Jonah—the runaway prophet who became depressed when the city where he preached repented and was spared destruction—seems a mostly unlikely figure to prefigure Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament account of Jonah is a familiar one: God calls the prophet to preach against Nineveh, warning the ancient Assyrian city that its wickedness had angered God. Jonah responds immediately: rather than be the bearer of bad news, he boards a ship for Tarshish, which, as a Phoenician colony on Spain, was just about as far away as could be imagined from Nineveh. But Jonah cannot escape his aura of doom and destruction. A storm hits the boat and Jonah finds himself confronted by angry shipmates wanting to know why he endangered their lives by fleeing from God.
It does not end well for Jonah: his shipmates end up tossing him overboard and he is swallowed by a whale. He repents—who wouldn’t at that point? God remembers Jonah. But the disgraced prophet doesn’t get the glorious rescue from the dire straits that we see for other figures of the Old Testament—one thinks of the angel that appears with Daniel’s three friends in the furnace or the pair of angels that spirited Lot away from Sodom.
Instead, the whale vomits Jonah up on the shore. We can imagine Jonah, soaked and starving, wiping whale vomit off himself as he heads to Nineveh, to preach of its impending annihilation. Incredibly, the entire city repents. Perhaps the foul-smelling Israelite fresh out of the belly of the whale made a more convincing case for the apocalypse than he realized.
God spares Nineveh. But this is no happy ending for Jonah. Apparently distressed that his doomsday prediction went unfulfilled, Jonah becomes suicidal, begging God to kill him. The Old Testament account ends with Jonah in anguish after a worm kills a gourd plant that had been giving him shade—while remaining unmoved over the fate of the Ninevites.
Jonah doesn’t seem to be much of a compelling candidate as an Old Testament type of Christ. But foreshadow Him Jonah does, as an authority no less than even Christ Himself confirms. Here are nine ways:
1. The whale and the descent to hell. In Scripture, the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale is seen as foreshadowing Christ’s descent to hell. In the Old Testament, the prophet himself uses the language of hell to describe his misery in his plea to God: From the womb of Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice. (Sheol, readers may recall, is the generic Hebrew term for the underworld.) Jesus uses this story in Matthew 12:40 to prophesy His own descent to hell: Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
2. Jonah sacrifices himself. The parallel is even closer than we might at first realize. Both Jonah and Jesus ended up in their respective Sheols by choice. We know that Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sakes, but we may forget that Jonah did the same for his shipmates—perhaps the only truly selfless act he committed. It was Jonah, not the shipmates, who suggested that tossing him overboard would be their salvation (Jonah 1:12).
3. The cross and the ship. If Jonah sacrificed himself, in a small way foreshadowing Christ’s one-time perfect sacrifice, then it only makes sense to see the ship in the Jonah story as parallel with the cross. Indeed, in one of his lectures, St. Augustine implicitly compares the ship of Jonah with the cross: “As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulcher, or into the abyss of death.” One contemporary Coptic Orthodox commentator also links the two, writing that Jonah fell asleep in the ship just as Christ fell into the ‘sleep’ of death on the cross (source here).
4. The retching whale and the resurrection. Scripture carries through the parallel of Jonah’s and Christ’s sacrifice to completion: just as Christ rose on the third day, so also Jonah was expelled from the belly of the whale three days later. The retching whale may be an aesthetically unsettling prefigurement of the resurrection, but that didn’t stop several Church fathers like St. Augustine and St. Cyril of Jerusalem from making an explicit connection between the two.
5. Forty days in Nineveh. Jonah, we are told in the Old Testament, spent 40 days wandering around Nineveh, warning of the impending doomsday. St. Augustine sees significance in that number. In the City of God, he suggests that the 40 days Jonah spent after his rescue from the belly of the whale correspond to the 40 days Jesus spent preaching after His resurrection from the dead. (In general, 40 is a highly symbolic number in the Bible, often signifying penitence, purification, and punishment. The storm that caused the Genesis flood lasted 40 days. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. And Christ wandered in the desert for 40 days.)
