Jonah or Jonas[a] is the name given in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/Old Testament) to a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BCE. He is the eponymous central figure of the Book of Jonah, in which he is called upon by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents of impending divine wrath. Instead, Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish. Caught in a storm, he orders the ship’s crew to cast him overboard, whereupon he is swallowed by a giant fish. Three days later, after Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, the fish vomits him out onto the shore. Jonah successfully convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent, but waits outside the city in expectation of its destruction. God shields Jonah from the sun with a plant, but later sends a worm to cause it to wither. When Jonah complains of the bitter heat, God rebukes him.
In Judaism, the story of Jonah represents the teaching of teshuva, which is the ability to repent and be forgiven by God. In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself “greater than Jonah” and promises the Pharisees “the sign of Jonah”, which is his resurrection. Early Christian interpreters viewed Jonah as a type for Jesus. Later, during the Reformation, Jonah came to be seen instead as an archetype for the “envious Jew”. Jonah is regarded as a prophet in Islam and the biblical narrative of Jonah is repeated, with a few notable differences, in the Quran. Mainstream Bible scholars generally regard the Book of Jonah as fictional and often at least partially satirical, but the character of Jonah may have been based on the historical prophet of the same name mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25.
Although the word “whale” is often used in English versions of the Jonah story, the Hebrew text actually uses the phrase dag gadol, which means “giant fish”. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the species of the fish that swallowed Jonah was the subject of speculation for naturalists, who interpreted the story as an account of a historical incident. Some modern scholars of folklore have noted similarities between Jonah and other legendary figures, such as Gilgamesh and the Greek hero Jason.
Book of Jonah
God again commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. This time he goes and enters the city, crying, “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.” After Jonah has walked across Nineveh, the people of Nineveh begin to believe his word and proclaim a fast. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, making a proclamation which decrees fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, prayer, and repentance. God sees their repentant hearts and spares the city at that time. The entire city is humbled and broken with the people (and even the animals) in sackcloth and ashes.
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. He then leaves the city and makes himself a shelter, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed. God causes a plant (in Hebrew a kikayon) to grow over Jonah’s shelter to give him some shade from the sun. Later, God causes a worm to bite the plant’s root and it withers. Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and pleads for God to kill him.
And God said to Jonah: “Art thou greatly angry for the Kikayon?” And he said: “I am greatly angry, even unto death.”
And the LORD said: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night;
and should not I have pity on 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?”— Book of Jonah, chapter 4, verses 9-11
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. Jonah promised the fish that he would save them.Following Jonah’s directions, the fish swam up alongside the Leviathan and Jonah threatened to leash the Leviathan by its tongue and let the other fish eat it. The Leviathan heard Jonah’s threats, saw that he was circumcised, and realized that he was protected by the Lord, so it fled in terror, leaving Jonah and the fish alive. The medieval Jewish scholar and rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092 – 1167) argued against any literal interpretation of the Book of Jonah, stating that the “experiences of all the prophets except Moses were visions, not actualities.” The later scholar Isaac Abarbanel (1437 – 1509), however, argued that Jonah could have easily survived in the belly of the fish for three days, because “after all, fetuses live nine months without access to fresh air.”
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. The Book of Jonah also highlights the sometimes unstable relationship between two religious needs: comfort and truth.
In the Book of Tobit
Jonah is mentioned twice in the fourteenth chapter of the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, the conclusion of which finds Tobit’s son, Tobias, at the extreme age of 127 years, rejoicing at the news of Nineveh’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus in apparent fulfillment of Jonah’s prophecy against the Assyrian capital.
In the New Testament
In the New Testament, Jonah is mentioned in Matthew 12:38–41 and 16:4 and in Luke 11:29–32. 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. Jesus says that the sign will be the sign of Jonah: Jonah’s restoration after three days inside the great fish prefigures His own resurrection.
39He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For 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. 41The 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.”— Gospel of Matthew, 12:39–41 (New International Version)
Matthew 12:41-42 and Luke 11:31–32 assert in parallel wording that Jesus is greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon.
