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tim bulkeley

I'm always puzzled by comments like your: "Since the psalm is not a prayer but a praiseful narration of a deed of deliverance in answer to prayer, it suits the context only approximately." Jonah has asked to be thrown into a raging sea, he seems to expect to die (and the sailors, surely the more expert witnesses do too 1:14). However, far from drowning Jonah, his God sends a fish to swallow him - hardly a chance outcome - and he survives. He prays a pious thanksgiving for his deliverance from drowning... His piety may seem misplaced, his castigation of "those who forsake their true loyalty" may seem hypocritical, but surely the form of the prayer is appropriate?


I appreciate Tim's comment. He understands the fish to be God's means of saving Jonah, not part of Jonah's problem. From the point of view of the narrator of the book of Jonah, that is true. From Jonah's implied point of view, it is not - at least not while Jonah found himself within the fish. Note the parallel expressions "from the viscera of the fish" (2:2 in the Hebrew) and "from the belly of Sheol" (2:3). That's not how Jonah would have talked if, in the moment of distress which the psalm looks back on, he understood the fish to be a vehicle of salvation.

Only after the psalm of thanksgiving in the text, the motive for thanksgiving is recounted within the narrative frame of the book: Jonah's restoration to dry land in consequence of the fish spewing Jonah out at Yahweh's command. In light of this event recounted after the psalm, the fish indeed turns out to be Yahweh's chosen means of delivering Jonah.

One might call Jonah 2 a dischronologized narrative, of which there are other examples in ancient Hebrew literature. It is not quite accurate to say, as Tim does, that Jonah thanks God for saving him from drowning by sending a fish to swallow him. Jonah thanks God for "raising" his "life from the Pit" (2:7). That is not a natural description of Jonah's status so long as he remained in the belly of the fish. It is an apt description of Jonah's status once he is restored to dry land.

For a case of a strictly chronological narrative, compare the introduction to a psalm of thanksgiving, with psalm following, in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 38:9 + 38:10-20).

One might discern a touch of intended irony in the way the big fish is described from the start as a divine provision on Jonah's behalf (2:1), followed by a psalm in which the fish is equated with Sheol. Throughout the book of Jonah, the protagonist appears to be a pretty hapless fellow, at God's mercy in all situations. Far more than Jonah wished, Yahweh's mercy turns out be wide and deep, embracing both man and beast in Nineveh. And Jonah, too, despite his disobedience.

Jonah is a lovely little book, is it not?

tim bulkeley

Oh, it is!

But I'm still not convinced... The two phrases, (מִ‍מְּעֵי הַדָּגָה and מִ‍בֶּטֶן שְׁאוֹל) are as you say parallel, but they are NOT in lines that are in a direct relationship. The mention of fish guts occurs on the narrator's lips introducing the psalm. While "from Sheol's belly" comes from the lips of Jonah, in the psalm. The parallel does create an undertone of "this is salvation!?" but does not diminish Jonah's so human arrogance in supposing that the fish is intended to save HIM. And saved from Sheol he has been, from “the heart of the seas, and the flood [that] surrounded” him! And, though not the most salubrious of habitations, I'd rather be alive in the fish guts, than dead at the bottom of the stormy sea – which is the fate the sailors expected for their landlubber passenger. I find it difficult in such a well-told, ironic tale to accept that the delightfully ironic psalm is a mere accident or clumsy mistake. The hypothesis of the idiot redactor won't float!


Like Tim, I do not believe the psalm is some kind of accident or clumsy mistake.

But the evidence suggests that it was composed to accompany an act of sacrifice in Yahweh's temple, and placed here by the author of the book of Jonah because of its suitability to the context. By ignoring a few details, the psalm can be read as if Jonah gave thanks in these terms after he was restored to dry land. With the advantage of what Paul Ricoeur calls second naivete, we may also read the psalm as if Jonah himself chose it for its suitability to his circumstances.

