INTRODUCTION

The Book of Jonah is one of the Prophets in the Bible.

It tells of a Hebrew prophet named Jonah son of Amittai who is sent by God to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh but tries to escape the divine mission.

Set in the reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 BC), it was probably written in the post-exilic period, some time between the late 5th to early 4th century BC.

The story has a long interpretive history and has become well-known through popular children's stories.

In Judaism it is the Haftarah, read during the afternoon of Yom Kippur in order to instill reflection on God's willingness to forgive those who repent; it remains a popular story among Christians.

It is also retold in the Quran.

Unlike the other Prophets, the book of Jonah is almost entirely narrative, with the exception of the psalm in chapter 2.

The actual prophetic word against Nineveh is given only in passing through the narrative.

As with any good narrative, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes.

It also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.

 

OUTLINE

1. Jonah Flees His Mission (chapters 1-2)

  1. Jonah's Commission and Flight (1:1-3)
  2. The Endangered Sailors Cry to Their gods (1:4-6)
  3. Jonah's Disobedience Exposed (1:7-10)
  4. Jonah's punishment and Deliverance (1:11-2:1;2:10)
  5. His Prayer of Thanksgiving (2:2-9)

2. Jonah Reluctantly fulfills His Mission (chapters 3-4)

  1. Jonah's Renewed Commission and Obedience (3:1-4)
  2. The Endangered Ninevites' Repentant Appeal to the Lord (3:5-9)
  3. The Ninevites' Repentance Acknowledged (3:10-4:4)
  4. Jonah's Deliverance and Rebuke (4:5-11)

 

SETTING

The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, drawing by Rembrandt, c. 1655

Nineveh, where Jonah preached, was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which fell to the Babylonians and the Medes in 612 BC.

The book calls Nineveh a “great city,” referring to its size [Jonah 3:3 + 4:11] and perhaps to its affluence as well. (The story of the city’s deliverance from judgment may reflect an older tradition dating back to the 8th–7th century BC)

Assyria often opposed Israel and eventually took the Israelites captive in 722–721 BC (see History of ancient Israel and Judah).

The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen in the bitter prophecies of Nahum.

 

CHARACTERS

The story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah, whose name literally means "dove," is introduced to the reader in the very first verse.

The name is decisive.

While many other prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.

Jonah's passive character is contrasted with the other main character: Yahweh. God's character is altogether active.

While Jonah flees, God pursues.

While Jonah falls, God lifts up.

The character of God in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony.

In the first part of the book, God is depicted as relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.

The other characters of the story include the sailors in chapter 1 and the people of Nineveh in chapter 3.

These characters are also contrasted to Jonah's passivity.

While Jonah sleeps in the hull, the sailors pray and try to save the ship from the storm (1:4–6).

While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change his mind.

 

IN THE BIBLE

Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by Gustave Doré.

The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God. God calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee.

He goes to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish.

God calls up a great storm at sea, and, at Jonah's insistence, the ship's crew reluctantly cast Jonah overboard in an attempt to appease God.

A great sea creature, sent by God, swallows Jonah.

For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly.

He says a prayer in which he repents for his disobedience and thanks God for His mercy.

God speaks to the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land.

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Doré.

After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, causing the people of the city to repent and God to forgive them.

Jonah is furious, however, and angrily tells God that this is the reason he tried to flee from Him, as he knew Him to be a just and merciful God.

He then beseeches God to kill him, a request which is denied when God causes a tree to grow over him, giving him shade.

Initially grateful, Jonah's anger returns the next day, when God sends a worm to eat the plant, withering it, and he tells God that it would be better if he were dead.

God then points out: "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (NRSV)"

Ironically, the relentless God demonstrated in the first chapter is shown to be the merciful God in the last two chapters (see 3:10).

Equally ironic, despite not wanting to go to Nineveh and follow God's calling, Jonah becomes one of the most effective prophets of God.

As a result of his preaching, the entire population of Nineveh repents before the Lord and is spared destruction.

The author indicates that the city "has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left" (4:11a, NIV).

While some commentators see this number (120,000) as a somewhat pejorative reference to ignorant or backward Ninevites, most commentators take it to refer to young infants, thus implying a population considerably larger than 120,000.

 

IN THE KORAN

Islam also tells the story of the Prophet Jonah in the Koran.

Similar to the Bible, the Koran states that Jonah was sent to his people to deliver a message to worship only one God (the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham) and refrain from evil behavior.

However Jonah became angry with his people when they refused to listen and ignores him.

Jonah gave up on his people and left his community without having instruction from God. “And remember when he (Jonah) went off in anger.” (Quran 21:87)

According to Islam, after Jonah left his people the sky turned red as fire and the people were filled with fear.

Jonah's people repented to God and prayed that Jonah would return to guide them to the Straight Path.

God accepted their repentance and the sky returned to normal.

As told in the Koran, Jonah boarded a ship to be far away from his people.

While on the ship the calm sea became violent and was tearing at the boat.

After throwing their belongings overboard without any positive change, the passengers cast lots to throw someone overboard to reduce the weight.

