no one can come to G-d.
D’rash (comparison): Each of us have been given the opportunity to receive the Word. The way we respond affects our position before G-d.
Sod (Mystery): The text literally says, “the Word (Ha-D’var) came toward the king of Nineveh”. Ironically it is this literal reading that reveals the mystery of the text. That is, the Word Himself (Yeshua) came to the king of Nineveh. It was this powerful encounter with Yeshua that transformed the king’s heart. The result was an all-encompassing return to HaShem and righteous action.
10 Then G-d saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so G-d relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.
P’shat (literal): G-d sees all of the actions of humanity. The text is saying that G-d observed the genuine repentance of the people of Nineveh. The key is that they turned (shuvah), changed direction. They were walking toward death and through the message of destruction they turned toward life. The destruction that G-d had spoken through Jonah is seen as a threat, a possibility. He turned from sending destruction and relented. Something He had always intended to do. This is why Jonah didn’t want to go in the first place, he knew that HaShem was a G-d of chesed (mercy) just as His name suggests, HaShem Elohim (Merciful Judge).
Remez (Hint, Allegory): Israel itself is a warning to the nations: they will have the opportunity to repent and if they do, G-d will relent. Nineveh (at the time of Jonah) is an example to the nations.
D’rash (comparison): Be it miraculous signs or warnings of destruction, there will be nations who fail to follow the example of Nineveh. This is one of the reasons that Jonah’s book has no ending. The decisions of the nations and the role of Israel have yet to be fulfilled.
”Then Yeshua began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” –Mattitiyahu/Matthew 11:20-24
Sod (Mystery): G-d’s chesed (mercy) precedes His judgement and even His judgement gives birth to chesed (mercy). The love of G-d is the soil of His justice, His judgement is just.
”Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” –Mattitiyahu/Matthew 12:38-41
The Word (Yeshua) of HaShem brings both a warning of destruction and an offer of mercy.
© Alastair Brown 2015