What’s Down with Jonah? A Fishy Tale

If you have ever attended a Sunday School class delving into the cryptic pages of the Old Testament, then you have certainly heard of the story about Jonah. Primary teachers love this story, and schools of protestant children, darting to and fro in uniform waves of faithful learning, can tell you all about the prophet who was swallowed by a fish.

Jonah and Fish

Noah and the “Great Fish”

If you have never heard the story, it goes like this:

God tells a man named Jonah to call the city of Nineveh to repentance. They are sinning in Ninevah, you see, and if they do not change their ways the entire city will be destroyed. Jonah, a Hebrew, has no desire to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and sworn enemy to Israel. Such a mission seems like suicide. So Jonah says “no way dude.” Knowing Yahweh is not to be taken lightly, Jonah perceives that his refusal will not get him off the hook. So what does he do? He does the only thing a pragmatic Hebrew without a death-wish would do, he flees from God. Jonah travels to the city of Joppa and books passage on a ship heading for Tarshish. Tarshish is probably somewhere in present day Spain, and so quite literally Jonah books a trip to the other side of the world (in his day the East end of the Mediterranean Sea was the end of the world.)

Well, things do not go well for Jonah. A great storm comes up and nearly sinks the ship. The crew wants to know who it is that is cursed on board, for surely some sin has brought such a fierce and unexpected storm. Jonah admits he is running away from the Hebrew God, and after much deliberation Jonah is thrown overboard. At that moment two things happen: the storm dissipates, and a great fish swallows Jonah.

In the belly of the fish, Jonah descends to the bottom of the world where he repents (by singing a hymn) and is reborn as a prophet. Jonah is spit out near Nineveh and he calls the city to repentance. To his surprise, the city repents! This actually makes Jonah angry, for now he does not look like a true prophet who foretold the destruction of the city. This is the whole point of the story. God can transcend any “word” or “prophecy” by his divine will. God also seeks true and repentant followers, whether gentile or Jew.

Theological points aside, what are we to do with Jonah and the Great Fish? Generations of believers have believed this episode as literal history, forgetting that Jonah probably descends from an oral tradition. Oral minds fashion a different kind of history by creating narrative templates that are easily remembered; then historical data is poured into those templates. Oral history is therefore not like literate history, with the latter’s preoccupation with details and footnotes and facts (no matter how gerrymandered they are). Oral history places historical events within universal themes and memorable motifs usually associated with the cosmology or cult of the society.

So, was Jonah really swallowed by a fish? Of course the literal interpretation is obscene, and it is quite amusing to see how early Christian Bishops sought to explain this story. One suggested that the Great Fish was already dead when Jonah fell into it, and therefore he could not be dissolved in the stomach acids of the fish. Another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of a boat that God had sent to pick Jonah up. While another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of an inn where Jonah snoozed after his passage across the sea. Meanwhile, the Hebrew text specifies “Great Fish” and not “whale.” Whales actually cannot swallow a thing the size of a human being as their gullet is too small. And so it is that many writers have spent gallons of ink trying to identify a species of fish that could actually swallow a man and keep him alive in its belly for three days.

One of the great things about being a comparative mythologist is one can see the forest from the trees. (The downside of course, is you can also miss some of the trees whilst looking at the forest, but I’ll save that topic for another post.) As such, a comparative mythologist can see patterns in the landscape where others have focused on a particular lichen on one trunk.

The first true curiosity in this story is the city of Joppa where our fleeing prophet departs. Jonah, who is commanded to help save a foreign city, takes sail from Joppa and is swallowed by a sea monster. Joppa is the exact place where Perseus slays a great sea monster whilst saving a princess and her city. Perhaps this is just tangential, but it also turns out that Heracles also departs from Joppa during his Labors and is then swallowed by a great fish, wherein he stays for three days! Too coincidental?

The city of Joppa aside, the “Great Fish” is another curiosity. In an enigmatic scene found on an ancient Greek vase, we see Jason of Argonaut fame being disgorged by a “Great Fish” upon the shores of the underworld garden.

Jason and Dragon

Jason and the “Great Fish”

This scene depicts an episode in the Jason myth that has not survived in the written record. Jason is being disgorged by a “dragon,” but the fact that he is released in the underworld known to be at the “end of the sea,” suggests the creature is a “sea serpent.” Here, at the edge of the world, resides the Golden Fleece. Standing next to Jason is Athena, who holds in her hand a dove. Athena is often associated with her owl, but in this scene she holds a different bird. It is an interesting contrast, as the dove in Greek art is most often associated with Aphrodite. For the Greeks, the dove was a symbol of both physical and spiritual love.

Because pure love was thought to be eternal, the dove also symbolized the eternal part of one’s being, i.e. the soul. In some Greek funerary urns the dove appears in the underworld where the deceased is drinking from the Fount of Memory. In other cultures the dove represented resurrection as it carried fresh sprigs for its nest at Springtime. This is certainly how the symbol is employed in the Noah story. The dove becomes a symbol of rebirth; its depiction with Athena, who is aiding Jason in the underworld, is well deserved. The final analysis appears to be that Jason is being reborn, and of course the underworld is the only place where that could happen. The Heracles myth follows suit, for his journey in the fish leads him also to the underworld where he seeks the secrets of rebirth.

This excursion into the symbol of the dove is of interest to our Old Testament tale simply because the name of Jonah means dove. Literally, Jonah is the dove that descends and is reborn from the underworld. The motifs are intact and consistent, and whether the Old Testament author borrowed from a pre-existing cultic milieu of imagery and theme, or whether this mise-en-scene already belonged to Hebrew culture, is irrelevant. The images of fish, dove, and underworld remain coherently attached to the oral cosmology of the age.

