Jonah, prophetic book of the Bible. It tells the story of a prophet called by God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. According to the Second Book of Kings, Jonah lived during the reign (c.786 B.C.-c.746 B.C.) of Jeroboam II. In the story, Jonah flees because he does not want Nineveh to be spared and knows that God is likely to forgive its people if they repent. The book summons post-exilic Israel not to forget God's intention to bless the world through God's people. Allusions to the story occur in the New Testament, where it serves to prefigure the resurrection of Jesus.

See studies by L. C. Allen (1978), D. Stuart (1987), and J. M. Sasson (1990). See also bibliography under Old Testament.

According to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/Old Testament) and Qur'an, Jonah (; Arabic: يونس, Yunus or يونان, Yunaan ; Latin Ionas ; "Dove") was a prophet who was swallowed by a great fish.

The Story of Jonah

In the Tanakh/Old Testament of the Bible, Jonah's story is told at length in the Book of Jonah. He is also mentioned in 2 Kings (as a prophet in the time of King Jeroboam II, from the Galilean village of Gath-hepher near Nazareth).

In the New Testament, Jonah is mentioned in Matthew and Luke .

According to the book of Jonah, he was the son of Amittai (meaning 'My Truth'). God orders Jonah to prophesy to the city of Nineveh. Not wanting to, Jonah tries to avoid God's command by going to Joppa and sailing to Tarshish. A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing this is no ordinary storm, cast lots and learn that Jonah is to blame. Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard the storm will cease. The sailors try to get the ship to the shore but in failing feel forced to throw him overboard, at which point the sea calms. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish. In chapter two, while in the great fish, Jonah prays to God and asks forgiveness. As a result, God commands the fish to vomit Jonah out.

God again orders Jonah to visit Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. This time he goes there and walks through the city crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed." The Ninevites believe his word and appoint a public fast, ranging from the King (who puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes) to the humblest person. God has compassion and spares the city for the time being.

Embittered by this, Jonah questions the need for his journey, stating that since God is merciful it was inevitable that God would yield to the Ninevites' entreaties. 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, a worm bites the plant's root and it withers. Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and desires that God take him out of the world.

But God says to him,

Jonah in Christianity

Jesus made reference to Jonah when he was asked for a miraculous sign by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

But He [Jesus] answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them – and now, something greater than Jonah is here!"
Matthew 12:39-41 NET

Jonah is regarded as a saint by a number of Christian denominations. He is commemorated as a prophet in the Calendar of Saints of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church on September 22. On the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar his feast day is September 22 also (for those churches which follow the traditional Julian Calendar, September 22 currently falls on October 5 of the modern Gregorian Calendar). He is commemorated with the other minor prophets in the Calendar of saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 31.

Jonah in Islam

See also : Islamic view of Jonah

Like many important Biblical characters, Jonah is also important in Islam as a prophet who is faithful to God (Allah) and delivers His messages. He is known to Muslims by his Arabic name, Yunus "Arabic: يونس", and also as (The One with the Whale "Arabic: ذو النون"). Sura 10 (equivalent to chapter 10) of the Qur'an is named "The Holy Qur'an/Yunus" after him, although he only receives one reference, in verse 98. The full story of Prophet Jonah is recounted in Sura 37, verses 139-149:

  • 37:139 So also was Jonah among those sent (by Us).
  • 37:140 When he ran away (like a slave from captivity) to the ship (fully) laden,
  • 37:141 He (agreed to) cast lots, and he was condemned:
  • 37:142 Then the whale did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
  • 37:143 Had it not been that he (repented and) glorified God,
  • 37:144 He would certainly have remained inside the belly of the whale till the Day of Resurrection.
  • 37:145 But We cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness,
  • 37:146 And We caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
  • 37:147 And We sent him (with the message) to a hundred thousand (men) or more.
  • 37:148 And they believed; so We permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while.
  • 37:149 Now ask them their opinion: Is it that thy Lord has (only) daughters, and they have sons?

