Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


Jonah and the Whale

Jonah and the Whale by Nalini Jaysauwiya


The Book of Jonah is a satire  and a morality tale. It has the delicious irony of a unwilling prophet, who rejects a righteous mission and only accepts it at the threat of his life. He says why should I save heathens, let them be destroyed! He is saved from drowning by being swallowed by a great fish. He remains there in the belly of a great fish for three days until he repents and accepts the mission. The people of Nineveh repent and are saved. Nineveh is a symbol of evil for the Jewish people. Jewish nationalists position was let them die. In a humorous homily the Christian Ephraem has a spared Ninevite say to Jonah ‘What would it have profited you if we had perished? You became famous by our repentance’. 1 And even at the end he argues with God over a plant and not over the 120,000 souls and much cattle in Nineveh that repented and were saved. If Haman is the caricature of an anti-Semite Jonah is caricature an anti-Gentile. Neither can be taken seriously.

The theology is wonderful - all humanity are God’s children, even those from the evil Nineveh, the capital of Assyria who persecuted and destroyed the northern tribes of Israel in the eighth century B.C.E.  And God is merciful to those who repent. This is why it is read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; we are told that even wicked sinners can repent.

The story begins with a typical prophetic call. His mission is to go east to Nineveh and preach to save the people. Nineveh is a symbol of evil incarnate for the Israeli people.  Instead going to east Nineveh to preach repentance Jonah goes west to Tarshish. He rejects God’s commandment. He is saying implicitly why save enemies of the Israelis even if God requested it. God may believe in mercy for those you repent, Jonah does not. Where is Tarshish - we do not know, but for Jonah it is a place to escape from God. Does Jonah believe he can escape God?

Jonah buys a ticket on a ship to go Tarshish. This begins the satire; Jonah rejects God’s mission not by arguing with God but by buying his way out. So God responds with a storm and Jonah falls asleep. The pagan sailors on the ship are god fearing; each praying to his god. They are being compared to the pagans in Nineveh. They wake up the sleeping Jonah and without the text telling us how they realize Jonah is the cause of their problems. Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea. Then, on the ship, they make a sacrifice to the Lord and make vows. Obviously building an alter and burning an offer (what animal was available for the sacrifice?) on a wooden ship seems a dangerous act.

Then Jonah does not drown but is devoured by a great fish - whole. He prays from the belly of the fish. This is presented as reality not as a poetic metaphor. The waves and waters surround him. Chapter (2) is composed entirely of Jonah’s prayer to God. Jonah is praying to the God he has rejected. Does his near death experience give a new sense of faith? Jonah prayed to God. ‘Out of my distress I cried to YHVH’ (21-:2); why the past tense - is he not praying in the present? Then he asked will I ever see the holy Temple again (2:5) . . . I shall sacrifice to you’ (2:9). He prays not to the God of Sinai, but to the God of the Temple. The God of the Temple is nationalistic as is Jonah. The God of Sinai is more universal, the God he has rejected and continues to reject. There is nothing in the prayer that is an apology for his own running away, his refusal to act as God’s prophet. God apparently gives him another chance and vomits him out of the great fish. But not before making more fun at Jonah’s. In Chapter 2:1 the fish is twice referred to as a male fish - ‘dag’; in 2:2 the fish changes to a female fish - ‘dagah’. This is noted by a Midrashic author who explained it as follows: Jonah was swallowed by a male fish, however he did not pray but simply sat in the belly of the fish. So God had him vomited out of the male fish into a female pregnant fish. He was so squeezed and uncomfortable that he needed to cry out to God.

God comes back to Jonah and offers him another chance at the same mission. Jonah then goes to Nineveh preaches to them. The city is described as so large that it takes three days to walk from end to end and has 120,000 persons. Jonah is described as traveling only one day into the city preached only one sentence in the text. ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown’ (3:4). He does not even mention the name of God or any other actions his God has accomplished, nevertheless the King and nobles repent. A fast for an undetermined time is proclaimed for all persons and beasts. All including the beasts are to wear sackcloth (3:8). Thus everyone including beasts repented and God forgives their evil. Jonah becomes the only one of God’s prophet’s who is successful and it is not with the Israelis but the people of Nineveh. (To be certain that we understand that Jonah ben Amittai is real he noted as a prophet in 2 Kings 14:26).

