Jonah's Magical Mystery Tour of the Netherworld
The Conundrum: Why does Jonah Flee?
Thus is Man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there be but one to sense, there are two to reason, the one visible, the other invisible. – Sir Thomas Brown, The Religion Medici
Jonah Going Down (י-ר-ד)
The opening part of the biblical story of Jonah emphasize his motion downwards. Jonah is commanded: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call upon it” (Jonah 1:2); he does rise, but only to go down [va-yered] to Jaffa (v.3). The prophet descends [va-yered] into a ship (v. 3), travelling westward to Tarshish, rather than overland, eastward to Nineveh. God then churns up a treacherous storm, and Jonah goes down [yarad] even further into the recesses of the boat (v. 5), where he falls into a deep slumber [va-yeradem] (v. 5). Finally, after being thrown overboard by the sailors into the sea, the storm miraculously subsides, saving the sailors who give praise to God, while Jonah is swallowed by a great fish.
After a harrowing three-day journey, buried alive inside that living cavern in the sea, he prays and, apparently as a consequence, is spewed onto dry ground. At this point, he begrudgingly acquiesces to the divine command to go to Nineveh and warn them of their impending doom, after which, the greatest “sin-city” in the Assyrian Empire collectively repents overnight.
Despite the humor, the story poses a serious conundrum: How can one who communicates directly with the Almighty, presume to refuse the divine summons and yet remain the “hero” of the book, with his status as prophet of God intact?
Rabbinic tradition has pondered this question, as well as the meaning of the story’s strange description of Jonah in the belly of a fish. Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer (a narrative midrash, circa 8th c. CE, abbreviated PRE) addresses these questions by expanding upon the significance of Jonah’s experience in the bowels of this great fish at the bottom of the sea, offering a midrashic interpretation of his prayer, which serves as the turning point in the biblical story.
In PRE’s telling, this experience is not a crucible for inducing the prophet’s repentance, but a window into the wonders of the underworld. In Chapter Ten of Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer the prayer of Jonah (ch. 2) is read as a series of clues to the Magical Mystery Tour, with the great fish as Jonah’s guide.
The Appointment (מ-נ-ה) of the Fish
The opening statement of PRE ch. 10 links the fifth day of creation, when the sea creatures, the fish and (surprisingly) the taninim (sea monsters) were made (Gen 1:21), to Jonah’s journey and the defeat of the Leviathan.
בחמישי ברח יונה מפני אלהיו, ולמה ברח?…
The Fifth day of the week was also the day on which Jonah fled from God’s Presence. And why did he flee?…
Beginning from the middle of the chapter, the text reads:
ר’ טרפון אומר: ממונה היה הדג מששת ימי בראשית לבלוע את יונה שנאמר "וימן יי’ דג גדול לבלוע את יונה" (יונה ב א)
R. Tarfon said: the fish had been appointed to swallow Jonah since the Six Days of Creation, as it says: “And God appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 2:1).
Like the miraculous items created at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation, such as the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korah and the mouth of Balaam’s talking donkey, the great fish (one of the taninim) was appointed during the first week of Creation to swallow Jonah (thousands of years hence).
The midrash bases its conjecture on the verb מנה, “to appoint” or “to designate.” The fish had been lying in wait to swallow the prophet not only to save him, but also to establish Jonah as the one who would vanquish the Leviathan in the End of Days.
Jonah’s Lens onto the Underworld: An Alternative Light to See By
Now, a portal to this “twilight zone” opens up, connecting the primordial days of Creation to the End Time, and the prophet is taken on a tour of the netherworld.
נכנס בפיו כאדם שהוא נכנס בבית הכנסת הגדולה ועמד.
He entered its mouth like a man entering the Great Synagogue, and stood.
והיו שתי עיניו של דג כחלונות אפומיות מאירות ליונה, והיה רואה כל מה שבים ובתהומות.
The two eyes of the fish were like shuttered windows which shone for Jonah, and he could see all that was in the sea and the underworld.
ר’ מאיר אומר: מרגלית אחת היתה תלויה במעיו שלדג והיתה מאירה לו כל מה שבימים ובתהומות, ועליו הכתוב אומר: "אור זרוע לצדיק וג’." (תה’ צז:יא)
R. Meir said: there was one pearl which hung from within the belly of the fish that lit up all that was in the seas and in underworld, and of this it says, “Light is sown for the Righteous” (Ps. 97: 11).
