Jonah, Book of

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JONAH, BOOK OF (Heb. יוֹנָה), the fifth in the collection of the 12 short prophetic books (*Minor Prophets). Unlike the other books of this collection the Book of Jonah contains a prophecy of only five words (3:4); the rest of the book is a story about Jonah son of Amittai. The book was added to the prophetic books, probably because a prophet of this name was known from the time of Jeroboam ii (ii Kings 14:25.) and because the book deals with the problem of a man whose task it was to bring the word of God to Nineveh.

Outline of Contents

Jonah son of Amittai is ordered by yhwh to go to Nineveh and proclaim judgment upon its people for their wickedness. Jonah refuses to fulfill the mission and tries to escape. At Jaffa he boards a ship bound for Tarshish, a direction precisely opposite to Nineveh. yhwh brings on a great storm. The sailors try to avert the danger by praying to their gods and jettisoning the cargo. Jonah, who has gone to sleep, is awakened by the captain who asks him to pray to his God, in the hope that He may prove responsive. The sailors then decide to find out by casting lots on whose account the misfortune has come upon them. The lot falls on Jonah, and they try to find out what wrong he has done. Jonah discloses that he is fleeing from a mission of his god, yhwh, and that the only way they can make the storm abate is by heaving him overboard. The sailors first try to row back to land, but this proves futile, so they throw Jonah overboard and pray to the Lord not to hold them guilty for his murder, since it was He who has left them no other way of saving themselves. The storm subsides at once and the sailors, who now fear yhwh, offer sacrifices and make vows (Jonah 1). Jonah himself is swallowed by a great fish, from inside of which he prays to yhwh, and after three days and nights in the fish's belly he is spewed out on dry land (Jonah 2).

Jonah is called by yhwh a second time to bring His message to Nineveh. This time Jonah does go to Nineveh, a huge city. He proclaims that in 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. The people of Nineveh believe God, proclaim a fast, and put on sackcloth. The king of Nineveh too takes part in the acts of repentance and orders all the inhabitants to pray to God and to repent of their evil ways: "God may turn and relent" (3:9). As a result of Nineveh's repentance, God renounces the punishment He had planned to bring upon it (Jonah 3). Jonah is greatly displeased by this mercy and complains of it to yhwh: he had tried to escape his mission in the final place for fear that yhwh would be moved to renounce His punishment out of mercy. In his vexation Jonah asks yhwh to take his life. At this time Jonah is outside Nineveh sitting in the shade of a booth waiting to see what will happen to the city. The Lord causes a ricinus plant (see *castor oil plant) to grow unexpectedly over Jonah to provide shade over his head, to his great relief. On the following day, however, the Lord provides a worm, which attacks the plant causing it to wither. When the sun rises, the Lord causes a sultry east wind to beat down on Jonah's head. Jonah becomes faint and asks for death. Then the Lord says: "You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?" (4:10–11).

The Unity of the Book

The Book of Jonah raises exegetical problems, such as the question why the king had to order the people (and the cattle too!) to wear sackcloth and to fast, after they had already done so on their own initiative (3:5–8), or why Jonah needed the ricinus plant while he sat in the shade of the booth (4:5–6). Some scholars have tried to solve these problems by the application of the source-theory. However, some 20th century scholars argued for the unitary authorship of the book while allowing for the possibility of later additions. Some scholars regard verse 4:5, which seems out of place, as one of these additions. Others place this verse after 3:4. The Psalm of Jonah (2:3–10) is regarded by many scholars as an interpolation, particularly because it is neither an expression of penitence nor a plea for deliverance, but is a thanksgiving psalm. The conditions referred to in the psalm also have nothing to do with the distress experienced in a fish's belly. The psalm could, therefore, have been added to the book later. However, it has been shown that the psalm is probably an integral part of the book. Some of the main expressions in the psalm relate directly to the language used in the previous chapter (cf. 1:2, 6 with 2:3; 1:16 with 2:10) and apparently came to determine the choice of psalms by narrative authors at an early date; cf. the choice of "Hannah's psalm" solely on account of I Sam. 2:5b (Y. Kaufmann). Besides, the removal of the psalm from the book would unbalance the symmetry of the two major parts (G.H. Cohen, G.M. Landes). It may therefore be assumed that the psalm – though perhaps borrowed or compiled from another source – was always part of the book.

Special attention should be given to the changes in the use of God's names. yhwh ("the Lord") is His name as the God of the "Hebrew" (1:9) Jonah. In connection with the non-Israelite people of Nineveh He is Elohim, "God." The sin for which Nineveh is judged is not idolatry but lawlessness (3:8). Jonah objects to God's habit of renouncing a punishment which was merited and has already been decreed, but God's purpose in sending prophets to announce His punishments is precisely to make them unnecessary. For He has precisely the "sentimental" attachment which Job 10:3a, 8ff. accuses Him of lacking; and besides there are always the innocent children and dumb beasts (Jonah 4:10–11).

