Jonah: Testimony of the Resurrection

LeGrande Davies

LeGrande Davies, “Jonah: Testimony of the Resurrection,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 89–104.

In Luke 11:29 & 14;32, Jesus says concerning the sign of Jonah:

And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was a sign unto the Ninevites, so also shall the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here. [1]

A similar statement is found in Matthew 12:39–41, except the Lord adds in verse 40, “For as Jonah 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.” The King James Version says “whale,” but the Greek word is ketos, which means “huge fish.” [2]

Jesus declared that the sign of Jonah would witness his three days of death and burial in the grave and then his return to the world of the living. Matthew 16:4 contains another statement concerning the sign of Jonah. “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah. And he left them and departed.” In 2 Kings 14:25 “Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet” is mentioned as having prophesied concerning Jeroboam II. No other mention of Jonah is made in scripture, except in the small book of Jonah, which has always caused considerable stir in both academic and religious circles.

The book of Jonah, with four short chapters, is tremendously provocative in content. Stands concerning its authenticity and purpose have been debated extensively. Robert H. Pfeiffer declared, “The story of Jonah, written about 350 to 320 B.C., is not an account of actual happenings nor an allegory of the destiny of Israel nor of the Messiah. It is fiction, a short story with a moral.” [3] Edward Young retorted:

It should be noted that Christ believed in the historicity of the miracles recorded in Jonah and the historicity of the prophet’s mission to the Ninevites. Hence we cannot regard the book as legendary and unhistorical in character. For the believer in Jesus, it is sufficient that in God’s miraculous power the prophet was kept alive in the belly of a fish for three days. [4]

These two statements identify the two widely divergent extremes, both of which are equally inaccurate.

The critical reviews of the book of Jonah show as many conclusions as there are authors who have written about it. It has been concluded that the story of Jonah was nothing but a legend told by a good storyteller, or perhaps a “legendary narrative attached to a historical prophet in the reign of Jeroboam II by a later writer,” and also that “the book was not nearly so old as the prophet and shows definite influences of Deutero-Isaiah.” [5] It is “in no sense literal history,” while for others it is in every sense literal. It is an allegory of the coming rebirth of the land of Israel, or of the Messiah; or it is merely a moralistic story or a typical hero cycle which Joseph Campbell calls the “Monomyth.”

Each of these divergent conclusions has been reached by a different method of analysis: technical higher criticism, comparison with historical records, the presence or absence of archaeological evidences, but, most common, mere pronouncement. Regardless of the conclusions drawn or the methods used, only one general consensus prevails: There is no definite physical evidence known at the present time that can either prove or disprove the book of Jonah. Whether it is valid or invalid, historical or unhistorical, literal or allegorical, is strictly a matter of personal preference. It was with these divergent conclusions in mind that I decided to write this paper.

Latter-day Saints hold the basic premise that the book of Jonah is acceptable scripture and as such is “true.” However, the questions “Did Jonah really live?” and “How was he able to survive in the belly of a whale?” are generally considered the most important issues related to the book of Jonah. “Fantastic stories” have been found, manipulated, and propounded to show the historicity of the book, and parallels of sailors surviving in whales’ bellies are run past in endless display. [6] Few discussions are concerned with the context and commentary of the Savior when he made reference to Jonah in his preaching.

The basic story of Jonah is that of a prophet called by God to minister but who does not want to fulfill that calling. At the beginning of chapter 1 we find Jonah setting sail from the port of Joppa for Tarshish, which has been identified as Sardinia, [7] paying his own fare on a ship. Promptly after boarding the ship, he goes down into the hold and falls into a deep sleep. He is in this stupor of sleep until “the steersman” or “the master of the ship” awakens him and makes him arise, saying to him, “What are you sleeping for? Get up. Call upon your God. Don’t you know that we are all about to perish?” (Jonah 1:7.) Jonah goes up onto the deck and finds the sailors about to cast lots to find out who—not what, but who—is the cause of the terrible storm that is upon them. The lot falls upon Jonah. They ask him, “Who are you? Where are you from? What God do you worship?” Their considerable curiosity seems centered in his relationship with his God and why his God would take such an interest in such a seemingly insignificant and common man. Why would the God of Israel be so angry with Jonah? What has he done that would make his God seek him out even outside the confines of his own country? And finally, they wondered what kind of a God had such power over the whole world. Jonah acknowledges that he is the cause of their problems, that he is a Hebrew and is trying to flee an appointment by the God of Israel. The last acknowledgment is rather moot, however, because, as is noted in Jonah 1:10, the crew already knew that he was trying to escape from his God when they took him on board. Admitting he is the cause of the storm, he asks them to throw him overboard, but they refuse; instead they try to save him by “rowing hard toward shore” (Jonah 1:13). Unsuccessful, they pray to the Lord in essence:

Lord, we recognize that you must be the God of all the world, we understand Jonah has a problem with you. We don’t want you to hold us accountable for this man’s death or his problem. We are going to throw him overboard. He is in your hands to do as you see fit.

