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The Book of Jonah (Hebrew: Sefer Yonah) is a book in the Hebrew Bible, situated in the Nevi'im of the Tanakh and the Prophets of the Old Testament. The book relates a story concerning an obscure Hebrew prophet named Jonah ben Amittai who lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE)[1]. The book itself was probably written in the post-exilic period (after 530 BCE) and based on oral traditions that had been passed down from the eighth century BCE. The book was originally written with eleven other books referred to as the Minor Prophets.

The story has an interesting interpretive history (see below) and has become a well-known story through popular children’s stories. In Judaism it is the Haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur due to its story of God's willingness to forgive those who repent.

Outline of book

The Book of Jonah is primarily a story about the character of God, even His compassion [2]. As such, it can be divided into four sections, roughly divided by each chapter: (1) God's sovereignty, (2) God’s deliverance, (3) God's mercy, and (4) God's righteousness. It may also be outlined in the following manner:

  • God's first commission and Jonah’s rebellion
    • God's deliverance toward Jonah and Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving
  • God's second commission and Jonah’s obedience
    • God's deliverance toward Nineveh and Jonah’s complaint of ingratitude

In the first half of the book, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His sovereignty. In the second half, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His mercy. Finally, God declares His righteousness in choosing to force and choosing to repent.


As mentioned above, the book of Jonah is not written like the other books of the prophets. Jonah is almost entirely narrative with the exception of the psalm in chapter 2. The actual prophetic word against Nineveh is only given in passing through the narrative. As with any good story, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes. It also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.


The story of Jonah is set against the historical background of Ancient Israel in the eighth-7th centuries BC and the religious and social issues of the late sixth to fourth centuries BC. The views accurately coincide with the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah (sometimes classified as Third Isaiah), where Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles. (These facts have led a number of scholars to believe that the book was actually written in this later period.)

The Jonah mentioned in II Kings 14:25 lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) and was from the city of Gath-hepher. This city, modern el-Meshed, located only several miles from Nazareth in what would have been known as Israel in the post-exilic period (as distinct from the southern kingdom, known as Judah) and Galilee around the time of Christ.

Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which fell to the Medes in 612 BCE. The book itself calls Nineveh a “great city,” probably referring to its affluence, but perhaps to its size as well. (That the story assumes the city’s existence and deliverance from judgment may indeed reflect an older tradition dating back to the eighth-7th century BC.) Assyria often opposed Israel and eventually took the Israelites captive in 722-721 BCE (see History of ancient Israel and Judah). The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen in the bitter prophecies of Nahum.


The story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah, whose name literally means "dove," is introduced to the reader in the very first verse. The name is decisive. While most prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.

Jonah's passive character then is contrasted with the other main character: God (lit. "I will be what I will be"). God's character is altogether active. While Jonah flees, God pursues. While Jonah falls, God lifts up. The character of God in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony. In the first part of the book, God is depicted as relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.

The other characters of the story include the sailors in chapter 1 and the people of Nineveh in chapter 3. These characters are also contrasted to Jonah's passivity. While Jonah sleeps in the hull, the sailors pray and try to save the ship from the storm (1:4-6). While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change His mind.


The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God. God calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee. He goes to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish. God calls up a great storm at sea, and the ship's crew cast Jonah overboard in an attempt to appease God. A great sea creature (the Book of Jonah says it is a fish but the New Testament reference in Matthew 12:38-41 and retellings for children conventionally assume it to be a whale) sent by God, swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. He says a prayer in which he repents for his disobedience and calls upon God for mercy. God speaks to the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land. After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, and they repent and God forgives them. Ironically, the relentless God demonstrated in the first chapter becomes the merciful God in the last two chapters (see 3:10). In a parallel turnabout, Jonah becomes one of the most effective of all prophets, turning the entire population of Nineveh (about 120,000 people) to God.

Interpretive history

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Doré.

Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by Gustave Doré.

As with many canonical books, the Book of Jonah has had a long and varied interpretive history. This history spans from ancient rabbinic interpretations to "post modern" reader-response interpretations. The interpretative styles of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists have all been employed to understand the Book of Jonah.

Early Jewish interpretation

The story of Jonah has numerous theological implications, and this has long been recognized. In early translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish translators tended to remove anthropomorphic imagery in order to prevent the reader from misunderstanding the ancient texts. This tendency is evidenced in both the Aramaic translations (i.e. the Targum) and the Greek translations (i.e. the Septuagint). As far as the Book of Jonah is concerned, Targum Jonah offers a good example of this.

