First of all, let’s toss out the literal take on this for obvious reasons. Common sense has to prevail in interpreting a story such as this. Do we check our brains at the door of the church? No, we don’t. It’s spiritual and needs to be interpreted that way. The proof on why we should use extreme caution when using a literal interpretation in religious texts is below.
St. Athanasius says the following:
“Should we understand sacred writ according to the letter, we should fall into the most enormous blasphemies.” Pike, page 266
Likewise, Church Father Origin has this to say:
“The Scriptures were of little use to those who understood them literally, as they are written.” Higgins Anacalypsis II, Page 270
And one more. The Apostle Paul says:
2 Corinthians 3:6 (KJV)
6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
This fantastical tale really has its origins in antiquity. We can see similarities in the Greek myth of Hercules and his battle with a sea monster:
The ancient Greeks narrated the story of Heracles who fought a sea monster but was devoured in the process. After three days and three nights he managed to free himself by fighting his way out. Interestingly, the Greeks even specified that it was near the harbour of Jaffa that Heracles was swallowed by the fish. Jaffa is also Jonah’s place of departure for Tarshish. This Greek story was well known in Asia Minor and Syria and was definitely also told among the seafaring Phoenicians. The book of Jonah makes use of quite a few maritime terms most probably borrowed from the Phoenicians, and it can thus be assumed that the motif of the fish probably found its way into the Jewish narrative under Phoenician influence.
Some scholars see disguised references to the Babylonian cosmology in the book of Jonah. In these terms the fish would then be a disguised reference to Tiamat, the chaos monster that threatens creation. When Jonah remains in the fish for three days and three nights, it would then refer to the winter time when Tiamat reigned. The swallowing and spitting out by the fish would then represent the annual death and rebirth of the cosmos. It could even allude to the primeval struggle of Marduk, the sun god, with Tiamat….
(Louis Jonker, Douglas Lawrie, Fishing for Jonah (anew), Stellenbosch University, 2005:41-42.
Hercules also had Twelve “Labors” to undergo that symbolized the passage of the Sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Again we find this same connection in the myth of the water god EA or Oannes:
Jonah’s whale is described in the Bible as a “fish,” because writers of that period (and for many centuries afterward) were unaware that whales are mammals. The whale of the original Jonah story was the Babylonian Sea Goddess Derceto, “The Whale of Der,” who swallowed and gave rebirth to the god Oannes . . . Swallowing by the whale indicates an initiation rite, leading to rebirth. The Finnish hero Ilmarinen was similarly swallowed by a giant fish to be re-born. A variant of the story shows that the fish was really a womb . . . Biblical writers masculinized the image as Jonah, whose name means “Dove.” The word ionah or ione may have descended from yoni, for the dove was a primary symbol of female sexuality.
Barbara G. Walker – The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (392-9):
That is strong evidence of the Astrotheological side, but let’s take a look at the esoterics that were also interwoven into Jonah’s story.
The journey that Jonah undergoes is simply moving from a lower state of consciousness to a higher one and is written in beautiful allegory and symbolism which can assist us in completing the same process of evolution. Let’s take a look at what is really being said in this story.
Jonah 1 (KJV)
1 Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Jonah is you.
2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
Nineveh is symbolic of a lower state of consciousness or lower mind, which is obvious from its description.
3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
The “presence of the Lord” is going within yourself, to be still, in meditation. Jonah is fleeing it because we usually choose to flee from the higher to remain in the lower egoic state. Jonah (you and I) wants to stay in the lower mind.
4 But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
Such is the chaos of the lower mind, which the “mighty tempest” is symbolic of. The ship is the mind that is in the midst of the chaos of the lower emotions.
5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
The men committing to “cast forth the wares” means that you have to let go of the physical, material world to obtain the higher realms of consciousness or divine aspect of your Higher Self.
Jonah is asleep, not spiritually aware, dwelling in the ego. Like most of humanity, we feel comfortable dwelling in the lower state, but the pull of the divine is powerful as we will soon see.
6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
They symbolically drew straws and, of course, Jonah comes up on the short end.
The men come to the conclusion the Jonah was running from his responsibilities and, in the next passage, ask him what needs to happen to cease the rage of the storm.
11 Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
12 And he said unto them, 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.
“Take me up” means to begin to ascend in consciousness, and “cast me forth into the sea” means to submerge me in water, “truth” and the second stage of consciousness, which is symbolic baptism. Baptism has nothing to do with literal water but one of the stages of consciousness achieved by going within yourself during meditation.
