Jonah 2:1-10 (2:2-11)

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“And Jonah prayed to YHWH his God from the inward parts [belly (LXX)] of the fish.” The account does not include when he began to pray. It appears that when he found himself alive in the sea creature he recognized that YHWH had intervened to save him from drowning. Many of the thoughts in his prayer parallel words found in the book of Psalms. (2:1[2])

In this verse, the Hebrew word for “fish” (dagáh) is feminine gender. The change in gender from masculine (1:17 [2:1]) to feminine is immaterial, for Jonah would not have known whether the sea creature was male or female. (2:1[2])

In prayer, Jonah said, “I called to YHWH out of my distress, and he answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried; you heard my voice.” In view of the reference to waves in the next verse, the “belly of Sheol [Hades (LXX)]” seemingly is the sea, which Jonah thought would be his grave. If this is the case, the distress he experienced related to the sensation of drowning. The perceived answer to his appeal would have been the realization that he had not perished. In the Septuagint, the wording is slightly different. “In my distress, I cried to the Lord my God, and he heard me. Out of the belly of Hades you heard my outcry, my voice.”(2:2[3]; see the Notes section.)

“And you cast me into the deep [depths (LXX)], into the heart of the seas [of the heart of the sea (LXX)], and a stream [streams (LXX)] surrounded me. All your waves and your billows passed over me.” Although the seamen threw him overboard, Jonah could speak of YHWH has having done it, as his sending the tremendous storm led to this act. The expression “heart of the seas” may be understood to mean the “midst of the sea,” with the plural “seas” designating a huge body of water (the Mediterranean Sea). Once in the sea, Jonah would have been surrounded by water as if engulfed by a river, and the waves and billows would have passed over him. Acknowledging that the waves and billows were under the control of his God, he spoke of them as belonging to YHWH (“your waves and your billows”). (2:3[4]; see the Notes section.)

Jonah continued, “I have been driven away from before your eyes. How shall I again look upon your holy temple?” Thrown into the sea that he considered to be his grave, Jonah felt that he had been tossed away from before the eyes or the presence of YHWH his God. There seemed to be no possibility of his ever again beholding YHWH’s temple and worshiping him there. (2:4[5]; see the Notes section.)

“Waters encompassed me as far as [my] soul. The deep surrounded me. Weeds [a collective singular in Hebrew] were wrapped around my head.” The Septuagint rendering is similar. “Water poured around me as far as [my] soul. The uttermost abyss surrounded me.” There is no reference to “weeds,” but the concluding sentence in the Septuagint incorporates parts of the last phrase of this verse (“my head”) and of the first phrase of the next verse of the Hebrew text (the verb for “went down” or “sank” and “the mountains”). “My head sank into the clefts of the mountains.” (2:5[6])

Jonah must have felt that the water was closing in on him, rushing over his “soul” or his person. The “deep,” “abyss” (LXX), or sea completely surrounded him. As he sank below the water, seaweeds or marine algae would have wound around his head. (2:5[6]; see the Notes section.)

With reference to the mountains, there is uncertainty about the point to which Jonah sank. The plural form of the Hebrew word qétsev has commonly been translated “roots,” “bottoms,” and “base.” In relation to the mountains, the “bottoms” may designate the deepest part of the sea, where the ancients believed the mountains to have their base. The Septuagint refers to the “clefts of the mountains.” This suggests that the translator considered qétsev to be from a root that means “to cut.” (2:6[7])

The “land” to which Jonah considered himself as going down would be the realm of the dead. He envisioned himself as entering that land, with its bars shutting him in for unending time. What he dreaded did not happen. “And you,” Jonah continued, “brought up my life from the pit, O YHWH my God.” A similar wording is found in Psalm 30:3(4), “O YHWH, you brought up my soul from Sheol. You preserved me alive, [preventing me] from going down to the pit.” (2:6[7]; regarding the rendering of the Septuagint, see the Notes section.)