Whether through the shuttered eyes of the fish, which open for Jonah like windows upon the underworld, or, according to R. Meir, by a single pearl in the center of the fish’s belly, the fish is transformed from a living creature into a kind of primordial submarine. The second opinion (attributed to R. Meir), citing, “light is sown for the Righteous” (Ps. 97:11), links this light to the Pristine Light of Creation, which is buried until the End of Days, only to be revealed to the righteous. To dispel the darkness, God hangs the pearl, itself formed within the obscurity of a clam’s shell in the recesses of the sea, like a chandelier in the center of the fish’s belly. It is as if, because Jonah has rejected the compromises of external reality in this world, he is given an alternative light to live by—the light of a pure pearl, representative of a wholly internal, other world. He is “rewarded” for fleeing by the gift of an alternative mission, one that he is more comfortable fulfilling.
Confronting the Leviathan
The prophet now enters a time beyond time, in anticipation of the End of Days, the realm of the drowned and the saved. There he confronts the Leviathan who was supposed to feed on the great fish that very day, but Jonah taunts him with the fact that he will some day catch Leviathan and bring him to the righteous as a feast.
אמר לו הדג ליונה, "אין אתה יודע שבא יומי להיאכל בתוך פיו של לויתן?"
The fish said to Jonah, “Don’t you know that my day has come to be swallowed by the maw of the Leviathan?”
אמר לו יונה, "הוליכני אצלו ואני מציל אותך ואת נפשי מפיו." והוליכו אצלו.
Jonah said, “Take me to him and I shall save you as well as myself from his maw.” He took Jonah to the Leviathan.
אמר לו ללוייתן "בשבילך ירדתי לראות את מדורך [בים], ולא עוד אלא שאני עתיד לירד ולתן חבל בלשונך ולעלות אותך ולזבוח אותך לסעודה גדולה של צדיקים לעתיד לבוא"
Jonah said to the Leviathan, “It was for you that I descended to see your abode (in the sea), and I will descend again, in the future, to place a rope through your tongue, and haul you up to sacrifice you for the great feast of the Righteous in the Days to Come.
שנאמר "התמשוך לויתן בחכה ובחבל תשקיע לשונו." (איוב מ:כה)
As it says: “Can you draw out the Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope?” (Job 40:25).
ולא עוד אלא הרי חותמו של אבינו אברהם "הביט לברית וברח."
And, not only that, but look at this seal of our forefather Abraham. ‘Look to the covenant (brit)’ and flee!”
וראה לויתן חותמו של אברהם אבינו וברח מלפני יונה מהלך שני ימים.
And the Leviathan saw the seal of Abraham our forefather and fled from the presence of Jonah a distance of two days.
The Leviathan, also called נחש הבריח, the elusive serpent (Isa. 27:1), is God’s “plaything” (see Ps 104:26) and the most dangerous creature on earth, whose power only God comprehends (Job 40:25-41:26). Yet, ironically, even though the all-powerful Leviathan was appointed to eat the fish on that day, he flees when Jonah foils his plan. The prophet scares the creature off by showing the sign of the covenant (an allusion to Ps. 74:20), apparently, by dropping his pants and revealing to the sea monster that he has been circumcised.
Thus, Jonah carries out God’s “secret plan,” to thwart and eventually destroy the Leviathan.PRE, subverts the “fleeing messenger” story here; the Leviathan [נחש הבריח] flees from the prophet, who is in flight [בורח] from God. Moreover, each fleeing “messenger” is secretly carrying out God’s will;God wants Jonah underwater to save the great fish and so thwarts the Leviathan mission to swallow fish.
Jonah’s Prayer: A Travel Log of The Seven Stations in the Netherworld
As a reward for intimidating the Leviathan, the great fish takes him on a tour of the netherworld. The seven wonders are all places which are inaccessible to mortals, stations characteristic of that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
אמר לו יונה לדג, "הרי הצלתיך מפיו של לויתן, הראני כל מה שבימים ובתהומות."
|Jonah then said to the fish, “Well, I saved you from the maw of the Leviathan, so now show me everything in the seas and the depths.”|
|The plain meaning of סוּף (reeds), conveys an image of Jonah’s near-drowning. PRE uses it as a reference to the Israelite’s tracks across the Reed Sea in the exodus from Egypt.||
והראהו שבילי ים סוף שהלכו ישר’ בהם, שנ’ "סוף חבוש לראשי" (יונה ב:ו).
