Most people think of Jonah and the whale as a child’s Bible story, but besides being swallowed and spit-up by a whale, there are very adult messages embedded within the narrative. It is a phenomenal tale that also includes a great storm, a prolific plant, an attacking worm, and a blistering sultry wind, all to beseech Jonah into the right action and accept the right attitude. The story proves God loves all people, including non-Jews and even his enemies.1
Every time I think of the story of Jonah and the whale, I think of a Gospel song sung by Buddy Greene2 which, pretty much, sums up the story outline (see note in references for video). Selected lyrics say:
God sent Jonah to the Ninevah land,
To preach the gospel to the wicked men,
Tell them to repent of their wicked ways,
Or I’ll overthrow the city in forty days.
Jonah went down to the seashore,
To make up his mind which way to go,
He boarded the ship and paid his fare,
And God got angry with Jonah down there.
They cast poor Jonah overboard,
God sent a whale and swallowed him whole,
Went on down to the Ninevah land,
And laid poor Jonah on a bed of sand.
Jonah rose up from the sand,
Went on walking to the Ninevah land,
He preached the gospel at His command,
Repent, repent you wicked men.
The whole story should be read in the book of Jonah, which will only take a few minutes, for it is only four chapters long. It is a very dramatic story and you will enjoy it, but the following is a brief account, along with some additional insight.
The Book of Jonah
Although written in the third person, most scholars believe the book of Jonah was actually written by Jonah, himself. It took place during the reign of Jeroboam, so that puts the date between 793–753 BC. The ancient city of Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River (near Mosul, in modern-day Iraq) and was protected by inner and outer walls, like Babylon. Being about three miles (5 km) in diameter, Nineveh was a colossal size in the ancient Near East.3 It was built by Nimrod, circa 3000 BC.
The story starts off with God’s call to Jonah, which is expressed in the standard Old Testament (O.T.) way by the phrase “the word of the LORD came to” Jonah. This phrase occurs at least 390 times in the O.T. to indicate a divine communication.4 God’s message was “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)5 Nineveh was denounced in similar terms, like other divine statements (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah), because of human self-exaltation and anti-God attitudes.6
If I got a direct message from God, I would like to think I’d get right down to business, but this guy, Jonah, the first thing he does is go to Joppa and buys passage on a ship going in the opposite direction. To avoid his divine assignment, Jonah wanted to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. Nineveh was about 500 miles (805 km) to the east, so he headed the other way toward Tarshish, probably what is now Spain, the farthest western location he knew, at a distance of about 2000 miles (3219 km).7
Jonah was an educated man, as one can tell by reading this book, so why would he purposely disobey God? He understood that Nineveh was evil, but he figured that was their fault, not his, and they deserved what consequences that brought. He didn’t want to be bothered and was a lot like many people today, he had a “why me” attitude. God gets a bit ticked-off, for a mighty windstorm came upon the sea that threatened to break up the ship. The mariners freak-out and prayed to their gods and begin throwing stuff overboard to lighten the load, but what does Jonah do — he calmly goes below deck and takes a nap. The captain goes down to Jonah and says, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” (Jonah 1:6) Jonah is not willing to do this, so the sailors decide to cast lots to find out which person on board is responsible for this calamity.
Casting lots was a method used, at that time, to determine an outcome or make a decision. The lot was a collection of small stones or sticks that were marked with symbols and were read after being thrown. This method produced an impartial and unbiased decision, thereby eliminating human influences, like politics or favoritism. Although used by ancient Hebrews for letting God make the decision, it was also used by believers of other religions to let their own gods decide an outcome. A modern analogy would be flipping a coin or throwing dice to make a decision.
So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. (Jonah, 1:7–10)
At this point, Jonah would rather die than do what was commanded by God, so he suggests that they throw him overboard to save themselves. After the storm becomes more violent and after continued praying by the sailors, they did so and as soon as Jonah hit the water, the sea ceased its fury. For one thing, this event converted the mariners, for they were now giving thanks to the Hebrew’s God, instead of their own, for ending their terrible situation. As for Jonah, he was swallowed alive by — what?
Was it a Whale, a Fish, or Something Else?
