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The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is the fifth book in the Christian canons and the Jewish Tanakh. It is one of 'Trei Asar' (The Twelve) prophets in the tanakh, and in Christian tradition as 'oi dodeka prophetai' or 'ton dodekapropheton' , Greek for "The twelve prophets." It is an important book to both religious traditions (Christianity and Jewish) because of its message of doom upon Israel's long-time enemy - Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh. However, despite the book's small size, scholars continue to dispute its content and date of composition. Some have encountered major themes in the book that does not relate to Jonah's 8th century BCE context but beyond his time. Others have pointed out the different types of Hebrew and argue that the book has been edited by generations after Jonah. This article provides a brief discussion on these issues and where the book of Jonah now stands in modern scholarly discussion.

The Name Jonah

The superscription of the book provides the prophet's full name, Jonah son of Amittai, who is the main protagonist in the narrative. The name Jonah is derived from the Hebrew word 'yonah' meaning “dove.” Although 'yonah' is generally defined as “dove,” its actual meaning remains uncertain based on its usage in other biblical books and other textual sources (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls). Many commentators tend to treat “dove” as a symbol of Israel whose task was to convey the divine message to the Ninevites. Jonah's father 'amittay' in Hebrew means “my truth,” which also led many to conjecture that Jonah's mission was to speak the “truth” of YHWH to the Ninevites. This conclusion is based on the failure to distinguish the functionality between prose and poetry. In the book of Jonah, it is mostly composed in prose with only a small portion in poetry (2:2-9). In prose, not everything should be interpreted symbolically; some materials are to be taken literally – names of people for example.

To numerous scholars, poetic elements are more original than prosaic materials in prophetic literature, which is simply based on the notion that the early Israelites were an illiterate community. Literacy was an uncommon practice in an agrarian setting. In this case, poetry would be the preference of preservation within this kind of community. This chauvinistic view of ancient Israel must be reconsidered because of the two crucial discovered inscriptional data: Gezer Calendar (discovered 1908 CE – translated by R. A. S. Macalister) and a pottery shard (discovered 2008 CE – deciphered by Gershon Galil), which support literary activities in ancient Israel before the time of the prophet Jonah.

Despite the absence of a specific identification of which tradition it refers to, the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q541) hint at an additional possibility that “dove,” conveys a sorrowful message. This expression is also employed in Isaiah 38:14 – “Like a swallow or a crane I clamor, I moan like a dove.” As stated earlier, the chauvinistic view of ancient Israel being illiterate must be abandoned. Therefore, when dealing with prose, not all names, and places must be interpreted and understood symbolically. For modern readers, when encountering confliction in evidence, one's interpretation of the book of Jonah must not be extracted exclusively from the symbolic meanings of 'yonah' and 'amittay', but on meticulous synchronic and diachronic analyses.

Parts of the story of Jonah do contain historical elements, although it is more probable that its construction was designed to reveal the importance of repentance & the fate of non-Jews.


Ironically, the book of Jonah is filled with irony, parody and exaggeration that are often overlooked by many interpreters. One other obvious hyperbolic element in the book is the repentance of animals together with the Ninevites, which influenced a number of scholars to challenge the historical level of the book. One other example is Jonah walking around the city of Nineveh in just three days, which is another figurative speech that is often taken literally. For some of these reasons, the book of Jonah has often been treated either as a didactic or a theological piece. An example is reflected in both Jewish and Christian traditions. In the pre-modern Jewish tradition, parts of the story of Jonah do contain historical elements, although it is more probable that its construction was designed to reveal the importance of repentance and the fate of non-Jews. In the Christian tradition, the prophet Jonah symbolizes resurrection from death after three days and nights in the fish's belly, which is also reflected in the death and resurrection of Jesus in some of the synoptic gospels. Apparently, the story of Jonah is an important literature to both religious traditions.


For reasons stated above, the book of Jonah contains elements that reveal a dual setting: 'Sitz im Leben' (Setting in Life) and a 'Sitz im Literatur' (Setting of its writing). From the small portion referencing the prophet Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 who prophesied the expansion of King Jeroboam II's kingdom, readers are left with the literary features of the book to determine its message and date of composition. Even more, 2 Kings 14:25 leaves the question open whether Jonah lived before or during Jeroboam II (787-748 BCE). Thus, dating the composition of the book remains disputed.

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Briefly, 2 Kings 14:25 places Jonah to the eighth-century BCE before or during the reign of King Jeroboam II, while the literary and linguistic features of the book call for a late composition. The book is written in two forms: prose and poetry, which also signals for a composited work. It is also composed of two types of Hebrew: classical biblical Hebrew and late biblical Hebrew. The classical biblical Hebrew is dated to the First Temple period, whereas the late biblical Hebrew dates to the Second Temple period. Furthermore, some scholars have also discovered Persian loan words in the book, whereby opting for post-exilic construction. The reference to Nineveh is one other element that encourages a later date of composition since Nineveh was later designated as the Assyrian capital by King Sennacherib c. 705 BCE. However, the 'Sitz im Leben' of early eighth-century in the book also gives the possibility of an earlier construction by the employment of classical biblical Hebrew in the book.


2 Kings 14:25 indicates that Jonah is from Gath-Hepher - a small border town in ancient Israel (Galilee). Jonah was a well-known prophet during the reign of the Israelite King Jeroboam ben Joash of the northern kingdom of Israel (c. 786-746 BCE). According to the small reference in 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah prophesied King Jeroboam's great success in restoring Israel's borders from Lebo-Hamath (in modern Syria) down to the Sea of Arabah, which is at the northern tip of the 'Yam Suph' (Red Sea in the Septuagint and English versions). After Jonah received his call from God to journey to Nineveh (Chapter 1), the prophet fled down to the port of Yaffo (Joppa), which is situated at the southern boundaries of modern Tel Aviv. The actual location of Tarshish is also debated. Some have pointed to a place in Lebanon; others have argued for a location in Spain; and others have pointed out the correspondence of the name Tarshish to the Greek term tarsos, “oar.”

Jonah was a well-known prophet during the reign of the Israelite King Jeroboam ben Joash of the northern kingdom of Israel.

After Jonah refused to obey God's call to go to Nineveh, God hurled a great wind upon the sea, which resulted in Jonah being thrown into the deep waters and was swallowed by a dag, “fish” and was in the belly, 'meeh' in Hebrew (literally – intestines) for three days and three nights. Following Jonah's prayer from the fish's meeh for divine intervention (Chapter 2), God then spoke to the fish, “and it (the fish) spewed out Jonah upon dry land.”

Jonah was called again (Chapter 3) and finally obeyed God's command and went to preach repentance to the Ninevites. As a result, the King ordered repentance from his people, including their animals, and God was refrained from unleashing his wrath upon them. In the final chapter (Chapter 4) of the book, Nineveh is spared and Jonah is still depicted as dissatisfied with God's decision to save the Ninevites. The book ends with a rhetorical question, which easily leads scholars to suggest that the book is designed to teach a theological message.


Based on the historical and linguistic issues, the book of Jonah reflects four major themes:

  • Atonement versus Repentance
  • Universalism versus Particularism
  • Prophecy: Realization versus Compliance
  • Compassion: Justice versus Mercy.

Such themes should be treated as critical foundational elements in determining a more probable context(s) of the book. It is probable that the message of Jonah is compatible to three different contexts: pre-exilic (eighth-century BCE); exilic (sixth-century BCE); and the post-exilic (539 BCE and after). In doing so, it is critical to construct a proper interpretation based on text and context. With the employment of both classical and late biblical Hebrew in the book, its construction probably began in the eighth-century BCE and was later re-applied to the exilic audience in Babylon and the post-exilic community in Jerusalem.

Since both Israel and Judah came under Assyrian hegemony in the ninth-century until Assyrian demise c. 612 BCE; under the Babylonians in the sixth-century; and the Persians in the late sixth-century to the fourth-century BCE, the composition of the book of Jonah reflects three functionalities. First, as a theodicy literature in the pre-exilic context (8th century BCE) to challenge YHWH'S fidelity; a didactic literature in the exilic period as a call for repentance from the exiled community; and as a resistant literature to counter the religious policy of Ezra and Nehemiah in the post-exilic (5th century BCE) concerning their intermarriage policy.


With the employment of classical biblical Hebrew in the book of Jonah, it signals for an eighth-century composition. The period aligns with the Neo-Assyrian era (9th century to late seventh-century BCE), in which Israel and Judah were already subjugated under the Assyrian thumb. Retaliation to Assyrian hegemony during this period was never the best alternative, which they eventually did and consequently brought annihilation upon themselves. During the Neo-Assyrian period, Assyria was considered the 'lion' of the ancient Near East. Fortunately, at the outset of King Jeroboam II's reign when the prophet Jonah was active, the Assyrian empire for a brief time experienced internal issues that enabled King Jeroboam to re-establish its economic stability and kingdom expansion. As Assyrian vassalages, Israel and Judah were also required to pay taxes to their overlord.

This ongoing frustration in Israel is also reflected in the prophet Jonah's refusal to bring YHWH'S plan of forgiveness to Nineveh because they will eventually repent. The refusal here not only depicts Jonah resisting forgiveness of their enemy, but also raises a question on YHWH'S fidelity and righteousness concerning their established covenant. By concluding the narrative with a set of rhetorical questions (4:9-11), it suggests in part that despite Israel's attempts to uphold their part of the covenant, God changes his mind. A critical question to Jonah's eighth-century audience would then be: can God keep his promises?


For a community exiled to a foreign land with high-hopes for divine intervention and restoration back to their homeland, repentance is key. If the Ninevites were pardoned from the wrath of YHWH because of their repentance, the exiled community must do likewise. Within this exilic-context, the character of Jonah resisting YHWH'S plan to forgive the Ninevites would only delay YHWH'S salvation plan for his people. Since forgiveness is a major theme in the book of Jonah, repentance signals their complete submission to YHWH'S extended compassion over all of his creation, including Nineveh. Limiting YHWH'S compassion within an Israelite boundary would only disrupt God's universal control, which is a major theology in prophetic literature.

From the exilic-context of the book of Jonah, there were undoubtedly theodicy issues raised amongst the exiled community in Babylon challenging YHWH'S fidelity in keeping them safe from external threats. Obviously, pride is another issue reflected through Jonah's refusal to fulfill his duties as a prophet of YHWH. Overall, if the exiled-community would only repent of their mistakes, YHWH would immediately intervene just as he had done to Nineveh following their repentance. Thus, Nineveh's immediate repentance functions as the main didactical element designed to convince the exiled community to repent of their infidelity.