In the same way, a person today may implore God or give thanks to God with a suitable psalm in the Bible, even if the psalm in question is not a perfect match with the circumstances at hand. It seems preferable, and more meaningful, to beseech God or thank God with the words of a psalm of old than to compose a new one from scratch. Clumsiness has nothing to do with it.

There is a famous episode in the television series "ER" in which an extremely gifted pediatric surgeon gropes for the words of Psalm 23 which he had learned by heart as a youth. He needed that psalm in the moment that the child he thought to be his son was in danger of dying and he could do nothing to save him. Would you refer to the surgeon's choice of Psalm 23 as clumsy or accidental because the psalm was written for another occasion? I don't think so. Indeed, Psalm 23 is written from the point of view of someone who in the first person "walks through the valley of the shadow of death," not someone who prays on behalf of someone else in that situation. But that matters little as well.

I don't think the psalm in Jonah 2 was meant by the author of the book of Jonah to be read as if Jonah spoke the words in it from the guts of the fish. Dischronologized narrative is well-attested in ancient Hebrew literature. The classic study is that of W. J. Martin, “‘Dischronologized’ Narrative in the Old Testament,” Congress Volume (VTSup 17; Leiden: Brill, 1969) 179–186.

The important thing is to respect the text and allow it to conform to the expectations of its first readers, not ours. I'm guessing that Tim and I agree on that, even if we may still differ about how best to interpret a given passage.


Any chance that Jonah actually died in the fish? The language of the poetry fits better if he really died, and was resurrected, than if he lived. Also, the story indicates that his impact on Ninevah was astounding, which would be appropriate if a preacher came back from the dead to give them a message. And, the force of Jonah as a type of Christ's death and resurrection is weakened if he didn't really die, which is what the Muslims like to point out when denying the divinity of Christ.



I don't see any way to derive the notion that Jonah died in the fish from the biblical narrative.

When the New Testament and Christian tradition in general interpret the Old Testament christologically, the perceived correspondences sometimes run deep and work on more than one level (e.g., Isa 53 and 61), but on other occasions, the correspondences are more limited.

For a rich and creative interpretation of the book of Jonah, I recommend The Judgment of Jonah by Jacques Ellul. Have you read it?


Thanks. So, are you say that the poetry "requires" an interpretation that Jonah did not die? In other words, there is something technical about the poetic style that forces or causes the interpretation to be that he survived? I'm wondering what parts of the poetry do that.

What I suspect is that the interpreters of Jonah bring a preconceived notion to the poetry and then interpret it accordingly.

That is why I am so interested in hearing from you, as an expert in the poetry forms, why the poetry drives the interpretation one way or another. I thought that maybe the poetry was a form which could go either way according to other factors... I'm sorry to be so dense about this.

Thanks, Andy



No, I wasn't referring to the poetic form when I said the notion that Jonah died in the guts of the fish cannot be derived from the text. There are no semantic clues in the book of Jonah that suggest he died and rose again.

If you think that the expressions "from the belly of Sheol I cried out" and "you brought my life up from the Pit" imply Jonah's death followed by resurrection, think again. Jonah was delivered from death without actually dying. Compare Psalm 116, or Psalm 18:5-7 and 16-18 (4-6 and 15-17 in many translations).

You have two options, it seems to me. You can claim that David, Jonah, and the anonymous author of Psalm 116 all underwent death followed by resurrection. Or you can cut the New Testament authors some slack and allow them to see correspondences as prophecy even if said correspondences are not as tight as you and I might like.


Thanks, John. I appreciate the feedback.


hi there, i really enjoy reading your comments regarding Jonahs prayer, which is true, written in poetry. I hope you dont mind if I ask, ch 3 of Jonah, the kings edict, is it written in poetry? can you pls respond...


No, it's not, Ben. It's written in excellent prose. See my study of Jonah 1 to get a flavor of things.

Thanks for the question. Please ask if you have others.

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