They do, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (the word dag gadol is used here, meaning a large or great fish). For three days and three nights he is in the belly of that large fish. “Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly” (Jonah 2:1), but his prayer or psalm is uttered in such a way as to show that by this time he is already out of the fish. He says:

I called to the Lord in my distress,

and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help,

and thou hast heard my cry. (Jonah 2:2.)

The term Sheol, or hell, is used here as a direct reference to what Latter-day Saints call the spirit world. Sheol should not be defined as most Christian denominations define hell; it is strictly the place where the spirits of all people go when they die. J. H. Hertz indicates that “Sheol [is] the name of the abode of the dead.” [8] Thus, the conclusion elucidated by the Hebrew text, Jonah was dead! In that condition his spirit continued to pray, being fearful about the things that were happening and would continue to happen to him. He cried that the water was closing around his neck and he was sinking into a world whose bars would hold him fast forever. He was sinking fast into an eternal damnation; an eternal as well as a physical death. He was afraid that he would be permanently dead, that the gift of escape promised in Psalms would not be available to him.

Therefore my heart exults

and my spirit exults and my spirit rejoices,

my body too rests unafraid;

for thou wilt not abandon me in Sheol

nor suffer thy faithful servant to see the pit. (Psalm 30:4; see also 86:13; 16:10.)

Then Jonah, stretched to his final breaking point, declared his allegiance to the Lord and his recognition that his salvation had come from the Lord.

I was sinking into the world

whose bars would hold me fast forever.

But thou didst bring me up alive from the pit, O Lord my God.

As my senses failed me I remembered the Lord,

and my prayer reached thee in thy holy temple.

Men who worship false gods may abandon their loyalty,

But I will offer thee sacrifice with words of praise.

I will pay my vows; victory is the Lord’s.

Then the Lord spoke to the fish

and it spewed Jonah out onto dry land. (Jonah 2:6–10.)

Jonah’s saga continues as he goes to the city of Nineveh. As a “prophet” he calls the people to repentance. When they repent, Jonah, strangely enough, is not pleased, but would rather that God destroy them. He then prays to the Lord, demanding Nineveh’s destruction. The image comes to mind of Jonah sitting on top of the hill rubbing his hands together and saying, “Get them, Lord. You know I preached to them, now get them.” When God refuses, Jonah becomes very angry, saying:

I knew that thou art “a god gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and ever constant, and willing to turn away the disaster” [here he is quoting Exodus 34:6].

And now, Lord, take my life: I should be better dead than alive. (Jonah 4:2–3.)

This last statement sounds almost like the cry of Elijah when he felt he had failed in his mission (see 1 Kings 19). Jonah’s perception of his mission was different from the Lord’s and he tried to force his ideas on the Lord. He wanted to destroy the people of Nineveh, but God forgave them. In the midst of Jonah’s rebellion, the Lord introduces a kikion tree, to grow up, shelter and protect Jonah from the heat of the sun, [9] for which Jonah is very grateful. But in the night a worm eats out the inside of the plant, and when the sun comes up and the hot east winds or “death winds” off the deserts blow, it withers and dies. To Jonah’s distress God then asks, “Are you so angry over the kikion?” “Yes,” Jonah answers, “I am very angry about it.” The Lord replies, “You are sorry for the kikion but you didn’t have any part in growing it. It is a plant which came in the night and withered in the night, and why should not I be sorry or feel concerned for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:6–11.)

The outlined story of Jonah seems like a nice little “myth,” “hero cycle,” or “miracle story” that doesn’t seem to merit all the concern given it.

Meaning and interpretations of scripture have always been considered on at least two parallel levels: the literal and the spiritual. Umberto Cassuto has stated that this “parallelism is apparently intended by scripture in accordance with its principle that the experiences of the fathers foreshadow those of the descendents.” [10] This should be considered the rudiment principle for understanding the structure of all scriptures. Thus Jonah’s importance is governed as much by his power for foreshadowing the lives of the “descendents” as it is by his literal being.

