Finding Jonah in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament is written in poetic form (“Jonah,” Bible Dictionary, 716). Nevertheless, the miraculous story it tells appears to be a historical event. The words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament suggest that he considered Jonah’s story to be true. Jesus referred to Jonah on at least two occasions (see Matt. 12:39-41, 16:4; Luke 11:29-30). In modern times, President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “I believe … the story of Jonah. My chief reason for so believing is not the fact that it is recorded in the Bible, … but in the fact that Jesus Christ, our Lord, believed it.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954-56), 2:314.)
References to the story of Jonah in other scriptures tend to strengthen both the historicity of the story and the gospel truths it embodies. Some references to this story appear in the form of allusions. Allusion is a literary tool in which the author makes an implied or indirect reference to an event or story with which the audience is already familiar. Thus, the author’s words bring to the mind of the reader the images of the familiar event or story. To those who share this familiarity, the author’s words are much more meaningful, being strengthened by the added meaning of an entire untold story. The words that make up the allusion have meaning even to readers who do not make the connection to the untold story. These readers understand the basic meaning of the words, but are left out of the additional significance provided by the familiar event or story. It is possible that two passages in the Book of Mormon were written with the assumption that the reader would recognized an unstated comparison with the miraculous events of Jonah’s ordeal of being cast into a stormy sea. This possible connection can enhance the meaning found in these passages.
The Story of Jonah
As the story of Jonah begins, the Lord instructs Jonah to preach repentance to the great city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2). Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a powerful enemy of ancient Israel (“Nineveh,” Bible Dictionary, 738). Rather than obey the command of the Lord, Jonah chose to flee to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). The Tarshish towards which Jonah booked passage was probably an ancient Spanish port city also known as Tartessus (“Tarshish,” Bible Dictionary, 780). It would seem that Jonah sought to sail to a port that was about as distant as one might reach on the Mediterranean Sea. As the ship sailed towards Tarshish, “the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea,” which threatened to destroy the ship. The mariners all cried to their various gods to no avail. The shipmaster awoke Jonah, who was sleeping, and asked him to call upon his god. Jonah told the mariners that he was trying to flee from the presence of God. Knowing that he was the cause of the tempest, Jonah asked the men, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” The men at first would not listen to Jonah, but tried to row the ship to land. When that failed, asking God to forgive them, they obeyed Jonah, casting him into the sea. When they did so, the sea “ceased from her raging” (Jonah 1:4-16). Jonah, however, did not drown in the depths of the sea. Rather, “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). After that, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). Jonah then went to Nineveh and preached the word of God, saving the people of Nineveh from destruction (Jonah 3).
The Historical Context of Jonah
The historical context of the story of Jonah is suggested in a comparison of a passage in the Book of Jonah with a passage in Second Kings. The first verse in the Book of Jonah identifies Jonah as the son of Amittai. In Second Kings, we learn that “Jonah, the son of Amittai,” (presumably, the same person) had prophesied certain things about a king named Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23-25). From this reference, we can infer that Jonah was an actual person who lived at the time of this King Jeroboam. Because this King Jeroboam reigned near 790 BC, Bible scholars have concluded that Jonah prophesied at that time. Thus, Jonah lived about fifty years before the time of Isaiah and almost two hundred years before the time of Lehi. It appears that the Book of Jonah was not written by Jonah. It was likely written by some later writer (“Jonah,” Bible Dictionary, 716). This may explain in part why the Book of Jonah appears in the Bible between Obadiah and Micah, both of whom are believed to have lived long after Jonah (“Chronology,” Bible Dictionary, 638-639). So, while it is unlikely that the Book of Jonah itself was included in the Brass Plates, it is plausible that the story of Jonah could have been included in some other form.
What Was the Great Fish?
It is not necessary that we understand exactly what species of sea creature swallowed Jonah. However, our understanding of the story may be enhanced if we understand the meanings of the various ancient words used in the Bible to describe this creature. The Hebrew words used in the Book of Jonah, dag gadol, mean literally, “great fish” (Halava, Neil, ed. Greek & Hebrew Lexicons, Elizabethton, TN: Eagle Computing, 1991). The Greek word used in the New Testament and translated into English as “whale” is ketos. This word means “huge fish” and can refer to “any kind of sea monster of the shark or whale tribe” (“whale,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary). The key consideration here is that the ancient words used to describe the sea creature that swallowed Jonah are not as limiting as the English word “whale.” The Hebrew words dag gadol can refer to any large fish. The Greek word ketos can refer to any of a broad class of monstrous sea creatures. These words could accurately refer to a whale, a great white shark, some other large sea creature, or even some large fish created and placed in the sea by God for this specific purpose. Because the story takes place in the Mediterranean Sea, the most likely native sea monster would be the great white shark. (No large whales are native to the Mediterranean Sea.) Some great white sharks exceed 20 feet in length, probably large enough to swallow a man whole.
