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Going down to Sheol: Jonah 2:1-10

Studies in the Story of Jonah—Lesson 2

By Reta Halteman Finger

Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel – English Wikipedia – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in 9th grade at the Mennonite high school I attended, our Bible teacher encouraged us to use art, cartoon drawings, poetry, or any other creative means to tell one of the Bible stories. I used the prayer in Jonah 2:2-9 to create my own rhyming poem imagining the disgusting experience Jonah must have had inside the fish’s stomach. Both of my parents got in on the act, and we had a raucous time describing the gooey mess. But the only line I can remember from my poem is the one I adapted from 2:5b:  “seaweed was wrapped around my head…”

A puzzling poem about Sheol

In the last lesson, we left Jonah, having been thrown overboard, in the belly of a huge fish. In this second chapter, he is inside the fish for three days and nights. Here Jonah has time to pray to the God he ran from. But as an adult, I’ve had more questions about his prayer than I did in 9th grade. For example, it has struck me as odd that his prayer was written in the past tense, as though he already had been rescued. Indeed, many scholars think that the prayer was added later, especially since it uses the genre of Hebrew poetry, whereas the rest of the narrative is prose.

But after reading James Ackerman’s essay on Jonah in The Literary Guide to the Bible (edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode), I see it differently. Ackerman notes that “both in terminology (going down, calling out, steadfast love, vows and sacrifices) and in theme (presence of God, idol worship, divine sovereignty) the song is closely tied to the rest of the story” (p 237).

For example, chapter 2:2-6a describes Jonah’s experience of being thrown into the sea before he is swallowed by the fish. The fish apparently is the salvation God has prepared for him. In an ironic way, the fish is temporarily a substitute for God’s “holy temple” (2:4, 7). As Jonah is thrown into the sea, he expects to drown and go down into “the belly of Sheol” (v 2), also called “the Pit” (v 6). He waxes very eloquent:

“The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head at the foot of the mountains.”

Throughout the Old Testament, especially in Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, Sheol was the place where the dead went. Unlike later concepts of heaven and hell, nothing happens in Sheol and no one is remembered. See, for example, Psalm 88:3-6 and 10-12. “My life draws near to Sheol,” says the despondent writer of Psalm 88, “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit” (vv 3-4). “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?” (v 10). The implied answer is no. God does not enter Sheol. If Jonah truly wanted to flee from the presence of Yahweh, Sheol is the place to go! (There is no concept of afterlife expressed in the Old Testament until bodily resurrection is mentioned in the book of Daniel, written in the second century BCE.)

A prayer, or a parody of a prayer?

But now, rescued by the fish, Jonah “gets religion.” Sort of. He’s grateful to be saved from “the belly of Sheol” after all. But he blames God for “casting him into the deep” (v 3)—when it’s his own fault for fleeing from God’s presence and then requesting to be thrown into the sea. Now, suddenly, Jonah longs to worship in God’s holy temple (v 7), even though he has not repented of his behavior nor promised to visit Nineveh.

Notice the irony in verses 8 and 9. Jonah sounds pious as he contrasts himself with idolaters “who worship vain idols and forsake their true loyalty,” while he himself promises to sacrifice and make vows to Yahweh. He does not realize he is the one fleeing from God, while the formerly idolatrous sailors are now offering sacrifices and making vows to his God! (1:16).

Verse 10 again reverts to prose: “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Was God sufficiently pleased with Jonah’s prayer inside the fish? Or was the fish so disgusted with Jonah’s parody of a prayer that it vomited him out like spoiled food? Either way, we can imagine it was a revolting sight! Let’s hope that Jonah took some time washing his hair and clothes along the seashore!

Tune in next time to find out if Jonah ever makes it to Nineveh!

 

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  How does this story thus far make you feel about Jonah? Do you like him, despise him, identify with him, pity him, or ____?

2.  How is God portrayed in these two chapters? Do any specific characteristics of God surprise you?

 

 

 

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