Jonas the ‘Reluctant Prophet’

An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet (Matthew 12:39).

Let us see how Our Lord uses the story of Jonas to refute some of the scribes and Pharisees who desire to contradict Him: “Master we would see a sign from thee. Who answering said to them: An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas. And behold a greater than Jonas here” (Matthew 12: 38-41; I am keeping the spelling Ninive as it is in the Douay text, otherwise I use the more common Niniveh).

Hear Saint Jerome:

But to grasp the complete meaning of the prophet in this short preface there is no better interpretation than that which inspired the prophets and which marked out the lines of the truth of the future for its servants. He [Christ] therefore speaks to the Jews who do not believe his words and are ignorant of Christ, the son of God: “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the time of judgement with that generation and they will condemn it, for they repented as Jonah required, and here there is more than Jonah! The generation of the Jews is condemned, while the world has faith and Nineveh repents, Israel the disbeliever dies. The Jews have the books themselves, we have the Lord of books; they hold the prophets, we have an understanding of the prophets; “the letter kills them”, “the spirit makes us live”; with them Barabbas the robber is released, for us Christ the Son of God is freed. (Commentary on Jonas)

Mark how Our Lord contrasts the Ninevites with the Jews. “And behold a greater than Jonas here.” Jonas was a figure of the resurrection, a “sign,” that Our Savior employed in foretelling His own resurrection. He had so done, implicitly, on another occasion when he related the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man, remember, was buried in hell, and looking up he saw poor Lazarus in joy resting in the “bosom of Abraham.” And the rich man pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brother lest they, not doing penance, should come to this place of torment. “[I]f one went to them from the dead,” he said, “they will do penance. And [Abraham] said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead.” (Luke 16: 30-31).

Alas, the Jews had Moses and the prophets, and they did not believe when their Messiah rose from the dead. Even before Jesus rose from the dead, when He raised the other Lazarus, his friend, from the dead, the chief priests sought to kill Him and send Lazarus, too, a second time to the grave. So they bribed the guards who witnessed the resurrection at the tomb to lie and say that His disciples came and stole away the body.

To conclude: If, as certain modern biblical exegetes proffer, Jonas was not really upchucked from the belly of whale after three days in what he called “the belly of hell,” then it makes no sense for Our Lord to have used Jonas as a type of His own real resurrection from the “heart of the earth.”

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Jonas, “the Reluctant Prophet.” lived in the eighth century BC, a contemporary of Isaias, Osee, and Amos. His name, Yanah in Hebrew, comes to us into English as John. He is one of the twelve Minor Prophets who have Books in the Old Testament.

The Book of Jonas has only four chapters. It provides very little historical information as to locations (other than Nineveh of Assyria [Persia], Tharsis, most likely of Cilicia [Asia Minor] where Saint Paul hailed from, and Joppe [northern Israel]) and persons. From the Fourth Book of Kings (14:25) we have his birthplace, Geth, which is in Opher, and that is taken to be in the land of Zabulon, northern Israel, not far from Nazareth. His tomb is claimed both by the Iraqis and the Lebanese, the former shrine being recently destroyed by ISIS.

The tomb of Jonas in Lebanon is in the town of Sarepta. It was here, in the vicinity of Sidon, where Elias, sent by God, performed the miracle of the replenishing pot of meal and cruse oil for the starving widow and her dying son (3 Kings, c. 17). When Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this miracle (and the healing of Naaman the Syrian) performed for gentiles by Elias, they were livid with rage.

Saint Jerome offers as a credible tradition that Jonas was the son of this starving widow of Sarephta. He says that, besides “dove,” the name Jonas means “mourning” or “complaining” which, indeed, the widow was doing when Elias came to her. The widow’s deceased husband’s name was Amathi, as given by Jonas in the first verse of his Book. Amathi was himself a Jew although his wife, if Saint Jerome is correct, was a gentile.

Now the Book of Jonas enters immediately into its story. There is no preparation, no setting of the stage. “Arise,” the Lord commands the prophet, “and go to Ninive the great city, and preach in it: for the wickedness thereof is come up before me” (1:2).

Nineveh was indeed a great city. It had one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants and its size, fifty miles around, would take a man three days to walk the length and width thereof. It was, at that time, bigger than Babylon.

What was the “wickedness” of Nineveh? The Bible does not tell us. Most likely it was gross idolatry and the ensuing immorality that goes with idol worship. On the other hand, however, since, at the preaching of Jonas, Nineveh did do penance under and with the city’s king, it may be that the “wickedness” was more that of sins of the flesh and cruelty. Jonas did not have to say much at all, only “Yet forty days, and Ninive shall be destroyed” (Jonas 3:4) and the whole city repented.