Targum Jonah

In Jonah 1:6, the Masoretic Text (MT) reads, "...perhaps God will pay heed to us...." Targum Jonah translates this passage as: "...perhaps there will be mercy from the Lord upon us...." The captain's proposal is no longer an attempt to change the divine will; it is an attempt to appeal to divine mercy. Furthermore, in Jonah 3:9, the MT reads, "Who knows, God may turn and relent [lit. repent]?" Targum Jonah translates this as, "Whoever knows that there are sins on his conscience let him repent of them and we will be pitied before the Lord." God does not change His mind; He shows pity.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragments of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), most of which followed the Masoretic Text closely and with Mur XII reproducing a large portion of the text [3]. As for the non-canonical writings, the majority of references to biblical texts were made by argumentum ad verecundiam. The Book of Jonah appears to have served less purpose in the Qumran community than other texts, as the writings make no references to it [4].

Early Christian interpretation

New Testament

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 12:38-42 and 16:1-4) and the Gospel of Luke (see Luke 11:29-32). Both Matthew and Luke record a tradition of Jesus’ interpretation of the story of Jonah (notably, Matthew includes two very similar traditions in chapters 12 and 16). As with most Old Testament interpretations found in the New Testament, Jesus’ interpretation is primarily “typological” (see Typology (theology)). Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus. Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the ground. Here, Jesus plays on the imagery of Sheol found in Jonah’s prayer. While Jonah metaphorically declared, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” Jesus will literally be in the belly of Sheol. And Finally, Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh. Jesus fulfills his role as a type of Jonah, however his generation fails to fulfill its role as a type of Nineveh. Nineveh repented but his generation, which has seen and heard one even greater than Jonah, fails to repent. Through his typological interpretation of the story of Jonah, Jesus has weighed his generation and found it wanting.

Augustine of Hippo

Contrary to popular belief, the debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah is not a modern one. Without a doubt, naturalism and the philosophy of David Hume have impacted modern interpretations of the miraculous story; yet the credibility of a human being surviving in the belly of a great fish has long been questioned. In c. 409 CE, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:

The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not

from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: “In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?” Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.

(Letter CII, Section 30)

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, despite his apologetic, Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for Christ. For example, he writes: "As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world." Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matt. 12:39,40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.

Islamic interpretation

In the Qur'an, Jonah is called Yunus (see also Biblical narratives and the Qur'an).

Modern interpretation

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol (Hebrew: דג גדול), which translated literally means "great fish." The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as ketos megas (Hebrew: κητος μεγας). The term ketos alone means "huge fish," and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters[5]. Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda in his Latin Vulgate. However, he translated ketos as cetus in Matthew 12:40.

At some point, cetus became synonymous with whale (c.f. cetyl alcohol, which is alcohol derived from whales). 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, of course, later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611. Since, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale.

The throats of many large whales (as well as that of a large whale shark specimen, which could be found in the Mediterranean) can accommodate passage of an adult human. There are some 19th century accounts of whalers being swallowed by sperm whales and living to tell about it, but these stories remain unverified.

In the line 3:1, the book refers to the fish as Dag Gadol, meaning "great fish", in the masculine. However, in the 3:2, it says "ha'daga" meaning female fish (the ha at the beginning means the). Given the rest of these selected verses "And the lord provided a great fish (dag gadol) for Jonah, and it swallowed him, and Jonah sat in the belly of the fish (still male) for three days and nights.) Then, from the belly of the (female) fish, Jonah began to pray." It has been interpreted that this means Jonah was comfortable in the roomy male fish, so he didn't pray. However, then, God transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which Jonah was uncomfortable, so he prayed.

Historical and literary criticism

Some biblical scholars believe Jonah's prayer (Jonah  2:2-9) to be a later addition to the story (see source criticism for more information on how such conclusions are drawn). Despite questions of its source, the prayer carries out an important function in the narrative as a whole.

The prayer is a psalm of thanksgiving. The presence of the prayer serves to interpret the swallowing of the fish to be God's salvation. God has lifted Jonah out of Sheol and set him on the path to carry out His will. The story of descent (from Israel, to Tarshish, to the sea, to under the sea) becomes the story of ascent (from the belly of the fish, to land, to the city of Nineveh).

Thus, the use of a psalm creates an important theological point. In the popular understanding of Jonah, the fish is interpreted to be the low point of the story. Yet even the fish is an instrument of God's sovereignty and salvation.

Popular Culture

  • Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie by Big Idea Productions, 2002


  1. II Kings 14:25
  2. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Peabody, Mass: Prince Press, 2004), 131
  3. David L. Washburn, A Catalog of Biblical Passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill, 2003), 146.
  4. James C. Vanderkam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1994), 151
  5. See for more information regarding Greek mythology and the Ketos