Typological interpretation was recognized by ancient Israel and Judaism as a legitimate inquiry into history. This is clearly evidenced by such prophets as Hosea (Hosea 12:10) and by the many anecdotes and stories contained in the Talmud and other Jewish writings. Recently the use of symbolism and typology to interpret some of the enigmas of early Israelite “myths” into understandable “historical sequences” has been used rather extensively by such scholars as G. Mendenhall, G. E. Wright, Umhau Wolf, W. F. Albright, and John Bright. [11]

To interpret Jonah by using a typological, symbolical, or foreshadowing method should thus be not only acceptable but necessary if one is seeking to understand the full implications of the book and its message.

Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade have both made considerable contributions to the study of symbolism and typologies by intense scrutiny of the literature they label “myths” and “hero stories.”

Eliade says: “Myth means a ‘true story’ . . . [which] is always an account of a creation; it relates how something was produced, began to be. Myth tells only of that which really happened, which manifested itself completely.” [12] He then outlines five criteria for the “structure and function” of myths:

1. [Myth] constitutes the History of the acts of the Supernaturals. . . .

2. This History is considered to be absolutely true (because it is concerned with realities) and sacred (because it is the work of the Supernaturals). . . .

3. Myth is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts. . . .

4. By knowing the myth one knows the “origin’’ of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an “external,” “abstract” knowledge but a knowledge that one “experiences” ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification. . . .

5. In one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted. [13]

For Eliade, “myths,” or the things that really happen, are the most true and the most real of all events and must be experienced by man; they must also assist him in coming to “God.” This is most often, but not always, attained by making myths into repeatable rituals; it may be attained by the use of an intense means of recall.

Campbell suggests the following:

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: [as outlined by Eliade] separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. [14]

Campbell further breaks down the three parts of the “nuclear unit” of the monomyth. The first part, “Separation from the World,” includes five major points:

1. The Call to Adventure or the Herald

2. Refusal of the Call—or folly of the flight from God

3. Supernatural Aid—benign, protecting, power of destiny

4. Crossing the first threshold—Guards—bestowers of’’ magic’’ power

5. Whale’s Belly—Death

Each of the other two parts is divided into six points, some of which are ‘‘Rescue from Without,” “Master of Two Worlds,” and “Freedom to Live or Resurrection and Rebirth.” [15]

When the history of Jonah is considered in the context of symbolic interpretation and measured against Eliade’s criteria for a “true myth,” it fulfills all the requirements of a “true story” or “myth” which “really” happened. Its importance is in telling how the spiritual principles of repentance and resurrection work and how to control and manipulate them.

When Jonah is analyzed using Campbell’s criteria for the adventure of the “hero,” it also correlates with great precision. For example, Campbell’s “call to adventure” is fulfilled in Jonah 1:1–2 when the Lord calls Jonah to go to Nineveh. The “refusal of the call” is most obvious when he flees physically by the ship from Joppa, and spiritually by sleeping in the hold of the ship (Jonah 1:3–5). “Supernatural aid” of the “benign” nature is given by the steersman, the lots, and “the rowing hard for shore” (Jonah 1:6–9). Jonah “crosses the first threshold” through great danger when he is finally thrown into the sea by the crew (Jonah 1:11–15). Finally, in his “separation from the world” Jonah enters the “whale’s belly” or death in dag gadol, the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1). Campbell says:

This popular motif [the whale’s belly] gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self annihilation . . . the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes, unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world are one and the same. [16]

Each of the other two parts of the monomyth matches up with similar detail. Jonah is the epitome of Campbell’s “adventurous mythological hero.”

Both Eliade and Campbell stress that “myths” which match the patterns just outlined are concerned with the means by which a man experiences a “new birth”—the old man dies; a new man is born.

Erwin Goodenough [17] has also discussed the symbolic value of the fish in Judaism, trying to show its origins and uses. He says the fish is the pious student, the Messiah, sacramental or eucharistic food, a sign of fertility, and finally a symbol of the hope of immortality. It is in this final category that he places the fish in the story of Jonah:

It is quite possible that a Jewish Jonah existed in art as an antetype to the Jonah so early and commonly found on Christian graves. Indeed one amulet [previously thought to be Christian] . . . seems more probably Jewish . . . [with] this value of giving immortality. [18]

The three days and three nights Jonah was in the belly of the fish, followed by his release, was a very old Jewish tradition and “symbolized the resurrection from the dead . . . which Christians took over for Jesus.” [19]

Goodenough also briefly interpreted the “elaborately allegorized” recounting of the story of Jonah recorded in the Zohar: “[It] has preserved from the early period much of the Judaism of nonrabbinic Jews.” [20] In this particular case it contains material which was also compatible with at least some of the rabbinic material. Though the Zohar is a very late work, it must at least be recognized as an authentic tradition carrier from much earlier times. [21] As the account in the Zohar is rather long, only some of the salient points will be identified.

