Jonah’s near-death experience

by Joel Ramshaw (2021)

anchor So in a nutshell, Jonah is the story of someone who can hear God’s voice, but wants to pick and choose when he will obey God’s leading and when to do his own thing (sound familiar??). Jonah was called by God to preach to the heathen at Nineveh, the world’s capital city. He doesn’t like that idea and decides to travel the opposite way, going instead to Tarshish. We don’t know for certain the exact historic location of Tarshish, but it was a Phoenician city and always associated with wealth, commerce, and sea trade. In fact, the king Solomon amassed much of his huge fortune by trade with this distant city:

2 Chronicles 9:21 “For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram; once every three years the ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.”

Interestingly, Paul the apostle is written to have hailed from “Tarsus,” possibly the same place as Jonah ran to. In the Septuagint and Vulgate, Tarshish is identified as the wicked city of Carthage.

Basically Jonah decides to abandon his ministry and instead go on a get-rich-quick scheme to Tarshish, much like the people chasing the Klondike gold rush, dreaming of returning with massive wealth to show off. Of course, you cannot run away from an omnipresent God, and during an exceptionally stormy night, Jonah recognizes his sin and sacrificially allows the shipmates to throw him overboard to appease God’s wrath and preserve the lives of the rest of the crew from the storm. Now where Jonah expected his story to end is really where it begins. Instead of simply dying, Jonah is swallowed by a whale, and after being trapped in its stomach for three days is vomited out to shore. After this ordeal, he doesn’t exactly feel like disobeying again and promptly heads directly to Nineveh to complete God’s instruction. Unexpectedly, the people are receptive to his message of repentance and fast for three days from food and drink, resulting in God’s wrath being turned away from the city.

In the belly of the whale

Of course the centerpiece of this story is Jonah being inside the whale for three days. Many even teach that he was alive during this entire time. This has also become a point of contention between evangelical versus liberal Christians. The one group holds fast to the literal meaning of the word, while the other likes to see the Bible stories as parables and allegory. Believing a man can stay alive inside the stomach of a whale for an entire three days seems like a bit of a stretch of course; especially considering the lack of oxygen. On the other hand, there is a historic story in which a whaler was swallowed by the whale they were attacking, and is said to have survived an entire day inside its stomach (although unconscious). Regardless of how unreal the story may seem, we cannot write it off as a parable only. Jesus Christ considered Jonah to be a real individual, stating in Matthew 12:40,

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

In another passage Christ states,

“The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” (Jonah 12:41)

Christ clearly saw Jonah as a real individual. When Christ spoke parables he clearly mentioned that they were so. Yet there is no mention of Jonah as being simply an allegorical character. His story was so important that it was in fact a sign that would symbolize the death and resurrection of Christ.

So we have accepted that Jonah was a real person, and not an allegorical character. Now the next question is, how literal versus symbolic was his story? Perhaps Jonah was a real person, but his story was told in a symbolic way with the whale symbolizing the hardships from his disobedience which would push him back to repentance. When we read closely, the story actually states Jonah died and went to hell. This symbolizes how when Christ died he went to hell for three days to take the keys of death from Satan. After three days God showed Jonah mercy and allowed his soul to return to earth and gave him another chance to live and do his work.

Jonah 2:2 “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.”

Jonah 2:6 “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, O LORD my God.”


Contrary to the idea that Jonah was alive inside of the whale this entire time, these verses clearly show that Jonah died and went to hell after being thrown overboard. He was not alive three days in the fish’s belly, he was dead the entire time and his soul was in hell. This is thus the first resurrection story in the Bible. A body being dead for three days will start to decay. This shows the miraculous nature of the event. God did not want to leave any doubt of his hand being on the situation, as with Christ’s resurrection. A person being dead for hours or minutes could be claimed to have been resuscitated by natural means such as CPR, but to have been dead for three days there is no denying the supernatural in the resurrection. Jonah was being given a second chance in life, to live in obedience to God. There are many stories of individuals who have overdosed on drugs or been in accidents who have died and been taken to hell and then came back when the medics resuscitated them. Of course a person can never live the same was after an experience like this. There is no going back to the casual was of living when you have been to hell! These people make some of the greatest preachers and evangelists with their testimony. Jonah’s message was so compelling that the entire city of Nineveh fasted from both food and drink for three days in repentance.

Identifying the “huge fish”

The original Hebrew phrase which is sometimes translated whale, is “dag gadol” which literally means: “huge fish.” The King James translators assumed this must have been a whale, since that is the largest sea creature they knew of. In modern times, we have more scientific information on whales and know that they do not swallow anything large such as a human. In fact, the esophagus of most whales is only a few inches wide and could not even fit a human past it. Whales instead feed on plankton, krill, and miniature fish. The original Hebrew however, does not say “whale,” it simply says “huge fish.” In the New Testament, Christ’s reference to the fish which swallowed Jonah is ketos. This word occurs only once in the New Testament, but occurs many times in the Septuagint (The Septuagint is the Bible that Jesus used and quoted from authoritatively while on earth. It was the official translation into Greek of the Hebrew Old Testament and apocrypha). The Septuagint often uses ketos to refer to “sea monsters” and “great sea creatures” and instead tends to use ichthys when refering to normal fish. Picking up on this, the NASB translates Matthew 12:40 as referring to Jonah being swallowed by a “sea monster”: “for just as JONAH WAS IN THE STOMACH OF THE SEA MONSTER FOR THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” In secular Greek literature ketos is used to refer to sea monsters such as Scylla, a six-headed beast mentioned in The Odyssey (more details in this link).

