It is an idiom.
This may sound like an unusual position for a young earth creationist. However my hermeneutic seeks to understand Scripture in a straightforward manner which means that I am not a literalist or a symbolist but rather try to interpret what the passage is actually saying in context. The relevant passages are:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Mat 12:38-41)
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." So he left them and departed. (Mat 16:4)
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish 3 days and 3 nights. (Jon 1:17)Looking at the 2 passages in Matthew it is clear that the sign of Jesus' Messiahhood parallels the sign of Jonah. And Jesus condemns them for failing to recognise him noting that the Ninevites repented at the message of a lesser person. This suggests that the sign of Jonah was that he had been swallowed by a great sea creature yet lived to speak of it. It is as if Jonah had come back from the dead and indeed Jonah uses the metaphor of Sheol (Hades) for his predicament.
"I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,/So the focus of the argument is that Jesus will parallel Jonah's experience which is the sign. And they should repent as Jesus is greater than Jonah. The passage in Jonah says 3 days and 3 nights so Jesus quotes this and then applies it to himself.
and he answered me;/
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,/
and you heard my voice. (Jon 2:2)
The days and nights are literal, the association with day and night means the day is literal and the association with a number means the days are literal, but the phrase can encompass less than a whole day. We have:
- 1 day(time) and 1 night meaning 1 (revolution) day (or part thereof)
- 2 day(time)s and 2 nights meaning 2 (revolution) days (or part thereof)
- 3 day(time)s and 3 nights meaning 3 (revolution) days (or part thereof)
Consider the phrase:
For in 7 days I will send rain on the earth 40 days and 40 nights,... (Gen 7:4)The emphasis is not on the fact it will rain for precisely 960 hours. It is on the continuous nature. The 7 refers to revolutional days, the 40 refers to daytime days. God could say, "...I will send rain on the earth 40 (revolutional) days,..." it means the same thing. But by saying day and night it is saying that the rain will come continually—even during the nighttime!
The other data we have previously examined states that Jesus was raised on the 3rd day with specific details that
- Jesus died on Preparation day (1st day)
- which was followed by the Sabbath day—7th weekday (2nd day)
- then he rose on the following day—1st weekday (3rd day)