Twice Jonah's name was drawn to be thrown overboard, which surprised the passengers because Jonah was perceived as a righteous and pious man.

Jonah understood this was not a coincidence but his destiny and he jumped into the violent sea and was swallowed by a "giant fish."

Many believe this fish was a whale.

The strong acid from fish's belly began to eat away at Jonah's skin and he began to repeatedly call out to God for help by saying: "None has the right to be worshipped but you oh God, glorified are you and truly I have been one of the wrongdoers!” (Quran 21:87)

Islam teaches that God accepted Jonah's repentance and commanded the giant fish to spit Jonah out onto the shore.

Jonah was in pain and his skin was burned from the acid in the fish's belly.

Jonah repeated his prayer and God relieved him by having a vine (gourd) cover his body to protect him and also provided him with food.

The Koran states: "And, verily, Jonah was one of the Messengers.

When he ran to the laden ship, he agreed to cast lots and he was among the losers, then a big fish swallowed him and he had done an act worthy of blame.

Had he not been of them who glorify God, he would have indeed remained inside its belly (the fish) until the Day of Resurrection.

But We cast him forth on the naked shore while he was sick and We caused a plant of gourd to grow over him.

And We sent him to a hundred thousand people or even more, and they believed, so We gave them enjoyment for a while.” (Quran 37:139-148).

Jonah returned to be with his people and guide them.

The prayer made by Jonah while in the fish's belly can be used to help anyone in times of distress: "None has the right to be worshipped but you oh God, glorified are you and truly I have been one of the wrongdoers!” (Quran 21:87).

 

INTERPRETIVE HISTORY

Early Jewish interpretation

The story of Jonah has numerous theological implications, and this has long been recognized.

In early translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish translators tended to remove anthropomorphic imagery in order to prevent the reader from misunderstanding the ancient texts.

This tendency is evidenced in both the Aramaic translations (e.g. the Targums) and the Greek translations (e.g. the Septuagint).

As far as the Book of Jonah is concerned, Targum Jonah offers a good example of this.

 

TARGUM JONAH

In Jonah 1:6, the Masoretic Text (MT) reads, "...perhaps God will pay heed to us...."

Targum Jonah translates this passage as: "...perhaps there will be mercy from the Lord upon us...."

The captain's proposal is no longer an attempt to change the divine will; it is an attempt to appeal to divine mercy.

Furthermore, in Jonah 3:9, the MT reads, "Who knows, God may turn and relent [lit. repent]?"

Targum Jonah translates this as, "Whoever knows that there are sins on his conscience let him repent of them and we will be pitied before the Lord."

God does not change His mind; He shows pity.

 

DEAD SEA SCROLLS

Fragments of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), most of which follows the Masoretic Text closely and with Mur XII reproducing a large portion of the text.

As for the non-canonical writings, the majority of references to biblical texts were made by argumentum ad verecundiam.

The Book of Jonah appears to have served less purpose in the Qumran community than other texts, as the writings make no references to it.

 

EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION

New Testament

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) and the Gospel of Luke (see Luke 11:29–32).

Both Matthew and Luke record a tradition of Jesus’ interpretation of the Book of Jonah (notably, Matthew includes two very similar traditions in chapters 12 and 16).

As with most Old Testament interpretations found in the New Testament, Jesus’ interpretation is primarily “typological” (see Typology (theology)).

Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus.

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the grave.

Here, Jesus plays on the imagery of Sheol found in Jonah’s prayer.

While Jonah metaphorically declared, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” Jesus will literally be in the belly of Sheol.

Finally, Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh.

Jesus fulfills his role as a type of Jonah, however his generation fails to fulfill its role as a type of Nineveh.

Nineveh repented, but Jesus' generation, which has seen and heard one even greater than Jonah, fails to repent.

Through his typological interpretation of the Book of Jonah, Jesus has weighed his generation and found it wanting.

 

Augustine of Hippo

The debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah is not simply a modern one.

The credibility of a human being surviving in the belly of a great fish has long been questioned. In c. 409 AD, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:

The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: “In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?” Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.
— (Letter CII, Section 30)

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31).

Nevertheless, despite his apologetic, Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for Christ.

For example, he writes: "As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death.

And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world."

Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matt. 12:39,40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.

 

Medieval commentary tradition

The Ordinary Gloss, or Glossa Ordinaria, was the most important Christian commentary on the Bible in the later Middle Ages.

"The Gloss on Jonah relies almost exclusively on Jerome’s commentary on Jonah (c. 396), so its Latin often has a tone of urbane classicism.

But the Gloss also chops up, compresses, and rearranges Jerome with a carnivalesque glee and scholastic directness that renders the Latin authentically medieval."

"The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah" has been translated into English and printed in a format that emulates the first printing of the Gloss.

The relationship between Jonah and his fellow Jews is ambivalent, and complicated by the Gloss's tendency to read Jonah as an allegorical prefiguration of Jesus Christ.

While some glosses in isolation seem crudely supersessionist (“The foreskin believes while the circumcision remains unfaithful”), the prevailing allegorical tendency is to attribute Jonah’s recalcitrance to his abiding love for his own people and his insistence that God’s promises to Israel not be overridden by a lenient policy toward the Ninevites.