There is only one miracle that the people of Nineveh may have witnessed in regard to Jonas. And of this we can only conjecture. For Jesus, in referencing the conversion of the Ninevites, said only that they were moved by “the preaching of Jonas.” The miracle? Or, the “sign,” as Our Lord indicated it? “The Sign of Jonas?” The “sign” was Jonas being belched forth on some Mediterranean beach from the belly of a whale. He was raised not from the dead, but from certain death. If, upon Jonas’ arrival, no one of the Ninevites saw his expulsion from the whale of the day before with their own eyes, they may well have heard about it. It would seem that there were some who saw it, for Jonas was taken to be a man of God by the Ninivites and that, no doubt, proceeded from some manifestation of divine power. Either that, or perhaps, like Moses, the face of Jonas did shine in a preternatural manner.

Let’s return to the initial calling of Jonas. I have dubbed him “the Reluctant Prophet,” for he most certainly was reluctant. He was not a disciple of Elias or Eliseus, or Isaias. He is given one mission. That’s it. A mission he does not want. Jonas, a pious Jew, had no use for the Assyrians of Nineveh. They were enemies of the Israelites. He would rather see them destroyed than converted. Little more than a century after Jonas, Nineveh was in fact destroyed (621 BC) by the Babylonians, from another province of Assyria.. Afterwards, the King of Babylon, Nabuchodonosor, would conquer Jerusalem and take the kingdom of Juda into captivity to Babylon for seventy years.

God calls whom He wills. What does Jonas do? He takes off. He tries to hide from God in a Phoenician ship, a pagan’s ship, sailing for Tharsis. A terrible storm breaks out on the sea and Jonas hides away in the belly of the ship hoping to sleep it off and the danger will go away. It does not go away. The pagan merchantmen wake him up asking him if the storm came from his God and if his flight upon their ship (for he had told them he was fleeing from God) was the cause of their present danger. Jonas replies in the affirmative and asks them to cast him into the sea, the request of which they readily honor, and the storm ceases. This ends chapter one.

Now, with chapter two, the fun begins. God sends a “great fish” that swallows the prophet. The Douay English Bible has Our Lord calling the fish a “whale” in Matthew’s Gospel. The Greek word kaetos can mean “sea monster, great fish, or whale.” In the belly of the whale, which Jonas calls “the belly of hell,” he sings a prayer. This hymn takes up all of chapter two. Jonas didn’t take notes while wallowing in the stomach of the beast [no pen and paper at hand, nor a lamplight]; he just leaves the details to our imagination. And who has not imagined this scene? God is so awesome! The chapter ends: “And the Lord spoke to the fish: and it vomited out Jonas upon the dry land” (vs 11).

I won’t waste your time providing references that mock the whale story as myth, “a whale of a tale,” or just plain reject it as a Hebrew allegory — as do the modern biblical “form critics.” And, I might add, these “form critics” are not limited to modernist scholars. Even more traditional Catholic commentaries can be found which relegate the story of Jonas and the whale to pious legend: “It may be considered an historical narrative or a fictional story, we are informed by Catholic News Agency here. This in spite of the fact that Jesus Himself refers to the account as historical fact in that it was a figure of His own resurrection. Would Our Lord have used a fictional tale to complement as a figure of His own resurrection? Certainly not! More on this at the end of this article.

As an aside, I am always amazed that any scholar who touts himself as Catholic can question the reality of the prodigies performed by God through His agents in the Old Testament. I mean, where do you begin? One may as well toss out the five books of Moses and the books of many prophets where miraculous events took place. Did you know, for example, that it was a hot wind that dried up the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on foot? Or was it an asteroid sweeping by? (Actually, there are articles that claim chariot wheels have been discovered by divers under the Red Sea. Such as this one.) The faithful, however, do not depend on science to verify what God has revealed in the Bible. Imagine trying to explain scientifically how Joshua had the sun stand still for a whole day while battling the Amorrhites, or how Isaias’ prayers moved God to give the sign of a retreating shadow on a sun dial to good King Ezechias, thus assuring the king by this miracle that his imminent death would be delayed for fifteen years! Standing still, falling back ten degrees on the dial, or plummeting to the earth at Fatima, God can do as He wills with the sun or anything else He has created.

Needless to say, there is not one father or doctor of the Church who does not take the account of Jonas as historical fact.