So although we often assume a whale swallowed Jonah, this is not necessarily the case, nor is it likely what the author had in mind. There are a few whales in the Mediterranean Sea, but not many of them. It is unlikely the author of the book of Jonah was even thinking of a whale. Now what is a large “sea” creature the Bible mentions repeatedly over and over? What is the ultimate example of the “huge fish?” or “sea monster.” The book of Job, chapter 41 provides some help:

Job 41:31-34,

“He makes the deep boil like a pot;
He makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
He leaves a shining wake behind him;
One would think the deep had white hair.
On earth there is nothing like him,
Which is made without fear.
He beholds every high thing;
He is king over all the children of pride.”

read the whole chapter


Clearly, the only thing that fits the description of what could have swallowed Jonah whole is Leviathan. Among the Hebrews reading the story of Jonah, Leviathan also would have been the first thing to come to their mind when hearing of a massive sea creature swallowing a man whole. They would have been familiar with all of the other Bible passages mentioning Leviathan as the largest sea creature and the connection would have “clicked” immediately. The only real problem we run into with this is that we have no animal identified to correspond with this enormous biblical creature. Going back to another part of Job 41, the answer seems to be that Leviathan is a supernatural demonic being and not an actual animal at all:

Job 41:21-24

“His sneezings flash forth light,
And his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
Out of his mouth go burning lights;
Sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke goes out of his nostrils,
As from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals,
And a flame goes out of his mouth.”


So basically, we have a fire-breathing creature being described here. Some scholars try to say Leviathan is a crocodile, but I have never seen a fire-breathing crocodile before. It fits together so much better when we see Leviathan as a supernatural demonic being and not a physical creature at all.

So if Leviathan is a demonic being, then how does he “swallow” Jonah? Lets travel back to the New Testament for the answer. Paul the apostle was in a constant battle to keep his newly planted churches on the right track. In particular the church at Corinth had a major problem with falling back into the old ways of fornication, hedonism, and immortality. Paul had gotten fed up with certain church members undoing his hard work and came to a point where as the saying goes “desperate times call for desperate measures.” One church member was even sexually active with his father’s wife, while still calling himself a Christian. Paul realized that it was time to take off the kiddie gloves and throw some real punches against this pervert. His penalty was to be “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of his flesh” in hopes this would lead him to desperation and repentance:

1 Corinthians 5:5 “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.

For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.


Now notice the similarity to the story of Jonah. Jonah knew God’s will and purposely hardened his heart and went the opposite way. God had offered him the easy way and this was refused. The only option left to save Jonah from his pride and rebellion was to deliver him unto Leviathan’s belly for the “destruction of the flesh” that his spirit could be saved. We always imagine Jonah as coming out of the creatures stomach with his skin bleached white and a total wreck from the digestive acids; the destruction of his flesh, but salvation of his spirit. It may seem harsh that God would punish Jonah this way, but it was actually an act of mercy. The alternative is that Jonah would have died and gone to hell which would have lasted a lot longer than the “three days.” Again, Jonah may not have been swallowed by a physical creature. Leviathan is considered the demonic ruler of the sea. Jonah being “swallowed” by Leviathan likely refers to his death by being swallowed by the sea and his soul entering hell and receiving punishment for three days. In the end, God ressurected Jonah however, had him drift ashore, and allowed him to fulfill his purpose, although he was a wreck and his flesh was destroyed. Just as Paul delivered the Corinthian pervert to Satan, God delivered Jonah unto Leviathan. Furthermore, in the book of Job (where Leviathan is mentioned in detail), we see another instance of God handing a man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh:

Job 2:3-7

“Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause.”

So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face!”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”


There are some times in life where we feel we are in the belly of the whale or like Job, wishing for the peace of death rather than the harsh pains of life’s trials. To overcome the intense trials, both Jonah and Job spent time in constant prayer and the end result was that they came out stronger than ever before. Job was rewarded with twice as many possessions as previous. Jonah ended up with an incredibly powerful ministry, bringing the world’s most powerful and prideful city to repentance. By battling and overcoming the spirit of pride (Leviathan), Jonah was endued with the power to break the spirit of pride over the world’s capital city Nineveh. Let us not forget our ultimate example: Christ. He sacrificed his body for us and allowed his flesh to be destroyed. By overcoming this trial in obedience to God the Father, Christ was able to receive all authority over heaven and earth. When in a trial is seems we are unproductive and frozen in place. No trial is ever wasted however, when we can overcome it with repentance, prayer, and a positive worshipful attitude remaining loyal to our God and praising him. By doing this, we emerge more powerful than when we entered and the present pain becomes our future power.

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