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.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting concept, Jonah being protected by a fish who changes from male to female. Since Jonah eventually leaves the fish I always thought of it as protection but I now understand it more deeply.
  2. Thank You for the Breakdown of the Words... Each Word Especially the Small Words are Very Important to know, towards Understanding the Scripture..!! Thank You Dr. Nicholas
  3. Very interesting. I've heard some scholars accept Jonah might well have died in the great fish so that his resurrection was literal, thus sharpening Christ's reference to Jonah being in the fish for 3 days as foreshadowing His own resurrection.
  4. Very helpful and insightful twist! Awesome! It does not though take away the element of ‘fatherly’ punishment or chastisement for the prophet for his disobedience. Dr. Schaser, right?
    • Thanks for your question, Francis. The punishment for Jonah comes in 4:7-8 when God sends a worm and wind against him. The motherly fish is a protective agent, rather than a punishing one. However, the reference to the "worm" suggests a "motherly" punishment; biblical poetry presents the worm's destructive capacity alongside "mother" language (Job 17:14) and Judith -- a military leader patterned on Deborah, "mother in Israel" (Judg 5:7) -- includes destructive "worm" imagery in her victory song (Jdt 16:17). Feminine images of pregnancy and labor also coexist with "wind" elsewhere in Scripture (Isa 26:18). Thus, in this case, there's reason to view Jonah's punishment as more of a motherly move from God than a fatherly one.
  5. Wow great insight in that particular area , however that all happened because of jonahs disobedience to God, i think it's imperative if we started from here ..bse the monster fish was nointed to deliver him to a place YHVH had preordained him
  6. Thank you Dr. Schaser. No doubt the Lord chose Paul, a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ to teach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Wow! What insight into Scripture!!! Thank you and all the professors.
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