The story of Jonahas is narrated amongst billions of followers of the Abrahamic faiths, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We examine the context of the incidents around Jonahas as documented in various sources, the background to the city of Nineveh in Mesopotamia where he was sent, and to analyse the moral message of the story for the current age.
The story of prophet Jonahas is recounted in detail in the Jewish Old Testament and in the Holy Qur’an where he is called Yunus or Dhul-Nun in Arabic. In Hebrew he is called Yona and in Greek Ionas. Jonahas was a Jewish prophet from the 8th century B.C.E., from the time of King Jeroboam II[2,3,4]. His story of survival through a storm by surviving in the belly of a big fish is well known to over a billion people worldwide. What is often forgotten or skimmed over is the context of the storm, and the mission of Jonahas. But actually this is the most epic story of repentance both at a personal and community level.
The histories and accounts of the Jews and the people of Assyria, the two communities associated with the story of Jonahas, have been intertwined for many centuries. Abrahamas originally came from Mesopotamia before leaving his polytheistic roots and heading west to Palestine and Arabia. Thereafter, there were several military exchanges between the two communities before Jonahas was sent to the east to offer salvation for the sinful people of the town of Nineveh. After Jonahas, their paths would cross again when Nebachudnezzar would force the Jews into slavery and exile, heading back towards the birthplace of Abrahamas.
Before exploring the context of these events, let us first examine the detailed accounts presented in the holy books of Judaism and Islam.
Old Testament Account
The Old Testament of the Jews describes the story of Prophet Jonahas in the book of Jonah, and begins with his mission and Jonahas trying to flee:
“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.[6,7]
On the boat heading from Jaffa towards Tunisia, a huge storm appeared and after much concern, the sailors reluctantly threw Jonahas overboard:
So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
So then Jonahas, having prayed to God in the belly of the big fish, honoured his promise and went back to Nineveh:
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And 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.
Then all of the people of Nineveh, the rich and the poor, and even the king, decided to seek repentance. The king then made a proclamation including:
“All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”
This gives a clue as to the ‘evil ways’ of the people of Nineveh that caused a prophet to be sent to them with a warning in the first place. The fact that the king describes the ‘violence that is in their hands’ provides a strong indication of the types of misconduct that they were being warned against.
Now let’s compare this account to the one presented in the Holy Qur’an.
The Holy Qur’an describes the story of Yunusas (Yunus being the Arabic form of the name Jonah and relating to the same prophet) in six places, including in some detail in chapter 10, which is actually named after him, but also in Chapters An-Nisa, Al-An’am and As-Saffat. The latter describes the story in the following verses:
And surely Jonah also was one of the Messengers, when he fled to the laden ship; and he cast lots with the crew of the ship and was of the losers. And the fish swallowed him while he was blaming himself. And had he not been of those who glorify God, he would have surely tarried in its belly till the Day of Resurrection. Then We cast him on a bare tract of land, and he was sick; and We caused a plant of gourd to grow over him. And We sent him as a Messenger to a hundred thousand people or more, and they believed; so We gave them provision for a while.
The Qur’an reinforces the status of the people of Nineveh for repenting:
Why was there no other people, save the people of Jonah, who should have believed so that their belief would have profited them? When they believed, We removed from them the punishment of disgrace in the present life, and We gave them provision for a while.
In the Qur’an, Yunus or Dhul-Nun (him of the whale) is considered to be a Jew of the Benjamin tribe whose father was Amittai. Unlike the Biblical account, which not only suggests that Jonahas neglected his mission, ran away from God and was also upset when God forgave the people of Nineveh and didn’t punish them, the Qur’an presents him in a different light. In the Qur’an, he went to Nineveh initially, but when they didn’t respond to his message, he left them; however, after being saved from the storm through the big fish that God had sent, he sought forgiveness from God and went back to complete his mission. This time, his preaching was so effective that ‘a hundred thousand people or more’ repented and were saved from the intended punishment.
Yunusas constantly recited a prayer for forgiveness and was relieved of his anxiety as recorded in the Qur’an in Al-Anbiya:
And remember Dha’l-Nun (Jonah), when he went away in anger, and he thought that We would never cause him distress and he cried out in depths of darkness, saying, ‘There is no God but Thou, Holy art Thou. I have indeed been of the wrongdoers.’ So We heard his prayer and delivered him from the distress. And thus do We deliver the believers[14,15, 16 ].