13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
The men rowing hard means that the thoughts (men rowing hard) of the mind (ship) are tumultuous when you dwell in the lower nature and try to do things your own way and are appeasing the ego. You have to do what needs to be done. The divine within you will not cease to call you to the righteous path, hence the tempestuous sea.
15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
Once Jonah had committed to the process of what needs to take place (meditation), there is peace and stillness “the sea ceased from her raging.” Notice the reference to the gender of the sea being female, which is symbolic of the emotions in mysticism. The emotions have ceased their raging.
17 Now 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.
And here we come to it the famous passage that you have been waiting, with bated breath I’m sure, for me to interpret. The “great fish” is defined by Gaskell’s as the following: “A symbol of the Higher Self as the supreme fact in the ocean of reality. The divine life of primordial truth (water).” We can also look to the constellation “Cetus,” the Whale for some insight into this myth. God is known as the “Big Fish” in this ancient tale.
In addition, we have the infamous three days and three nights; the number three in mysticism simply means that a major transformational shift is taking place. Jonah has been totally consumed by the Higher Self and will be renewed or reborn after the symbolic three days and three nights. The sun in the sky follows a similar pattern when it dies or “stands still” during the winter solstice (December 22nd, 23rd & 24th) and then “resurrects” on December 25th.
Jonah 2 (KJV)
1 Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly,
Jonah has committed to the process of going within.
6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
Notice the reference to the “bottoms of the mountains,” which is a low place, which is symbolic of a lower state of consciousness. “The earth with her bars” is talking about the lower emotional nature that I was enslaved to for what seemed like an eternity. But once I went within to find God, I have been “brought up,” ascended in consciousness.
10 And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
That’s just gross, and how in the world can you take that literally?! “Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do!”
Jonah 3 (KJV)
1 And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying,
2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
Okay, time for Jonah to return to the lower mind but with newly attained divine wisdom. Once you understand and embrace your own divinity, you can view the chaos of the lower mind without reacting from the emotional nature.
3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.
“Three day’s journey” is once again a major transformational shift, which ties in with how Jonah has newfound wisdom and has been “reborn” and can now enter Ninevah as a different individual with a divine purpose. In other words, the lower mind no longer has him in bondage, because the higher mind now has dominion.
4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
City in mysticism means “consciousness.”
“Forty days” is just a sign of completeness, not an actual number of days. Your four-fold nature consists of the physical, spiritual, intellectual & emotional, which the number four is symbolic of. So, in other words, all of you has to be committed to the process of overcoming the material/physical self to consummate with the divine within. The words “bridegroom” and “bridal chamber” found in scripture tie in with the same concept.
5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
Gaskell’s defines “sackcloth” as “A symbol of severe discipline and restraint put upon the lower nature during periods of reincarnation of the soul.” That falls in line with the “proclaiming of a fast” as well. The chaos of the lower mind has been bound, so now the higher can assert dominion and eventual balance can be achieved.
6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
The word “king” means a symbol of a ruling quality of the soul, and can be representative of higher or lower mental qualities. The king removed his robe, earthly attachments, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes, meaning he embraced the necessary discipline or restraint. “Sat in ashes” is a symbol of mourning over committed evils and falsities. The lower self has committed to the process of renewal so balance can once again be achieved.
7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
God was so impressed with his people’s conversion that He chose not to destroy them, much to Jonah’s dismay as we will see in the next chapter.
Jonah 4 (KJV)
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
2 And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
3 Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah is ticked off that God forgave the people of Ninevah, so much so that he throws a mighty tantrum like an unruly child. Sometimes we do the same thing when we don’t get what we want. This is just saying that it’s childish for us to allow ourselves to become angry over the perceived failure of our vision in the short term and that it pales in comparison to the divine outcome of the future vision. So let things play out in their own timeframe. Patience is a virtue and all that.
4 Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry?
5 So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
East/Right signifies your spiritual nature, just as West/Left signifies your ego or physical nature. So Jonah was dwelling in the spirit (meditation) and was able to view the mind from a higher consciousness vantage point. It’s all about perspective.
11 And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
The number given here is a great clue as to the entire meaning of this allegorical story. Sixscore thousand persons. A score is twenty, so the actual number of people is 180,000; if we add up all of the numbers we get the number 9, which in mysticism is symbolic of consciousness. This whole story is about you going within yourself in meditation to finally “get it.” You, and only you, can make the choice to rise above your lower nature by going within to discover your own divinity.