Christian theologians have traditionally interpreted Jonah as a type for Jesus Christ. Jonah being in swallowed by the giant fish was regarded as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s crucifixion and the fish vomiting Jonah out onto the beach was seen as a parallel for Jesus’s resurrection. Saint Jerome equates Jonah with Jesus’s more nationalisticside, 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.”
Other Christian interpreters, including Saint Augustine and Martin Luther, have taken a directly opposite approach, regarding Jonah as the epitome of envy and jealousness, which they regarded as inherent characteristics of the Jewish people. Luther likewise concludes that the kikayon represents Judaism, and that the worm which devours it represents Christ. Luther also questioned the idea that the Book of Jonah was ever intended as literal history, 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. Luther’s antisemitic interpretation of Jonah remained the prevailing interpretation among German Protestants throughout early modern history. J. D. Michaelis comments that “the meaning of the fable hits you right between the eyes”, 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.” Albert Eichhorn was a strong supporter of Michaelis’s interpretation.
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. While Luther had been careful to maintain that the Book of Jonah was not written by Jonah, Calvin declared that the Book of Jonah was Jonah’s personal confession of guilt. 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. Also unlike Luther, Calvin finds fault with all the characters in the story, describing the sailors on the boat as “hard and iron-hearted, like Cyclops”, the penitence of the Ninevites as “untrained”, and the king of Nineveh as a “novice”. Hooper, on the other hand, sees Jonah as the archetypal dissident and the ship he is cast out from as a symbol of the state. Hooper deplores such dissidents, decrying: “Can you live quietly with so many Jonasses? Nay then, throw them into the sea!” In the eighteenth century, German professors were forbidden from teaching that the Book of Jonah was anything other than a literal, historical account.
Jonah (يُونُس, Yūnus) is the title of the tenth chapter of the Quran. He is traditionally viewed as highly important in Islam as a prophet who was faithful to Allah and delivered His messages. Jonah is mentioned four times in the Quran and is the only one of the Twelve Minor Prophets to be mentioned by name. In Surah 68:48, Jonah is called Dhul-Nūn (Arabic: ذُو ٱلنُّوْن; meaning “The One of the Fish”). In 4:163 and 6:86, he is referred to as “an apostle of Allah”. Surah 37:139-148 retells the full story of Jonah:
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 big Fish 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.— Quran, chapter 37 (As-Saaffat), verses 139–148
The Quran never mentions Jonah’s father, but Muslim tradition teaches that Jonah was from the tribe of Benjamin and that his father was Amittai.
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”. A similar statement occurs in a hadith written by Yunus bin Yazid, the second caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. 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, but, because of his prayer, Jonah “stayed only a few days within the belly of the fish”.
The ninth-century Persian historian Al-Tabari records that, while Jonah was inside the fish, “none of his bones or members were injured”. Al-Tabari also writes that Allah made the body of the fish transparent, allowing Jonah to see the “wonders of the deep” and that Jonah heard all the fish singing praises to Allah. Kisai Marvazi, a tenth-century poet, records that Jonah’s father was seventy years old when Jonah was born and that he died soon afterwards, leaving Jonah’s mother with nothing but a wooden spoon, which turned out to be a cornucopia.
Tomb at Nineveh
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). 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. The tomb was a popular pilgrimage site and a symbol of unity to Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the Middle East. 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.After Mosul was taken back from ISIL in January 2017, an ancient Assyrian palace dating to around 600 BCE was discovered beneath the ruined mosque. ISIL had plundered the palace of items to sell on the black market, but some of the artifacts that were more difficult to transport still remained in place.
Other reputed locations of Jonah’s tomb include the Arab village of Mashhad, located on the ancient site of Gath-hepher, the Palestinian West Bank town of Halhul, 5 km (3.1 mi) north of Hebron, and a sanctuary near the city of Sarafand (Sarepta) in Lebanon.