6. Preaching to the Gentiles. Most of the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament are sent to convert Israel back to God. Jonah is one of the few sent to Gentiles (the Assyrians of Nineveh). In this, he foreshadows Christ’s own mission to Gentiles, according to Augustine. Also, as with Christ, the preaching to the Gentiles happened after Jonah’s own ‘resurrection,’ as Augustine notes elsewhere. In this context, it’s important to note that Nineveh was not some random city to which Jonah had been sent. At the time of Jonah, Nineveh was on its way to becoming the largest city in the known civilized world, with the city population hitting 100,000 the century after his preaching. It was also the capital of the Assyrian empire, then world’s largest and most powerful. Just like Athens and Rome centuries later, Nineveh would have embodied the Gentile world to Jews like Jonah.
7. Calming of the storm. The circumstances surrounding the storm that hit the ship bound for Tarshish bears striking similarities to the account of the calming of the storm in the gospels (Matthew 8, Luke 8, and Mark 4). In both cases, the protagonist is sleeping during the storm (Jonah in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New). Both protagonists have to be woken as their shipmates plead them to take action to calm the storm. And both end up doing just that, albeit in different ways: Jonah is thrown overboard while Christ rebukes the winds. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem elaborates on the parallels and the important contrasts between the two stories here.)
8. The withering of tradition. But what of the end of the Jonah account—where we see the grumpy prophet mourning the death of a gourd plant? Here too St. Augustine draws parallels with the gospels: “He prefigured the carnal people of Israel. For he also was grieved at the salvation of the Ninevites, that is, at the redemption and deliverance of the Gentiles, from among whom Christ came to call, not righteous men, but sinners to repentance.” As for the shadowing gourd plant, that symbolizes the promises and privileges of the Old Testament which in the New Testament are described as the “shadow of things to come,” St. Augustine writes, citing Colossians 2:17.
9. The godly worm in the gourd. Just when you think the parallels between Jonah and Jesus couldn’t get weirder, they do. “Moreover, in that morning-worm, which by its gnawing tooth made the gourd wither away, Christ Himself is again prefigured, forasmuch as, by the publication of the gospel from His mouth, all those things which flourished among the Israelites for a time, or with a shadowy symbolic meaning in that earlier dispensation, are now deprived of their significance, and have withered away,” Augustine writes.
Augustine goes “all in” on this interpretation, defending it for two more long paragraphs in which he even makes a reference to “Christ the Worm.” The saint cites two other Old Testament texts to support his interpretation, including Isaiah 51:7-8, which contains a prophecy about salvation that compares the enemies of God’s people to wool that will be eaten by a worm. Augustine also cites Psalm 22 which mentions a “worm … despised by the people.” Augustine concludes, “By that Worm, as by a moth, they are being consumed who under the tooth of His gospel are made to wonder daily at the diminution of their numbers, which is caused by desertion from their party. Let us therefore acknowledge this symbol of Christ; and because of the salvation of God, let us bear patiently the reproaches of men.”
Jonah and Jesus
Ultimately the Jonah story illustrates two great truths about salvation history. First, God works with deeply flawed men to achieve His purpose. From Jonah in the Old Testament we pass over to Peter and Paul in the New—one a three-time denier of Christ, the other a former persecutor of Christians. God doesn’t call perfect people; he calls people to perfection.
This lesson points to an even greater truth. Not only is God willing to work with men, he even became one—albeit one without the stain of sin—in an act of cosmic humiliation that is described so poignantly in Philippians 2. The Jonah stories offer us a vivid, perhaps graphic, reminder of just how extraordinary this humiliation was. If the vomiting whale and the gourd-devouring worm scandalize us as events that foreshadow Christ, how much more should be we ‘scandalized’ by the Incarnation itself!