Jonah’s expression about his “soul” fainting could denote that he sensed that his life was slipping away. (Compare Psalm 142:3[4], where the phrase is the same with the exception that the word for “spirit” (not “soul”) is used and the reference seemingly is to being reduced to a weak and helpless state.) At this point, he remembered YHWH his God, the one from whom he had tried to get away to avoid going to Nineveh. In his dire condition, he made his appeal to YHWH. Because he had not perished, Jonah recognized that his prayer had reached YHWH in his “holy temple,” his heavenly sanctuary. (2:7[8]; compare Psalm 18:6[7].)

Persons who disregarded YHWH, giving attention to “idols of falsehood” (“vanities and lies” [LXX]), “abandoned their mercy.” (LXX) Idols are representations of nonexistent deities and, therefore, are worthless and untrustworthy, as are lies or falsehoods. The images can do nothing for those who venerate them. As expressed in the Septuagint, they are “vanities” or empty things and “lies” or delusions. (2:8[9])

The Hebrew word that denotes what the idolaters forsake is chésed, which may be defined as meaning “graciousness,” “enduring loyalty,” “steadfast love,” and “mercy.” It is a compassionate care and loving concern that expresses itself in action. In the Septuagint, chésed is here translated éleos (“mercy,” “pity,” or “compassion”). (2:8[9])

A number of translations interpretively render the verse to indicate that idolaters forsake their loyalty to God. “Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.” (GNT, Second Edition) “People who worship useless idols give up their loyalty to you.” (NCV) Others represent the idolaters as forsaking their hope of being shown steadfast love, forfeiting being shown grace or divine favor, or abandoning God, the one who extends mercy. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” (ESV) “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (NIV) “All who worship worthless idols turn from the God who offers them mercy.” (CEV) (2:8[9]

In his letter to the Romans (1:20-23, 28-31), the apostle Paul indicated that forsaking the worship of the true God and turning to the veneration of idols lead to moral corruption, which includes treating others in a merciless manner. So it may be that, with reference to the idolaters, the abandoning of “their mercy” (LXX) applies to a failure to be compassionate when that should be the humane response. (2:8[9])

Grateful that he had been preserved alive, Jonah promised to raise his voice in thanksgiving when sacrificing to YHWH (“with praise and acknowledgment” or thanksgiving, “I will sacrifice to you” [LXX]). In his desperate circumstances, he appears to have made a vow, and what he had vowed he resolved to fulfill. Jonah then acknowledged YHWH to be the source of deliverance. (2:9[10])

YHWH is represented as having spoken to the fish. This serves to indicate that what next happened was totally under God’s control and was not a spontaneous act that originated with the huge sea creature. In keeping with the divine command or directive or under the compelling power of God’s will, the fish disgorged Jonah upon the dry land. According to the Septuagint rendering, the sea creature did what it was “assigned from the Lord.” (2:10[11])

Notes

The words of the first part of verse 2(3) express the same thought as those of Psalm 120:1. (“To YHWH I called in my distress and he answered me.”) For the second half, verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 130 contain parallel wording. (“Out of the depths I called to you, O YHWH. O Lord, hear my voice.”)

Psalm 69:2(3) somewhat parallels the wording of the first part of Jonah 2:3(4). (“I have come into deep waters, and a stream rushes over me.”) The words of the second half of Jonah 2:3(4) and those of Psalm 42:7(8) are the same (“all your waves and your billows passed over me”).

A thought similar to Jonah 2:4(5) is found in Psalm 31:22(23). (“I have been cut off from before your eyes”).

Part of Psalm 69:1(2) contains wording like that of Jonah 2:5(6). (“Waters have come as far as [my] soul.”)

Based on the superscriptions that attribute to David a number of the psalms with parallel language in the book of Jonah, one may conclude that Jonah was so familiar with these compositions that he used the words to apply to his own situation.

According to fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and a number of other manuscripts, the phrase that includes the word for “life” (verse 6[7]) could be translated, “And let the corruption of my life ascend, O Lord my God.” This could denote that whatever was corrupt about Jonah’s life should ascend or be taken away from him. In certain other Greek manuscripts, the preposition ek (“from” or “out of”) precedes the word for “corruption,” conveying a more understandable significance. “And let my life ascend from corruption.” This would refer to the preservation of Jonah’s life, as it would not be undergoing corruption or decay.