The Mysterious Symbolism of Jonah and the Fish



@Christy . . . .

“and all the rest”… [< an homage to Gilligan’s shipwreck!]

Let’s take a fresh look at the key verses in Jonah. The Fish is mentioned
only 3 times. But then, in quick succession, Jonah equates the Fish to Sheol … and
describes his sufferings in the ocean as though there was no fish at all!


A) We have three choices:
1] the writer had a seriously chaotic sense of narrative by willy-nilly combining
elements of the ocean, sheol and a fish in telling his story.
2] the original story didn’t have a fish at all … where a later writer added a
fish to make the story even more miraculous; or
3] the fish was intended as a fantastic elaboration of the poetic notion of Sheol,
where Jonah is drowned by God, and then resurrected out of the “waters of

In my view, the last option is the one that savages the story of Jonah the least.
And it provides a template for how to see elements fused in a biblical story, rather
than to take each element literally.

  • G.Brooks


Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him,
Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled
from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that
the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and
was tempestuous.

And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth
into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know
that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land;
but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was
tempestuous against them.

Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech
thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this
man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou,
O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.

So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and
the sea ceased from her raging. . . .

[Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up
Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days
and three nights.] <<< The Great Fish is The Sea.
OR … a later writer inserted The Fish.

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. << The Fish has become Sheol… or was
Sheol from the beginning.

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. << The description is of the Sea’s
embrace of his body … not the Fish’s!

The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth
closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
^^ Weeds wrap around his head? The Fish is not in the

I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with
her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my
life from corruption…
^^ Again … a description with no Fish details!

And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah
upon the dry land.

^^ Did the Fish vomit out Jonah? Or did Sheol? Or did the
OCEAN vomit out Jonah?

I want the literal fish in the story, It is essential.

The fish is pictured as God’s means of salvation. God provides the fish (there are parallels to this later when he provides the vine and he provides the worm) and the fish saves Jonah from drowning, which he admits is his deserved fate. The provision of the fish is an act of grace on God’s part, not a punishment. Jonah is effectively put in time out in the belly of the fish and has time to repent of his hard-headed idiocy in thinking he could run away from God. When his heart is in the right spot and he is ready to do his job and be God’s prophet, he gets set back on the course he tried to run away from by setting sail for Tarshish. He took a boat going in the opposite direction, but God intervenes and charters private transportation to Nineveh.

I have a feeling that if we could ask the original story-teller about the esophagus size of the fish or the effects of hydrochloric acid on Jonah’s skin, he would look at us like we were sick weirdos, smack us upside the head and say something like, “I’m going to try one more time, would you actually listen this time?”



A skeptic would say that a latter-day writer agreed with you … and ADDED the fish. If you read the story without the fish, Jonah’s observations are much more in sync with not being INSIDE a fish. And yet we have this reference to SHEOL … as though the ocean itself was Sheol.

I occupy the middle ground … between the Fish being an add-on… vs. the Fish being literally present!

His observations are pre-fish. When he was in his ocean grave. Which God rescued him from by sending the fish.

Your “chaotic sense of narrative” is probably some lovely Hebrew chiastic structure instead of a chronological story like we are used to.

Yes, that is the usual apologia. But what makes the story miraculous is not surviving being underwater … it is surviving being in a fish! Where are his observations about being in the belly of a fish?..

Of course, you could say he is DEAD … which was one of the original points I think validly pursued.

But, ultimately, if these were to serve as his pre-Fish observations… they would have been recited BEFORE he was swallowed!

The story of Jonah is the perfect sample of how a biblical story can go wrong …

Maybe to us. It doesn’t seem like that was the view of the author. The real danger was the stormy ocean.

Which he would have described BEFORE being in the fish … rather than AFTER…

The Fish was either ADDED, or makes for a pretty lyrical element to a description of SHEOL!

…if you insist on reading it as it was not intended to be read. It’s a great story the way it is. It doesn’t need to be doctored to make it palatable to our modern sensitivities.

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Except then your description of Sheol doesn’t fit with other biblical descriptions of Sheol where people are silenced. They can’t pray or praise or thank God. Psalm 115:17-18, Isaiah 38:18-19, Psalm 6:5, Psalm 88:10-12.

So, @Christy

… you are going to be a stickler that you can’t pray in Sheol… but you CAN pray in a fish?

The “Sheol” reference is a challenge for either interpretation - - with one exception…

Tiamat: “Tiamat was later known as Thalattē (as a variant of thalassa, the Greek word for “sea”) in the Hellenistic Babylonian writer Berossus’ first volume of universal history.”

or … perhaps

Abzu: “The Abzu (Cuneiform: 𒍪 𒀊, ZU.AB; Sumerian: abzu; Akkadian: apsû) also called engur, literally, ab=‘ocean’ zu=‘deep’, was the name for the primeval sea below the void space of the underworld (Kur) and the earth (Ma) above.”

It’s a pretty clever veiled reference if you ask me…

If you can ride in a fish like it’s a boat, you can surely pray there. Just like vines big enough to shade a grown man can sprout up in a desert in a day. You have to enter the world the narrator has created.

This whole discussion kind of feels to me like people who watch Lord of the Rings and spend all their time trying to figure out what was CGI and what was “real” and which stunts the actors did themselves and which were done by doubles. To which I say, “Just watch the freaking movie!”

Why are we doing a fact/fiction dissection on an ancient narrative. I don’t understand the point of the exercise.


You don’t grasp the point in the same way that Creationists don’t understand questioning Adam & Eve.

But if you “LET GO” of the Fish … you can suddenly dive into the mindset of the creativity necessary to liken a giant fish to Sheol (Tiamat and/or Abzu) … and the figurative symbolism of being swallowed by a Giant Fish (the Sea)… which is the surrounding context of a Resurrection Story!

NOTE: I think you are being overly strict in thinking the ancients thought a person can never speak or pray in Sheol. Behold the New Testament!

Luke 16:22-24:
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;

And in Hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

Jonah doesn’t mention a fish, does he?

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Yes, exactly.

And again. Well said.

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I could let go of the fish if I thought the author actually intended me to think of the fish as a metaphor. I was a lit major. I had to read Spanish magic realism. I will absolutely do what needs to be done to experience the story. In this case I just don’t buy that the story was intended to be understood as anything less than a guy getting swallowed by a big fish and spit up three days later. That’s the story. Just like the Eden story is the story of a man and a woman and a talking snake. Retroactive imposition of “figurative-ness” motivated purely by historical or scientific implausibility feels squirmy to me. I don’t feel any need to be God’s PR rep and rescue his stories for him. Kafka wrote a story about a guy who literally turns into an insect. It is profoundly meaningful and allegorical, but it is about a literal bug guy. You don’t explain the bug in his story away as a metaphor because scientifically humans don’t turn into bugs. That is the story.



I had to chuckle while reading your marvelous response!

You got to the heart of the issue … that’s for sure…

I would think anyone who has read Spanish Magic Realism is WELL PREPARED for interpreting Adam & Eve !!!


Here’s an interesting reference from the other thread regarding a letter by C.S. Lewis:

The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy ... - C. S. Lewis - Google Books

. . . .it should have directed you to page 318
online text of the “Collected Letters, Volume 3” book,
where his letter to Corbin Carnell begins.

" You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish
does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole
Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different
kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament
narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation."

C.S. Lewis describes the book of Jonah as a “moral romance” !!!

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