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Jonah 1


Detail of the Jonah Sarcophagus. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz. Photo Marco Prins. The Biblical book of Jonah tells the charming, all too human story about a prophet who reluctantly does his job. The novellette consists of three parts:
  • Jonah's refusal to perform his task; his attempt to escape by sea; the storm; his stay in the belly of a big fish (note the use of the verb "to go down"); his conversion
  • Jonah's teachings
  • Jonah's conversation with God, ending with rhetorical questions to which the prophet has no answer
Jonah is a little known prophet, mentioned only in 2 Kings 14.25. In the period after the return from the Babylonian Captivity, these people, about whom the Jews knew so frustratingly little, became the subjects of legends carrying a moral or other kinds of literature (Enoch is another example). The moralistic tales were later called midrash.

The story, probably written in the fourth or third century (in any case before 190 BCE; Sirach 49.10), is full of irony. The pagans are more pious than the prophet, who is the one who in fact has to
learn something about compassion and the comprehensiveness of God's love. The moral is, in fact, that God is not just the God of the Jews, but of all nations. Similar ideas can be found in the third part of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Malachi, which were all composed after the return from Babylonia.

Jonah has always been a popular story; early Christians regarded Jonah's stay in the belly of the big fish as a prefiguration of Christ's death, and the story also found its way into the Quran.


The translation offered here is the Revised Standard Version. The pictures are from a Christian sarcophagus.
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Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Detail of the Jonah Sarcophagus. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz. Photo Marco Prins.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me."

But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish."

And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us."

So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then they said to him, "Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?"

And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Then the men were exceedingly 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. Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?"

For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, "Take me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you."

Detail of the Jonah Sarcophagus. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz. Photo Marco Prins.

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried to the Lord, "We beseech thee, O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee."

So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

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Page by Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 12 January 2007
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