For the glossator, Jonah’s pro-Israel motivations correspond to Christ’s demurral in the Garden of Gethsemane (“My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me” [Matt. 26:39]) and the Gospel of Matthew’s and Paul’s insistence that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).

While in the Gloss the plot of Jonah prefigures how God will extend salvation to the nations, it also makes abundantly clear—as some medieval commentaries on the Gospel of John do not—that Jonah and Jesus are Jews, and that they make decisions of salvation-historical consequence as Jews.

 

Modern

NCSY director of education Dovid Bashevkin sees Jonah as a thoughtful prophet who comes to religion out of a search for theological truth and is constantly disappointed by those who come to religion to provide mere comfort in the face of adversity inherit to the human condition.

"If religion is only a blanket to provide warmth from the cold, harsh realities of life," Bashevkin imagines Jonah asking, "Did concerns of theological truth and creed even matter?"

The lesson taught by the episode of the tree at the end of the book is that comfort is a deep human need that religion provides, but this need not obscure the role of God.

 

Jonah and the "big fish"

The Hebrew text of Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), reads dag gadol (Hebrew: דג גדול), which literally means "great fish."

The Septuagint translates this into Greek as ketos megas, (Greek: κητος μεγας), "huge fish"; in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters.

Saint Jerome later translated the Greek phrase as piscis granda in his Latin Vulgate, and as cetus in Matthew 12:40.

At some point, cetus became synonymous with whale (cf. cetyl alcohol, which is alcohol derived from whales).

In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe," and he translated the word ketos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in Matthew 12:40 as "whale".

Tyndale's translation was later followed by the translators of the King James Version of 1611 and has enjoyed general acceptance in English translations.

In the line 2:1 the book refers to the fish as dag gadol, "great fish", in the masculine.

However, in the 2:2, it changes the gender to daga, meaning female fish.

The verses therefore read: "And the lord provided a great fish (dag gadol, masculine) for Jonah, and it swallowed him, and Jonah sat in the belly of the fish (still male) for three days and nights; then, from the belly of the (daga, female) fish, Jonah began to pray."

The peculiarity of this change of gender led the later rabbis to reason that this means Jonah was comfortable in the roomy male fish, so he didn't pray, but that God then transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which the prophet was uncomfortable, so that he prayed.

 

Jonah and the gourd vine

The book closes abruptly (Jonah 4) with an epistolary warning based on the emblematic trope of a fast-growing vine present in Persian narratives, and popularized in fables such as The Gourd and the Palm-tree during the Renaissance, for example by Andrea Alciato.

St. Jerome differed with St. Augustine in his Latin translation of the plant known in Hebrew as קיקיון (qīqayōn), using hedera (from the Greek, meaning "ivy") over the more common Latin cucurbita, "gourd", from which the English word gourd (Old French coorde, couhourde) is derived.

The Renaissance humanist artist Albrecht Dürer memorialized Jerome's decision to use an analogical type of Christ's "I am the Vine, you are the branches" in his woodcut Saint Jerome in His Study.

CHAPTER 1

JONAH SENT TO WARN NINEVEH

1:1 Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,

1:2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

 

JONAH FLEES TO TARSHISH BY SHIP

1:3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

 

THE GREAT STORM

1:4 But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.

1:5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that [were] in the ship into the sea, to lighten [it] of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.

1:6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.

1:7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil [is] upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

1:8 Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil [is] upon us; What [is] thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what [is] thy country? and of what people [art] thou?

1:9 And he said unto them, I [am] an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry [land.]

1:10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

1:11 Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

1:12 And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest [is] upon you.

1:13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring [it] to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.

 

THE CREW CASTS JONAH INTO THE SEA

1:14 Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.

1:15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

1:16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.

 

THE SIGN OF JONAH

1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

CHAPTER 2

JONAH'S PRAYER FROM DEATH

2:1 Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly,

2:2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice.

2:3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.

2:4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.

2:5 The waters compassed me about, [even] to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.

2:6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

2:7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.

2:8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.

2:9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay [that] that I have vowed. Salvation [is] of the LORD.

 

THE SIGN OF JONAH

2:10 And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry [land.]

CHAPTER 3

JONAH SENT TO WARN NINEVEH

3:1 And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying,

3:2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.

3:3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.

 

THE BURDEN OF NINEVEH

3:4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

3:5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

 

NINEVEH REPENTS

3:6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered [him] with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

3:7 And he caused [it] to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:

3:8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that [is] in their hands.

3:9 Who can tell [if] God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

 

DESTRUCTION STAYED

3:10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did [it] not.

CHAPTER 4

JONAH ANGERED BY GOD'S MERCY

4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.

4:2 And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, [was] not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou [art] a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.

4:3 Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for [it is] better for me to die than to live.

4:4 Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?

4:5 So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.

 

THE LESSON FOR ISRAEL

4:6 And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made [it] to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.

4:7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.

4:8 And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, [It is] better for me to die than to live.

4:9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, [even] unto death.

4:10 Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

4:11 And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and [also] much cattle?