The Motifs of the Book

The main motifs of the book are similar to those found in the literature of other cultures. Many stories tell about a person's being swallowed by a great fish and rescued thereafter (Heracles the Hesione, Perseus and Andromeda, etc.). However, only in the Book of Jonah is the man in the fish rescued not by force (fire from inside or sword from outside) but by prayer, his salvation thus resulting from the combined action of God and humans. It should also be noted that in the Jonah story the fish and the man remain unharmed. Thus the story of Jonah – despite its similarities to other stories – has a unique biblical character. Basically, the same situation of the Book of Jonah is found in the story of Daniel's rescue from the lion-pit and the salvation of the three boys from the fiery furnace (Dan. 3 and 6). In all these stories the motif of swallowing becomes a symbol for the act of faith between God and humanity.

The common factor in all parts of the story is the acceptance of God's commands. Jonah tries to escape God's will but he learns that this cannot be accomplished. Even the sea and the great fish, which according to myth are great independent powers in the universe (cf. Isa. 51:9–10; Ps. 74:13–15; 89:10–11; Job 26:12), have to obey the orders of God. The sea becomes stormy and calm according to the wish of God (1:3, 15); the fish swallows and spews out according to God's order (2:1, 11); the castor-oil plant, the worm, and the east wind are all obedient servants of God (4:6–8).

The Teaching of the Book

The purpose of the book has been explained in various ways. According to many scholars the book is to be understood in its historical context. The best-known opinion connects the book with the times of Ezra and Nehemiah and assumes that it is the expression of universalistic opposition to the particularistic ideas of that time. This has been challenged by the observation that a book which uses Nineveh as the symbol of the repenting city and which does not mention the name Israel even once has such an historic tendency.

The book has also been regarded as an essay dealing with the profession of the prophet. The prophet cannot escape his mission and he should not regard it as weakness or failure if his prophecy is not fulfilled. However, since the book does not speak explicitly about prophets and prophecy (the word is not mentioned even once) and since Jonah's argumentation contains no aspects of his personal life, this explanation seems improbable too. In addition, the whole point of classical biblical prophecy is to bring sinners to repent so that they may avoid destruction. In that case any successful prophet of rebuke would fail the test of prophecy (e.g., Ezek. 3:18).

The Book of Jonah has to be understood as a lesson in divine governance, forgiveness and mercy. Jonah tries to escape his mission, explaining to God that he had fled because he knows that God often relents after having decreed punishment (Jonah 4:2; cf. Joel 4:13). Indeed, God renounces his punishment after the repentance of the city out of mercy for the inhabitants.

As pointed out by Simon, underlying Jonah's complaint is the notion that divine forgiveness should not wipe out all penalty (cf. Jonah 4:2 with Exod. 34:6–7), the threat of penalty serving as a deterrent. But whereas human rulers require deterrence in order to maintain the social order, God does not require it. As the story shows, God has the power to intervene at anytime. He sends the storm (1:4); "appoints" the fish to swallow Jonah (2:1); commands the fish to spew him out (2:11); "appoints" the plant (4:6); and the worm that makes it wither (4:7). The book begins and ends with the word of God, an assertion of God's absolute power over all creation, the sea and the dry land (1:9). The greatest theological challenge facing the author was the identity of the god in whose name Jonah's prophecy (3:4) was delivered. To use the specifically Israelite name Yahweh as the source of Jonah's words would have implied conversion of the Ninevites. In contrast, to have had the Ninevites turning to their native gods, Asshur and Ishtar for example, would have been a theological enormity for a Hebrew writer. Accordingly, the neutral elohim (3:5) was employed.

The Date of Origin

Opinions vary greatly concerning the date of the book's composition. Some date it as early as the eighth century b.c.e. and accept it as a story told about Jonah the prophet who lived in the time of Jeroboam ii similar to stories about Elijah and Elisha (cf. ii Kings 8:4). Others date it as late as the third century b.c.e. As the book is mentioned by Ben Sira (49:10) it cannot have been written later than his time.

The main points for fixing the date are the following: (1) The language: Some words seem to be late like the relative pronoun she and the Aramaisms mallaḥ (1:5); yitʿashet (1:6); taʿam (3:7); and ribbo (4:11). However, she is attested very early in northern Israel (Jud. 5:7; 6:17) and, for geographical reasons, Aramaisms may likewise have penetrated there at an early date. The presence of many Aramaisms however, suggests a relatively late date.

(2) Reference to Nineveh: It is said about Nineveh that it "was an enormously large city" (3:3) and it seems therefore that the book was written after the destruction of this famous city (612 b.c.e.). In contrast, it has been pointed out that the past tense can also be used to describe a continuous existing situation (cf. Jer. 1:18). This, however, does not account for the unhistorical title "king of Nineveh" and the legendary size of the city.