|1. It showed him the paths along the bottom of the Sea of Reeds [yam suf], which the Israelites had walked upon, as it says: “…the weeds [suf] entwined around my head” (Jonah 2:6).|
|The great river of Oceanus surrounds the Earth.||
והראהו נהר גדול של עקינוס שנ’ "ונהר יסובבני"(שם ד).
|2. It showed him the Great River [nahar] of Oceanus, as it says: “…the floods [nahar] engulfed me” (v. 4).|
|The place of origin for waves.||
והראהו מקום שמשברי הים וגליו יוצאין, שנ’ "כל משבריך וגליך עלי עברו" (שם ד)
|3. It showed him the place where the breakers of the sea and its waves emerge from, as it says: “…all Your breakers and billows swept over me” (v. 4).|
|“There is one gate to Gehenna in the sea of Tarshish” (b. ‘Eruvin 19a).||
הראהו גהינום, שנ’ "מבטן שאול שועתי" (שם ג)
|4. It showed him Gehenna, as it says: “From the belly of Sheol I cried out” (v. 3).|
|Sheol, the abode of the dead (also known as the pit [בור] or the grave [שחת]), is roughly equivalent to the underworld or Hades. It contains seven levels, and Jonah is taken to its lowest one.||
והראהו שאול תחתית, שנ’ "ותעל משחת חיי ה’ אלהי" (שם ז).
|5. And it showed him the nethermost underworld of Sheol, as it says: “You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God” (v. 7).|
|The second half of the verse (not quoted in PRE) is significant here: “the Earth on its hinges (בריחיה) stood by me forever”||
והראהו עמודי ארץ במוכנן, שנ’ "לקצבי הרים ירדתי."(שם ז) מכאן אתה לומד שירושלים על ז’ הרים היא עומדת.
|6. It showed him the foundation pillars of the earth, as it says: “I sank to the base of the mountains” (v.7). From this verse, one learns that Jerusalem stands upon seven mountains.|
|Jonah encounters the ultimate destination of his journey: the Foundation Stone is the “navel of the world,” from which the Earth was created.||
והראהו שם אבן שתיה שהיא קבועה בתהומות, וראה שם את בני קרח עומדים ומתפללים שם, וידע שהוא תחת היכל ה’.
|7. There, it showed him the Foundation Stone, set in the depths, and he saw, there, the sons of Korah standing and praying, and he knew he was below the Temple of God.|
Following the penultimate (sixth) station of the underworld, Jonah arrives at the inverse point of his destination in his flight from the original mission (Jonah 1:3), below the surface of the Earth. This is the turning point in his sojourn, for from that point Jonah begins his steep ascent up for air, to pray at the base of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There he discovers the Foundation Stone, the meeting of heaven and earth, below the Temple Mount, at Zion where dry land originally emerged from the sea, as in the Greek legend of the Omphalos and the oracle of Delphi. This is the apex of Jonah’s journey.
Jonah’s “Real” Mission
When he encounters the sons of Korah standing and praying, Jonah realizes that he is below the Temple. The great fish (or the sons of Korah in alternative versions) urges him to pray.
אמר לו הדג, "הרי אתה עומד תחת היכל ה’, התפלל ואתה נענה."
The fish then said to Jonah, “Behold, you are now standing below the Temple of God. Pray and you will be answered.”
אומר לו יונה לדג, "עמוד במקום עמדך, שאני מבקש להתפלל."
Jonah said to the fish, “Stand on your tail, for I would like to pray.”
והתחיל מתפלל ואמר "רבון כל העולמים, נקראתנו ‘מוריד ומעלה’, הרי ירדתי והעלני. נקראת ‘ממית ומחיה’ הרי הגיעה נפשי למות העליני החייני."
He began to pray: “Master of all the Worlds, Whom we call ‘He-who-casts-down and He-who-raises-up,’ I have gone down, now raise me up! You Who are called ‘He-who-causes-death, and He-who-grants-life,’ I have reached death, now raise me up, bring me back to life!”
ולא נענה עד שיצא הדבר הזה מפיו ואמר, 'אשר נדרתי אשלמה" (יונה ב:י)– לזבוח את לוייתן לפניך ביום ישועת ישראל, שנאמר: "ואני בקול תודה אזבחה לך" (יונה ב:י).