The Qur’an describes Yunusas as a pious prophet, and distinguished for having been successful in persuading his people to repent. So having reviewed the accounts of the story in the Old Testament (Torah) and the Qur’an, let us now explore in a little more detail the background of Jonahas.
Prophet Jonahas is believed to have lived and preached in the late 9th and early 8th centuries B.C.E. and was the son of Amittai, from the town of Gath-Hepher (as mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25), north of Nazareth. He was the fifth of the Jewish minor prophets.
Jonahas was sailing to Tunisia from Jaffa which was an active port at least as early as 300 B.C.E.. The big fish threw out Jonahas onto the shore at Ashdod, and even today, the hill at Ashdod is called Givat-Yonah in Hebrew, and Nebbi Yunus in Arabic, so it is clearly associated by the local people with Jonahas.
There is uncertainty as to the final resting place of the prophet Jonahas. Palestinians claim that his sanctuary is at Halhul, just north of Hebron whilst the Lebanese claim his grave to be near Sarafand. Another potential site is near the city of Mosul in Iraq, not far from the ancient city of Nineveh where he was sent with his mission.
Now let’s try to better understand the context of the city of Nineveh where he was sent.
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the banks of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia (near the city of Mosul in modern Iraq). Ironically, the name itself means ‘place of fish’. The city dates back to around 5000 B.C.E.
The ancient city was very advanced and developed for its time. It had two big mounds on either side of the Khosr River, one to the north called Kuyunjik, and a smaller one to the south now called Tell Nebi Yunus (meaning the mound of prophet Jonah). The city was surrounded by eight miles of solid defensive walls dating from around 700 B.C.E., which were 16 metres high and 15 metres thick.
Nineveh also had a strong influence on other neighbouring towns such as Nimrud and Karamles. The great Temple of Ishtar was built centuries before the wall on Kuyunjik. The mound of Nebi Yunus is considered to have been the armoury for the city.
Soon after Jonahas visited the city, it took on greater prominence when Sennacherib, the Assyrian King, made it his capital and initiated a massive construction programme that included the great walls and gates, a new royal palace on Kuyunjik, public gardens, and an impressive 30-mile aqueduct system to bring in water from hills to the east of the city. This signalled an era of military conquests including attacks on Jerusalem and Judah. Sennacherib also built a temple to Nabu, the god of wisdom and learning. Later, Ashurbanipal built his palace and a library on the northern mound. The library housed thousands of clay tablets on many subjects. It was actually from this library that the accounts of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elish were discovered, shedding light on their religious beliefs on creation and the great flood.
By the time of Jonahas, Nineveh had become a major cultural, political and trading centre in the region. It became a religious centre for the worship of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Nineveh is mentioned several times in the Bible in 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jonah and Nahum (which is an oracle concerning Nineveh). This shows the significance of the city at the time of the Jewish kings.
In reality, Nineveh was one of the superpower cities of its time. For Jonahas to go to Nineveh and preach repentance would have been the equivalent of a modern prophet doing the same in Paris, Tokyo or New York. It would have taken huge courage and belief.
Given the extent to which the city eventually responded to Jonahas and the fact that even the king responded and raised a decree, it would be interesting to try to identify the king in question. The most likely candidates are those shown below:
Adad-Nirari III (811-783 B.C.E.)
Shalmaneser IV (783-773 B.C.E.)
Ashur-Dan III (773-755 B.C.E.)
Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.E.)
Whilst there is no conclusive evidence showing which years Jonahas lived and preached or which Assyrian king was in a position to make that decree, it is interesting to note that during the reign of Ashur-Dan III, the Assyrian Empire was struck by a major plague in 765 B.C.E. and another plague would strike in 759 B.C.E. There was also a total solar eclipse over Assyria on 15 June 763 B.C.E. observed in Nineveh. It is possible that if these coincided with the preaching of Jonahas, they could have been interpreted as signs and warnings and contributed to the remorse shown by the people of Nineveh.