(3) The identity of the prophet: The question of the date of the book is related to the time of the prophet, who, apparently, was a historical figure (ii Kings 14:25). However, if the prophet's name was chosen only to give a later book more authority, the prophet's identity cannot be helpful in fixing the date of the book's composition, especially since it is possible that the story is connected with a historical prophet, but the book itself was written much later.

(4) Parallels to other books: The Book of Jonah contains parallels to the stories about Elijah (cf. Jonah 4:3 with i Kings 19:4); to the prophecies of Jeremiah (cf. Jonah 3:8–10 with Jer. 18:7–8); and particularly to the Book of Joel (cf. Jonah 3:9 with Joel 2:14; Jonah 4:2 with Joel 2:13). It is, however, impossible to prove if and in which way these sources influenced the Book of Jonah or were influenced by it.

It is quite probable that the book recounts an early story, since the people of Nineveh are worshiping idols, but the prophet only speaks, as in early times, against their moral sins. The lack of any national aspect has also been cited in favor of an early date of the story, which was perhaps first told orally and written down only at a later date.

The Book of Jonah aroused special interest throughout the ages not only because of its dramatic content and literary devices but also because of its important role in the religious world. The book of Jonah is read in the synagogue at the Day of Atonement afternoon service (Meg. 31a).

[Gabriel H. Cohn /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Aggadah

When sent to prophesy against Nineveh, Jonah suppressed his prophecy, although liable to suffer death at the hands of Heaven for doing so (Sanh. 11:5), and did not go, preferring rather to honor the son (the people of Israel) than the Father (the Almighty). For were he to go to Nineveh, Jonah argued, its people would immediately repent, with the result that the Almighty would have mercy on them and hold Israel blameworthy, declaring that, unlike the gentiles, they became stubborn whenever He sent His prophets to them (cf. Matt. 12:41). Jonah tried to flee abroad to a gentile country "where the Divine Presence neither dwells nor appears." First the sailors plunged him in the sea up to his knees and then up to his neck, each time the sea became calm but grew stormy again when they lifted him back on deck. Thereupon they hurled Jonah into the sea, which immediately stopped its raging (Mekh., Bo, Introduction: Tanh., Lev., 8; pdre 10).

[Elimelech Epstein Halevy]

In Christianity

Jonah is regarded in Christianity as the proof of the capacity of the gentiles for salvation and the design of God to make them partake of it. This is the "sign of Jonas" referred to in Luke 11: 29–30. In the same passage he is referred to, as are many of the prophets, as a forerunner of Jesus. "The men of Nineveh … repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold, one greater than Jonas is here" (ibid., v. 32). Similarly the three days and three nights which he spent in the whale's belly are seen as a prefiguration of the three days and three nights he would be "in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40).

In Islam

Yūnus (Jonah) the prophet, "the man of the fish," was one of the most prominent descendants of Abraham. He was one of the apostles of Allah, even though he fled from his mission because he thought that Allah did not control him (Sura 6:86; 22:87). Sura 10 of the *Koran is named after him. In Sura 37:139–49, *Muhammad relates how Jonah hid in a ship loaded with freight. His fate, however, designated him for destruction. Had he not praised Allah, he would have remained in the belly of the fish until the day of the resurrection of the dead. The myriads who were warned by Jonah believed in Allah and continued to enjoy His mercies for a time (Sura 10:96–98). Umayya ibn Abi al-Ṣalt (Schulthess, 32:21) knew that Jonah had stayed only a few days in the belly of the fish. The story of Jonah was a favorite subject in Islamic legend; several motifs worthy of adaptation are found in it: the repentance of the inhabitants of Nineveh on the day of ʿāshūraʾ: the sojourn of Jonah in the belly of the fish; his prayer, etc.

[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]

In the Arts

The allegorical nature of the Book of Jonah and the colorful episodes which it contains have inspired writers, artists and musicians throughout the ages. One of the earliest literary works based on Jonah was Patience, an anonymous English adaptation in verse probably dating from the mid-14th century. The theme of the punishment awaiting the "sinful city" was exploited by English puritanical writers of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, A Looking Glasse for London and England (London, 1594), a play by Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge, weaves the story of Jonah into a dramatic account of the kingdom of Israel after the overthrow of Jeroboam. In their comparison of Nineveh with vice-ridden London, the playwrights mingled Elizabethan satire with biblical and moralistic elements in the spirit of the Reformation. The subject also inspired A Feaste for Wormes (1620), a paraphrase of Jonah by the English royalist writer Francis Quarles, in whose Divine Poems (1630) the story later reappeared. Two other works of the 17th century were the anonymous English tragicomedy Nineveh's Repentance (c. 1656) and Jonas by the German Protestant poet Martin Opitz. The subject fell into comparative neglect until the second half of the 19th century, when the Historie of Jonah, a dramatic poem, appeared in Zachary Boyd's Four Poems from "Zion's Flowers" (1855). This was followed by John Ritchie's dramatic poem The Prophet Jonah (1860), John T. Beer's play The Prophet of Nineveh (1877), and Profeta-lomb ("The Prophet Bough," 1877), a work by the Hungarian writer János Arany.

