By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Book of Jonah is one of the shorter, not to mention more hermeneutically challenging, books of the Old Testament: how should we analyse and interpret this strange tale of a prophet being swallowed by a whale? Was it even a whale? Could the whole Book of Jonah, in fact, be satire? In the latest in our series of Bible analysis posts, let’s take a closer look at the tale of the prophet Jonah and the three days he spent in the belly of a ‘whale’.
Before we offer an analysis of the Book of Jonah, let’s briefly summarise the contents of the book.
Book of Jonah: summary
Jonah is unusual among the Old Testament prophets in being exceedingly reluctant to carry out his business of prophesying. He is commanded by Yahweh (i.e., God) to go to the city of Nineveh and tell the people that they should expect imminent judgment from the Lord. Jonah, however, refuses to obey God’s command, and instead tries to flee God’s jurisdiction by going to the port of Joppa (i.e., Jaffa) and booking a berth on a ship manned by Phoenicians (at least most Bible scholars assume they’re Phoenicians, i.e., Mediterranean traders from classical times; they’re non-Christians, at any rate).
However, once the ship has set sail a violent storm erupts, and the Phoenicians start to think that one of their crew must have angered someone’s god. They draw lots in the hope of discovering which of them is responsible, and Jonah draws the short straw. He admits that he is the one who has angered God, and, at his insistence, the crew throw him over the side of the ship (although only with great reluctance). The storm immediately clears.
Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a big fish (of which more below), which God has placed in the prophet’s path. Jonah spends the next three nights in the belly of the fish, during which Jonah passes the time praying to God and singing (again, more on this below in the analysis). After three nights have passed, Jonah reluctantly heads to Nineveh to do (at last!) what God commanded of him, so God tells the fish to ‘vomit’ Jonah up onto land so he can go and undertake his task.
When he tells the inhabitants of the city what will befall them – delivering just a single terse sentence by way of prophecy (see Jonah 3:4) – they immediately repent, praying and fasting to demonstrate their penitence. Their king puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, and others follow his lead. God accepts their act of penitence and spares them, much to Jonah’s disgust.
He leaves the city and goes into a big sulk; it turns out that the reason he was so reluctant to go and warn the people of Nineveh of God’s wrath was because he didn’t want them to have a chance of salvation!
While he sits outside Nineveh, waiting to see whether God will continue to spare them or whether he will change his mind, Jonah experiences a series of strange sights and sensations which God has arranged for him: a plant (probably a castor-oil plant, as is noted in the indispensable Dictionary of the Bible) shoots up next to him to provide some welcome shade from the hot sun; then the plant is killed by a worm; and finally a hot wind blows into Jonah’s face to torment him.
God has given him protection and then showed him how easily he can take it away. Jonah begs for God to kill him and put him out of his misery.
The Book of Jonah ends with it being pointed out to Jonah that the plant is like Nineveh: Jonah cared for it in much the way that God, infinitely greater than Jonah, cared for the vast city of Nineveh and its people, who are infinitely greater than the plant. That is why they had to be given the opportunity to repent.
Book of Jonah: analysis
The Book of Jonah is not easy to interpret. It’s been suggested that it’s an allegory, and this is perhaps the most widespread interpretation now (most commentators reject the idea that the events of the book have their roots in historical fact). In the allegorical reading, Jonah the prophet represents the whole of the Jewish people, who were destined to prophesy among other nations.
But because Israel tried to avoid doing this, it was ‘swallowed’ or consumed by the city of Babylon, much as Jonah is swallowed by the big fish. During their years of exile, the Jewish people turned to Yahweh, and this won them their freedom.
Indeed, Jonah has to be instructed twice by God: first, to get him to undertake his prophesying, and second, to show him why it was important. The plot of this very short book is tight and effective: Jonah tries to run away from his responsibility and so God engineers the storm, and subsequent tumbling into the fish’s mouth, in order to get Jonah’s attention and point out that he cannot escape his destiny. It’s only when Jonah prays to God in the belly of the fish that God realises Jonah will do as commanded.
Then, even after he has carried out his task, Jonah doesn’t see the significance of saving the Ninevites, whom he cares for little: God needs to show his prophet why everyone, if they undergo due penance and realise the error of their ways, can be saved.
Jonah needs, once again, to be taken into the jaws of danger (although not literal jaws this time), and, like his experience in the belly of the fish, he needs to be brought low by heat and thirst in order to see the parallel between the plant for which he cared and the people of Nineveh, who are under God’s protection. And it’s perhaps impossible to overlook the symbolic rebirth Jonah undergoes, as he is expelled from the belly of the fish and, as it were, born again, delivered from death and with a new sense of the importance of his role as prophet.
The one thing everyone knows about Jonah is that he’s swallowed by a whale. But in fact, the Bible never uses this word: as it’s rendered in most English translations, Jonah is swallowed by a ‘great fish’, although this is often assumed to mean a whale. Curiously, as the Dictionary of the Bible notes, in a cuneiform text from some four millennia ago, the city of Nineveh is represented ideogrammatically by a fish.
Nineveh, by the way, is similarly exaggerated in the story: we are told that it would take three days to traverse it (Jonah 3:3), but in actual fact the city at this time (the story is set during the reign of Jeroboam II, 786–746 BC) was just three square miles in area, as archaeology has shown. The population of the city, given as 120,000 people in Jonah 4:11, is also a huge exaggeration. Still, the ‘great fish’ (1:17) must have been pretty big.
But the fish (or, in many retellings, whale) has become such a central part of the tale that it has itself tended to swallow up the broader moral message of the Book of Jonah, which is surely that all peoples can find salvation through the Hebrew God, Yahweh. He wishes to save not only the Israelites (who must save themselves by prophesying on Yahweh’s behalf) but the people of Nineveh. Even the Phoenicians aboard the ship that jettisons the hapless Jonah are given a glimpse of his power.
But this is all to assume that the book was intended as a work of serious moral instruction. Yes, it clearly has moral messages to impart – we are to condemn Jonah’s narrow nationalism and small-mindedness in favour of God’s love for all peoples, and reflect on the importance of observing, rather than shirking, our responsibilities – but the events of the Book of Jonah are clearly somewhat removed from the everyday, to put it mildly.
Indeed, Kristin Swenson has argued in A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible that the events of the Jonah story strain our credulity to such an extent (we’re told that even the cattle repented in Nineveh, sitting in sackcloth like their human masters) that the book may even be regarded as satire. The relative brevity of the book and the fact that its author expects us to swallow (as it were) quite remarkable and outlandish things in such swift succession certainly lends the book a humorous quality, whether this was its author’s intention or not.
As Swenson asserts, ‘The very preposterousness of it all is part of the point.’ We are encouraged to engage with the story of Jonah not in a literalist manner but to come to the story as a story, as fiction designed for instruction.