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.
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 Koran .
* 1 Narrative
* 2 Outline
* 2.1 Setting
* 2.2 Characters
* 2.3 Plot
* 2.3.1 In the
* 2.3.2 In the Koran
* 3 Interpretive history
* 3.1 Early Jewish interpretation
Dead Sea Scrolls
Dead Sea Scrolls
* 3.2 Early Christian interpretation
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo
* 3.3 Medieval commentary tradition
* 3.3.1 The Ordinary Gloss
* 3.4 Modern
Jonah and the "big fish"
Jonah and the gourd vine
* 6 References
* 7 Further reading
* 8 External links
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.
Jonah Flees His Mission (chapters 1-2)
* Jonah's Commission and Flight (1:1-3)
* The Endangered Sailors Cry to Their gods (1:4-6)
* Jonah's Disobedience Exposed (1:7-10)
* Jonah's punishment and Deliverance (1:11-2:1;2:10)
* His Prayer of Thanksgiving (2:2-9)
Jonah Reluctantly fulfills His Mission (chapters 3-4)
* Jonah's Renewed Commission and Obedience (3:1-4)
* The Endangered Ninevites' Repentant Appeal to the Lord (3:5-9)
* The Ninevites' Repentance Acknowledged (3:10-4:4)
* Jonah's Deliverance and Rebuke (4:5-11)
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
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
The story of
Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active
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
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
Nineveh actively petition God to change his mind.
In The Bible
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
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
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
Jonah becomes one of the most effective prophets of God. As a
result of his preaching, the entire population of
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 Johah 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
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 as 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!” (
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.” (
Jonah returned to be with his people and guide them. The prayer made
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!”
Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by
Gustave Doré .
Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by
Gustave Doré .
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
Jonah is concerned,
Jonah offers a good example of
Jonah 1:6, the
Masoretic Text (MT) reads, "...perhaps God will pay
heed to us...."
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 ?"
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
Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)
(4Q76 a.k.a. 4QMinorProphetsa, Col V-VI, frags. 21–22; 4Q81 a.k.a.
4QMinorProphetsf, Col I and II; and 4Q82 a.k.a. 4QMinorProphetsg,
Frags. 76–91), 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
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
The earliest Christian interpretations of
Jonah are found in the
Gospel of Matthew
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Ordinary Gloss, or
Glossa Ordinaria , was the most important
Christian commentary on the
Bible in the later Middle Ages. "The Gloss
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” ) 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
Gospel of John do not—that
Jesus are Jews, and that they make decisions of salvation-historical
consequence as Jews.
Roman Catholic author
Terry Eagleton has written, "There are writers
who consider their work to be examples of high seriousness when they
are hilariously, unintentionally funny. ... Another example is the
Book of Jonah, which is probably not intended to be funny but which is
brilliantly comic without seeming to be aware of it."
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
William Tyndale translated the phrase in
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
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)
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 .
* ^ II Kings 14:25
* ^ Mercer Dictionary of the Bible.
* ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-11-18.
Retrieved 2009-08-18. United Jewish Communities (UJC), "Jonah's Path
and the Message of Yom Kippur."
* ^ NIV
Bible (Large Print ed.). (2007). London: Hodder & Stoughton
* ^ Brynmor F. Price and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on the
* ^ David L. Washburn, A Catalog of Biblical Passages in the Dead
Sea Scrolls (Brill, 2003), 146.
* ^ James C. Vanderkam, The
Dead Sea Scrolls
Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids,
Mich: Eerdmans, 1994), 151
* ^ Ryan McDermott, trans., "The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah," PMLA
128.2 (2013): 424–38.
* ^ "The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah".
* ^ Eagleton, Terry (2013). How to Read Literature. New Haven: Yale
University Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-300-19096-0 .
* ^ See http://www.theoi.com/Ther/Ketea.html for more information
regarding Greek mythology and the
* ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Jonah".
* ^ citing Peter W. Parshall, "Albrecht Dürer's
Saint Jerome in
his Study: A Philological Reference," from The Art Bulletin 53
(September 1971), pp. 303–5 at
* De La Torre, Miguel A. , "Liberating Jonah: Toward a Biblical
Ethics of Reconciliation," Orbis Books, 2007.
* An English translation of the most important medieval Christian
commentary on Jonah, "The Ordinary Gloss