There was a revival of interest in the theme among writers of the 20th century. A.P. Herbert's The Book of Jonah (As almost any modern Irishman would have written it) (1921) was a novel, comic dramatization of the biblical story written in a broad Irish brogue. Behind the superficial frivolity of the Scots playwright James Bridie's Jonah and the Whale (1932; revised as Jonah 3 in Plays for Plain People, 1944) lies a more serious and sympathetic approach to the central issue. This contrasts with Laurence Housman's playlet The Burden of Nineveh (in Old Testament Plays, 1950), an attempt to debunk the Bible. Two other works in English were A Masque of Mercy (1947), a play in blank verse by the U.S. poet Robert Frost presenting the theme of man's relationship with God in Christian terms; and the English novelist and critic Aldous Huxley's poem "Jonah" (in The Cherry Tree, 1959). Der Mann in Fisch (1963) was a novel about Jonah by the German religious writer Stefan Andres. Perhaps because of its nautical interest, the subject has also inspired works by several Scandinavian authors, notably Haakon B. Mahrt's Norwegian novel Jonas (1935), Harald Tandrup's Danish novel Profeten Jonas privat (1937; Jonah and the Voice, 1937), and Olov Hartman's modern Swedish miracle play Profet och timmerman (1954). Works about Jonah by 20th-century Jewish writers include the U.S. novelist Robert *Nathan's Jonah; or the Withering Vine (1925; published in Britain as Son of Amittai, 1925); M.C. Lichtenstein's Yiddish novel Yonah ben Amittai (1929); a Hebrew play of the same title by Meir Foner (1930); and It Should Happen to a Dog (1956), a one-act play by Wolf *Mankowitz utilizing the humor and idiom of London's Jewish East End.

In art, there are no less than 57 examples in catacombs in Rome and on numerous sarcophagi, from the second to the first centuries, some of which may possibly be Jewish. The four scenes are: the storm, the swallowing and spewing forth by the whale, and Jonah chiding God. In specifically Christian typology, the story has three parts, the parallelism between Jonah and the whale and the visit to Limbo by Jesus being paramount. The Jewish tradition appears fully in the four-part Jonah sarcophagus of the British Museum. The Jonah cycle may well be older than its Christological interpretation, and the sarcophagus would thus afford an indication of a lost Jewish pictorial prototype.

[Helen Rosenau]

Individual representations of Jonah are rare. The two major examples are the figure by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, and the marble statue designed by Raphael and executed by his pupil Lorenzetto di Ludovico Lotto(?) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. The prophet, who is generally represented as bald, is here shown as a nude youth with curly hair. The story of Jonah and the fish as a prefiguration of the Entombment and Resurrection and the resurrection of the individual soul and the hope of life hereafter accounts for its extraordinary popularity in the funerary art of the early Christians. An interesting fourth-century ivory relief of the subject is found on the Lipsanoteca in the Museo Civico Cristiano at Brescia.

Jonah was also a popular subject in Byzantine manuscripts of the 6th–11th centuries, including the sixth-century Rabula Codex, the Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustès (Vatican), the ninth-century Homilies of Gregory of Nazianz, and the 11th-century Khlyudov Psalter (Moscow). In these, new episodes are illustrated, such as the "calling" of Jonah (Jonah 1:2), his embarkation at Joppa (Jonah 1:3), and his preaching before the king of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4ff.). The theme was less popular in the Middle Ages, but survived as one of the types of the Resurrection. Some notable medieval examples are the early 13th-century sculpture at Bamburg showing the bald Jonah engaged in animated conversation with the prophet Hosea; and the delightful illuminations in the 12th-century Hortus Deliciarum (University Library, Strasbourg) and Admont Bible (National Library, Vienna). In both manuscripts, Jonah is shown emerging from a fish, in the latter case with a rhetorical gesture, as if about to make a speech. Illuminations of Jonah were also included in medieval Hebrew Manuscripts, such as the Spanish Cervera Bible (1300; Lisbon National Library) and the Kennicott Bible (1476; Bodleian Library, Oxford). In an early 15-century German maḥzor (Academy of Sciences, Budapest), there is a casual, but vivid, sketch of a bald and mustachioed Jonah sitting under the gourd (Jonah 4:6).

After the Middle Ages, the subject was comparatively rare. Rubens included a painting of Jonah thrown into the sea as the predella of a triptych of the miraculous draught of fishes ordered by the Malines Fishmongers Corporation in 1618; and there is a stormy landscape of the same subject by Gaspard Poussin at Windsor Castle, England. In Italy, Salvator Rosa painted a picture of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites. The Israel wood-engraver Jacob *Steinhardt illustrated the Book of Jonah in 1953.

