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Jonah ( , "dove"; , Yunus or يونان, Yunaan; ) is the name given in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/Old Testament) to a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC, the central character in the Book of Jonah famous for being swallowed by a fish. The Biblical story of Jonah is repeated in the Qur'an.

The story of Jonah

Jonah son of Amittai appears in 2 Kings as a prophet from Gath-Hepher (a few miles north of Nazarethmarker) active during the reign of Jeroboam II (c.786-746 BC), where he predicts that Jeroboam will recover certain lost territories.

Jonah is also the central character in the Book of Jonah. Ordered by God to go to the city of Ninevehmarker to prophesy against it "for their great wickedness is come up before me" Jonah seeks instead to flee from "the presence of the Lord" by going to Jaffamarker 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 specially prepared by God where he spent three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). In chapter two, while in the great fish, Jonah prays to God in his affliction and commits to thanksgiving and to paying what he has vowed. God commands the fish to vomit Jonah out.

God again orders Jonah to visit Ninevehmarker and to prophecy to its inhabitants. This time he goes and enters the city crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown." The people of Nineveh believe his word and proclaim a fast. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, making a proclamation to decree fasting, sackcloth, prayer, and repentance. God sees their works and spares the city at that time .

Displeased by this, Jonah refers to his earlier flight to Tarshish while asserting that, since God is merciful, it was inevitable that God would turn from the threatened calamities. 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, God causes a worm to bite 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.
young ricinus plant
But God says to him,

Jonah in Christianity

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

Jesus made reference to Jonah when he was asked for a miraculous sign by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Jonah's restoration after three days inside the great fish prefigured the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after three days.

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.

The apocryphal Lives of the Prophets, which may be Jewish or Christian in origin, offers further biographical details about Jonah.

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 "Sura Yunus|سورة يونس" 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 prayed, (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?

According historical narrations about Muhammad's life, after 10 years 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)

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet said, "One should not say that I am better than Jonah (i.e. Yunus) bin Matta." So, he mentioned his father Matta (Volume 4, Book 55, Number 608:Sahih Bukhari)

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.

Teshuva - the ability to repent and be forgiven by God - is a prominent idea in Jewish thought. This concept is developed in 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 who 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

The Bahá'í Faith views Jonah as a prophet.

Jonah in sailors' superstition

A long-established expression among sailors uses the term "a Jonah" as meaning a person (either a sailor or a passenger) whose presence on board brings bad luck and endangers the ship. This presumably arose from Christian sailors taking the Biblical story at face value. Later on, this meaning was extended to "a Jonah" referring to "a person who carries a jinx, one who will bring bad luck to any enterprise" An example of a so-called "Jonah", would be that of the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who was supposedly cursed to be lost at sea after he killed an albatross.

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 but probably dating from the 5th or 4th century BC. 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 Ninevehmarker, 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 these general categories:
  1. A big fish or whale (of unspecified species) did indeed swallow 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.
  4. The originators of the story did indeed intend for the story to be taken literally, and it was subsequently believed to be literally true by the pre-scientific culture in which the story originated and flourished.


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.. Which is why most would argue that the fish may be the Basking Shark.

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), the original Hebrew text reads dag gadol (דג גדול), which literally means "big 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. 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". Which states "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the 'whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." 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.

Suggested literal interpretations

While many modern Christians and Jews are content to view the story of Jonah as a spiritual metaphor, for those who believe that the Bible is literally true (or based on similar true events) the story presents several challenges. There is no currently existing sea creature that could swallow a grown man whole, or keep him alive in its stomach for any length of time. Some believers claim that God, being omnipotent, simply created a unique creature when needed. Others have attempted more elaborate explanations.

Some have speculated that chapter 2 of Jonah was about Jonah's experience inside the stomach after being swallowed. Specifically that the seaweed mentioned in 2:5 was a protective seaweed. However, Chapter 2,of the Book of Jonah is not an account of what happened inside the belly of said speculated creature, but rather Jonah thanking God while in the stomach for saving him. Jonah 2 is Jonah speaking to God about his condition before he was technically saved from drowning by the whale. The seaweed mentioned in Jonah 2:5 was not a "protective" seaweed, but rather a trapping seaweed. Jonah, after being tossed overboard, found himself drowning and becoming tangled in the seaweed.
Jonah Mosaic at St. Anne Melkite Greek Catholic Church, North Hollywood.