Readers should consider the construction of the final form of the book of Jonah during the post-exilic era in Jerusalem c. 5th century BCE based on the employment of the late biblical Hebrew in the book. For this reason, many scholars are convinced that in the aftermath of Judah's restoration back into Jerusalem following the edict issued by King Cyrus of Persia c. 539 BCE of their release, there occurred intermarriage issues between Judeans and non-Jews in Jerusalem. One major example concerning this issue is reflected in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah who were also returnees from the Babylonian exile that helped re-establish the political and religious life in Jerusalem.

For example, one of Ezra's attempts was to re-establish pure Yahwism in Jerusalem as a way to prevent additional destruction upon Jerusalem by their enemies. As a result, Ezra and Nehemiah raise concerns concerning marriage relationships with non-Jews simply to faithfully reestablish their covenantal relationship with their God, YHWH. As generally misunderstood by numerous interpreters', the call for exclusion of foreign wives in Ezra and Nehemiah were only limited on those who refuse to recant their foreign practices except those non-Jews who have agreed to the procedure of conversion. In the aftermath of the Babylonian experience, the need to re-establish their religious life and commitment to YHWH was necessary.

In this post-exilic context, the book of Jonah could be treated as a resistance literature against this religious policy inaugurated by Ezra and Nehemiah that foreign people are also part of YHWH'S creation. Therefore, Judah must purge their traditional beliefs concerning intermarriage relation with foreigners and to adopt a more inclusive ideology. A more inclusive ideology constitutes a more effective theology. If YHWH's compassion was extended on non-Jews, it must also be reflected through Jerusalem.


With only four chapters in the book of Jonah, its message was undoubtedly an important piece throughout the biblical period based on its re-usage by the Israelite communities in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic Jerusalem. Given the numerous major themes in the book and evidence of classical and late biblical Hebrew, the eighth-century message of Jonah took up a life of its own after the prophet's lifetime by later tradents. The book of Jonah, therefore, was originally a theodicy literature in the eighth-century that was later readapted into a didactical literature in the sixth-century and finally into a resistant literature to counter the religious policy of Ezra and Nehemiah c. the fourth-century BCE.

10 Great Lessons from the Book of Jonah

The prophet Jonah lived in the Galilean city of Gath-hepher (about four miles north of Nazareth) during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.), king of Israel (cf. 2 Kgs. 14:25). Jeroboam II was northern Israel’s most powerful king, and during his administration, the borders of the nation were expanded to their greatest extent since the time of David and Solomon.

Assyria, however, five hundred miles to the east, was a constant threat. The fact of the matter is, due to Israel’s progressive rebellion, the prophets Hosea and Amos, contemporaries of Jonah, had declared that Jehovah would use Assyria as an instrument of punishment against his people (cf. Hos. 11:5 Amos 5:27). Any patriotic Israelite would have longed for Assyria’s destruction!

One can scarcely imagine, therefore, the consternation that must have filled Jonah’s heart when he received the Lord’s word instructing him to proceed to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, with a divine message.

Q: Is the Book of Jonah Fact or Fiction?

What are the stakes involved in saying that the book of Jonah is not historically accurate? That conclusion, which has only been suggested in modern times, comes in various forms. Jonah, some scholars say, is a parable, an allegory, or a midrash (a Jewish form of commentary via storytelling). But make no mistake about it. The reasons certain skeptics offer such alternative suggestions is likely because they take offense at the miracle revealed within the book: Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Because of his disobedience for not being willing to preach God’s message to the city of Nineveh, the LORD judged the prophet, and consequently “he was in the fish three days and three nights,” after which “the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground.” (Jonah 1:17 2:10)

Some critics consider this biblical claim, and simply conclude “This is the original big fish story! It couldn’t have happened.” But a person would only say this if they had some reservation about supernatural interventions by God into the natural order. In other words, they think it is unlikely that a man could survive in the body of a beast at sea for several days and live to tell the tale. Other than that, it is hard to see why someone would think the book could not have a historical origin. As a matter of fact, all of the internal biblical evidence argues in favor of the facticity of book of Jonah. Consider the following:

  1. If the suggestion that Jonah is an allegory, midrash, or parable is true, why is it that the story does not actually carefully follow the form of any of these ancient literary genres? In other words, when you compare Jonah to other Ancient Near Eastern fictional stories, it still reads more like history than any other type of literature.
  2. The book of 2 Kings 14:25 speaks about Jonah, son of Amittai, as being a prophet of Israel from Gath Hepher, a small community near Nazareth. It also states that previously Jonah had the pleasant task from of delivering the good report from God that Israel would enjoy a season of peace. That background actually fits with the psychological profile of the prophet we meet in the book of Jonah, the same individual, “the son of Amittai.” Presumably, he was quite happy to be the prophet announcing safety and good times to his countrymen in 2 Kings 14, but rather grumpy and recalcitrant when it came to deliver a message of deliverance to Israel’s then arch enemies: the cruel Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh.
  3. According to the distinguished archeologist Donald J. Wiseman, a careful analysis of the historical evidence shows that the details related in the book of Jonah “exhibit an intimate and accurate knowledge of Assyria which could stem from an historical event as early as the eighth century BC,” and as such “The story of Jonah need not be considered as a late story or parable…” Stated simply, the archeological evidence we have today conforms to the details presented in the book of Jonah. (See Wiseman’s argument in its completeness).
  4. Finally, Jesus himself considered the Jonah story to be historical, and frankly, if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you. In Matthew 12:39-41, Christ pointed to Jonah’s sojourn into the belly of the fish as a precursor and a sign pointing to his own death, burial, and resurrection. There is absolutely no wiggle room here, for what is often not remembered is that Jesus also points to the revival in Nineveh as a historical fact. He states: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation and look – something greater than Jonah is here!” If the men of Nineveh will make an appearance at the judgment, then that means they were REAL men, living in REAL history, who heard a REAL message of repentance from a historical prophet Jonah.

And if you can’t accept the testimony of the biblical authors, archeologists, and the Lord Jesus himself, would Tony Stark do? In the current Avengers movie, Iron Man is confronted with how to defeat a giant flying whale-like beast. Referencing the prophet Jonah, the hero decides to take on the creature from the inside out – literally. As ridiculous as a reference from the comics might be, what Joss Whedon, the writer and director of the Avengers intuitively thinks is true was actually the case: Jonah was really inside the belly of that fish – and God brought him through to the other side.

1 thought on &ldquoQ: Is the Book of Jonah Fact or Fiction? &rdquo

I am an undergraduate student at a Christian, and I wanted to say how absolutely helpful your response to the question “Is the Book of Jonah Fact or Fiction?” is to me. In fact, God used your article to speak to me personally.
I am currently taking a course that is an introduction to the Bible. However, the professor of my course has been presenting a lot of information to the class suggesting that God isn’t always truthful to us in the Bible, and he has encouraged us to consider the possibility that some books of the Bible are simply parables or metaphors. I did not agree with his logic at first, but after thinking it over, his point seemed to make sense. This troubled me because I have always believed that the Bible is factual from cover to cover. I prayed that God would reveal the truth one way or another. Upon doing further research, I discovered your article on Biblemesh. You proved my professor wrong with four well-written points. I was thoroughly convinced at that point, but then to top it off, you referenced Tony Stark and his quote from Avengers. As silly as it may sound, that reference was a direct confirmation for me. In short, I am a big fan of Tony Stark. My friends and I used to make Avengers parody videos, and I play the part of Stark. Everything in your article matched up so perfectly with what I was going through in my classes, and God used something kind of personal like a favorite superhero to speak to me and confirm that the Bible is indeed full of facts and not just parables. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article! Very helpful!!


Jonah is the central character in the Book of Jonah, in which God commands him to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it "for their great wickedness is come up before me," [7] but Jonah instead attempts to flee from "the presence of the Lord" by going to Jaffa (sometimes transliterated as Joppa or Joppe), and sets sail for Tarshish. [8] A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing that it is no ordinary storm, cast lots and discover that Jonah is to blame. [9] Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard, the storm will cease. [10] The sailors refuse to do this and continue rowing, but all their efforts fail and they eventually throw Jonah overboard. [11] As a result, the storm calms and the sailors then offer sacrifices to God. [12] Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish, in whose belly he spends three days and three nights. [13] While in the great fish, Jonah prays to God in his affliction and commits to giving thanks and to paying what he has vowed. [14] God then commands the fish to vomit Jonah out. [15]

God again commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. [16] This time he goes and enters the city, crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown." [17] After Jonah has walked across Nineveh, the people of Nineveh begin to believe his word and proclaim a fast. [18] The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, making a proclamation which decrees fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, prayer, and repentance. [19] God sees their repentant hearts and spares the city at that time. [20] The entire city is humbled and broken with the people (and even the animals) [21] [22] in sackcloth and ashes. [23]

Displeased by this, Jonah refers to his earlier flight to Tarshish while asserting that, since God is merciful, it was inevitable that God would turn from the threatened calamities. [24] He then leaves the city and makes himself a shelter, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed. [25] God causes a plant (in Hebrew a kikayon) to grow over Jonah's shelter to give him some shade from the sun. [26] Later, God causes a worm to bite the plant's root and it withers. [27] Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and pleads for God to kill him. [28]

But God said to Jonah: "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" And he said: "I do. I am angry enough to die."
But the LORD said: "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight, and died overnight.
But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

In Judaism Edit

The Book of Jonah (Yonah יונה) is one of the twelve minor prophets included in the Tanakh. According to one tradition, Jonah was the boy brought back to life by Elijah the prophet in 1 Kings. [29] [30] Another tradition holds that he was the son of the woman of Shunem brought back to life by Elisha in 2 Kings [31] [32] and that he is called the "son of Amittai" (Truth) due to his mother's recognition of Elisha's identity as a prophet in 2 Kings. [33] [32] The Book of Jonah is read every year, in its original Hebrew and in its entirety, on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, as the Haftarah at the afternoon mincha prayer. [34] [35] According to Rabbi Eliezer, the fish that swallowed Jonah was created in the primordial era [36] and the inside of its mouth was like a synagogue [36] the fish's eyes were like windows [36] and a pearl inside its mouth provided further illumination. [36]

According to the Midrash, while Jonah was inside the fish, it told him that its life was nearly over because soon the Leviathan would eat them both. [36] Jonah promised the fish that he would save them. [36] Following Jonah's directions, the fish swam up alongside the Leviathan [36] and Jonah threatened to leash the Leviathan by its tongue and let the other fish eat it. [36] The Leviathan heard Jonah's threats, saw that he was circumcised, and realized that he was protected by the Lord, [36] so it fled in terror, leaving Jonah and the fish alive. [36] The medieval Jewish scholar and rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092 – 1167) argued against any literal interpretation of the Book of Jonah, [37] stating that the "experiences of all the prophets except Moses were visions, not actualities." [37] The later scholar Isaac Abarbanel (1437 – 1509), however, argued that Jonah could have easily survived in the belly of the fish for three days, [38] because "after all, fetuses live nine months without access to fresh air." [39]