Musical compositions on the Jonah theme are less abundant. One of the early masters of the oratorio, Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1674), wrote an oratorio, Jona (of which a 19th-century revision by Ferdinand *Hiller has remained in manuscript); two notable oratorios dating from 1689 are G.B. Bassani's Giona, which has an opening instrumental "Sea Symphony," and the Giona of G.B. Vitali. In the 18th century P. Anfossi (1727–1797) composed Ninive conversa and, in the 19th century, the subject was represented, like most biblical stories, in the English festival-oratorio production. Some increase in musical interest has been noticeable in the 20th century, with Hugo Chaim *Adler's cantata Jonah (1943) and oratorios by Lennox Berkeley (Jonah, 1935), Mario *Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Jonah, 1951), and Vladimir *Voegel (Jonah ging doch nach Ninive, for speaker, baritone solo, speaking-choir, mixed choir, and orchestra, 1958).

[Bathja Bayer]


introductions: S.R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (1913), 321–32; R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1948), 586–9; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (1952), 144–7; O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, An Introduction (1965), 403–6; H.L. Ginsburg, The Five Megilloth and Jonah (1969). commentaries and special studies: H. Schmidt, Jona, Eine Untersuchung zur vergleichenden Religionsgeschichte (1907); S.D. Goitein, in: jpos, 17 (1937), 63–77; A. Feuillet, in: rb, 54 (1947), 161–86; G. Ch. Aalders, The Problem of the Book of Jonah (1948); H. Rosin, The Lord Is God (1955), 6–54; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 279–87; N. Lohfink, in: bz, 5 (1961), 185–203; H.W. Wolff, Studien zum Jonabuch (1965); G.M. Landes, in: Interpretation, 21 (1967), 3–31; E.J. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1967), 1–49; L. Frankel, in: Ma'yanot, 9 (1967), 193–207; G.H. Cohn, Das Buch Jona (1969). in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 261 (index); Urbach, in: Tarbiz, 20 (1950), 118–22. in islam: D. Sidersky, Les origines des légendes musulmanes dans le Coran et dans les vies des Prophètes (1933), 130; H.Z. (J.W.) Hirschberg, Juedische und christliche Lehren im vorund fruehislamischen Arabien (1939), 63–64; Umayya ibn Abi al-Ṣalt, Umajja ibn Abi's Salt; die unter seinem Namen ueberlieferten Gedichtfragmente, F. Schulthess (1911); H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers (eds.), Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (1953), s.v.Yūnus b. Mattai, incl. bibl. add. bibliography: "Yūnus," in: eis2, 11 (2002), 347–49 (incl. bibl.). in the arts: H. Rosenau, in: Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 3rd Series, 24 (1961), 60ff.; U. Steffen, Das Mysterium von Tod und Auferstehung: Formen und Wandlungen des Jona-Motivs (1963); G. Landes, in: Eretz Israel, 16 (1982), 147*–70; J. Magonet, in: abd, 3:936–42 (with bibliography); idem, in: dbi, 1:620–22; U. Simon, The jps Commentary Jonah (1999); D. Marcus, Review of Biblical Literature 10/30 (electronic review of Simon; 2000).


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JONAH , or, in Hebrew, Yonah, was an Israelite prophet in the Bible who, as told in the book preserved in his name, was divinely commissioned to announce a prophecy of imminent doom to the Assyrian people of Nineveh (Jon. 1:12). Fleeing his task, Jonah hopped aboard a commercial vessel bound for Tarshish, in the west (Jon. 1:3). Subsequently, a violent storm broke out that was recognized through divination by lots to be due to a sin of Jonah's. The storm was quelled when Jonah was cast into the sea (Jon. 1:410). However, the Lord arranged for a great fish to swallow the prophet, who presumably repented his folly in attempting to flee divine destiny (Jon. 2:8). In any event, he was regurgitated upon the dry land and traveled to Nineveh, where he first announced doom to the city and its inhabitants and then witnessed the pagans' repentances and God's forgiveness (Jon. 3). Grieved at this expression of divine mercy, Jonah wished to die, but, in the parable of chapter 4, was given instruction and reproof by God in the form of a recinus plant that sprouted to shade him in the heat of the day but then as quickly withered. Jonah regretted its loss, although he had done nothing to care for it. How much more (he is asked rhetorically) should God have compassion for people like the Ninevites and their cattlehis creatures?

Both language and theology, as well as the inaccurate depiction of Nineveh, suggest that the Book of Jonah is a relatively late postexilic composition, from about the fourth century bce (it is first cited in Tobit ). The book is artistically organized and integrated: Chapters 1 and 3 deal with penitent pagans and their salvation from the wrath of Israel's God; chapters 2 and 4 deal with the Israelite prophet and his theological lessons in and by miraculous circumstances. But the concern of the text has, since antiquity, perplexed its readers.