But it displeased Jonah greatly and he was very angry. The people of Nineveh may have repented but Jonah has not. He prayed saying I knew what You would to do; forgive them and let them live. God seems to be too liberal for the conservative Jonah. Possibly he also thus knew that God would save him after he thrown overboard into the stormed waters.  (It is surprising that Jonah believed that Nineveh would repent. In all the other prophets the Israelis never  repented (see Isaiah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and thus suffered.) Having been proven right It is better for me to die for my success. He never accepts the spirit of God’s mission, he only obeyed the letter of his mission. He considers his success a failure. He will never forgive Nineveh for the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel or if it represents Babylon, the destroyer of Jerusalem, despite God’s willingness to forgive them.

Jonah is more zealous for God’s revenge than God. He will not allow evil to be redeemed.

He is satirically compared to Moses (Num. 11:10-15),  Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:4) and Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-8) all of whom wished for death at some point in their lives. Samson a less serious figure also appealed for his death; he was successful. God answered him simply in what appears like sarcasm ‘are you greatly angry?’ (4:4) Is Jonah angry because he prophesized doom and it did not occur? 

Terry Eagleton 2  sees Jonah as a political conservative aggrieved that God is such a liberal. Jonah knows that God will forgive the evil men of Nineveh. He does not want to be part of that story. When he gets thrown overboard he expects God, the liberal, to save him. If God is going to save the evil Nineveh he has to save Jonah so he can play his part. Jonah goes to Nineveh to one part of the city makes one statement. ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown’ (3:4). And all people and animals of this large city repent and God forgives them just as Jonah has suspected. Jonah falls into a rage (4:1). He is ragefull at God for saving the people. Does he think this makes him a false prophet? What he prophesized did not occur. Chapters 3 and 4 are truly burlesque scenes. 3

The story ends on a satiric/serious note. God having protected Jonah from the heat of the sun in the dessert with a bush then destroys the bush. Jonah then is in the heat of the sun. God says ‘should I not spare Nineveh, that great city where 120,000 persons live, people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many animals’. As noted by Walton until verse 4:6 the text call  to God as ‘Elohim’ when used by non-Israelites and to YHVH when referring to Jonah. In that verse the text refers to YHVH Elohim creating the gourd to protect Jonah. Elohim prepared the worm to destroy the gourd (4:7), made a hot east wind (4:8),  and  then spoke to Jonah (4:9). The word used to describe Jonah’s grief (4:6) is the same as used to describe Nineveh’s grief (3:10). The Hebrew word ‘ra’eh’ means evil. Nineveh was evil and Jonah was evil. 4

Is this book about not acting like Jonah who did not want non-Israelis to have God’s mercy?  Or is it an example that if Nineveh can repent without knowledge of God and be saved, so surely can and should the Israelis? Or is it a discussion of theodicy - is God more merciful or more interested in justice than human beings? It is no doubt all three. In the latter God revokes his mercy and tells Jonah I will do justice to you and not mercy. God did to Jonah what he wanted Him to do to Nineveh. If Nineveh deserved justice so did Jonah for disobeying God. The hut Jonah built was insufficient for the problem and the uninformed repentance of Nineveh is equally insufficient without God’s mercy. 5 Jonah’s single statement of the potential destruction of Nineveh (3:4) is clearly insufficient to change an evil city to repent. The lesson to the Israelis is moving just slightly in God’s direction will invoke his mercy. He will be the God of compassion.

Jonah and the Whale
Jonah and the Whale Stained Glass by Bruno Tuukanen


1 Bickerman, E. Four Strange Books of the Bible, (Schocken Books, N.Y., 1967) pg. 15.

2 Terry Eagleton in Schwartz, R.M. ed., The Book and the Text, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990) pgs. 231-236.-

3 John R. Miles, Laughing At The Bible: Jonah As Parody, in Radday, Y.T. and Brenner, A. Eds. (The Almond Press, Sheffield, 1990) pg. 203-215.

4 Walton, J.H., The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5-7, Bulletin for Biblical Research 2, 1992.

5 Walton, pg. 53