In the story of Jonah we have a representation of the whole of man’s career in this world. Jonah descending into the ship is symbolic of man’s soul that descends into this world to enter into his body. . . . Man, then, is in this world as in a ship that is traversing the great ocean and is like to be broken, as it says, “so that the ship was like to be broken “(Jonah 1, 4). Furthermore, man in this world commits sins, imagining that he can flee from the presence of his Master, who takes no notice for this world. . . . It is [man’s doom] which assails the ship and calls to mind man’s sins that it may seize him; and the man is thus caught by the tempest and is struck down by illness, just as Jonah “went down into the innermost part of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. Although the man is thus prostrated, his soul does not exert itself to return to his Master in order to make good his omissions. So “The shipmaster came to him,” to wit, the good prompter, who is the general steersman, “and said unto him: What meanest thou that thou sleepest? Arise, call upon thy God,” etc.; it is not a time to sleep, as they are about to take thee up to be tried for all that thou hast done in this world. Repent of thy sins. Reflect on these things and return to thy Master. . . . They bring him to judgment before the Heavenly Tribunal that tempest, that is none other than the judgment doom which raged against him, demands from the King the punishment of all the King’s prisoners, and then all the King’s counsellors appear before Him one by one, and the Tribunal is set up. Should the man be found guilty, as in the case of Jonah, then “the men rowed hard to bring it to the land, but they could not”; find points in his favour and strive to restore him to this world, but they cannot; “for prosecution storms and rages against him, and, convicting him of his sins, prevails against his defenders. . . . Regarding such a man it is written, “and they cast him forth into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging,’’ that is, only after they have placed him in the grave, which is the raging. For the fish that swallowed him is, in fact, the grave; and so “Jonah was in the belly of the fish,” which is identified with “the belly of the underworld” (Sheol), as is proved by the passage, “Out of the belly of the underworld (Sheol) cried I.” “Three days and three nights.”. . . After that the soul ascends whilst the body is being decomposed in the earth, where it will lie until the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, will awaken the dead. A voice will then resound through the graves, proclaiming: “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall cast forth the dead (rephaim)” (Isaiah 19). That will come to pass when the Angel of Death will depart from the world, as it is written: “He will destroy death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). It is of that occasion that it is written: “And the Lord spoke unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land”; for as soon as that voice will resound among the graves they will all cast out the dead bodies that they contain. . . . Thus in the narrative of that fish we find words of healing for the whole earth. As soon as it swallowed Jonah it died, but after three days was restored to life and vomited him forth. In a similar way the Land of Israel will in the future first be stirred to new life, and afterwards “the earth will cast forth the dead.” [22]

Though the Zohar is quite late, the ideas and conceptions in it are important. In summary, the ship represents the body, and as Jonah entered into the ship, so an individual would enter into a physical body upon this earth. A tempest arises. That tempest is the judgment bar; it is the summons to come to the heavenly judgment to find out whether the price has been paid. Jonah being asleep is likened to a man being spiritually asleep, not paying attention to the Spirit or to the direction in which he should be going. The good prompter, the steersman or the master of the ship, must awaken him. The sea is the grave, the place of judgment. The fish is the grave and death. In other words, as Jonah is swallowed by the fish he dies physically and is in danger of dying spiritually. Finally, his being cast up or regurgitated by the fish symbolizes his rebirth or his “resurrection,” not resurrection in the final sense as we would identify it but resurrection in the context of a new chance at life. This typological interpretation can easily be that of a literal historical prophet who lived his life as an example, testimony, or foreshadowing of the power of the resurrection by the Lord and the regenerative power of repentance. There is no doubt that ancient Judaism and probably ancient Israel believed that the story of Jonah was a story of a literal prophet who was swallowed by a great fish. When this prophet died in the belly of that fish, his spirit had the opportunity of being taught and trained and then brought back to life to testify of the atoning power of the God of Israel. The Savior saw, understood, and effectively likened the “sign of Jonah” to himself. As Jonah came forth from “death,” so also would the Messiah.

The experience of Jonah’s “death and rebirth” is not altogether unique for Latter-day Saints, as shown by the story Alma recounted to his son Helaman:

And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in all their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

And I would not that ye think that I know of myself—not of the temporal but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind but of God.

Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself.

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.

And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up and beheld the Angel.

And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.

And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.

And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.

And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my world was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! . . .

Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.

Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. . . .

And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.

Yea, and he has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day; and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity; yea, and ye also ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity.

But behold, my son, this is not all; for ye ought to know as I do know, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and ye ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence. Now this is according to his word. (Alma 36:3–20, 22–24, 28–30.)