In ancient Jewish Midrashic and aggadic literature, commentators have drawn out various lessons from the story of Jonah. In the failure of Jonah's flight they saw proof that a prophet could not escape his destiny. In his refusal to prophesy they detected a noble desire not to insult Israel, whounlike the pagansdid not repent. In God's final response to the Ninevites, the rabbis underscored the power of repentance to affect the divine will. (Since antiquity the Book of Jonah has been the prophetic lection for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; see B.T., Meg. 31a.) Finally, in Jonah's refusal to utter a prophetic oracle of doom in the name of a merciful God, many interpreters have seen his fear of being killed as a false prophet. The church fathers, in contrast to the rabbis, argued that Jonah wanted by his prophecy to the Ninevites to teach a lesson to the stubborn Jews, and thus found in Jonah precedent and support for missions to the Gentiles.

Divine mercy, false prophecy, and repentance combined are the core of the prophetic meditation reflected in this book: Initially concerned that divine mercy would limit the dignity of prophecy and so make the divine oracular word conditional upon human behavior, Jonah rejected his office only to realize finally that repentance has no independent, magical effect, because divine mercy is an attribute of an utterly transcendent and free God. The asymmetry between the parable at the story's end, the prophet's situation, and the lesson derived from it, has often been regarded as support for this theological point. God will have mercy in the end upon whomsoever he chooses.

At another level, the ingestion and regurgitation of Jonah by a fish is a motif that dramatizes the inner transformation and spiritual rebirth of the prophet. Typologically, moreover, the three days spent by Jonah in the belly of the fish were seen in early Christian tradition as prefiguring the three days spent by Jesus "in the heart of the earth" (Mt. 12:40). The fish and salvation motifs are found frequently in the Roman catacombs and on the sarcophagi and were used extensively in Byzantine manuscripts and in medieval miracle plays. In Jewish Neoplatonic texts, the themes of the story of Jonah were understood allegorically in terms of the fate of the human soul in the world.


Bickerman, Elias J. Four Strange Books of the Bible: Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth, Esther. New York, 1967.

Cohn, Gabriël H. Das Buch Jona. Assen, 1969.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews (19091938). 7 vols. Translated by Henrietta Szold et al. Reprint, Philadelphia, 19371966. See the index, s.v. Jonah.

Goitein, S. D. "Some Observations on Jonah." Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 17 (1937): 6377.

Scholem, Gershom, ed. Zohar, the Book of Splendor (1949), vol. 6. Reprint, New York, 1963.

Urbach, E. E. "The Repentance of the People of Nineveh and the Discussions between Jews and Christians" (in Hebrew). Tarbiz 20 (1949): 118122.

New Sources

Gaines, Janet Howe. Forgiveness in a Wounded World: Jonah's Dilemma. Studies in Biblical Literature, no. 5. Atlanta, 2003.

Person, Raymond F. In Conversation with Jonah: Conversation Analysis, Literary Criticism, and the Book of Jonah. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, no. 220. Sheffield, 1996.

Sherwood, Yvonne. Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Michael Fishbane (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Jonah, Book of

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Written in clear, simple language, this difficult and profound little book has long been the subject of lively discussion. This article covers the structure and content; authorship, sources, and date; and literary genre and theological purpose.

Structure and Content. Although traditionally listed among those of the minor prophets, the book is not, strictly speaking, a prophetical book but a story of late date concerning a particular mission of Jonah (Hebrew: yōnâ, "dove"). The book falls into two parts (ch. 12 and ch. 34), each part consisting of two scenes.

Part I. The first part prepares the reader for the impact of the second. God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach repentance, but Jonah rebelled presumably against the idea of preaching salvation to non-Israelitesand sailed toward Spain. God sent a storm that was about to destroy the ship. When the mariners discovered that Jonah had occasioned their danger by his disobedience, they threw him into the sea, which immediately became calm. A "large fish" swallowed Jonah. After three days God commanded the fish to vomit him safely on dry land.

Part II. At the second order to preach, Jonah obeyed. The Ninevites heard him, repented, and were pardoned, but Jonah was angry because of Nineveh's good fortune. The story ends in a confrontation of God and Jonah. Having lost the shade from the plant that God had miraculously provided for him, Jonah was indignant enough to die. God forced Jonah to see reason by a rhetorical question: If you are so upset about losing so small a thing, which you did nothing to procure, is there not much greater reason for my being concerned over Nineveh and all its inhabitants who are also objects of my loving care?