As soon as he said this, the Holy One, blessed be He, indicated to the fish to vomit Jonah up onto dry ground as it says: “And God told the fish to vomit Jonah up onto dry ground” (v. 12)
From his position within the belly of the great fish, Jonah urges it to stand on its tail, so that the prophet would be vertically aligned, closest the surface of the earth and the Temple Precincts for the purpose of prayer. But what compels the prophet to pray now? Has he, in any way, reconciled himself to his initial mission?
PRE has Jonah borrowing words taken from Channah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:6), but they acquire a very different tone when uttered by the prophet. While Channah praises the Almighty who grants life, Jonah demands to be resurrected from the dead. His visit to the underworld within the belly of the great fish, from the Sea of Reeds to Gehenna and the Temple mount, was not merely a magical mystery tour but a journey to the “land-of-no-return,” the abode of the dead. That is, Jonah had effectively died (hardly surprising given he was thrown overboard during a storm and swallowed by a giant fish).
Yet the prayer falters; God withholds a response. This forces Jonah to invoke a promise he believes God wants to hear, that he will fulfill his vow. Does this imply Jonah has reconciled himself to his initial mission? Although Jonah does continue on to Nineveh to do God’s bidding, PRE takes its cue from the final words of the prayer in the biblical text, which ends with a desire to return and to worship God in the Temple (Jonah 2:8) in order to offer sacrifices in fulfillment of a vow (v. 10). What vow?
The midrash suggests that Jonah refers here to the heart of his alternative mission—to fulfill his promise to sacrifice the Leviathan. Only then, upon recalling this promise, does God resurrect Jonah yet again. In other words, Jonah’s mission to Nineveh is secondary; the real point of the story is what happens in the belly of the fish, and the eschatological promise God extracts from his prophet to hook the Leviathan and offer it as a sacrifice in the end of days.
Jonah as an Apocalyptic Prophet
PRE’s narrative on Jonah’s sojourn in the netherworld uniquely establishes a systematic link between the primordial time of Creation (cosmogony) and eschatological time, the End of Days. The chapter opens with an allusion to Creation on the Fifth Day when the great fish, on that very day (presumably a Thursday), was designated to swallow Jonah and, in turn, destined to be fodder for the Leviathan (had the prophet not saved it). The passage concludes with the prophet’s promise to vanquish the Leviathan in the eschaton.
While at first Jonah strikes a maudlin pose, he modulates into a heroic figure once he enters the netherworld and discovers his alternative mission. He is representative of “man that great and true amphibium,” in Sir Thomas Brown’s words, who lives “not only …in diverse elements, but [also] in divided and distinguished worlds.” Jonah traverses land and sea, the living and the dead, mission and anti-mission, only to discover his ultimate mission as an apocalyptic prophet of the End of Days.
Jonah Through the Looking Glass
In his confrontation with the Leviathan, Jonah discovers a world turned topsy-turvy. Instead of prevaricating over God’s compassion and the dubious repentance of the gentiles, he defeats the sea monster, Leviathan, and promises to capture the monster and bring it as a sacrifice for the righteous in the End of Days. I have outlined the process of inversion in a chart:
The Revealed Mission
The Concealed Mission
|The Initiator||God||God and Jonah|
|The Fleeing Messenger||Jonah (reluctant prophet)||Leviathan (the panicking sea monster)|
|The Goal||To bring about the repentance of Nineveh||To defeat and then sacrifice the Leviathan|
|The Mode of Transportation||The ship – to bring it instantly to port, a distance of two days||The great fish – to make the Leviathan flee, instantly, a distance of two days|
|The Direction (spatial)||From dry land to sea (in flight from his mission)||From sea to dry Land (to traveltowards his mission)|
|The ‘Time Zone’ (temporal)||‘real time’ or ‘historical time’ (biblical narrative)||‘End Time’ or ‘eschatological time’ (midrashic narrative)|
|The Prayer||Thanksgiving for being saved from drowning||Travel log of the wonders of the netherworld; images of death and resurrection|
|The Foils||The Sailors (Jonah prompts their conversion)||The Sons of Korah (they prompt Jonah to pray)|
|Resolution||Jonah reconciles himself to relay the prophecy to the Ninevites||Jonah utters a vow to sacrifice the Leviathan in the end of Days|
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 21, 2015
January 18, 2021
Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series