Teshuva – the ability to repent and be forgiven by God – is a prominent idea in Jewish thought. This concept is developed in the Book of Jonah: Jonah, the son of truth (the name of his father "Amitai" in Hebrew means truth), refuses to ask the people of Nineveh to repent. He seeks the truth only, and not forgiveness. When forced to go, his call is heard loud and clear. The people of Nineveh repent ecstatically, "fasting, including the sheep," and the Jewish scripts are critical of this. [40] The Book of Jonah also highlights the sometimes unstable relationship between two religious needs: comfort and truth. [41]

In Christianity Edit

In the Book of Tobit Edit

Jonah is mentioned twice in the fourteenth chapter of the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, [42] the conclusion of which finds Tobit's son, Tobias, rejoicing at the news of Nineveh's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus in apparent fulfillment of Jonah's prophecy against the Assyrian capital. [42]

In the New Testament Edit

In the New Testament, Jonah is mentioned in Matthew [43] and in Luke. [44] [45] In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes a reference to Jonah when he is asked for a sign by some of the scribes and the Pharisees. [46] [47] Jesus says that the sign will be the sign of Jonah: [46] [47] Jonah's restoration after three days inside the great fish prefigures His own resurrection. [46]

39 He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here."

Post-Biblical views Edit

Jonah is regarded as a saint by a number of Christian denominations. His feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is on 21 September, according to the Martyrologium Romanum. [2] On the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar, Jonah's feast day is on 22 September (for those churches which follow the traditional Julian calendar 22 September currently falls in October on the modern Gregorian calendar). [49] In the Armenian Apostolic Church, moveable feasts are held in commemoration of Jonah as a single prophet and as one of the Twelve Minor Prophets. [50] [51] [52] Jonah's mission to the Ninevites is commemorated by the Fast of Nineveh in Syriac and Oriental Orthodox Churches. [53] Jonah is commemorated as a prophet in the Calendar of Saints of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church on 22 September. [54]

Christian theologians have traditionally interpreted Jonah as a type for Jesus Christ. [55] Jonah being in swallowed by the giant fish was regarded as a foreshadowing of Jesus's crucifixion [56] and Jonah emerging from the fish after three days was seen as a parallel for Jesus emerging from the tomb after three days. [56] Saint Jerome equates Jonah with Jesus's more nationalistic side, [57] and justifies Jonah's actions by arguing that "Jonah acts thus as a patriot, not so much that he hates the Ninevites, as that he does not want to destroy his own people." [57]

Other Christian interpreters, including Saint Augustine and Martin Luther, have taken a directly opposite approach, [58] regarding Jonah as the epitome of envy and jealousness, which they regarded as inherent characteristics of the Jewish people. [59] Luther likewise concludes that the kikayon represents Judaism, [60] and that the worm which devours it represents Christ. [61] Luther also questioned the idea that the Book of Jonah was ever intended as literal history, [62] commenting that he found it hard to believe that anyone would have interpreted it as such if it had never been included in the Bible. [62] Luther's antisemitic interpretation of Jonah remained the prevailing interpretation among German Protestants throughout early modern history. [63] J. D. Michaelis comments that "the meaning of the fable hits you right between the eyes", [59] and concludes that the Book of Jonah is a polemic against "the Israelite people's hate and envy towards all the other nations of the earth." [59] Albert Eichhorn was a strong supporter of Michaelis's interpretation. [64]

John Calvin and John Hooper regarded the Book of Jonah as a warning to all those who might attempt to flee from the wrath of God. [65] While Luther had been careful to maintain that the Book of Jonah was not written by Jonah, [66] Calvin declared that the Book of Jonah was Jonah's personal confession of guilt. [66] Calvin sees Jonah's time inside the fish's belly as equivalent to the fires of Hell, intended to correct Jonah and set him on the path of righteousness. [67] Also unlike Luther, Calvin finds fault with all the characters in the story, [66] describing the sailors on the boat as "hard and iron-hearted, like Cyclops'", [66] the penitence of the Ninevites as "untrained", [66] and the king of Nineveh as a "novice". [66] Hooper, on the other hand, sees Jonah as the archetypal dissident [68] and the ship he is cast out from as a symbol of the state. [68] Hooper deplores such dissidents, [68] decrying: "Can you live quietly with so many Jonasses? Nay then, throw them into the sea!" [69] In the eighteenth century, German professors were forbidden from teaching that the Book of Jonah was anything other than a literal, historical account. [62]

In Islam Edit

Quran Edit

Jonah (Arabic: يُونُس ‎, romanized: Yūnus) is the title of the tenth chapter of the Quran. Yūnus is traditionally viewed as highly important in Islam as a prophet who was faithful to God and delivered His messages. Jonah is the only one of Judaism's Twelve Minor Prophets to be named in the Quran. [70] In Quran 21:87 [71] and 68:48, Jonah is called Dhul-Nūn (Arabic: ذُو ٱلنُّوْن ‎ meaning "The One of the Fish"). [72] In 4:163 and 6:86, he is referred to as "an apostle of Allah". [72] Surah 37:139-148 retells the full story of Jonah: [72]

So also was Jonah among those sent (by Us).
When he ran away (like a slave from captivity) to the ship (fully) laden,
He (agreed to) cast lots, and he was condemned:
Then the whale did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
Had it not been that he (repented and) glorified Allah,
He would certainly have remained inside the Fish till the Day of Resurrection.
But We cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness,
And We caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
And We sent him (on a mission) to a hundred thousand (men) or more.
And they believed so We permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while.

The Quran never mentions Jonah's father, [72] but Muslim tradition teaches that Jonah was from the tribe of Benjamin and that his father was Amittai. [70]

Hadiths Edit

Jonah is also mentioned in a few incidents during the lifetime of Muhammad. In some instances, Jonah's name is spoken of with praise and reverence by Muhammad. According to historical narrations about Muhammad's life, after ten years of receiving revelations, Muhammad went to the city of Ta’if to see if its leaders would allow him to preach his message from there rather than Mecca, but he was cast from the city by the people. He took shelter in the garden of Utbah and Shaybah, two members of the Quraysh tribe. They sent their servant, Addas, to serve him grapes for sustenance. Muhammad asked Addas where he was from and the servant replied Nineveh. "The town of Jonah the just, son of Amittai!" Muhammad exclaimed. Addas was shocked because he knew that the pagan Arabs had no knowledge of the prophet Jonah. He then asked how Muhammad knew of this man. "We are brothers," Muhammad replied. "Jonah was a Prophet of God and I, too, am a Prophet of God." Addas immediately accepted Islam and kissed the hands and feet of Muhammad. [75]

One of the sayings of Muhammad, in the collection of Imam Bukhari, says that Muhammad said "One should not say that I am better than Jonah". [76] [77] [78] [79] A similar statement occurs in a hadith written by Yunus bin Yazid, the second caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. [79] Umayya ibn Abi al-Salt, an older contemporary of Muhammad, taught that, had Jonah not prayed to Allah, he would have remained trapped inside the fish until Judgement Day, [79] but, because of his prayer, Jonah "stayed only a few days within the belly of the fish". [79]

The ninth-century Persian historian Al-Tabari records that, while Jonah was inside the fish, "none of his bones or members were injured". [79] Al-Tabari also writes that Allah made the body of the fish transparent, allowing Jonah to see the "wonders of the deep" [80] and that Jonah heard all the fish singing praises to Allah. [80] Kisai Marvazi, a tenth-century poet, records that Jonah's father was seventy years old when Jonah was born [79] and that he died soon afterwards, [79] leaving Jonah's mother with nothing but a wooden spoon, which turned out to be a cornucopia. [79]

Tomb at Nineveh Edit

Nineveh's current location is marked by excavations of five gates, parts of walls on four sides, and two large mounds: the hill of Kuyunjik and hill of Nabi Yunus (see map link in footnote). [81] A mosque atop Nabi Yunus was dedicated to the prophet Jonah and contained a shrine, which was revered by both Muslims and Christians as the site of Jonah's tomb. [82] The tomb was a popular pilgrimage site [83] and a symbol of unity to Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the Middle East. [83] On July 24, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) destroyed the mosque containing the tomb as part of a campaign to destroy religious sanctuaries it deemed to be idolatrous. [84] [83] After Mosul was taken back from ISIL in January 2017, an ancient Assyrian palace built by Esarhaddon dating to around the first half of the 7th century BCE was discovered beneath the ruined mosque. [83] [85] ISIL had plundered the palace of items to sell on the black market, [83] [85] but some of the artifacts that were more difficult to transport still remained in place. [83] [85]

Other Muslim tombs Edit

Other reputed locations of Jonah's tomb include the Arab village of Mashhad, located on the ancient site of Gath-hepher in Israel [45] the Palestinian West Bank town of Halhul, 5 km (3.1 mi) north of Hebron [86] and a sanctuary near the city of Sarafand (Sarepta) in Lebanon. [87] Another tradition places the tomb at a hill now called Giv'at Yonah, "Jonah's Hill", at the northern edge of the Israeli town of Ashdod, at a site covered by a modern lighthouse.

A tomb of Jonah can be found in Diyarbakir, Turkey, located behind the mihrab at Fatih Pasha Mosque. [88] [89] Evliya Celebi states in his Seyahatname that he visited the tombs of prophet Jonah and prophet George in the city. [90] [91]

The story of a man surviving after being swallowed by a whale or giant fish is classified in the catalogue of folktale types as ATU 1889G. [92]

Historicity Edit

Many Biblical scholars [ who? ] hold that the contents of the Book of Jonah are ahistorical. [93] [94] [3] Although the prophet Jonah allegedly lived in the eighth century BCE, [1] the Book of Jonah was written centuries later during the time of the Achaemenid Empire. [1] [95] The Hebrew used in the Book of Jonah shows strong influences from Aramaic [1] and the cultural practices described in it match those of the Achaemenid Persians. [1] [22] Many scholars [ who? ] regard the Book of Jonah as an intentional work of parody or satire. [4] [5] [96] [97] [98] [99] If this is the case, then it was probably admitted into the canon of the Hebrew Bible by sages who misunderstood its satirical nature [100] [98] [99] and mistakenly interpreted it as a serious prophetic work. [100] [98] [99]

While the Book of Jonah itself is considered fiction, [93] [94] [3] Jonah himself may have been a historical prophet [101] he is briefly mentioned in the Second Book of Kings: [102] [3]

He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath unto the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.

