Jonah’s Backward Exodus
January 30, 2024

In his eponymous book, Jonah follows an exodus pattern. He travels through the waves and east of the city into the wilderness. On a first reading, it looks like another use of this common literary shape in the Old Testament: salvation through the waters of death and the wilderness of testing. 

When we look a little closer, the pattern is present, but backwards.

Under the Roiling Sea

After Jonah’s rebellious flight towards Spain, the crew of his ship take his advice in the midst of the storm. They sacrifice him to the waves in order to stop Israel’s God’s thunderous pursuit of them. 

As Jonah descends to the depths, he is passing through his sea of reeds (suph, 2:5) like Moses in his ark among the rushes (suph) and then Israel in the Red (suph) Sea. We would expect this to mean a movement through the waters of death to new life, a baptism; except he’s drowning. In a strange reversal Jonah is in the Red Sea but isn’t Israel, he’s Pharoah’s army. The Gentiles in the boat above him find themselves in an ark passing along the waters, celebrating salvation from Yahweh (1:16).

Those foreign sailors have been inducted by Jonah into the logic of atonement, that one would die so that others can live. This is the drama of cosmic salvation at the Cross, and the mundane drama of every mealtime: after death springs life.

As the story continues, we find that Jonah’s drowning is indeed a strange baptism: he is snatched from the ocean’s jaws to progress to new life. There is a sliver of repentance in his prayers that ‘remember’ Yahweh and his vow to travel to the Temple and sacrifice to God (2:7-9), though Jonah’s later reaction might make us question how deeply he’s understood that the mercy God gives to him is undeserved.

He descends into the deep before being swallowed by his surprising saviour. In Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s belly, he describes his descent through the deep to the very gates of Sheol (2:5-7). He is not immediately rescued but falls into the sea, right to the doors of death. This is baptism into death–the reason why Jesus identifies with Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41). He is the one who descends to the place of the dead so that people from every nation can live.

Then he’s eaten by a dragon. That’s not what Jonah says, but it’s a reasonable inference that this creature that steals him away from Sheol in the symbolic chaos of the sea is one of the Bible’s dragons (tannin) who seem to ‘live’ in the sea and are connected to death. If that’s a reasonable inference then the description of this primordial being of chaos as a ‘fish’ is intended to be a deliberately funny sleight, as well as a reminder about how Yahweh sees them. The nightmare dragons of the deep turn to comedic figures when the Lord bends down to see them. They do the Lord’s bidding, coming to rescue his recalcitrant servant (1:17, 2:10). There may also be a connection with the Ninevites worship of Dagon—the fish (dag) god—perhaps this fish-dragon even is Dagon, who must do the bidding of his master despite his rebellion.

We see glimmers of Christ’s descent to the grave, defeat of the powers, and glorious rise out the back of death, in Jonah’s inelegant transit. Jonah passes through the heart of the ravenous deep to new life, where the Powers vomit him onto the dry land. This is much how Death felt about Christ, a morsel that looked appealing until it stuck in the craw and choked the old beast to death, to be vomited out into the ‘dry land’ of the new creation.

East of the City

Jonah continues to act out the exodus after his crossing through the sea. After he’s preached his message of doom and the Ninevites have repented, he stalks out of Nineveh in disgust (4:1) at the Lord’s relenting of his promised disaster. He prays back to Yahweh his own declaration of his name from Exodus 33, deliberately shorn of the references to wrath and judgement.

Jonah attempts to indict the Lord on the basis of his own revelation, and begs to die. Yahweh’s response is aimed at the reader as much as Jonah: do you do well to be angry?

There’s a deliberate irony here among Jonah’s darkly comic story. The book tells us that God’s mercy extends to Gentiles; but as the story develops, we find that the truly surprising thing is that God’s mercy extends even to his own wayward Prophet. Jonah is wearing the guise of Pharaoh the snake-king as he drowns in the Red Sea, he wants those to whom Yahweh will show mercy to die. The Lord rescues not only the evil Ninevites but even Jonah. The sting in the story’s tail is that we find ourselves indicted similarly in our doubt that God would invite even the Ninevites to repent of their sins.

