And the L-rd appointed a big fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. – Jonah 2:1(1:17)
The book of the prophet Jonah is read each year during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. Its four chapters tell the story of a prophet who was told to go and pronounce HaShem’s judgement upon Nineveh but ran away, was caught in flight by an adventure including a wild storm at sea and being swallowed by an enormous fish, repented and was given a second chance to deliver the message, proclaimed Hashem’s judgement in the city and saw heartfelt repentance by its king and inhabitants, and finally learned about HaShem’s compassion by grieving over a gourd plant provided to give him shelter. The word gadol, an adjective – meaning anything from big to great or huge – is an important word in the book of Jonah, appearing no less than fourteen times; the storm, the fish, the sailors’ fear and the city of Nineveh (three times) are all described using the word. This repetition carries the subliminal message that the story is about more than its strict narrative value; it is a big story!
The text comes at the first break in the narrative. Jonah has run away and taken a ship to Tarshish, but the ship has been overcome by a big storm. After waking Jonah – who has been asleep in the bottom of the ship – he is shown by drawing lots to be the reason for the storm and is thrown overboard, at his own suggestion, by the ship’s crew. This is the end of Jonah, we think; drowning is too good for a man who has so deliberately and flagrantly disobeyed HaShem. As Jonah is heaved over the side and into the raging sea, the storm subsides, the sailors offer sacrifices and that is the end of that. Jonah has received his just deserts and has been drowned in the last throes of the tempest. But no, HaShem has other plans; the message still needs to be delivered to Nineveh and a storm-tossed prophet will look quite dramatic preaching the wrath of G-d and a sermon of divine retribution. So instead of drowning, just when he must have thought his end had come, Jonah finds himself being swallowed by a huge fish. The word dag covers all shapes and sizes of fish, from the ones caught on the Sea of Galilee upwards; contrary to popular belief, the text never once calls the fish a whale!
Jonah goes down below the waves into the mea, the belly or bowels of the fish. Perhaps being eaten is better than drowning, he thinks, as he is swallowed. Peter Southwell  points out that this is simply the last of a series of descents: the great wind hurled down on the sea (1:14), the cargo being thrown into the sea (1:5), Jonah “going down” to Joppa (1:2) and into the heart of the ship (1:5), Jonah being thrown into the sea (1:15) and finally into the belly of the fish (2:1). All this, Southwell suggests, to emphasise the invincible power and purpose of the L-rd in heaven over the lives of those who disobey Him. Rashi claims that it was the miracle of the fish that convinced Jonah that HaShem wanted to save his life and still had a purpose for him. The Talmudic sages say that several miracles took place: that the fish was large enough to swallow Jonah whole without injuring him; and that Jonah had enough air to breathe. The Radak is amazed that “Jonah was able to maintain enough sanity and calm to compose a thanksgiving prayer to G-d.”
The first word of the verse tells us about something important that is going on. The verb vay-man – the Pi’el 3ms prefix form of the root mem-nun-heh, “to appoint, constitute, destine”, or followed by a lamed preposition: to appoint, assign (Davidson) – in a vav-conversive construction to make it past tense narrative, here means “and he appointed”, the ‘he’ subject being the following word HaShem! The fish wasn’t there by accident; it didn’t happen to be passing, to look up through the water and see Jonah as a tasty mouthful waiting to be swallowed. The fish was appointed, arranged, scheduled, perhaps even created “to swallow” Jonah. That was why Jonah was in the belly of the fish. This was a divine appointment, specifically set up and organised by HaShem to bring about Jonah’s repentance and simultaneously, dramatise his appearance for maximum effect in Nineveh: a man bleached white by the fish’s stomach acids, hair, clothes and all! Rabbi Hirsch comments that the use of vay-man in the narrative form rather than the simple past tense tells us that the appointing of the fish took place ‘now’ when Jonah actually needed it, at the point of death, rather than having been pre-arranged. This was a precision event.
The period of three days is not unique in the Scriptures. The Living Nach  points to the story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, “Scripture states: Yosef has his brothers placed under arrest for three days. On the third day, Joseph said to them, ‘If you do as I say, you will live … One of you will be held hostage … the rest can go and bring supplies to your hungry families’ (B’resheet 42:17-19). From this we learn that G-d does not leave the righteous to suffer for more than three days (B’resheet Rabbah 91:7). This is also evident from Joseph (in the pit), Jonah, Mordechai and David.” The Orthodox Study Bible adds that “Three days and three nights is a prophetic type of Christ’s three day sojourn in the ‘heart of the earth'”. Peter explains what Yeshua was doing at that time: “For the Messiah Himself died for sins, once and for all, a righteous person on behalf of unrighteous people, so that he might bring you to G-d. He was put to death in the flesh but brought to life by the Spirit; and in this form He went and made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, to those who were disobedient long ago, in the days of Noach, when G-d waited patiently during the building of the ark, in which a few people – to be specific, eight – were delivered by means of water” (1 Peter 3:18-20, CJB).
Let’s re-examine Yeshua’s own words in Matthew’s gospel. He starts with a rebuke: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39, ESV), because the religious leaders are seeking a sign rather than looking around them at everything that Yeshua was doing and the teaching that He was sharing. They were refusing the many signs of the kingdom that were available and trying to insist on a sign of their own. “For just 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” (v.40, ESV). Then He very carefully and explicitly sets out the parameters and conditions of the only sign that will be given to them, as a result of their rejection not only of the other many signs that He was doing (not as signs, but as gifts demonstrating the presence of the kingdom) but also of Himself. “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (v. 41, ESV). Lastly, He points out that the righteousness of the men of Nineveh “exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees” (5:20, ESV) because they did believe the prophet whom G-d sent, while this generation do not.
The question today is whether we believe that Yeshua fulfilled that prophetic sign. By standard Church interpretation, Yeshua cannot be who He said He was because He did not meet His own criteria. The Church teaches that He was crucified on Friday, but only buried of the cusp of sunset and the next day starting. Counting from there gives Fright night, Saturday day, Saturday night and Sunday day – rising in the morning, half-way through the Jewish day, gives only two days and two nights in the grave. Even if we allow a stretch to count Friday daytime as one day, we still only have three days and two nights. The sign fails. Church tradition and mis-understanding of both the gospel texts and Jewish tradition has broken Yeshua’s own prophecy and made Him out to be a false prophet.
If instead we follow Jewish tradition and the Pesach commandments in Shemot chapter twelve, taking Palm Sunday as the tenth of Nisan (when the lamb was to be taken into the house) then the fourteenth of Nisan (the day of slaughter) comes on Thursday, so that Yeshua was crucified at the same time that all the Pesach lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple, the count then runs: Thursday night, Friday day, Fright night, Saturday day, Saturday night and Sunday day – giving the correct count of three days and three nights. Yeshua did fulfil this prophecy – as He fulfilled all the others – perfectly. The Church needs to correct its teaching and seek forgiveness for breaking Yeshua’s greatest sign! What better day to do that than Yom Kippur!
1. – The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford University Press 2001, page 593.
2. – The Living Nach, Moznaim Publishers, Brooklyn, NY, 1995
Further Study: Jonah 3:4-5; Philippians 3:8-11
Application: Have you allowed church tradition and teaching to blind you to who Yeshua really is? Today it is time to reclaim the truth and acknowledge just how accurate the gospel and their Divine Author are and be reassured that they do tell a consistent and correct story after all!