Parodic elements Edit

The views expressed by Jonah in the Book of Jonah are a parody of views held by members of Jewish society at the time when it was written. [5] [105] [97] The primary target of the satire may have been a faction whom Morton Smith calls "Separationists", [106] who believed that God would destroy those who disobeyed him, [97] that sinful cities would be obliterated, [97] and that God's mercy did not extend to those outside the Abrahamic covenant. [106] McKenzie and Graham remark that "Jonah is in some ways the most 'orthodox' of Israelite theologians – to make a theological point." [97] Jonah's statements throughout the book are characterized by their militancy, [97] [107] but his name ironically means "dove", [97] [107] a bird which the ancient Israelites associated with peace. [97]

Jonah's rejection of God's commands is a parody of the obedience of the prophets described in other Old Testament writings. [108] The king of Nineveh's instant repentance parodies the rulers throughout the other writings of the Old Testament who disregard prophetic warnings, such as Ahab and Zedekiah. [99] The readiness to worship God displayed by the sailors on the ship and the people of Nineveh contrasts ironically with Jonah's own reluctance, [109] as does Jonah's greater love for kikayon providing him shade than for all the people in Nineveh. [109]

The Book of Jonah also employs elements of literary absurdism [22] it exaggerates the size of the city of Nineveh to an implausible degree [1] [22] and incorrectly refers to the administrator of the city as a "king". [1] [22] According to scholars, no human being could realistically survive for three days inside a fish, [1] and the description of the livestock in Nineveh fasting alongside their owners is "silly". [22]

The motif of a protagonist being swallowed by a giant fish or whale became a stock trope of later satirical writings. [110] Similar incidents are recounted in Lucian of Samosata's A True Story, which was written in the second century CE, [111] and in the novel Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, published by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785. [112]

Translation Edit

Though art and culture often depicts Jonah's fish as a whale, the Hebrew text, as throughout scripture, [ citation needed ] refers to no marine species in particular, simply saying "great fish" or "big fish" (modern taxonomists classify whales as mammals and not as fish, but cultures in antiquity made no such distinction). While some biblical scholars suggest the size and habits of the great white shark correspond better to the representations of Jonah's experiences, normally an adult human is too large to be swallowed whole. The development of whaling from the 18th century onwards made it clear that most, if not all, species of whale could not swallow a human, leading to much controversy about the veracity of the biblical story of Jonah. [113]

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translations), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol [114] (דג גדול) or, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, dāḡ gā·ḏō·wl (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל), which means "great fish". [114] [115] The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as kētei megalōi (κήτει μεγάλῳ), meaning "huge fish". [116] In Greek mythology, the same word meaning "fish" (kêtos) is used to describe the sea monster slain by the hero Perseus that nearly devoured the Princess Andromeda. [117] Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis grandis in his Latin Vulgate. [118] He translated kétos, however, as ventre ceti in Matthew 12:40: [119] this second case occurs only in this verse of the New Testament. [120] [121]

At some point cetus became synonymous with "whale" (the study of whales is now called cetology). In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe" and the word kétos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in Matthew 12:40 [122] as "whale". Tyndale's translation was later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611. Since then, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale. In English some translations use the word "whale" for Matthew 12:40, while others use "sea creature" or "big fish". [123]

Scientific speculation Edit

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, naturalists, interpreting the Jonah story as a historical account, became obsessed with trying to identify the exact species of the fish that swallowed Jonah. [125] In the mid-nineteenth century, Edward Bouverie Pusey, professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, claimed that the Book of Jonah must have been authored by Jonah himself [126] and argued that the fish story must be historically true, or else it would not have been included in the Bible. [126] Pusey attempted to scientifically catalogue the fish, [127] hoping to "shame those who speak of the miracle of Jonah's preservation in the fish as a thing less credible than any of God's other miraculous doings". [128]

The debate over the fish in the Book of Jonah played a major role during Clarence Darrow's cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial in 1925. [129] [130] [62] Darrow asked Bryan "When you read that. the whale swallowed Jonah. how do you literally interpret that?" [129] Bryan replied that he believed in "a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both of them do what He pleases." [129] [62] Bryan ultimately admitted that it was necessary to interpret the Bible, [129] and is generally regarded as having come off looking like a "buffoon". [130]

The largest whales—baleen whales, a group which includes the blue whale—eat plankton and "it is commonly said that this species would be choked if it attempted to swallow a herring." [131] As for the whale shark, Dr. E. W. Gudger, an Honorary Associate in Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, notes that, while the whale shark does have a large mouth, [132] its throat is only four inches wide, with a sharp elbow or bend behind the opening, [132] meaning that not even a human arm would be able to pass through it. [132] He concludes that "the whale shark is not the fish that swallowed Jonah." [132]

Sperm whales regularly eat giant squid, so they could swallow a human. [133] Similar to a cow, sperm whales have four-chambered stomachs. [133] The first chamber has no gastric juices but has muscular walls to crush its food. [134] [135] On the other hand, it is not possible to breathe inside the sperm whale's stomach because there is no air (but probably methane instead). [133]

In Turkish, "Jonah fish" (in Turkish yunus baligi) is the term used for dolphins. [136] A long-established expression among sailors uses the term, "a Jonah", to mean a sailor or a passenger whose presence on board brings bad luck and endangers the ship. [137] Later, this meaning was extended to mean, "a person who carries a jinx, one who will bring bad luck to any enterprise." [138]

Despite its brevity, the Book of Jonah has been adapted numerous times in literature and in popular culture. [139] [140] In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Father Mapple delivers a sermon on the Book of Jonah. Mapple asks why Jonah does not show remorse for disobeying God while he is inside of the fish. He comes to the conclusion that Jonah admirably understands that "his dreadful punishment is just." [141] Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) features the title character and his father Geppetto being swallowed by "the Terrible Dogfish," an allusion to the story of Jonah. [142] Walt Disney's 1940 film adaptation of the novel retains this allusion. [143] The story of Jonah was adapted into Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki's animated film Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002). In the film, Jonah is swallowed by a gargantuan whale. [144] The film was Big Idea Entertainment's first full-length theatrical release [145] and it earned approximately $6.5 million on its first weekend. [146]

Epic of Gilgamesh Edit

Joseph Campbell suggests that the story of Jonah parallels a scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh obtains a plant from the bottom of the sea. [147] In the Book of Jonah, a worm (in Hebrew tola'ath, "maggot") bites the shade-giving plant's root causing it to wither [147] whereas in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh ties stones to his feet and plucks his plant from the floor of the sea. [147] [148] Once he returns to the shore, the rejuvenating plant is eaten by a serpent. [147] [149]

Jason from Greek mythology Edit

Campbell also noted several similarities between the story of Jonah and that of Jason in Greek mythology. [147] The Greek rendering of the name Jonah is Jonas, which differs from Jason only in the order of sounds—both os are omegas suggesting that Jason may have been confused with Jonah. [147] Gildas Hamel, drawing on the Book of Jonah and Greco-Roman sources—including Greek vases and the accounts of Apollonius of Rhodes, Gaius Valerius Flaccus and Orphic Argonautica—identifies a number of shared motifs, including the names of the heroes, the presence of a dove, the idea of "fleeing" like the wind and causing a storm, the attitude of the sailors, the presence of a sea-monster or dragon threatening the hero or swallowing him, and the form and the word used for the "gourd" (kikayon). [150]

Hamel takes the view that it was the Hebrew author who reacted to and adapted this mythological material to communicate his own, quite different message. [151]

Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary

The prophet Jonah (= a dove) is already mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 . He was the son of Amittai and was of Gath-hepher in Galilee north of Nazareth. In 2 Kings 14 we also read that he was a servant of God and a prophet who had prophesied that the borders of Israel from Hamath in Syria down to the Dead Sea would be restored. This took place during king Jeroboam's II time of reign (793 - 753 BC). Jonah therefore must have ministered during Jeroboam's time or shortly before it. He thus was one of the first writing prophets after Joel and next to Hosea and Amos.

Assyria was the mightiest empire of the East at the time of Jonah. The capital of Assyria was the old Nineveh which had already been built by Nimrod together with Rehoboth, Resen and Calah ( Calah is the only town to be called the great city in Scriptures). It is possible that the expression "that great city" in Jonah 1:2 is to be understood in the same way. In this case the three days' journey in Jonah 3:3 would be of no difficulty.

Jonah received the commission of Jehovah to announce God's judgment to the heathen, godless and hostile city. But Jonah inwardly refused God's wanting to speak to the despised nations other than to Israel. This is why he fled to Tarshish. But God caught up with him. He sent a tempest in the sea so that the ship was like to be broken. He also had the lot to fall upon Jonah upon which the mariners cast him forth into the sea. Finally Jehovah prepared a great fish in whose belly Jonah had to spend three days and three nights until the fish vomited out Jonah upon the dry according to Jehovah's command.

After all this Jonah was finally ready to carry out God's commission and to preach the message to Nineveh: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" But when the people of Nineveh repented upon Jonah's preaching and God annulled the threatening judgment we see Jonah's pride as a Jew again and his annoyance over the grace of God towards the heathen. He yet had to learn that he himself thankfully received God's proof of His goodness for his bodily need but that he showed no understanding when God wanted to show mercy for the souls of these unbelieving people.

2 Kings 14:15 informs us already that Jonah was a prophet. In contrast to all other prophets of the OT his ministry was directed to the heathen inhabitants of Nineveh and not to the people of Israel. The only prophetic message that Jonah announced was the one about the coming judgment over Nineveh ( Jonah 1:2 Jonah 3:2 Jonah 3:4 ). Jonah therefore is the only prophet of the OT revealing the grace of God towards the heathen.

Jonah's experiences form the main contents and purpose of the book. The prophetic significance of this book not only lies in the short message in Nineveh but also in the entire history of Jonah described in his book. Many critics however want to lower the book of Jonah to an allegory, a parable or a legend because of the miracles described in it (especially the appearing of the great fish devouring Jonah). But the Lord Jesus in the NT Himself testifies clearly the historicity of the prophet Jonah and his experiences. He also points to two significations of the book.

Firstly the book of Jonah is a proof of God's unlimited grace and mercy not only for His earthly people Israel but also for the impious heathen city of Nineveh. It shows that God has given these people repentance for life. For Israel or the Jews, respectively, this was very difficult to understand for they considered only themselves as God's elect people ( Matthew 12:41 Matthew 16:4 Luke 11:29-32 Acts 10 Acts 11).