Author, Sources, and Date. This anonymous writing exhibits dependence on earlier Biblical books. The pseudonym of the hero alludes to the historical Jonah, son of Amittai, an 8th-century Galilean prophet from Gathhepher (modern Khirbet ez-Zurrâ) in Zebulun (2 Kgs 14.25). The storm recalls Ez 2628, especially ch. 27, where the technique is reversed: In Ezekiel, God hurls a storm against His enemies but in Jonah, against His own prophet. In Ezekiel, ship and crew sink; but in Jonah, pagan mariners and their ship survive while Jonah is cast into the sea. The author of the Book of Jonah develops

Jeremiah's theology of divine pardon for repentant sinners (cf. Jon 3.10b and Jer 18.78; 26.3), and God's universal love (cf. Jon 1.2 and Jer 1.5). Ancient commentators generally considered the 8th-century prophet Jonah both hero and author of the book. However, the literary and theological dependence already noted, in addition to considerations of language, of history, and of mentality, indicate a post-Exilic period as the time of composition. Philological examination reveals late Hebrew and Aramaisms but probably no Greek influence. The author speaks of Nineveh (destroyed 612 b.c.) as no longer existing except in popular imagination. Moreover, in the people's minds it had become a colossal city (Jon3.3), whereas archeologists have shown ancient Nineveh to have been only three miles wide. Finally, the author's liberal attitude toward pagans seems to be a reaction against a too-nationalistic view of God's providence. These data drawn from the story itself point to a post-Exilic writer probably of the Ezra-Nehemiah period (middle of the 5th century). He probably wrote before the Greek period, certainly before Sirach (cf. Sir 49). Because the canticle (Jon 2.310) is probably without Aramaisms and any apparent connection with the context, it is generally considered an insertion. Some judge it a mosaic of psalm pieces, some of which may be as late as the 3rd century b.c.; others consider it an original and unified composition.

Literary Genre and Theological Purpose. Scholars today do not consider Jonah a historical narrative but an edifying story. The unknown writer artfully, ironically compounds familiar scriptural material, with perhaps some folklorish elements, to make a didactic fiction, a midrash. The "sign of Jonah" mentioned in the Gospels (Mt 12.3841; Lk 11.2932), if correctly transmitted, is no argument for the historicity of Jonah. Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers were treating of literary or historical criticism, but were citing a familiar example somewhat as people today allude to Cinderella or the Prodigal Son. The author's purpose is to warn his Jewish contemporaries against their extreme nationalism. He accomplishes this by a satire in which every narrow-minded Israelite of the day would see himself reflected in the person of Jonah. In the first part of the book Jonah is a recalcitrant prophet; in the last chapter, the incarnation of the particularist spirit. Criticizing this spirit furthers the author's purpose. When Jonah was the beneficiary of divine mercy, he prayed; but when Ninevites were objects of the same mercy, he was angry enough to die. Theologically broad-minded, the author teaches that God rules the world, that His providence extends to all men. Tension between the spirit of particularism and universalism should be resolved in favor of the latter because the mercy of God waits for all who repent no matter what their nation.

Bibliography: a. robert and a. tricot, Guide to the Bible, tr. e. p. arbez and m. p. mcguire, 2 v. (Tournai-New York 195155; v. 1, rev. and enl. 1960) 1:345346. l. dennefeld, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 8.2:14971504. h. g. mitchell, et al., Aggai, Zachariah, Malachi, and Jonah (New York 1912). e. sellin, Das Zwölfprophetenbuch (Leipzig 1929). t. h. robinson and f. horst, Die zwölf Kleinen Propheten (Handbuch zum Alten Testament 14; 2d ed. 1954). a. r. johnson, "Jonah II. 310: A Study in Cultic Phantasy," Studies in Old Testament Prophecy, ed. h. h. rowley (Edinburgh 1950) 82102. s. h. blank, "'Doest Thou Well to Be Angry?' A Study in Self-Pity," Hebrew Union College Annual 26 (1955) 2941. j. howton, "The Sign of Jonah," Scottish Journal of Theology 15 (1962) 288304. s. r. driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (11th ed. rev. and enl. New York 1905) 32125. a. feuillet, Le Livre de Jonas (2d ed. Paris 1957). Popular presentation. a. jones, Unless Some Man Show Me (New York 1951) 4868.

[j. m. lane]


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JONAH (mid-fourth century c.e.), Palestinian amora. Jonah and his associate Yose (Yosi) were the heads of the "Beit Va'ad" (the Sanhedrin) in Tiberias. The Jerusalem Talmud is replete with the halakhic discussions of these two scholars; there is not a single tractate in which they are not mentioned. However, whereas Jonah is frequently referred to in the order Zera'im and progressively less and less in the succeeding orders until in Nashim and Nezikin he is hardly talked of at all, his associate Yose, who outlived him (tj, Ma'as. Sh. 4:9, 55b), is consistently mentioned throughout. Jonah, a pupil of Johanan's pupils, such as Ilai and Ze'ira, established original principles for the study of the Talmud and the understanding of the Mishnah. For instance, he established that the minimum quantities given by the Talmud, such as an olive's bulk or that of an egg, are of rabbinic and not biblical origin (tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 15a); that when the Mishnah introduces a law with the comprehensive word "all" or "these," it does not imply that the laws referred to are of permanent validity (tj, Yev. 2:5, 12d), and that many incidents related in the Bible and the Mishnah are given not in order to establish the halakhah for future generations, but mainly to provide information about how they were practiced in earlier generations (tj, Shev. 1:7, 33a). In many cases he rejects the formula of the Mishnah and the order of its statements, preferring that of the Tosefta. He emends the Mishnah in various ways and asserts that it should be taught accordingly, in contrast to Yose who endeavors to justify the text of the accepted Mishnah (tj, rh 2:1, 57d; Pes. 1:2, 27c). One of his novel interpretations is in the story told of him that he gave his *tithes to Aḥa b. Ulla, not because he was a priest but because he was occupied with study (tj, Ma'as. Sh. 5:5, 56b). Many of the amoraim of the succeeding generation, including some of the "scholars of the south," were his pupils.

