Did you know that Jonah experienced death? Jonah 2:2 [2:3 in Hebrew] says, “I have called from my affliction to the Lord, and He answered me; from the belly of Sheol (מבטן שאול; mibeten sheol) I cried.” For most of the biblical period, the afterlife was conceived as existence in Sheol – the place of the dead. “Sheol” was the Hebrew counterpart of the Greek “Hades.” The reality of Sheol is not just a poetic device in Jonah’s prayer; as the would-be prophet cries from the midst of the fish, he is confined to the realm of the dead.
Jonah 2:5 [Hebrew 2:6] solidifies the prophet’s position at the brink of death quite clearly: “The waters engulfed me up to my throat (עד נפשׁ; ad nephesh), the deep surrounded me, weeds wrapped my head.” One cannot, from a logical standpoint, survive waters that have encompassed one’s head – which is where Jonah finds himself in the current predicament. Jonah is taking on water and actively drowning; he is in the process of dying.
At the turning point of his prayer, Jonah describes himself at the very point of death and alludes to his subsequent resurrection: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with its bars was around my forever. But you [God] have brought my life up from destruction” (2:7 ). While many Bible readers may see these words as only a metaphor, it is important not to downplay these references to physical death and resurrection. Jesus recalls Jonah’s experience in reference to His own real death and resurrection, saying that “just as Jonah was… in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will be… in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Jesus uses Jonah as a template for his own death and his return from the realm of the dead. Therefore, a more concrete reading of Jonah’s prayer can highlight God’s true power of bodily resurrection.