“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
Some reflections on Jonah’s Big Fish have led to the following essay. Let me affirm at the outset that the Bible presents the story in the book of Jonah as fully factual and historical. There can be no doubt but that the events happened just as they are recorded. Having said that, we can now consider what they meant.
To the people of his day, Jonah’s experience was a prophetic sign. Like Jonah, the people were rebellious and disobedient to God’s Word. (Of course, Jonah’s disobedience was an exceptional event, while with the Israelites it was habitual.) Like Jonah, they were about to be cast into the sea, into the Gentile sea, because they had angered the Lord. As with Jonah, God was going to provide a Big Fish to shelter them while they were in the sea. Like Jonah, they would be vomited back onto the land in due course.
The Big Fish was Assyria. God was sending Jonah to convert Assyria to Him. Assyria would become a place of refuge and protection for Israel while they were in captivity. Eventually they would leave the land of Assyria (after Babylon and then Persia took it over) and return to their own land. (Similarly, in Jonah 4, converted Assyria would be a suddenly-arising gourd plant to shade captive Israel from the sun of God’s wrath.) Even though later on Assyria apostatized, as the book of Nahum records, still there would be a remnant there who would provide a pillow for Israel’s coming experience of captivity.
This allegorical aspect of the history of Jonah would have been pretty clear to his contemporaries, and any who scoffed at it would find out soon enough that it was true. Jesus, however, does something different with the story, indicating a deeper level of allegory or typology.
Jesus says that Jonah’s experience in the Big Fish was equivalent to going into the grave for three days, and then coming back to life again. Jesus might have made this connection simply on the basis of general comparison: Going into captivity is a kind of death, and coming back into the land is a kind of resurrection. Jonah himself, however, in his prayer makes the connection to death and resurrection. He says that he is in the belly of Sheol and expelled from God’s sight, but that God is bringing up his life from corruption (Jonah 2:2, 4, 6).
So, then, the time Jesus spent in the tomb is parallel to the time Jonah spent in the Big Fish. Then Jesus is resurrected and goes forth to create a new Church (like Assyria) into which His old people can migrate for safety from the wrath to come upon Jerusalem.
So far, so good.
Analogies, however, can run in a chain. Some analogical chains are not particularly fruitful. Some run the risk of being fanciful. Some suggested chains are just plain incorrect. I believe, however, that there is an analogical chain that is helpful here, and that is that the tomb of Jesus is not just Jonah’s fish, but also the Holy of Holies.
This is clearest in John’s gospel, which has a particular interest in exegeting the meaning of the Tabernacle and Temple. John tells us that inside the tomb Jesus lay on a slab, and when Mary looked in, she saw “two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” No Jewish reader could have missed the association with the Ark of the Covenant, with the two cherubim at either end of its golden cover. Thus, the tomb-room becomes a Holy of Holies, and Jesus’ departure signifies that His work of atonement is finished (according to the Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16). The same thing is meant by the fact that His linen burial clothes have been left behind, for He has taken back His garments of glory and beauty. (Jesus left behind His glory when He came into the world and was tightly wrapped in swaddling cloths. Here at last the swaddling cloths, which bound His body tightly in death, are removed, and His glory reassumed.)
The Big Fish was a place of refuge and protection, and also of death. The tomb of Jesus is equivalent to the Big Fish, and thus is not just a place of death, but also a place of refuge and protection.
When and how do we enter Jesus’ tomb? We do so by personal faith, but the Church as a community does so sacramentally. The Lord’s Supper was established on the same day that Jesus died, as a sign of His death. (Remember that the days ran from evening to evening.) Moreover, in the Supper we show forth His death until He comes. Now, the Supper also points to His person, His resurrection, His coming, and all the rest of what and who He is and has done and will do. The preeminent focus, however, is on His death. In a real sense, the Lord’s Supper is conducted in Jesus’ tomb, which is also the Holy of Holies.
Of course, when the symbolism is allowed to speak in its fullness, we see that Jesus Himself is the Tomb and the Holy of Holies that we enter. The Old Creation soil was a tomb for Jesus, and now He is a Tomb for us. He is the Big Fish that protects us (and thus the fish is an early and enduring symbol for Jesus).
The concept of the Church as Tomb used to be understood better than it is. Some churches still make their Tables in the shape of Cofin Altars, and while I am not personally favorable to this design and symbolism, it does reflect a tradition of understanding that is fundamentally correct. The tradition of burying people in churches probably reflects the same tradition of thinking.
Once a week the Church goes into Jesus’ Tomb and partakes of His death. This is our refuge from the world. But we don’t stay there. With Jesus, we come forth to build the Kingdom of God. Like Jonah, we are spat out again for another week of work.
James B. Jordan is Director of Biblical Horizons and Scholar-in-Resident at Theopolis. This article was originally published on Biblical Horizons in 1997.