Jonah is also mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud, and in one place is referred to as one of "the resolute men of Palestine" who are "more saintly than the pious of Babylon" (Ta'an. 23b). Jonah, like Yose, was not only the head of the Sanhedrin, preaching in public and teaching halakhah, but was also politically active. During their time, the rebellion of Gallus broke out (351) and some of their halakhic rulings are connected with this event. While the Roman armies were stationed in the country they both permitted the Jews of Galilee to bake bread for the army of Ursicinus on the Sabbath because, in demanding this, "the aim [of the soldiers] was not to apostatize, but merely the desire for fresh bread" (tj, Shev. 4:2, 35a). They forbade the inhabitants of Sennabris, whose Sefer Torah had been burnt by Ursicinus, to use a defective scroll. The Talmud adds that they gave this ruling not because it was the halakhah, but so that the people of the locality should purchase another scroll (tj, Meg. 3:1, 74a). Another tradition tells of their journey to Antioch, their meeting with Ursicinus, and the great honor he showed them (tj, Ber. 5:1, 9a). It is possible that this visit was not during the revolt but during Ursicinus' second journey to Syria in 361 for the Parthian war (but see Lieberman, in jqr, 36 (1946), 341 n. 89). Very little of Jonah's aggadah has been preserved, but accounts of many of his pious deeds have been transmitted, particularly his deeds of charity. When a person of good family became impoverished he said to him: "My son, I have heard that you have been left a legacy, take this money; you can repay it when you receive the legacy." When he had taken it he would say: "Let it be a gift" (tj, Pe'ah 8:9, 21b). He was succeeded by his son Mani *ii as head of the council of the Tiberias community.


Frankel, Mevo 98–99; Graetz, Gesch, 4 (1908), 304ff.; Weiss, Dor, 3 (19044), 98–100; Z.W. Rabinowitz, Sha'arei Torat Bavel (1961), 433, 435; Epstein, Mishnah, 395–9.

[Shmuel Safrai]


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The book of Jonah in the Bible tells the story of a prophet who was commanded by the Hebrew god Yahweh to go to the city of Nineveh and preach so that the people there might be saved. Jonah, however, did not feel they deserved salvation and boarded a ship going in the other direction. When a huge storm came up, he admitted it was caused by his disobedience to Yahweh. The crew threw Jonah into the sea, where a great fish swallowed him. The fish spat him onto land three days later, and Jonah went to Nineveh.

prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights

After hearing Jonah preach, the king of Nineveh ordered his subjects to repent, causing Yahweh to spare them. Because Jonah was angry that Yahweh had saved so many wicked people, he left the city, hoping it would be destroyed. Yahweh decided to teach Jonah a lesson. First he caused a plant to grow to shade Jonah from the sun during the day; later he sent a worm to eat it. When Jonah expressed regret at losing the plant, Yahweh scolded him for taking pity on a plant that he did not make grow, while feeling no sorrow for thousands of people in Nineveh. Jonah is usually portrayed in art with the great fish or resting in the shade of the plant.


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Jonah in the Bible, a Hebrew minor prophet, who was called by God to preach in Nineveh, but disobeyed and attempted to escape by sea; in a storm he was thrown overboard as a bringer of bad luck and swallowed by a great fish (traditionally, a whale), only to be saved and finally succeed in his mission.

The name Jonah is proverbially used for someone likely to bring bad luck, particularly at sea.
In the Authorized Version and other translations, a plant which grows quickly to shade the prophet is called a gourd; this may be referred to as Jonah's gourd.

Jonah, Book of

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Jonah, Book of. One of the twelve books of the Minor Prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Old Testament. Although Jonah is classified as a prophetic book, it is mainly concerned with the narrative story of Jonah.

In Jewish liturgy, the book is read in the afternoon service for Yom Kippur. Jonah's stay in the fish's belly was taken in Christian tradition as a type of Jesusʾ death and resurrection (Matthew 12. 40). In Islamic tradition the prophet is known as Yunus.


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Jonah Fifth of the 12 minor prophets and central character in the Old Testament Book of Jonah. This book relates how Jonah disobeyed God's command to preach to the Gentiles in Nineveh. He attempted to flee from the Assyrian capital in a ship, but was thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale. Three days later, Jonah was regurgitated alive on shore. He repented and carried out God's commandment.