Nowhere in the O.T. book of Jonah does it state that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but different versions do give different descriptions: sea monster, big fish, great fish, huge fish, etc. The only places I could find “whale” was in a statement given by Jesus in the New Testament book of Matthew and only in the King James and the Revised Standard versions. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly . . . ” (Matthew 12:40, KJV 1900 edition) — “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale . . . ” (Matthew 12:40, RSV)
Our modern taxonomical system places whales among the mammals, but in the Bible, almost all living things swimming in the seas are placed in the category of fishes. “There are several species of whales and of sharks alive today with gullets large enough to swallow a man whole. Among extinct animals like the plesiosaur, the same could be said, and perhaps this was a heretofore unknown fish of large size. The point is, the story is not impossible. However, most importantly, the Bible says that ‘the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah’ (Jonah 1:17). Clearly this event was miraculous and not a naturalistic phenomenon. Furthermore, there have been several reported cases of modern sailors or other individuals swallowed by such an animal, only to be recovered many hours later.”8
Jonah is swallowed by the fish that becomes his home for three days and nights and chapter 2 is all about his petition to God while inside the beast. Jonah realizes that he has been disobedient and God is disciplining him. Toward the end of his psalm, Jonah resolves to offer sacrifices and praises to God, and admits that salvation only comes from God.9 At this point, “the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10)
What Happens in Nineveh?
For the second time, God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and proclaim his message, which the people accepted. Perhaps, the amazing report of Jonah on the boat and being spit out by the fish preceded his arrival at Nineveh, so they knew he was on a mission from God. Anyway, “he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:5–6)
Now sackcloth was a material made from goat hair and usually worn over the shoulders or as a loincloth. It was used variably as a symbol of mourning, danger, grief, or distress.10 When the King also sat in ashes, he showed humiliation and repentance. He probably cast them in the air “toward heaven” and let them fall on his person. In extreme cases, the person sat upon a heap of the ashes,11 which he did. And prayed they did, all of them, as well as fast — the citizens and the animals.
When God saw that everyone turned away from their wicked ways, he changed his mind about bringing a calamity upon them. Now Jonah should have been happy about this; after all, his part in this drama helped save a whole city of people and their animals. But he was extremely arrogant and became angry, thinking that all he had done was for nothing, because God would release them from danger or blame or obligation. Not fair, he figured. “Jonah blatantly rejected and repudiated the goodness of God to the Ninevites.” With that attitude, he symbolized the nation of Israel, with their self-interests and lack of concern for God’s compassion and remission of sin.12
Sulking, Jonah stormed out of the city and sat down waiting to see what would happen. The sun was blazing and Jonah was uncomfortable, so God caused a plant to grow and give shade and save him from discomfort. That made Jonah very happy; he probably believed he deserved some comfort, for all that he had to endure. But at the next dawn, God caused a worm to attack the plant so that it withered. According to a Bible commentary, this plant may have been a castor-bean plant, which grows rapidly in hot climates, has large leaves, and easily withers if its stalk is injured.13
The hot rising sun, along with a sultry wind, bore down on Jonah so much he felt faint. Now he was angry again. First he was discomforted by being thrown overboard into the sea, then again with walking through Nineveh shouting a warning, and again with the city’s repentance, and now by the loss of the shade from the plant. So demoralized and depressed was he that he wanted to die.14 I’m sure that he figured he was being discomforted in all kinds of ways for someone else’s problems; why must he suffer while the evil doers were not disciplined?
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:9–11)
The book of Jonah ends abruptly with only a question from God. If Jonah answered this question, we will never know. Maybe it is just rhetorical and that is the point, for it gives us something to think about. Did Jonah finally learn a lasting lesson? I don’t know, but if he didn’t, at least we can learn from his failings. A call from God can come in many forms and variations, but if he calls, it is important to answer. If we don’t answer the call, we may not be jeopardizing just our own circumstances, but those of others as well. And if we disobey God’s call, well . . . we will likely pay a price.
Copyright © 2018, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), p. 370.
- Greene, Buddy, “Jonah and the Whale [Live],” song from album Church In The Wildwood, (GaitherVEVO, [music video by Bill & Gloria Gaither], © Spring House Music Group, 20 September 2012) – VIDEO, https://youtu.be/_5uwJbwQ4GI
- Elwell, Walter A., (ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 1, p. 1463.
- Schrader, Stephen R., “Jonah,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 645.
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- (See reference #4 above.)
- Dockery, David S., ed., Holman Bible Handbook, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), pp. 478–480.
- Morris, John D., “Did Jonah Really Get Swallowed by a Whale?” (Institute for Creation Research, 1 December 1993), http://www.icr.org/article/did-jonah-really-get-swallowed-by-whale/
- Schrader, Stephen R., “Jonah,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), p. 647.
- Elwell, Walter A., (ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 2, p. 1880.
- Hastings, James, (ed.), A Dictionary of the Bible, Dealing With Its Language, Literature, and Contents, (Edinburgh: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1911-1912), vol. 1, p. 165.
- Hannah, John D., “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. Walvoord and Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 1, p. 1470.
- Ibid., p. 1471.