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 Historymarker and the New York Aquariummarker. 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."

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 Mashhadmarker, 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 Ashdodmarker 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 Jaffamarker 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 BC.

  • Another sanctuary and mosque called Nebi Yunes, is in the Palestinian West Bank town of Halhulmarker, a few kilometers north of Hebronmarker. 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 Mosulmarker (today in Iraqmarker), near the ancient remnants of Ninveh. Mosque of the Prophet Yunus or Younis (Jonah) - On one of the two most prominent mounds of Nineveh ruins, rises the Mosque (an Nestorian-Assyrian Church before) of Prophet Younis "Biblical Jonah". Jonah the son of Amittai, from the 8th century BC, is believed to be buried here, where King Esarhaddon had once built a palace. It is one of the most important mosques in Mosul and one of the few historic mosques that are found on the east side of the city.

  • There is a sanctuary of Jonah's grave, near the city of Sarafand in Lebanonmarker. 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.

Connections to other legends

Joseph Campbell attempted to draw parallels between the story of Jonah and the epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh obtains a plant from the bottom of the sea. In the Book of Jonah a worm (in Hebrew tola'ath, "maggot") bites the shade-giving plant's root causing it to wither, while in the epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh plucks his plant from the floor of the sea which he reached by tying stones to his feet. Once he makes it back to the shore, the rejuvenating plant is eaten by a serpent.

Campbell also noted several similarities between the story of Jonah and that of Jason in Greek mythology. The Greek rendering of the name Jonah was Jonas, which differs from Jason only in the order of sounds —both os are omegas suggesting that Jason was confused with Jonah. 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 — 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). Hamel takes the view that it was the Hebrew author who was reacting to and adapting this mythological material to communicate his own, quite different message. The Greek sources are however several centuries later than the Book of Jonah and the form Jonas which is similar to Jason is from the Septuagint translation of the book.

Scholars have long speculated that Jonah may have been in part the inspiration behind the figure of Oannes in late Babylonian mythology. . This figure first occurs in texts from the Library of Ashurbanipal (more than a century after the time of Jonah) under the name Uanna or Uan where he is assimilated to Adapa. . The Assyrian texts attempt to connect the word to the Akkadian for a craftsman ummanu but this is a merely a pun . Berossus describes Oannes as having the body of a fish but underneath the figure of a man, a detail not derived from Adapa but argueably based on a misinterpretation of images of Jonah emerging from the fish. He is described as dwelling in the Persian Gulfmarker, and rising out of the waters in the daytime and furnishing mankind instruction in writing, the arts and the various sciences. Worship of Oannes has in turn been speculated to be the origin of the cult of the Roman god Janus .

See also


  1. Babelonian Talmud:Sanhedrin 61a
  2. Another translation could be: "...and who regrets the bad".
  3. "Kikayon" - The small Castor tree - is a synonym in Hebrew to "ephemeral"
  4. H.M. Balyuzi, Baha'u'llah - The King of Glory, p. 182
  5. Mercer Bible Dictionary, "Book of Jonah"
  6. Theological Topic Search
  7. Theoi Project "Ketea" entry
  8. Hill, Andrew and Walton, John H.-Survey of the Old Testament Pg. 495-501
  9. Lydekker's New Natural History, Vol, III, p. 6
  10. The Scientific Monthly, March, 1940, p. 227
  11. "Essays of an Atheist," Woolsey Teller. Copyright 1945, The Truth Seeker Company, Inc., found online here.
  12. A second look at the land of Israel by Prof. B.Z. Kedar
  13. "Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean context," Judaism Summer, 1995; reproduced online here.
  14. H. Clay Trumbull, Journal of Biblical literature, Volumes 11-12, Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis (U.S.), 1892
  15. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford World's Classics, 1989
  16. K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst: Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible Edition 2, revised, B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999
  17. Royal Numismatic Society, Proceedings of the Numismatic Society, James Fraser, 1837

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