Note that in verse 139 God is referred to as 'Us' and in verses 145-8 refers to Himself as 'We'. This cannot be a reference to the Trinity but rather an Arabic signifier of respect. (other verses of the Qur'an indicate that it is a sin to believe in Trinity)

According to the Qur'an, when, 10 years after receiving revelation, Muhammad went to the city of Ta'if to see if its leaders would allow him to preach his message from there rather than Makkah, but he was cast from the city by the urchins and children. 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, although they were displeased at his Prophethood, their tribal bond - important in Jahili (pre-Islamic time) culture - took precedence. The Prophet asked Addas where he was from and the servant replied Niniwah. "The town of Yunus, son of Matta," the Prophet replied. Addas was shocked because he knew that the pagan Arabs had no knowledge of Yunus. He then asked how Muhammad knew of this man. "We are brothers," the Prophet replied. "Yunus was a Prophet of Allah and I, too, am a Prophet of Allah." Addas immediately accepted Islam and kissed the hands and feet of the Prophet.(Summarized from the book of story of the prophet Muhammad by Ibn Hisham Volume 1 pg.419-421)

Jonah in Judaism

The book of Jonah (Yonah יונה) is one of the 12 minor prophets included in the Jewish Bible. According to tradition Jonah was the boy brought back to life by Elijah the prophet, and hence shares many of his characteristics (particularly his desire for 'strict judgment'). The book of Jonah is read every year, in its original Hebrew, on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, as the Haftorah at the afternoon mincha prayer.

One of the most important ideas in the Jewish religion is Teshuva - the ability to repent and be forgiven by God. The essence of the book, and the source of the idea of Teshuva is said to be 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 Ninveh to repent. He seeks the truth only, and no forgiveness. When forced to go, his call is heard loud and clear. The people of Ninveh repent ecstatically, "fasting, including the sheep", and the Jewish scripts are critical of this. When praying, Jonah repeats God's 13 traits failing to say the last one which is "...and Truthful", and changing it with "...and whome is willing to forgive the bad".. God responds by showing Jonah that he is "angry at doing good", and that he too would agree to spare an ephemeral plant if it has importance for him.

See also Jonah in Rabbinic Literature.

Jonah in The Bahá'í Faith

Although the Bahá'í Faith generally views Jonah as a prophet, there is a passage in the Qur'an which may support his being a Manifestation of God because the term 'apostle' is generally associated with Manifestations of God.

The Person of Jonah

The greatest detail on his personal history is to be found in the Book of Jonah, traditionally ascribed to Jonah himself (although this is not stated in Scripture). In the book, Jonah is a reluctant and non-compassionate prophet. This story contains a twofold characterization of Jonah: first as a reluctant prophet of doom to the heathen city of Nineveh, and second as a "Son of man" type. The character of Jonah, who wants Nineveh destroyed, is contrasted with that of God, who is compassionate towards Jews and Gentiles, humans and animals.

The Fish

Interpretations of the "fish" fall into three general categories:

  1. A big fish or whale (of unspecified species) did indeed eat Jonah.
  2. A special creation (not any fish we know of) of God accomplished the act.
  3. There was not a fish: the story is an allegory, the fish is a literary device in the story, the story is a vision or a dream. etc.


Though it is often called a whale today, the Hebrew, as throughout scripture, refers to no species in particular, simply sufficing with "great fish" or "big fish" (whales are today classified as mammals and not fish, but no such distinction was made in antiquity). While some Bible scholars suggest the size and habits of the White Shark correspond better to the representations given of Jonah's being swallowed, normally an adult human is too large to be swallowed whole.

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), the original Hebrew text reads dag gadol (דג גדול), which literally means "great fish." The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as ketos megas (κητος μεγας). The term ketos alone means "huge fish," and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters, including sea serpents. (See the Theoi Project "Ketea" for more information regarding Greek mythology and the Ketos.) Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda in his Latin Vulgate. He translated ketos, however, as cetus in Matthew 12:40.

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 he translated the word ketos (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.

