After Jonah ended up in the stormy sea, “The Lord provided a large fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 2:1 [English: 1:17]). It’s easy to read this incident as a divine punishment against Jonah for disobeying God’s command. However, the prophet’s stay inside the fish actually saves him from drowning in the sea. Just as a baby in the womb is protected from the outside world until gestation is complete, Jonah finds safety from the storm in the belly of the aquatic beast.
The language of Jonah suggests that the great fish helps the prophet, rather than harms him. The fact that God “provided (מנה; manah)” the fish alludes to preparing or appointing the fish to carry out a specific purpose. In this case, Jonah would have drowned in the depths had the fish not swallowed him up. While being consumed by a marine monster may seem like an odd form of protection, the raging waters would have been far more frightening than the fish. In Israelite thought, the sea (ים; yam) was a place of chaos and death, as reflected in the psalmist’s conviction that, in light of God’s protection, “we will not fear… even if the mountains are moved into the heart of the sea (ים; yam), though its waters roar and foam” (Ps 46:2-3). While it may sound strange to modern readers, an ancient Jewish audience would have been relieved to hear that Jonah had been rescued from the chaotic sea—even by a giant fish!
When Jonah ends up inside the fish, the Hebrew provides subtle linguistic cues that present the prophet as an infant being safeguarded during gestation. The word for the fish’s “belly” (מעה; me’eh) also means “uterus” or “womb” elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, when Rebekah conceives Jacob and Esau, God tells her, “Two nations are in your belly, and two peoples will be divided from your womb (מעה; me’eh)” (Genesis 25:23). Even more suggestive of pregnancy is the shift from the masculine to feminine form of “fish.” When God prepares the “fish” (דג; dag) for Jonah the noun is in the masculine form, but when the prophet prays from the midst of the fish, the noun is in the feminine form: דגה (dagah). With this slight change in grammatical gender, the author suggests that Jonah is being protected in the womb of a female fish, just as an infant is safe in a mother’s womb. This notion builds on the fact that the more common Hebrew word for “womb” (רחם; rechem) looks exactly like the word for “mercy” (רחם; racham). The creative use of Hebrew in Jonah highlights God’s protective mercy towards the wayward prophet while he dwells in the belly of a massive, yet motherly, fish.