Secondly the book of Jonah contains a typological representation of the history of the people of Israel. Israel has failed as a witness for God as has Jonah and has been in the sea of nations or the dispersion for a long time. But Israel has been kept as Jonah was kept in a miraculous way and will be God's witness for the nations in a future day. The gospel of the kingdom will one day be spread by converted Jews over the whole globe.

Thirdly Jonah is a type of Christ. In Matthew 12:39-40 the Lord Jesus is announcing to the scribes and Pharisees that no sign but the sign of Jonah will be given to them: "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the great fish's belly so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Another sign for Israel was the Lord Jesus' going out to the nations ( Matthew 28:19 Mark 16:15 Luke 24:47 ) as we read in Luke 11:30 .

Fourthly and finally Jonah shows the character of the human heart. The human heart which, also as far as believers are concerned, often reluctantly submits to the will of God, seeks its own honour, looks after itself first of all and which can be as hard as stone towards other men. Even the truth of God pleases the human heart often only as long as the own importance can be stressed by it! All this Jonah had to learn. This little book therefore contains very practical lessons for every reader.

a) The Miracles of God

The book of Jonah is a book of miracles. The miracles partially look like coincidents but the hand of God is behind them all.

Jehovah called for the tempest in the sea (chap. 1:4)

Jehovah had the lot to fall upon Jonah (chap. 1:7)

Jehovah had prepared a great fish (chap. 1:17)

Jehovah commanded the fish and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land (chap. 2:10)

Jehovah prepared a gourd (chap. 4:6)

God prepared a worm and it smote the gourd, that it withered (chap. 4:7)

God prepared a sultry east wind (chap. 4:8)

Especially the great fish and the conversion of the people of Nineveh have often been doubted. But the Lord Jesus confirms both as historical facts ( Matthew 12:40-41 ).

b) Jonah's Psalm of Repentance

It is very striking to see the similarity of Jonah chapter 2 with several psalms. The following show some parallels:

Jonah, the captain, and crew of the ship he sailed on, the king and citizens of Nineveh.

Jonah 1:1-3
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Jonah 1:15-17
Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah 2:8-9
"Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord."

Jonah 3:10
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 4:11
"But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"


Catholics have always looked upon the Book of Jonah as a fact-narrative. In the works of some recent Catholic writers there is a leaning to regard the book as fiction. Only Simon and Jahn, among prominent Catholic scholars, have clearly denied the historicity of Jonah and the orthodoxy of these two critics may no longer be defended: "Providentissimus Deus" implicitly condemned the ideas of both in the matter of inspiration, and the Congregation of the Index expressly condemned the "Introduction" of the latter.

Reasons for the traditional acceptance of the historicity of Jonah:

Jewish tradition

According to the Septuagint text of the Book of Tobias (xiv, 4), the words of Jonah in regard to the destruction of Ninive are accepted as facts the same reading is found in the Aramaic text and one Hebrew manuscript. The apocryphal III Mach., vi, 8, lists the saving of Jonah in the belly of the fish along with the other wonders of Old Testament history. Josephus (Ant. Jud., IX, 2) clearly deems the story of Jonah to be historical.

The authority of Our Lord

This reason is deemed by Catholics to remove all doubt as to the fact of the story of Jonah. The Jews asked a "sign" — a miracle to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. He made answer that no "sign" would be given them other than the "sign of Jonah the Prophet. For as the Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonah. And behold a greater than Jonah here" (Matthew 12:40-1 16:4 Luke 11:29-32). The Jews asked for a real miracle Christ would have deceived them had He presented a mere fancy. He argues clearly that just as Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights even so He will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. If, then, the stay of Jonah in the belly of the fish be only a fiction, the stay of Christ's body in the heart of the earth is only a fiction. If the men of Ninive will really not rise in judgment, neither will the Jews really rise. Christ contrasts fact with fact, not fancy with fancy, nor fancy with fact. It would be very strange, indeed, were He to say that He was greater than a fancy-formed man. It would be little less strange were he to berate the Jews for their real lack of penance by rating this lack in contrast with the penance of Ninive which never existed at all. The whole force of these striking contrasts is lost, if we admit that the story of Jonah is not fact-narrative. Finally, Christ makes no distinction between the story of the Queen of Sheba and that of Jonah (see Matthew 12:42). He sets the very same historical value upon the Book of Jonah as upon the Third Book of Kings. Such is the very strongest argument that Catholics offer for the firm stand they take upon the ground of the fact-narrative of the story of Jonah.

The authority of the Fathers

Not a single Father has ever been cited in favor of the opinion that Jonah is a fancy-tale and no fact-narrative at all. To the Fathers Jonah was a fact and a type of the Messias, just such a one as Christ presented to the Jews. Saints Jerome, Cyril, and Theophilus explain in detail the type-meaning of the facts of the Book of Jonah. St. Cyril even forestalls the objections of the Rationalists of today: Jonah flees his ministry, bewails God's mercy to the Ninivites, and in other ways shows a spirit that ill becomes a Prophet and an historical type of Christ. Cyril admits that in all this Jonah failed and is not a type of Christ, but does not admit that these failures of Jonah prove the story of his doings to have been a mere fiction.

  • Christ spoke according to the ideas of the people, and had no purpose in telling them that Jonah was really not swallowed by the fish. We ask: Did Christ speak of the Queen of Sheba as a fact? If so, then He spoke of Jonah as a fact — unless there be some proof to the contrary.
  • Were the book historical in its narrative, certain details would not be omitted, for instance, the place where the Prophet was vomited forth by the sea-monster, the particular sins of which the Ninivites were guilty, the particular kind of calamity by which the city was to be destroyed, the name of the Assyrian king under whom these events took place and who turned to the true God with such marvellous humility and repentance.

An Introduction to the Book of Jonah

1. Prophets were known by several terms--both Greek and Hebrew:

a. The Greek term that our English term comes from is profhvth 1 (prophetes) meaning one who proclaims and interprets divine revelation. 2 It is descriptive of one who speaks forth God&rsquos word. 3

b. The Hebrew terms used for a prophet are primarily ayb!n* 4 (nabi) which is probably descriptive of &ldquoone called&rdquo to speak for God 5 , and ha#r)h* 6 (hroeh, English &ldquoseer&rdquo) which was what prophets used to be called in Israel before Samuel (1 Sam. 9:9) because they saw visions

c. Other terms for a prophet included, &ldquoman of God,&rdquo &ldquowatchman,&rdquo &ldquomessenger of YHWH&rdquo, and &ldquoman of the Spirit&rdquo 7 .

2. Prophets had characteristics which were similar and distinct of their contemporaries of the Ancient Near East:

a. Similar Characteristics with the ANE 8 :

1) Some times they were identified with ecstatic experiences (1 Sam. 10:11--although this may be sarcastic)

2) Prophets spoke to Kings to encourage them or with criticism

3) Prophets spoke concerning military matters or building projects

4) Prophets received their messages through dreams, visions, trances, or ways that were not stated

b. Dissimilar Characteristics with the ANE 9 :

1) Biblical prophets were certain of their individual calls from YHWH (cf. Isa. 6 Jer. 1 Ezk. 1 Jonah 1, et cetera)

2) Biblical prophets were holy men who were &ldquomoved by the Spirit&rdquo (2 Pet. 1:21)

3) Biblical prophets were usually identified with self-control when under revelation 10

4) Biblical prophets were usually accused of antiritualism rather than with concerns of ritualism

5) Biblical prophets were concerned with far reaching messages of exile and destruction

6) Biblical prophets often spoke to the people as well as the kings

7) Biblical prophets (especially the classical prophets [see below] spoke upon the basis of the Mosaic Covenant 11 (by which God chose a people to reveal himself and to carry out his plan in history)

8) Biblical prophets included an eschatological aspect to their messages whereby their totally sovereign God would unveil portions of His final stage of history 12

B. Classification of the Prophets 13 : The prophets may be identified within three basic categories--(1) pre-monarchy 14 , (2) pre-classical 15 , (3) classical 16 --as the following chart unfolds: 17

Nation guidance, Maintenance of justice, Spiritual overseer

Military advice, Pronouncement of rebuke or blessing

Rebuke concerning current condition of society leads to warnings of captivity, destruction, exile, and promise of eventual restoration, Call for justice and repentance

C. The Message of the Prophet:

1. Most of the classical prophetic writings were a historic collection of sermons during turbulent times in Israel&rsquos history with a message to the problems of the nation 19

2. The historic messages were collected and arranged in book form thereby being intended for later generations of Israel and of those until God&rsquos purposes in history are accomplished 20

3. The following graph portrays four basic categories of prophetic oracles: 21

Focus primarily on idolatry, ritualism, and social justice

Focus on not giving proper honor to the Lord

Punishment to be carried out

Primarily political and projected for near future

Interprets recent or current crises as punishment

Very little offered generally return to God by ending wicked conduct

Slightly more offered more specifically addressed to particular situation

Affirmation of future hope or deliverance

Presented and understood as coming after an intervening period of judgment

Presented and understood as spanning a protracted time period

4. Messages Concerning the Future:

a. Prophecy certainly was a message to a historical people

b. Prophecy was also a message to a historical people in view of God&rsquos ongoing redemptive purpose therefore, it unveiled God&rsquos sovereign plan and intentions

c. In what is usually called &ldquopredictive prophecy&rdquo the &ldquopredictive&rdquo element was attached to the present situation.

d. While the human author most probably understood the historical message which he was giving, only the Divine Author could fully know the final referent if the message spoke of the future. Nevertheless, the final referent would not (and could not) contradict the historical message of the human author. 22

e. Since Jesus Christ is the center of God&rsquos salvation history, all prophecy somehow relates to Him.

II. AUTHOR: May have been Jonah ( hnwy ), or someone who knew him and later wrote down the events (one of the sons of the prophets)

A. External Evidence is very slight and late for Jonah:

The Twelve Prophets were known as a unit by the third century B.C. (Ecclus. 49:10), and second century B.C. (Tobit 14:4,18 Ben Sirach 49:10)

1. The name of the main character is Jonah (1:1)

2. There was a Jonah, son of Amittai, who lived during the eighth century B.C. in the northern Kingdom 23 under the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 793-753 B.C. 2 Ki. 14:25)

3. Jeroboam increased Israel&rsquos borders in accordance with Jonah&rsquos prophecy (2 Ki. 14:25)

4. While the author could have been someone who obtained the information about the event (e.g., from the &ldquosons of the prophets&rdquo [2 Ki. 2:3]), it is not at all impossible that it was written by Jonah himself after he learned the lesson of the book on his way back to Israel.

5. The thoughts of Jonah are recorded in some depth in the second chapter of Jonah. 24 This might be more difficult for a later author to retrieve, unless he had spoken to Jonah

III. DATE: During the pre-exilic period and perhaps during the Life time of Jonah (first half of the eighth century B.C.)