Back to Jonas. This time our prophet did what he was told. He went to Nineveh and preached penance: “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineve shall be overthrown” (Chapter 3:4). And the Ninevites, their king and the people, believed and did penance. And the king issued a decree: “[S]aying: Let neither men nor beasts, oxen nor sheep, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water. And let men and beasts be covered with sackcloth, and cry to the Lord with all their strength, and let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the iniquity that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn, and forgive: and will turn away from his fierce anger, and we shall not perish?” (Jonah 3:7-9)

The fasting was more important than the sackcloth, yet the latter was a visible sign of their repentance. The name of the king is not given. Truly, we must admire his character, for, upon hearing the word of Jonas, he arose from his throne and donned himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes. A fast was proclaimed. Even the the animals were not fed and they, too, were covered in sackcloth.The Ninevites were given forty days to convert and forty is the number for days of penance: Moses fasted forty days on Mount Sinai, Elias fasted forty days, and Our Savior fasted forty days in the desert. Behold, however, it did not take the Ninevites forty days to turn to God; it appears they did so immediately upon the preaching of Jonas.

“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (vs. 10).

Now the rest of the Book, chapter four, is an enigma to me. I must rely totally on the commentary of Saint Jerome, and even then I am befuddled. But first:

What is clear from the conversion of the Ninevites is that Jonas is grieved over it. He complains to God, noting that he was reluctant to fulfill his assignment and preach to the Ninevites because he knew that the nature of God was to be merciful and forgiving. “And Jonas was exceedingly troubled, and was angry: And he prayed to the Lord, and said: I beseech thee, O Lord, is not this what I said, when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I went before to flee into Tharsis: for I know that thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient, and of much compassion, and easy to forgive evil. And now, O Lord, I beseech thee take my life from me: for it is better for me to die than to live” (chapter 4:1-3).

What is this? Is the prophet sulking? No, not exactly. He is afraid that his own people will dismiss his warnings against the Assyrians which he made public to them by God’s command while he was in Israel. It is as if he was saying to God: “I knew you would do this.” And “that’s why I fled to Tharsis” because I did not want to be a prophet who promised punishments on Israel’s enemy only to be countermanded by the mercy of God.

Nevertheless, God is patient and gracious to his reluctant servant: And that, despite Jonas having had himself cast into the sea and now asking God to take away his life. “And the Lord said: “Dost thou think thou hast reason to be angry?” (vs. 4).

I turn now to Saint Jerome without much further commentary of my own on this Book, for I do not understand the whole account very well, nor the final verses at all, regarding the little miracle of the ivy. Here is Jerome:

What I have interpreted as ‘I pray [beseech] you’ and which the Septuagint has translated as ‘O indeed’ is read as anna in Hebrew, which seems to me to express the prayer with a kind of coaxing. For when he had said quite justly that he wanted to flee his prayer accuses the Lord of injustice in a certain manner, and he tempers his complaints by a suppliant and rhetorical speech. Was this not what I said when I was in my country? I knew that you would do this. I am not unaware that you are merciful: this is why I refused to denounce you as harsh and cruel. Therefore I wanted to flee to Tarshish, to be free to think, and I preferred the quiet and rest on the sea of this age. I abandoned my home and left my inheritance, I left your lap and came here. If I had said that you are merciful, gentle, that you pardon wickedness, no one would have repented. If I had denounced you as a cruel God only fit to judge, I should have known that such is not your nature. In this dilemma I preferred to flee, rather than to deceive the repenters with mildness, or to preach things about you that you are not. ‘Therefore Lord take my spirit for death is better for me than life. Take my spirit which has been sad even until death. Take my spirit. I place my spirit in your hands. I was not able to save the whole nation of Israel by living, but I will die and the whole world will be saved’. The story is clear and regarding the prophet’s character, we can note as has often been said before that he is saddened and wants to die so that Israel should not be destroyed for ever after the conversion of such a multitude of gentiles.

The last verses of the Book of Jonas have to do with his waiting outside the city of Nineveh to see what would happen to it, whether or not God would spare it on account of the penance the people had undertaken. God manifests a warm and paternal predilection for His reluctant prophet. He causes ivy to blossom overshadowing the head of Jonas and giving him shelter from the burning heat. But, with the rising of the sun God sends worms to devour the ivy, frustrating Jonas thereby, who had rejoiced over the ivy. So, Jonas complains again, asking again that God might take his soul away. And God says:

Dost thou think thou hast reason to be angry, for the ivy? And he said: I am angry with reason even unto death. And the Lord said: Thou art grieved for the ivy, for which thou hast not laboured, nor made it to grow, which in one night came up, and in one night perished. And shall not I spare Ninive, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that know not how to distinguish between their right hand and their left, and many beasts? (4:10-11)

And this is how the Book of Jonas ends.