To admittedly drift off-topic for the moment, there are also hosts of Jewish beliefs and folktales concerning the fish, which is said to have been created in the very beginning of the world for the sole purpose of swallowing Jonah:
*]The Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer relates that Jonah saved his host fish from being devoured by Leviathan; in return, the fish takes him on a tour of the suboceanic world, showing him things such as the path of the Israelites took across the Red Sea and the literal “foundations of the world”, the pillars upon which the earth rests.
*]The Kabbalistic work Zohar understands Jonah’s being devoured and ejected by the fish as being about death and resurrection - where both the characters literally die and get resurrected! According to this version, the fish died upon swallowing Jonah but was revived after three days to cast the latter out: when Jonah was thrown into the sea, his soul immediately left his body and soared up to God’s throne, where it was judged and sent back. As soon as Jonah’s soul touched the mouth of the fish on its way back to the body, the fish then died - so Jonah spent three days and nights in a dead fish.
*]In Jonah 1:17-2:1 (2:1-2, the fish that swallowed Jonah first is described in the masculine gender (dag), but is later referred to in the feminine gender, dagah, only for the gender to revert back to the masculine in 2:17:
And YHWH assigned a great fish (dag gadol, masculine) to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the innards of the fish (ha’dag, masculine) three days and three nights. And Jonah prayed to YHWH his God from the bowels of the fish (ha’dagah, feminine)…And YHWH spoke to the fish (la’dag, masculine), and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land.
The Midrash Jonah tries to account for this discrepancy through the following tale: God first appoints a rather big, male fish to swallow Jonah, where he stayed for the three days. Jonah found himself rather comfortable inside the fish and forgot to pray, so God then resolved to put him into another fish where he would be less comfortable. The male fish then spat Jonah out, only to be devoured by another, pregnant female fish. Cramped for room (there were 365,000 baby fishes inside the female fish’s womb) and otherwise made miserable, Jonah finally prayed, acknowledging the futility of his efforts to escape from God.[/LIST]
A harmonized narrative containg many elements from the above sources appears in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews:
At the creation of the world, God made a fish intended to harbor Jonah. He as so large that the prophet was as comfortable inside of him as in a spacious synagogue. The eyes of the fish served Jonah as windows, and, besides, there was a diamond, which shone as brilliantly as the sun at midday, so that Jonah could see all things in the sea down to its very bottom.
It is a law that when their time has come, all the fish of the sea must betake themselves to leviathan, and let the monster devour them. The life term of Jonah’s fish was about to expire, and the fish warned Jonah of what was to happen. When he, with Jonah in his belly, came to leviathan, the prophet said to the monster: “For thy sake I came hither. It was meet that I should know thine abode, for it is my appointed task to capture thee in the life to come and slaughter thee for the table of the just and pious.” When leviathan observed the sign of the covenant on Jonah’s body, he fled affrighted, and Jonah and the fish were saved. To show his gratitude, the fish carried Jonah whithersoever there was a sight to be seen. He showed him the river from which the ocean flows, showed him the spot at which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, showed him Gehenna and Sheol, and many other mysterious and wonderful place.
Three days Jonah had spent in the belly of the fish, and he still felt so comfortable that he did not think of imploring God to change his condition. But God sent a female fish big with three hundred and sixty-five thousand little fish to Jonah’s host, to demand the surrender of the prophet, else she would swallow both him and the guest he harbored. The message was received with incredulity, and leviathan had to come and corroborate it; he himself had heard God dispatch the female fish on her errand. So it came about that Jonah was transferred to another abode. His new quarters, which he had to share with all the little fish, were far from comfortable, and from the bottom of his heart a prayer for deliverance arose to God on high. The last words of his long petition were, “I shall redeem my vow,” whereupon God commanded the fish to spew Jonah out. At a distance of nine hundred and sixty-five parasangs from the fish he alighted on dry land. These miracles induced the ship’s crew to abandon idolatry, and they all became pious proselytes in Jerusalem.
965 parasangs…that should be a world record.