Alma also testified in Mosiah 27:29–30:

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken of by our fathers; but now that they may foresee that he will come, and that he remembereth every creature of his creating, he will make himself manifest unto all.

The parallels between the stories of Jonah and Alma are stunning. Both men disregarded God as an effective force in their lives (see Alma 36:6; Jonah 1:3, 6). 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 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.”

Jonah became a type to Israel and the Ninevites of (1) the literalness of the power of resurrection and (2) the need to take advantage of the Atonement through repentance if one desired full association with God in his presence. For Alma the emphasis lay with the latter principle, the need to take advantage of the Atonement through repentance, though he too was “snatched” from the awful “abyss” where he had been encircled with “everlasting chains of death.”

Jonah chapter 4 gives us a further key to understanding the relationship between repentance and the Atonement in his message. The power to live is a gift of God, just as the protecting kikion was a gift. As Jonah had little to do with the growth of the plant, so we have relatively little to do with our outward appearance. Yet it was not the appearance of the plant that held importance for Jonah; it was the internal “wholeness” of the plant that mattered. Without the internal structure to drink the “living water” and thus sustain itself, the plant dried and withered when the sun came up. So it would appear to be the case for those who cannot spiritually drink of the “living water” because they are corrupted internally. When the “Son” comes, they “that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that wickedness shall not be upon the earth” (D&C 29:9). To enjoy a full life with God, to be resurrected in glory, one must be internally whole. That can occur only if the Atonement is brought to bear upon the lives of men. Jonah testifies that only through the atonement of the God of Israel can both the physical and spiritual rebirth of man take place. Jonah is therefore not merely a “myth,” an “adventurous hero” or even a man “kept alive.” Jonah is the sign of the relationship of the Atonement to the power of repentance and the resurrection of all mankind. “And there shall be no sign [given] . . . but the sign of the prophet Jonah: for as Jonah 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. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:39–41.)


[1] The word “with” in the last sentence would be better translated “against.” The translations used in this paper are from The Holy Bible: King James Version, C Series (New York: American Bible Society, 1971), and The New English Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970). Those of the author are taken from Biblia Hebraica, ed. R. Kittel.

[2] H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1861), 432. The original Greek term means “any sea monster or huge fish, [Homer, Herodotus II] an abyss, hollow.”

[3] Robert H. Pfeiffer, The Books of the Old Testament (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Chapel Books, 1957), 306.

[4] Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 262.

[5] Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, trans. Peter R. Ackroyd (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); James King West, Introduction to the Old Testament: Hear O Israel (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 376–77.

[6] For an example of this see W. Cleon Skousen, The Fourth Thousand Years (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 458–64.

[7] See Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1973), map 117 (p. 75).

[8] J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 1:318. In Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1907; hereafter referred to as BDB), 982–83, Sheol is defined as “the underworld . . . whither men descend at death”; it is a place of “judgment.” There the “condition” of the righteous and the wicked is distinguished. To the wicked it becomes a place of dire straits, but to the righteous it becomes a refinement. (See Genesis 37:35; 42:30; 44:29, 31; 1 Samuel 2:6; 28; 1 Kings 2:6–9; Isaiah 14:11–15; Psalm 88:4; Numbers 16:30–33; Job 17:16.) Without the Atonement no one would have escaped death and the grave of Sheol. (See Psalms 30:4; 86:13; 16:10.)

[9] BDB, 884. Kikion is more correctly translated as castor bean instead of gourd.

[10] Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1967), 15.

[11] G. Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962):66–87; G. E. Wright, “The Literary and Historical Problem of Joshua 10 and Judges 1,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5 (1946): 105–15; Umhau Wolf, “Terminology of Israel’s Tribal Organization,” Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1946): 45–49; W. F. Albright, “The Israelite Conquer of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 74 (1939): 11–23; John Bright, History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959).

[12] Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York and Evanston: Harper Torch Books, 1968), 6.

[13] Ibid., 18–19.

[14] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Cleveland and New York: World, Meridian Books, 1969), 30.

[15] Ibid., 207, 229, 238, 245.

[16] Ibid., 91–92.

[17] Erwin Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 5 (New York: Bollinger Foundation, 1956), 6.

[18] Ibid., 48.

[19] Ibid., 48.

[20] Ibid., 47.

[21] Louis Ginzberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (New York: Atheneum, A Temple Book, 1977), esp. “The Significance of the Halachah for Jewish History” and “Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture.” Compare Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), esp. “Kabbalah and Myth.”

[22] Harvey Sperling and Maurice Simon, The Zohar, vol. 4 (New York: Rebecca Bennet, 1958), 173–76.