A. The date needs to fall between the reign of Jerobaom II (793-753 B.C.) to the fall of Ninevah (612 B.C.) 25

B. Jonah may well have fit into the time period of the preclassical prophets 26 , but he was transitional towards the classical period 27 .

C. In accordance with the above dates, Jonah lived just after the time of Elisha.

D. Three prophets seemed to minister during the same time: Jonah, Amos, and Hosea

E. Isaiah followed this immediate period

F. Although some have dated the book late because of Aramaisms and expressions unfamiliar to Classical Hebrew, they are inconclusive and do not prove a post-exilic date 28

G. Although some date the book after the exile as a response to the ultra-nationalistic spirit of Ezra and Nehemiah, this universalistic emphasis also occurred during the eighth century in Isaiah 2:2ff 29


A. Israel appears to be outwardly at its zenith of power. Jeroboam II had a successful reign (2Ki.14:25-28 cf. Amos 6:14)

B. Many of the evil characters described in Amos 1--2 might better be translated in the present tense of activities then being done 30 and thus describe Jeroboam II&rsquos rule as painfully disruptive as His lines were breached and the enemies pressed into the territory. Israel was to fight a defensive war against the armies of Syria and Ammon. Both were true.

C. Three periods of Israel from Jehu (841-414):

1. 839-806 -- Engaged in the East and rent by civil dissensions. Couldn&rsquot put pressure on Syria, suffered 30 years of humiliation during Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash 31

2. 806-782 -- Assyria&rsquos king Adad-Nirari III is ruler, and ruled over surrounding states and especially Syria therefore, Israel was protected and able to restore some of its borders under Johoash and Jeroboam II. Syria was unable to fight on two borders. 32 Israel and Judah restored their borders to almost all of those of David and Solomon (cf. 2 Ki. 14:25 for the prophecy by Jonah)

3. 782-745 -- the times of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea: Assyria was under duress from the northern kingdom of Urartu which pushed Assyria down from the north, northwest, and north-east (pp. Cohen, 157-158). Syria was freed up to deal with Israel and entered into drawn-out battles to regain Gilead, and Bashan 33

4. By the end of the century the Assyrian Empire would be the strongest military force ever known in the world overtaking and deporting the northern kingdom but Israel did not know this at the time of Jonah 34

D. The people became arrogant during the northern nation&rsquos period of prosperity resulting in injustice, greed, neglect of the poor, persecution of the poor, and formalistic religion 35

V. HISTORICITY: Jonah is a genre (form) of literature which is most probably historical:

A. Jonah is not an allegorical description of Israel&rsquos experience with Babylon for the following reasons: 36

1. Although Jonah may mean &ldquodove&rdquo it is not a standard nor common identification

2. Although the fish could be representative of the Babylon captivity, Babylon is never mentioned, and Babylon took Judah, not Israel. Also the fish is a means of deliverance not punishment

3. Although Jonah could be about a missionary mandate to the Gentile world, Jonah never mentions the distinctions of Judaism, Torah, nor monotheism. Also, the Exile was not for missionary failure, but for inner offenses against the covenant.

4. Allegories in the OT have unmistakable indications of their allegorical nature (Eccl. 12:3ff Jer. 25:15ff Ezk. 19:2ff 24:3ff 27:3ff Zech. 11:4ff), 37 of which Jonah has none

B. Jonah was probably not a parable for the following reasons:

1. Not only parables have moral or didactic goals. Historical narratives can also have this goal (cf. Kings Ruth)

2. The work is not placed in a setting that affirms that it is a story, or untrue:

a. It is placed canonically among the prophets and not the poetic books

b. It is not introduced as a generic account (e.g., &ldquoA certain man . &rdquo)

c. It is true that there is no direct time frame given in the book, but this is an argument from silence

3. Compared to other OT parables (Judges 9:8ff 2 Sam. 12:1 14:6 1 Ki. 20:39ff 2 Ki. 14:9) Jonah is much more lengthy and complex. Also, the moral point of the parable is never made abundantly clear since not explanation is presented 38

C. Jonah was most probably a historical work:

1. At times, an unwillingness to accept the possibility of miraculous occurrences (the fish, the plant) may be central to denying historicity, at other times it is a matter of literary genre 39

2. The details of the book appear to be historical data:

a. Jonah was a historical person (see above)

b. Ninevah was a historical city (see above)

c. The details of buying a ticket, boarding the ship, the destination of the ship, the port of the ship all appear to be historical

d. The account of the storm, the sailors&rsquo reactions, their pagan practices, cries to YHWH, and sacrifices all appear to be historical

3. The Book of Jonah is introduced just as other prophecies are: &ldquoNow the word of the Lord came to Jonah . &rdquo (Jonah 1:1)

4. The New Testament concurs with a historical approach (Matt. 12:39-41 16:4 Luke 11:29-32)

a. Jonah is assumed to have truly been in the belly of a great fish for three days

b. Jonah is assumed to have been a genuine sign to the people of Ninevah

c. The people of Ninevah are assumed to have repented, and to be among those who will judge Jesus&rsquo generation in the future

d. The people of Ninevah are included among another historical figure-- the Queen of the South


A. To emphasize the changes brought about by classical prophecy in terms of the value of repentance. It could even turn back the pronouncement of a prophet (even for a Gentile nation, not to mention Israel) 40

B. To emphasize YHWH&rsquos concern for all mankind--even the wicked--and not just for Israel

C. To teach that Salvation is from YHWH

D. To teach about the nature of YHWH as a covenant God who is committed to his people--even individuals who are in rebellion.

E. To emphasize the need to submit to the Lord&rsquos command or else leave him no choice but to drag us along as he works his sovereign plan

F. To emphasize that the Lord is at times working beyond our own theological understandings, and thus is not bound to them.

G. To teach against the arrogance of &ldquospiritual pride.&rdquo

H. To teach that the Lord may be compassionate to those who show small steps of repentance in the right direction without defiling his righteousness which demands judgment for evil. 41


The Book has two parallel halves: chapters 1&2 and 3&4

A. Each has a call from God and a response from Jonah (1:1-3/3:1-3)

B. Jonah encounters pagans who are forced to consider the influence of his God (1:4-11/3:4-10)

C. Jonah is forced into a confrontation with God because of his attitudes (1:12-17/4:1-9)

D. Each section is ended by God&rsquos compassionate deliverance (2:1-9/4:10-12)

God demonstrates His compassion for both the sailors and Jonah by delivering them both

God demonstrates his compassion for both Ninevah and Jonah by delivering them both 43

3 Hill and Walton seem to be correct in distinguishing the biblical concept of forthtelling from the common concept that a prophet foretells the future since a prophet only speaks God's plans and intentions, and since God's plans are not predictions so much as pre-stated certainties from the sovereign of all causation (A Survey of the Old Testament, pp. 314-315.

5 La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, p. 298-299 R. K. Harrison, Introduction, pp. 741-742. See also Exodus 4:15ff 7:1).

6 1 Samuel 9:9 Isa. 30:10 BDB, s.v. ha#r) , p. 909 meaning one who sees (perhaps a vision) from har

8 Prophets were known in the Mari tablets of the eighteenth century B.C. and in the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the days of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal (681-633 B.C.) See Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 309-310.

9 Much of this information comes from Hill and Walton Survey, p. 311.

10 La Sor, Old, p. 300 See R. K. Harrison's extended discussion and bibliography, Introduction, pp. 752-754

11 The judgments were restatements of the covenant curses (Lev. 26 Deut. 27-28) YHWH would determine the time of the judgments as the Judge, and the judgments would be executed by foreign nations. Only through a New Covenant (Deut. 30 Jer. 31) could the nation be restored after they fell under judgment (Elliott E. Johnson, Elements of Recognition, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 53).

12 Some central passages which speak to this theme are found in the words of the prophet Isaiah (41:21-24 43:10-13 44:6-11 45:20-21 48:3-7.

Post-exilic prophets had the days when YHWH would complete his program (latter days, or those days) as a central focus (La Sor et al, Old, p. 304.

The Day of the LORD (Day of YHWH) would be the time when YHWH would consummate his judgment and blessing.

13 La Sor et al offers a complete list with central passages, Old, pp. 301-303.

14 These are Deborah, Samuel (although Samuel is transitional as the last of the judges and the first of the monarchical [pre-classical] prophets).

They were called prophets because: (1) they were chosen in order to received revelation, (2) Moses is the prototype of a prophet [Deut. 18:18 34:10], (3) Samuel marked a time when prophecy resumed [1 Sam. 3:7-9]. See La Sor et al, Old, pp. 300-301.

15 These are scattered throughout the historical books including oracles by Nathan, Elijah, Elisha.

16 These are most commonly identified with the writing prophets from the eighth through fourth century B.C. primarily including those who wrote books (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Obed, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

17 Hill and Walton, A Survey, p. 311.

18 Jonah is unique because it does not contain a collection of prophetic oracles to the nation, but is narrative about the prophet.

19 Elliot E. Johnson, Principle of Recognition, Class notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 52.

21 Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 313-315.

22 The Divine Author would use the human author to communicate His message often with a reference beyond the conscious awareness of the human author.

This might be illustrated as follows: If I say to my daughter, I don't love kisses from anyone as much as from you, there would be limits to my statement (e.g., it does not include my wife). Yet, If someone brings a child to me and says, Did you mean more than Alice?, I would say, Yes, even though I did not have Alice in mind when I made that statement, Alice does fit with what I have said. I am speaking as the human author here. But if my sayings were inspired, God would say, Yes, and Alice is specifically whom I had in mind!

Since the message is the Divine Author's message, there are at times references beyond (but not in conflict) with the human author's awareness.

23 Jonah lived in Gath-hepher near Nazareth (cf. Jn. 7:52)

24 Note the use of the first person throughout this chapter.

25 The latter date is based upon interpretations of Jonah 3:3 which argue that Ninevah was no longer in existence due to the verb was.

However, was need not imply that the described condition no longer existed (cf. 1 Ki. 10:6 Isa. 49:5c Jer. 14:4a) [see Walton, Jonah, p. 66-67]. The narrative was written in the past tense, therefore, a present tense verb would appear incongruous.

Some also argue that Jonah's use of the title, King of Ninevah (3:3) is unrealistic because it is not used elsewhere in Mesopotamic or biblical records. But this is an argument from silence which does not prove a late date. Also it could be a genuine, though unattested title of the king of Assyria, or be referring to a rule of the city who was not the king of Assyria. This latter explanation was not uncommon (see the king of Edom [2 Kgs. 3:9,12], the king of Damascus [2 Chron. 24:23], and Ahab as the king of Samaria [1 Kgs. 21:1]).