 All of this is made clear in Jonah chapter 2. Jonah is in the fish and descends to the bottom of the sea.

And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. […] I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me forever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. (2.2-4,6-7)

The highlighted phrases are worth noting. In Hebrew, the word for belly can also signify “womb.” The word translated as “hell” is actually Sheol, or the Hebrew underworld. The phrase could thus be translated “from the womb of the underworld.” The belly of the fish is just such a place. Noah is cast into the deep and at the bottoms of the mountains. This is imagery of the underworld. In ancient cosmology the universe was three tiered: heaven, earth, and underworld. The underworld was not just the realm of darkness and death (it was that), but really it was the generative matrix from which living things came. It was the dark soil that sprouted the seed. So, when you died, you did descend into horrifying darkness, but in many traditions the underworld was the source of all life and therefore the realm where one could learn the secrets of eternal life.

It turns out the Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife until very late (post Exile period). At least, that is what the scholars tell us; this because there are no surviving sources that would inform us otherwise. It does not matter. Jonah is an 8th century BCE prophet, though the book of Jonah probably was not written until the 6th or 5th century BCE. In either time frame the cosmology of the story of Jonah, i.e. descending to the underworld to be reborn, is intact. The only question becomes, does the story implicate any belief in an afterlife? Technically speaking, the answer is “no.” Jonah’s rebirth is one of office and purpose. He goes into the underworld a fleeing man and reemerges from the underworld a powerful prophet who speaks directly in the name of God. His rebirth, therefore, is an initiation into the office of a seer.

But the cosmology is central to the ordination of this prophet. It is truly fascinating to find that both the Talmud and Midrash reveal that when Jonah is in the belly of the whale he is actually said to be underneath the altar of the temple. In the above cited hymn, Jonah prays for deliverance by orienting himself towards the temple. Indeed, two images remain prominent in Jonah’s ordination song: the underworld and the temple. This is appropriate as in fact there was thought to be a chamber or chasm underneath the altar in the Hebrew Holy of Holies where the abyss of the underworld resided. This cavern or abyss was called the “Well of Souls.” The Talmud’s depiction is to the point, for only under the temple altar was there a passage to the secrets an ordinations of life and death.

Well of Souls 3

The “Well of Souls” underneath the Temple altar.

The other bookend to this tale is the city of Nineveh. By tradition, Joppa appears to be the home of a sea creature who consumes men (the myths of Perseus and Heracles as examples).  Meanwhile, the name Nineveh translates as “The House of the Fish.” The city is sometimes signified by a glyph of a fish in a basin. The tutelar goddess of Nineveh was Nînâ, a fish goddess, and a leading god of Nineveh, Ea (Enki) was often depicted with a fish robe. Of even greater import is the fact that priests in Nineveh (and throughout Assyria) often donned fish robes in imitation to the deity who had power over the deep. On one cuneiform tablet we are also told that individuals being initiated into the priesthood of these deities would “ritually” descend into the underworld where they would behold the “altars amid the waters” belonging to Anu, Bel, and Ea (the gods of heaven, earth, and underworld).

Jonah and Fish_002

Assyrian priests in their fish garment.

Fish imagery associated with a priestly order is widespread. Vishnu appears as a fish when he saves Manu from the Great Flood. In fish form, Vishnu also reveals to Manu all of the Vedas and sacred knowledge of the gods; thus Manu is initiated into the priesthood of Vishnu. Priests of Osiris were forbidden to eat fish, for it was believed that the gods could turn into fish, and some goddesses held the title “Chief of the Fishes.” Jesus Christ is also represented by a fish. He is the “fisher” of men and serves loaves and fishes to the masses. It seems all pastoral imagery, but in Christian iconography the fish is often associated with the Eucharist, and at least one Church Father, Tertullian, describes new Christian initiates as “little fishes.”

The entire story of Jonah takes on a sympathetic theme with priestly initiation. It is a story written in irony, as so many Old Testament tales are. It was common knowledge that Assyrian priests and priestesses were associated with the fish, and that they also analogically descended into the underworld as part of their priestly rites. Jonah is called to be a prophet and refuses. He flees, but is in turn swallowed by a fish, descends to the underworld, and is initiated as a prophet. Jonah has just been endowed with a priestly ordination in imitation of the priests and peoples he was to preach. Yahweh has taken the place of Ea and has trumped Nînâ, and sends to Nineveh his own priest initiated on their  own terms.

Christians use the Jonah story as a type of Christ. Then again, Christians use everything in the Old Testament as a type of Christ. I suppose the Jews cannot complain too much, as all the early Christians were Jews; of course Jewish scripture would be co-opted into the new religious order. What seems to be forgotten by both Jews and Christians alike, however, is the close affinity much of the imagery in the Old Testament has to the old cosmology and cult of the Temple order. In the latter case, Christ was a fish, because he was a High Priest. His name means “Anointed,” and this because he was ordained to tread through the spheres of cosmos to bring about resurrection. Much like Ea and Osiris, Jesus is the god of the underworld waters who promises rebirth and immortality to his initiates. Embedded in the Jonah tale are many of these associations, even if they had already been obscured by the time the tale had been written.

One comment to What’s Down with Jonah? A Fishy Tale

  1. Tim Barker says:

    Wow – good stuff. This is the type of exposition on Jonah that I’ve been wanting/missing for a long time now. The only thing missing is footnotes :(

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