There is anecdotal evidence that the throats of many large whales, as well as possibly the whale shark, could accommodate passage of an adult human. The story of Jonah mentions weeds wrapped around Jonah's head, perhaps to shield his face with seaweed against the acid.

However, doubts have been cast that any existing whale or fish would be able to repeat the feat described, either due to size of mouth, narrowness of throat, or because it diverges so wildly from these animals' normal eating habits. 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. The sperm whale, on the other hand, has "a small mouth... Its food is torn to pieces before being swallowed," according to Dr. C. H. Townsend, a former Acting Director of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Aquarium. He further states that "there is no evidence that such a feat would be possible." As for the whale shark, Dr. E. W. Gudger, an Honorary Associate in Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, noted that "while the mouth is cavernous, the throat itself is only four inches wide and has a sharp elbow or bend behind the opening. This gullet would not permit the passage of a man's arm." In another publication he also noted that "the whale shark is not the fish that swallowed Jonah.

One may argue that applying contemporary taxonomy from a literalist perspective does little to further our understanding of this story, written in a time when such knowledge did not yet exist (and as such was less relevant than in our time) and all large sea creatures had the same symbolism so that a generic term could easily suffice. Another argument is that Jonah being swallowed was a divine miracle and thus the type of fish/whale is immaterial. God either used whatever sea life was available or created a large fish/whale to serve His purpose of causing Jonah to repent and to carry out His command of preaching repentance.

Various Locations

  • Place of birth: Mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, the town of Gath Hepher has saved its name to this day, near the Gallilean Arab town of Meshhad, where a monument for Nebi Yunes still exists. The Israeli Gat Hepher industrial zone is erected on that mountain.
  • Location of landing: In the city of Ashdod the light-tower hill is called Givat-Yonah, on the holy Muslim site of Nebbi Yunes, according to traditions of the three monotheistic religions, the site where Jonah was thrown by the large fish. Aerial photos taken by German pilots during WWI clearly show the Nebbi Yunes sanctuary, near the British landing site at the beginning of the British 1918 Jerusalem offensive.
  • The city of Jaffa has a main street named after Jonah. The ancient port of Jaffa is still intact and functional. Archeologic diggings find that the port has been functioning at this location as early as 300 BCE.
  • Another sanctuary and mosque called Nebi Yunes, is in the Palestinian West Bank town of Halhul, a few kilometers north of Hebron. Muslim tradition has it that this is the burial site of Jonah the prophet. A sign erected by the Israeli ministry of religions says that this is Jonah's burial site, but according to Jewish traditions this is the location of the burial of the prophets Nathan and Gad Hahozeh.
  • The Jama Naballa Jonas is a sanctuary of Jonah's grave, near the city of Mosul (today in Iraq), near the ancient remnants of Ninveh.
  • There is a sanctuary of Jonah's grave, near the city of Sarafand in Lebanon. This is in accordance with several ancient Jewish writings about Jonah being the son of the woman from "Zarephath" (Sarafand) mentioned in the stories of Elijah.

Jonah, Jason and Gilgamesh

The story of the hero Jason in Greek mythology shares several similarities with the story of Jonah which have been noted by Joseph Campbell and more recent authors such as Gildas Hamel. Drawing on the Book of Jonah and Greco-Roman sources — including Greek vases and the accounts of Apollonius of Rhodes, Valerius Flaccus and Orphic Argonautica — Hamel 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). The Greek rendering of the name Jonah was Jonas, which differs from Jason only in the order of sounds —both os are omegas. This may suggest that the Greeks confused accounts of Jonah with those of their own hero, but Hamel argues that the Hebrew author was reacting to and adapting this mythological material to communicate his own, quite different message.

Campbell also attempted to draw parallels with the epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh obtains a plant from the bottom of the sea. Similarities of the accounts, however, are minor. In the Book of Jonah a worm (in Hebrew tola'ath, "maggot") bites the plant's root causing it to wither, while in the epic of Gilgamesh the plant is eaten by a serpent.


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