26 Earlier messages focused upon judgment for evil, intercession (see Ex. 32:11ff Num. 14:13ff Deut. 9:26ff), and commitment (2 Ki. 18:21,37).

Samuel did ask the people to repent (1 Sam. 7:3), but he was transitionary as a judge, prophet and priest, and not strictly a prophet (see above also Walton, Jonah, pp. 70-71).

Jonah did speak to the King like the preclassical prophets (2 Ki. 14:25, but within fifty years of the former statement the writer of 2 Kings recorded: The LORD had warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and every seer saying, 'Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments, my statues according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to your through My servants the prophets' (2 Ki. 17:13) Therefore, Jonah may have been transitionary to the classical age (see the chart above see also Walton, Jonah, pp. 70-72).

27 The transition may well explain some of Jonah's resistance to proclaim YHWH's message of repentance. He wanted Ninevah to be judged like Sodom was (see Hill, Jonah, p. 72).

28 R. K. Harrison, Introduction, p. 917.

29 Ibid., p. 917. Also, Elijah and Elisha had missions to Sidon and Syria (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:9ff 2 Kgs. 5:1ff).

30 Simon Cohen, The Political Background of the Words of Amos, HUCA, pp. 155-156.

34 Hill and Walton, Survey, p. 384.

37 See a fuller discussion in R. K. Harrison, Introduction, pp. 911-912.

38 R. K. Harrison, Introduction, p. 913.

39 Hill and Walton, Survey, p. 383.

41 Hill and Walton have an excellent discussion on this function of the book (Survey, pp. 385-387).

42 Adapted from Hill and Walton, Survey, pp. 387-388.

43 The fact that Jonah is not ultimately delivered (in that the plant is struck down) may be a hint at the later judgment which Ninevah would receive.

Malick received a Masters of Theology in Bible Exposition, with honors, from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1984. In 2003, he earned his Juris Doctorate, magna cum laude, from Capital University Law School, where he received the Order of the Curia. He has engaged in post-graduate studies at Dallas T. More

The Meaning of the Book of Jonah

The Talmud ascribes the composition of the Twelve Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly (Bava Batra 15a). Rashi explains that the books were bound together in one scroll because each was so short that some might get lost if not combined into a scroll of greater size.

Together they span a period of some 250-300 years. Jonah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah were eighth century prophets Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Obadiah prophesied in the seventh-early sixth century and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi prophesied in the late sixth century. Of the twelve, Joel is the most difficult to date, and we will discuss him in the fourth chapter on the Twelve Prophets.

It is difficult to find a comprehensive theory to explain the purpose of the book, or why Jonah fled from his mission. For millennia, great interpreters have scoured the Book of Jonah’s forty-eight verses for their fundamental messages.

One midrashic line suggests that unrepentant Israel would look bad by comparison were non-Israelites to repent. [2] Another proposes that Jonah was convinced that the Ninevites would repent and God would pardon them. Jonah feared that he then would be called a false prophet once his prediction of Nineveh’s destruction went unfulfilled. [3]

Abarbanel does not find either answer persuasive. Perhaps Israel would be inspired to repent in light of Nineveh’s repentance. Moreover, since the Ninevites did repent, they obviously believed Jonah to be a true prophet. Nowhere is there evidence of Jonah’s being upset about his or Israel’s reputation. It is unlikely that Jonah would have violated God’s commandment for the reasons given by these midrashim.

Abarbanel (followed by Malbim) submits that Jonah feared the future destruction of Israel by Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital (cf. Ibn Ezra on 1:1). Rather than obey God’s directive, Jonah elected to martyr himself on behalf of his people. However, the Book of Jonah portrays Nineveh as a typological Sodom-like city-state, not as the historical capital of Assyria. Jonah’s name appears eighteen times in the book, but nobody else—not even the king of Nineveh – is named. Additionally, there is no mention of

or its king in the story. The Book of Jonah appears to have a self-contained message that transcends its historical context. [4]

Seeking another approach, the twentieth century scholars Yehoshua Bachrach, [5] Elyakim Ben-Menahem, [6] and Uriel Simon [7] cite Jonah’s protest from the end of the book:

He prayed to the Lord , saying, “O Lord ! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. (Jon. 4:2)

These scholars understand Jonah’s protest as a rejection of the very idea of repentance. To support their reading, they cite a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud:

It was asked of wisdom: what is the punishment for a sinner? She replied, Misfortune pursues sinners (Prov. 13:21). It was asked of prophecy: what is the punishment for a sinner? She replied, The person who sins, only he shall die (Ezek. 18:4, 20). It was asked of God: what is the punishment for a sinner? He replied, let him repent and gain atonement. (J.T. Makkot 2:6 [31d])

From this point of view, there is a fundamental struggle between God on the one hand and wisdom and prophecy on the other. Jonah was not caught up in the details of this specific prophecy rather, he was protesting the very existence of repentance, preferring instead that God mete out immediate punishment to sinners.

Although this approach is more comprehensive than the earlier interpretations, it remains incomplete. Much of the book has little to do with repentance or God’s mercy – particularly Jonah’s lengthy encounter with the sailors in chapter 1 who never needed to repent, and his prayer in chapter 2 where Jonah likely did not repent. Aside from downplaying the role of the sailors in chapter 1, Uriel Simon sidesteps Jonah’s prayer by contending that it was not an original part of the story. [8] Regardless of its origins, however, Jonah’s prayer appears integral to the book, and likely contains one of the keys to unlocking the overall purposes of the narrative. [9] Finally, most prophets appear to have accepted the ideas of repentance and God’s mercy. Why should Jonah alone have fled from his mission?

Although these interpreters are correct in stressing Jonah’s protest against God’s attribute of mercy in 4:2, Jonah also disapproved of that attribute particularly when God applies it to pagans. It appears that this theme lies at the heart of the book, creating an insurmountable conflict between Jonah and God. Jonah was unwilling to accept God’s mercy even to the most ethically perfected pagans because that manifestation of mercy was antithetical to Jonah’s desired conception of God.

Although they were pagans, the sailors were superior people. They prayed to their deities during the storm, treated Jonah with respect even after he had been selected by the lottery as the cause of their troubles, and went to remarkable lengths to avoid throwing him overboard even after he confessed. They implored God for mercy. When they finally did throw Jonah into the sea, they made vows to God.

Jonah, on the other hand, displays none of these lofty qualities. He rebelled against God by fleeing and then slept while the terrified sailors prayed. Remarkably, the captain sounds like a prophet when addressing Jonah— “How can you be sleeping so soundly! Up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish” (1:6)—while Jonah sounds like the inattentive audience a prophet typically must rebuke. The captain even uses the same words in 1:6 (kum kera) that God had in commanding Jonah to go to Nineveh in 1:2 (kum lekh…u-kera).

When Jonah finally does speak in the text, the narrator divides the prophet’s words between a direct quotation and narrative:

“I am a Hebrew! (Ivri anokhi),” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.” The men were greatly terrified, and they asked him, “What have you done?” And when the men learned that he was fleeing from the service of the Lord – for so he told them . . . (1:9-10)

Although Jonah told the sailors what they wanted to know, that his flight from God had caused the storm, it is the narrator who relates those crucial words rather than placing them into Jonah’s direct speech. Moreover, Jonah’s statement that he was a Hebrew who worshipped the true God appears tangential to the terrified sailors’ concerns. Why would the narrator frame Jonah’s statement this way?

The term “Ivri (Hebrew)” often is used when contrasting Israelites with non-Israelites. [10] In this vein, Elyakim Ben-Menahem notes that Jonah’s usage of Ivri in 1:9 is fitting, since he was contrasting himself with pagans. Jonah’s perceived dissimilarity to the pagan sailors is the main emphasis of chapter 1. Ben-Menahem further suggests that the text does not report Jonah’s response to the captain so that his dramatic proclamation in 1:9 could appear as his first words recorded in the book. [11] This contrast with the sailors was most important to Jonah therefore, the narrator placed only these words in his direct quotation.

To explain the bifurcation of Jonah’s statement, Abarbanel advances a midrashic-style comment: “The intent [of the word Ivri] is not only that he was from the Land of the Hebrews rather, he was a sinner [avaryan] who was transgressing God’s commandment.” Abarbanel surmises that the sailors deduced from this wordplay on Ivri that Jonah was fleeing! For Abarbanel’s suggestion to work as the primary meaning of the text, of course, the sailors would have to have known Hebrew and to have been as ingenious as Abarbanel to have caught that wordplay. Though not a compelling peshat comment, Abarbanel’s insight is conceptually illuminating regarding the overall purpose of chapter 1. Jonah emphatically contrasted himself with the pagan sailors however, the narrator instead has contrasted Jonah with God. In chapter 1, Jonah was indeed Abarbanel’s Ivri—a prophetic hero of true faith contrasting himself with pagans, and an avaryan—a sinner against God.

After waiting three days inside the fish, Jonah finally prayed to God. Some (for example, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and Malbim) conclude that Jonah must have repented, since God ordered the fish to spew Jonah out, and Jonah subsequently went to Nineveh. However, there is no indication of repentance in Jonah’s prayer. [12] One might argue further that God’s enjoining Jonah to return to Nineveh in 3:1-2 indicates that Jonah had indeed not repented. [13] In his prayer, Jonah was more concerned with being saved and serving God in the Temple than he was in the reasons God was punishing him (2:5, 8).

Jonah concluded his prayer with two triumphant verses:

They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare, but I, with loud thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You what I have vowed I will perform. Deliverance is the Lord’s! (2:9-10)

Ibn Ezra and Radak believe that Jonah was contrasting himself with the sailors who had made vows in 1:16. Unlike their insincere (in Jonah’s opinion) vows, Jonah intended to keep his vow to serve God in the Temple. Abarbanel and Malbim, however, do not think that Jonah would allude to the sailors. In their reading of the book, the sailors are only tangential to their understanding of the story, which specifically concerns Nineveh as the Assyrian capital. Instead, they maintain that Jonah was forecasting the insincere (in Jonah’s opinion) repentance of the Ninevites.