The consensus of mainstream Biblical scholars holds that the contents of the Book of Jonah are entirely ahistorical. Although the prophet Jonah allegedly lived in the eighth century BCE, the Book of Jonah was written centuries later during the time of the Achaemenid Empire. The Hebrew used in the Book of Jonah shows strong influences from Aramaic and the cultural practices described in it match those of the Achaemenid Persians. Many scholars regard the Book of Jonah as an intentional work of parody or satire. If this is the case, then it was probably admitted into the canon of the Hebrew Bible by sages who misunderstood its satirical nature and mistakenly interpreted it as a serious prophetic work.
While the Book of Jonah itself is considered fiction, Jonah himself may have been a historical prophet; he is briefly mentioned in the Second Book of Kings:
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.— 2 Kings 14:25, JPS (1917)
Most scholars believe that the anonymous author of the Book of Jonah may have seized upon this obscure prophet from 2 Kings and used him as the basis for the fictional character of Jonah, but some have contended that the figure of Jonah himself is entirely legendary.
Jonah’s rejection of God’s commands is a parody of the obedience of the prophets described in other Old Testament writings. 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. The readiness to worship God displayed by the sailors on the ship and the people of Nineveh contrasts ironically with Jonah’s own reluctance, as does Jonah’s greater love for kikayon providing him shade than for all the people in Nineveh.
The Book of Jonah also employs elements of literary absurdism; it exaggerates the size of the city of Nineveh to an implausible degree and incorrectly refers to the administrator of the city as a “king”. According to scholars, no human being could realistically survive for three days inside a fish, and the description of the livestock in Nineveh fasting alongside their owners is “silly”. The motif of a protagonist being swallowed by a giant fish or whale became a stock trope of later satirical writings. Similar incidents are recounted in Lucian of Samosata’s A True Story, which was written in the second century CE, and in the novel Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, published by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785. The story of a man surviving after being swallowed by a whale or giant fish is classified as ATU 1889G.
In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translations), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol (דג גדול) or, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, dāḡ gā·ḏō·wl (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל), which means “great fish.” The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as kētei megalōi (κήτει μεγάλῳ), meaning “huge fish”. 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. Jerome later translated this phrase as piscem grandem in his Latin Vulgate. He translated kétos, however, as ventre ceti in Matthew 12:40: this second case occurs only in this verse of the New Testament.
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 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”.
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. 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 and argued that the fish story must be historically true, or else it would not have been included in the Bible. Pusey attempted to scientifically catalogue the fish, 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”.
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. Darrow asked Bryan “When you read that… the whale swallowed Jonah… how do you literally interpret that?” Bryan replied that “a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both of them do what He pleases.” Bryan ultimately admitted that it was necessary to interpret the Bible, and is generally regarded as having come off looking like a “buffoon”.
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.” 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, its throat is only four inches wide, with a sharp elbow or bend behind the opening, meaning that not even a human arm would be able to pass through it. He concludes that “the whale shark is not the fish that swallowed Jonah.”
Despite its brevity, the Book of Jonah has been adapted numerous times in literature and in popular culture. 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.” Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) features the title character and his father Geppetto being swallowed by a whale, an allusion to the story of Jonah. Walt Disney’s 1940 film adaptation of the novel retains this allusion. 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. The film was Big Idea Entertainment’s first full-length theatrical release and, on its first weekend, it earned approximately $6.5 million.
Suggested connections to legends
Campbell also noted several similarities between the story of Jonah and that of Jason in Greek mythology. 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. 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). 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.
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The radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has destroyed shrines belonging to two prophets, highly revered by both Christians and Muslims, in the northern city of Mosul, al-Sumaria News reported Thursday. “ISIS militants have destroyed the Prophet Younis (Jonah) shrine east of Mosul city after they seized control of the mosque completely,” a security source, who kept his identity anonymous, told the Iraq-based al-Sumaria News.
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What is interesting…is the way that Jerome…translated the references to the big fish in Jonah and Matthew. […] In translating Matt 12:40, however, he follows the Greek text and says that Jonah was in the ventre ceti—the belly of the whale/sea monster” (p. 40).
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The word whale is never used in the book of Jonah. The only biblical reference to “Jonah and the whale” appears in the New Testament in Matthew 12:40 (KJV & RSV). […] Whale is not used in the other translations: TEV uses big fish; NLT, great fish; and TNIV, huge fish” (p. 216).
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