The Miracle of Jonah
Whether the “sea monster” that swallowed Jonah was a great white shark or some other large sea creature is not as important as the fact that the Lord allowed Jonah to arrive on the shore alive three days later. Only through divine intervention could Jonah be alive three days after he was thrown into the tempestuous sea and swallowed by a monstrous sea creature. Any who argue that Jonah’s story is a myth because no man could survive for three days in the digestive tract of a large fish do not understand the things of God. As an angel explained to Mary, “with God, nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Our God is a God of miracles. As Moroni exclaimed, “Behold, are not the things that God hath wrought marvelous in our eyes? Yea, and who can comprehend the marvelous works of God?” (Mormon 9:16).
It is not clear whether the miracle provided to Jonah was to sustain his life while inside the fish or to restore it after he had died there. The poetic text suggests that he may have died in the belly of the fish. Jonah says, “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 2:2). The Hebrew word translated as “hell” is sheol. This word means “the abode of the dead” (J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 1:318) and is used here “as a direct reference to what Latter-day Saints call the spirit world” (Nyman, Monte S., and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds. Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament. Religious Studies Center Monograph Series, Volume 10, p. 101. Provo UT.) Either the term sheol is being used figuratively or Jonah’s spirit went to the spirit world while his body remained encased in the belly of the great fish. The text of the Book of Jonah continues, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul.” The related footnote in the LDS edition of the Bible states: “IE to the point of death” (Jonah 2:5, footnote a). The next verse contains a similar reference to the permanence of death. “The earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God” (Jonah 2:6).
Perhaps Jehovah sustained Jonah’s life in a situation that would normally have brought death, as happened in the case of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6), or Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Perhaps Jonah died and Jehovah brought him back to life, as happened with the widow’s son through Elijah (I Kings 17), or with Lazarus through the word of the Savior himself (John 11). In either case, the continuation of Jonah’s life on earth came by the grace and power of God. The miracle, however, is not limited to the fact that Jonah’s life was preserved or restored. This harrowing experience was also instrumental in saving him from Satan. Prior to this experience, Jonah was shirking his duty as a prophet. The suffering he experienced in “the belly of hell” prompted him to repent. Thus, an important part of the miracle was Jonah’s repentance, which allowed for his redemption from hell and his return to Jehovah. The frightening experiences of being thrown into the stormy sea and then swallowed by a shark or other large sea creature were designed by God not to hurt Jonah, but to save him.
Jesus and the Sign of Jonas
Jesus referred to the story of Jonah to prophesy his own death, burial and resurrection. He said: “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-41). This reference to Jonas (Jonah) would have been extremely meaningful to any Jews who were trying to understand with the Spirit. They might have learned that Jesus would be in the tomb for a period of time similar to that which Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish . But the symbolic comparison between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the experience of Jonah in the sea does not end there. Jonah was buried in the sea and entombed in the belly of the great fish. His spirit may have left his body and gone to sheol (the spirit world). He was brought up out of the water by the power of God where he breathed freely in a newness of life. Being saved himself, he was able to bring salvation to the wicked city of Nineveh. Similarly, Jesus died and was entombed in the “heart of the earth.” While his body lay in the tomb, his spirit traveled to the spirit world to rescue souls there from prison (See 1 Peter 3:18-19; D&C 138.) Because he was Jehovah, he had the power to take up his life again. Christ’s victory over the grave allowed him to bring salvation to all mankind.
The story of Jonah not only provides a vivid symbol of salvation from death and hell, but also enhances the symbolism in the ordinance of baptism. Jonah sinned by trying to flee from the presence of the Lord. Before he could be redeemed, he was buried in the sea and entombed in the belly of the great fish. He may have died under the water. Finally, he was brought up out of the water by the power of God where he breathed freely in a new life. Jonah’s experience in the sea can strengthen our understanding of the following words of Paul: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). It is not hard to think of baptism by immersion as symbolic of being buried and then resurrected. However, we are normally buried in the earth, not in water. The analogy becomes more potent when we remember the story of Jonah, a man who was, in fact, buried in water and then raised up by God from a watery grave to walk in a newness of life.
A Modern Allusion
It appears that the miraculous story of Jonah in the sea is alluded to by Jesus Christ in his words of consolation to Joseph Smith. In the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, the Savior alludes to Jonah’s desperate circumstances and deliverance in a powerful assurance to Joseph Smith that even tragic events can, with God’s help, be for our good.
“If thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
This message of assurance to Joseph Smith uses imagery that is meaningful even to someone unacquainted with the story of Jonah. If read in light of the story of Jonah, however, the imagery is much more reassuring. Those of us who recognize the allusion to the story of Jonah not only see a connection among the three images of being cast into the sea, a storm at sea, and facing the jaws of hell, we also know the rest of the story. We know that Jehovah intervened to save Jonah from the storm, the sea and certain death. We know that this terrifying experience proved to be for Jonah’s good. We know that Jehovah can rescue his prophets even from death and hell. Thus, the allusion to the story of Jonah adds a powerful assurance that fearful events such as these can be for the good of the sufferer.
