JONAH, in the Bible, a prophet born at Gath-hepher in Zebulun, perhaps under Jeroboam (2) (781–741 B.C.?), who foretold the deliverance of Israel from the Aramaeans (2 Kings xiv. 25). This prophet may also be the hero of the much later book of Jonah, but how different a man is he! It is, however, the later Jonah who chiefly interests us. New problems have arisen out of the book which relates to him, but here we can only attempt to consider what, in a certain sense, may be called the surface meaning of the text.
This, then is what we appear to be told. The prophet Jonah is summoned to go to Nineveh, a great and wicked city (cf. 4 Esdras ii. 8, 9), and prophesy against it. Jonah, however, is afraid (iv. 2) that the Ninevites may repent, so, instead of going to Nineveh, he proceeds to Joppa, and takes his passage in a ship bound for Tarshish. But soon a storm arises, and, supplication to the gods failing, the sailors cast lots to discover the guilty man who has brought this great trouble. The lot falls on Jonah, who has been roughly awakened by the captain, and when questioned frankly owns that he is a Hebrew and a worshipper of the divine creator Yahweh, from whom he has sought to flee (as if He were only the god of Canaan). Jonah advises the sailors to throw him into the sea. This, after praying to Yahweh, they actually do; at once the sea becomes calm and they sacrifice to Yahweh. Meantime God has “appointed a great fish” which swallows up Jonah. Three days and three nights he is in the fish’s belly, till, at a word from Yahweh, it vomits Jonah on to the dry ground. Again Jonah receives the divine call. This time he obeys. After delivering his message to Nineveh he makes himself a booth outside the walls and waits in vain for the destruction of the city (probably iv. 5 is misplaced and should stand after iii. 4). Thereupon Jonah beseeches Yahweh to take away his worthless life. As an answer Yahweh “appoints” a small quickly-growing tree with large leaves (the castor-oil plant) to come up over the angry prophet and shelter him from the sun. But the next day the beneficent tree perishes by God’s “appointment” from a worm-bite. Once more God “appoints” something; it is the east wind, which, together with the fierce heat, brings Jonah again to desperation. The close is fine, and reminds us of Job. God himself gives short-sighted man a lesson. Jonah has pitied the tree, and should not God have pity on so great a city?
Two results of criticism are widely accepted. One relates to the psalm in ch. ii., which has been transferred from some other place; it is in fact an anticipatory thanksgiving for the deliverance of Israel, mostly composed of phrases from other psalms. The other is that the narrative before us is not historical but an imaginative story (such as was called a Midrash) based upon Biblical data and tending to edification. It is, however, a story of high type. The narrator considered that Israel had to be a prophet to the “nations” at large, that Israel had, like Jonah, neglected its duty and for its punishment was “swallowed up” in foreign lands. God had watched over His people and prepared its choicer members to fulfil His purpose. This company of faithful but not always sufficiently charitable men represented their people, so that it might be said that Israel itself (the second Isaiah’s “Servant of Yahweh”—see Isaiah) had taken up its duty, but in an ungenial spirit which grieved the All-merciful One. The book, which is post-exilic, may therefore be grouped with another Midrash, the Book of Ruth, which also appears to represent a current of thought opposed to the exclusive spirit of Jewish legalism.
Some critics, however, think that the key of symbolism needs to be supplemented by that of mythology. The “great fish” especially has a very mythological appearance. The Babylonian dragon myth (see Cosmogony) is often alluded to in the Old Testament, e.g. in Jer. li. 44, which, as the present writer long since pointed out, may supply the missing link between Jonah i. 17 and the original myth. For the “great fish” is ultimately Tiāmat, the dragon of chaos, represented historically by Nebuchadrezzar, by whom for a time God permitted or “appointed” Israel to be swallowed up.
For further details see T. K. Cheyne, Ency. Bib., “Jonah”; and his article “Jonah, a Study in Jewish Folklore and Religion,” Theological Review (1877), pp. 211–219. König, Hastings’s Dict. Bible, “Jonah,” is full but not lucid; C. H. H. Wright, Biblical Studies (1886) argues ably for the symbolic theory. Against Cheyne, see Marti’s work on the Minor Prophets (1894); the “great fish” and the “three days and three nights” remain unexplained by this writer. On these points see Zimmern, K.A.T. (3), pp. 366, 389, 508. The difficulties of the mission of a Hebrew prophet to Asshur are diminished by Cheyne’s later theory, Critica Biblica (1904), pp. 150–152. (T. K. C.)