It’s easy for us to fall prey to the same sins. Do we truly love our enemies by praying that God would lead them to repentance? How do we feel about it if they do?

Jonah then leaves the city and heads east—out of Eden, the wrong way. He then tries to engage in a self-conscious exodus, moving east and building a booth to live in. He ‘comes out’ (yatsa) just as Israel did from Egypt (e.g. Exodus 12:41, Psalm 114:1). He is declaring with his actions that he judges Nineveh to be Egypt. He isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s an Egypt under Joseph who has come to worship Yahweh. 

We, knowing the end of the story and the northern kingdom’s sack by the Assyrians, can be sceptical about their conversion. It looks like it didn’t stick. But then, neither did Egypt’s. That didn’t mean that those souls didn’t turn from idols to the living God, or that their repentance wasn’t worthy of praise to the Lord.

Jonah was an exile in Nineveh, but in his inverted way he leaves the presence of God, in the city of his enemies, to travel on a singular exodus. He enters the desert for the same kind of testing as Israel in the Wilderness, his unbelief will be exposed in the same way. He moves east, thinking Nineveh to be Egypt, just as it became Eden. It is paradise—a city of enemies made friends—that he sits beyond and mopes, hoping for the eternal death of this newly born garden city. 

He casts himself as Moses leaving Egypt but sits in Balaam’s seat; he yearns to curse the city where God is determined to bless. He builds himself a booth, remembering the feast where the nation renews their obedience to God. He forgets that it’s a feast where Israel was commanded to welcome strangers and foreigners within the gates (Deuteronomy 16:14). It’s supposed to be a time of hospitality. Instead, he rejects those who come to the Lord’s Table.

We should cast our minds to Zechariah’s eschatological image of all the nations celebrating the feast of booths (Zechariah 14:16-19) and note that all those who refuse to come and celebrate will be struck with drought and plague. This image is fulfilled in the Lord’s Table. Jonah crouching outside this great city of the Gentiles—typological Babylon—rather than Jerusalem, is a twisted mirror to the promise that the Gentiles will escape plague and drought in the City of God. 

Jonah, we assume, intends to wait his 40 days (3:4) in the hope that the Lord will destroy this city; but Nineveh has passed the test and Jonah is now facing it himself. He is fighting Yahweh, and his victory will be his death. Then the Lord God—the only time both words are used together in Jonah, the God of Gentles and Yahweh of the Hebrews—appoints a gourd to grow for Jonah’s protection.

Phillip Cary argues that this gourd is a shoot from a stump, the line of David come to protect him (Jonah, 144-146), that literally delivers him from the heat of the sun (4:6) but hints at a greater deliverance; before the people waited outside the city for the Lord to come and deliver, now he has come we rejoice inside the city turned to God.

Then God destroys the gourd in which Jonah had turned to rejoicing. Yahweh disposes of even the kings of Israel, even the Christ goes to the worm. Jonah lives in the days of mystery, the line of David seemingly withering in the face of the east wind. This east wind is usually directed against God’s enemies (e.g. Exodus 10:13), but here it hits Jonah (cf. Hosea 13:15).

Anger at God’s lovingkindness to the nations—even the appallingly evil ones—or at his choice to die in the place of unrighteous sinners, does us no good. Our anger at his grace will lead us on a backward exodus. If we indulge those emotions, we will like Jonah become the Egypt, the Babylon, he despises, crying outside of Eden’s gates.

Despite Jonah’s protestations we discover the surprise of the mercy of God. All are called to repentance, and all who repent are welcomed into the city and to the table. As Jonah’s story ends with a question for us to consider whether or not we are ourselves Jonah, we see the startling results of the kindness of God—the nations repent at the preaching of the word (Matthew 12:38-41). Then the grace of Yahweh goes further: all of creation is freed, even the cows (Jonah 4:11).

T. M. Suffield is a Pastor, Writer, and University Manager from Birmingham, England. He tweets at @timsuffield. You can read more of his writing at

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