Possible Book of Mormon Allusions
We have no direct evidence as to whether the brass plates (the version of the Old Testament possessed by Book of Mormon prophets) contained the story of Jonah. There is some indirect evidence that indicates that the Nephites might have known this story. Two of the Nephite twelve were named Jonas (Jonah) (3 Nephi 19:4). The brass plates contained many of the prophecies of Isaiah, so it is conceivable that they also contained an account of the story of Jonah, who predated Isaiah. The following passages may indicate that the Book of Mormon prophets Jacob and Alma were acquainted with Jonah’s story.
Alma may have purposefully paralleled Jonah’s story.
One beautifully poetic passage in the Book of Mormon is Alma’s story of repentance and redemption as told to his son Helaman in Alma 36. Some Latter-day Saint scholars have detailed five parallels between Alma’s story and that of Jonah. “Both refused to ‘save’ the souls of those they were called to serve. Both ‘died’ and were ‘racked with eternal torment’ in ‘hell.’ Both felt the ‘chains of the abyss’ or ‘everlasting death’ weighing them down. Both finally turned to the Savior, remembering his power to atone for the sins of all mankind. Both became diligent servants for their God, testifying of the importance of repentance and the effective application of the Atonement in their lives and the lives of their ‘charges.’” (Nyman, Monte S., and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds. Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament. Religious Studies Center Monograph Series, Volume 10, p. 102. Provo UT.)
At least two other significant parallels exist between these two stories. First, Jonah was in “the belly of hell” and Alma “was tormented with the pains of hell” for the same period of time—three days and three nights. Second, just as Jonah sought to flee “from the presence of the Lord,” Alma desired that he “might not be brought to stand in the presence of [his] God.”
Whether these seven similarities between the stories of Jonah and Alma are coincidental or purposeful, they highlight the repentance process through which we must pass to accept the Savior’s atonement in our behalf.
Like Jonah and Alma, many of us have been blessed with crises that forced us to realize we were headed the wrong way. Our suffering has prompted us to seek the Lord in humble prayer. After our contrition and confession has come the miracle of forgiveness, accompanied by joy and newness of life. The surprisingly similar stories of Alma and Jonah both serve to help us understand the importance of this painful process, which has brought many of us back to the fold of Christ.
Jacob may have compared Death and Hell to Jonah’s Great Fish
Jonah’s experience of being saved from the suffocating belly of a shark or other sea monster from which there was no conceivable deliverance provides a convincing context for Jacob’s words describing our deliverance from the terrible powers of death and hell. It is quite possible that Jacob’s description of death, hell and Satan as a “monster” alludes to the story of the “sea monster” that held Jonah in its deadly grasp.
In our time, the term monster calls to mind an ugly, usually man-like creature that may or may not be large. As used in the Book of Mormon, however, the term monster seems to refer to size, ferocity, or a combination of the two. In another Book of Mormon passage, the term monster of the sea refers to a large, fierce sea creature. That passage says that the people of Jared, who were in barges on the sea, were protected so that “no monster of the sea would break them, neither whale that could mar them” (Ether 6:11). Perhaps the word monster was used by Jacob as an allusion to the “monster of the sea” that swallowed Jonah.
Consider the following passages in light of the story of Jonah:
“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. … Wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel. …
“O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment. …
“For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 9:10, 12, 19, and 26).
The comparison of death and hell to a monster has value to any reader. However, the meaning of this passage is much more dramatic if the monster is seen as a sea monster, such as a great white shark, that has swallowed us whole, and in whose grasp we are suffocating until God frees us, allowing us to breathe again. Jacob may have purposefully alluded to Jonah’s plight to dramatize his point. A connection with the story of Jonah could give added meaning to Jacob’s repeated references to the “lake” (or sea?) in which we are tormented and give emphasis to his statement that we will be restored to that God who gave us “breath.”
It is interesting to note that the three things represented by this “monster” are the three things from which Jonah was saved when the Lord freed him from the large fish or sea monster. Coming out of the sea, Jonah had been saved from death, hell and the devil. His life had been saved; he was delivered from the pains of hell; and he had repented of the things the devil had tempted him to do. The connection to Jonah puts the intangible concepts of salvation from death and hell into the very tangible arena of a miraculous rescue from the grasp of a powerful shark or other sea monster. Few things seem as hopeless and final as the fate of a man thrown into the sea and seized by a vicious shark. Such would be the finality of death and hell were it not for “the greatness of the mercy of our God,” who “delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment” (2 Nephi 9:19). The miraculous manner in which Jehovah saved Jonah from death in the sea and in the belly of a sea creature creates intense imagery to help us understand Jehovah’s loving kindness and his ability to save us all from death, hell, and Satan. This imagery adds meaning to a number of scriptural passages, including two passages in the Book of Mormon, which, intentionally or not, contain interesting similarities to Jehovah’s rescue of Jonah from death, hell, and the devil.