One may combine their opinions: the sailors and Ninevites both are central to the book of Jonah, each receiving a chapter of coverage. They were superior people—the sailors all along, and the Ninevites after their repentance—but Jonah despised them because they were pagans. Jonah’s prayer ties the episodes with the sailors and Ninevites together, creating a unified theme for the book, namely, that Jonah contrasts himself with truly impressive pagans. It seems that Rashi has the smoothest reading:

They who cling to empty folly : those who worship idols forsake their own welfare: their fear of God, from whom all kindness emanates. But I, in contrast, am not like this I, with loud thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. (Rashi on Jon. 2:9-10)

As in chapter 1, Jonah’s contrasting himself with pagans is the climactic theme of his prayer in chapter 2. To paraphrase the prayer in chapter 2, Jonah was saying “Ivri anokhi [I am a Hebrew]” (1:9)! I worship the true God in contrast to all pagans—illustrated by the sailors, and later by the Ninevites. At the same time, Jonah still remained in his rebellion against God he still was an avaryan [sinner]. According to this view, God allowed Jonah out of the fish to teach him a lesson, not because he had repented.

Did Jonah obey God when he went to

? Radak assumes that he did. In contrast, Malbim believes that Jonah rebelled even as he walked through the wicked city. He should have explicitly offered repentance as an option, instead of proclaiming the unqualified doom of the Ninevites.

The Ninevites, on the other hand, effected one of the greatest repentance movements in biblical history. The king of Nineveh even said what one might have expected Jonah to say: “Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish” (3:8-9). We noted earlier that the same contrast may be said of the captain of the ship, who sounded like a prophet while Jonah rebelled against God.

Nineveh’s repentance might amaze the reader, but it did not impress Jonah. Abarbanel and Malbim (on 4:1-2) suggest that Jonah was outraged that God spared the Ninevites after their repentance for social crimes, since they remained pagans. This interpretation seems to lie close to the heart of the book. Jonah did not care about the outstandingly ethical behavior of the sailors nor the impressively penitent Ninevites. Jonah still was the Ivri he proclaimed himself to be in 1:9, sharply contrasting himself with the pagans he encountered, and thereby remaining distanced from the God he knew would have compassion on them.

This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. He prayed to the Lord, saying, “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” (4:1-3)

Outraged by God’s sparing of

, Jonah revealed that he had fled initially because he knew that God would not punish the Ninevites. In his protest, Jonah appealed to God’s attributes of mercy, but with a significant deviation from the classical formula in the aftermath of the Golden Calf:

The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness . . . (Exod. 34:6)

For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. (Jon. 4:2) [14]

Jonah substituted “renouncing punishment (ve-niham al ha-ra’ah)” for “faithfulness (ve-emet).” Jonah’s God of truth would not spare pagans, yet God Himself had charged Jonah with a mission to save pagans! Thus, God’s prophecy at the outset of the narrative challenged Jonah’s very conception of God. Jonah would rather die than live with a God who did not conform to his religious outlook. Ironically, then, Jonah’s profound fear and love of God are what caused him to flee initially, and to demand that God take his life.

In an attempt to expose the fallacy of Jonah’s argument, God demonstrated Jonah’s willingness to die stemmed not only from idealistic motives, but also from physical discomfort:

“O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish . . . . Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” The Lord replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?” (4:1-4)

And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.” Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die” (4:8-9)

God added a surprising variable when explaining His sparing of the Ninevites. Although it had seemed from chapter 3 that the Ninevites had saved themselves with their repentance, God suddenly offered a different reason [15] :

Then the Lord said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (4:10-11)

God had been willing to destroy the Ninevites for their immorality, but forgave them once they repented. Although the Ninevites had misguided beliefs, God had compassion on them without expecting that they become monotheists. After all, they could not distinguish their right from their left in the sense that they served false deities. For Jonah, however, true justice required punishing even the penitent Ninevites because they still were pagans.

To paraphrase God’s response: You, Jonah, wanted to die for the highest of ideals. However, you also were willing to die rather than face heat. Your human limitations are now fully exposed. How, then, can you expect to understand God’s attributes? [16] God has little patience for human immorality, but can tolerate moral people with misguided beliefs. Jonah’s stark silence at the end of the book reflects the gulf between God and himself. He remained an “Ivri” to the very end.

The story of Jonah is about prophecy, the pinnacle of love of God, and the highest human spiritual achievement. But prophecy also causes increased anguish, as the prophet apprehends the infinite gap between God and humanity more intensely than anyone else. Jonah’s spiritual attainments were obviously far superior to those of the sailors or the people of Nineveh – he most certainly could tell his right hand from his left. The closer he came to God, the more he simultaneously gained recognition of how little he truly knew of God’s ways. This realization tortured him to the point of death.

God taught Jonah that he did not need to wish for death. He had influenced others for the better and had attained a deeper level of understanding of God and of his own place in this world. Despite his passionate commitment to God, Jonah needed to learn to appreciate moral people and to bring them guidance. He had a vital role to play in allowing God’s mercy to be manifest.

The Book of Jonah is a larger-than-life story of every individual who seeks closeness with God. There is a paradoxical recognition that the closer one comes to God, the more one becomes conscious of the chasm separating God’s wisdom from our own. There is a further challenge in being absolutely committed to God, while still respecting moral people who espouse different beliefs. A midrash places one final line in Jonah’s mouth: “Conduct Your world according to the attribute of mercy!” [17] This midrash pinpoints the humbling lesson Jonah should have learned from this remarkable episode, and that every reader must learn.

[1] This chapter is adapted from Hayyim Angel, “‘I am a Hebrew!’: Jonah’s Conflict with God’s Mercy Toward Even the Most Worthy of Pagans,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34:1 (2006), pp. 3-11 reprinted in Angel, Through an Opaque Lens (New York: Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2006), pp. 259-269. It also appeared in Yom Kippur Reader (New York: Tebah, 2008), pp. 59-70.

[2] See, for example, Mekhilta Bo, J.T. Sanhedrin 11:5, Pesahim 87b, cited by Rashi, Kara, Ibn Ezra, and Radak.

[3] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 9, cited by R. Saadyah (Emunot ve-De’ot 3:5), Rashi, Kara, Radak, and R. Isaiah of Trani.

[4] See further discussion and critique of the aforementioned views in Uriel Simon, The JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), introduction pp. 7-12.

[5] Yehoshua Bachrach, Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu: le-Hora’at Sefer Yonah al pi ha-Mekorot (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: The Religious Department of the Youth and Pioneering Division of the Zionist Organization, 1967), p. 51.

[6] Elyakim Ben-Menahem, Da’at Mikra: Jonah, in Twelve Prophets vol. 1 (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1973), introduction pp. 7-9.

[7] Simon, JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah, introduction pp. 12-13.

[8] Simon, JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah, introduction pp. 33-35 commentary pp. 15-17.

[9] See further critique of Simon in David Henshke, “The Meaning of the Book of Jonah and Its Relationship to Yom Kippur,” (Hebrew) Megadim 29 (1998), pp. 77-78 and see response of Uriel Simon to Henshke, “True Prayer and True Repentance,” (Hebrew), Megadim 31 (2000), pp. 127-131.

[10] See, e.g., Gen. 39:14, 17 40:15 41:12 43:32 Exod. 1:15, 16, 19 2:7, 11, 13 3:18 5:3 7:16 9:1, 13 10:3. Cf. Gen. Rabbah 42:13: R. Judah said: [ha-Ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (ever) while [Abraham] was on the other side (ever).

[11] Ben-Menahem, Da’at Mikra: Jonah, pp. 6-7. In his introduction, pp. 3-4, Ben-Menahem adds that chapter 1 is arranged chiastically and Jonah’s proclamation in v. 9 lies at the center of that structure, further highlighting its centrality to the chapter.

[12] Cf. Rashi, Kara, and R. Eliezer of Beaugency. Even Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, and Malbim, who assert that Jonah must have agreed to go to Nineveh, grant that Jonah was unhappy about this concession. Adopting a middle position, Sforno suggests that Jonah repented, but the prayer included in the book is a psalm of gratitude after Jonah already was saved. Rob Barrett (“Meaning More than They Say: The Conflict between Y-H-W-H and Jonah,” JSOT 37:2 (2012), p. 244) suggests additional ironies in Jonah’s prayer: Jonah proclaims that he has called out to God (2:3), but in fact has refused to call out to Nineveh or to God while on the boat. Jonah states that God saved him because he turned to God, while he is fleeing God’s command.

[13] Ibn Ezra counters that Jonah specifically stayed near Nineveh so that he would be ready to go with a second command. Alternatively, Ben-Menahem (Da’at Mikra: Jonah, p. 13) suggests that Jonah might have thought that God had sent someone else.

[14] For further analysis of the interrelationship between Joel, Jonah, and Exodus 34, see Thomas B. Dozeman, “Inner Biblical Interpretation of Y-H-W-H’s Gracious and Compassionate Character,” JBL 108 (1989), pp. 207-223.

[15] For fuller exploration of this and related disparities, see Hayyim Angel, “The Uncertainty Principle of Repentance in the Books of Jonah and Joel,” in Angel, Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2009), pp. 148-161.

[16] See further discussion in Bachrach, Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu, pp. 66-68.

[17] Midrash Jonah , ed. Jellinek, p. 102, quoted in Simon, JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah, introduction p. 12. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that during the entire episode, Jonah needed to learn important lessons in becoming a prophet. God therefore sent him on this initial mission to Nineveh. Only after this episode did God send him on a more favorable prophetic mission to Israel (II Kings 14:23-27). “Commentary on Jonah” (Hebrew), HaMa’ayan 51:1 (Tishri 5771-2010), pp. 8-9.

God on the Water

Back to the first chapter of Jonah. It would seem that Jonah told his fellow sailors from the start that he was seeking to flee his God. If this did not disturb them, it was because they were sailing into international waters where the territorial gods had no power. Then, as the storm hits, each cries out to his own god&mdashin the vain hope, perhaps, that the various deities thus summoned might get together and mount an international rescue operation. When that fails, when the lot falls on Jonah, and when they demand to know who he really is&mdashand he tells them&mdashthen, stunned and awed, the men finally grasp the true gravity of their situation. The rest of the story, starting with their casting Jonah into the sea, follows in logical progression.

And so we return to what the rabbis may have had in mind in choosing the book of Jonah as the final scriptural reading on Yom Kippur. The sun is beginning to set, and worshippers are scant hours away from returning to their regular lives, where God&rsquos presence is not so easily apprehended as it is in the synagogue on the year&rsquos most sacred day, and where every temptation exists to gerrymander the divine out of one&rsquos daily experience. Here, in Jonah, is the only place in the Bible where the essence of Jewish identity is so succinctly and powerfully summarized.

Ivri anokhi! God is to be found anywhere, at any time. In the words of the American founder John Adams, this doctrine&mdash&rdquoof a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe,&rdquo which Adams took to be &ldquothe great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization&rdquo&mdashconstituted the gift of the ancient Hebrews, who alone &ldquohad preserved and propagated [it] to all mankind.&rdquo It is the lesson taught by the book of Jonah, and its message to all who hear it on Yom Kippur is that we must live our lives accordingly.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

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