Following the redemption of the people, Nineveh continued to flourish until it was attacked and destroyed by the Persians in 612 B.C.E.
Timeline of events
Whale or Great Fish?
Although the Biblical account is often associated with a whale, and certainly sperm whales are large enough and do exist in the Mediterranean Sea, the Hebrew actually refers to a “big fish” as does the Arabic. In Turkish, yunus baligi refers to a dolphin. It has never been resolved as to what kind of big fish it actually was that swallowed Jonahas for three days without killing him and then threw him out onto the shores of Ashdod, but it would have needed to be large enough to swallow a man whole and allow him to breathe for three days.
Centuries later, this story was referenced again by Jesusas.
Reference to Jesusas
Centuries later, Jesusas gave a sign that just as with Jonahas, he would be in the belly of the earth for three days and would then recover. But unlike Nineveh, Jesusas warned that the Jewish people might not be as fortunate as the people of Nineveh, as the latter had repented whereas the Jews were arrogant.
Moral of Jonah’s Story
It is interesting to delve into the detail of the eras, places and people involved in the story in order to verify that these were actual historical events, and to frame the context. As we have seen, to say that Jonahas was swallowed by a whale is not accurate, and the term “big fish” is probably more appropriate, but this changes little in the key themes of the story. At the same time, understanding more about Nineveh helps us to understand the nature and scale of the task given to the prophet, and why he might have initially been reluctant to go there.
However, the main theme of this story is repentance, and this has two dimensions within this story. Firstly, despite preaching his message, when confronted with the mission to preach to Nineveh, Jonahas tried to escape, and yet after being swallowed by the big fish, it is his repentance within the fish (whale) that led to his forgiveness and eventual survival. Then having gone to Nineveh to warn them of their impending demise for their evil acts, the genuine remorse and repentance of the people of Nineveh led to their forgiveness and survival from the promised calamity. So, both on a personal and collective level, in this one story, repentance is seen to lead to survival and forgiveness by God.
Some commentators have focussed on the human weakness of Jonahas in apparently failing to follow the command of God and trying to escape by sea. However, having seen the stature and size of Nineveh and the daunting task of preaching to them, the impact of the preaching of Jonahas which led to the entire population, including the king, to forgiveness, tells us a lot about the quality of his preaching and his belief in God.
In the modern world, too many religious people assume that worldly people and cities will soon face doom and destruction. There is often a blanket view taken that ‘The West’ will be destroyed soon. But this masks the fact that in all communities, there are good and bad people, kind and evil people, spiritual and non-spiritual people. From this story, we learn that if communities repent, then no punishment is guaranteed for them. From the story of Lotas, we see that often prophets prayed for redemption for evil people, and had there been a decent number of good people in Sodom, they could have been spared their punishment. Nobody is without sin, as Jesusas illustrated in the discussion about casting the first stone. If we wish for forgiveness ourselves, then we should wish for repentance and reformation even for our foes or those that we consider to be evil.
- Cyril Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), 428.
- Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, The Holy Qur’an with Commentary (Tilford, UK: Islam International Publications Ltd., 1988), Vol. III,1040. Jonah was sent to his own people, so either he was not an Israelite if he went to Nineveh, or he was not sent outside of Israel.
- Online Encyclopaedia Britannica 2015 links Jonah with the prophet in II Kings 14:25 and a prophecy about King Jeroboam II around 785 B.C.E.
- Online Encyclopaedia Britannica 2015 cites the King to have reigned in the 8th century B.C.E.
- A major kingdom in Mesopotamia.
- Jonah 1:2-3, New Revised Standard Version.
- Jewish commentators recognise Tarshish as a land far from Israel in the Mediterranean with whom they did trade, probably Tunisia or even southern Spain.
- Jonah 1:15 NRSV.
- Jonah 1:15 NRSV.
- Jonah 3:3-6 NRSV.
- Jonah 3:8 NRSV.
- The Holy Qur’an, 37:140-149.
- The Holy Qur’an, 10:99
- Ahmad, The Holy Qur’an with Commentary, Vol. IV, 2235. Jonah fled his people in anger because they rejected his Divine Message. He was not fleeing from God.
- Ahmad, Holy Qur’an with Commentary, Vol. IV, 1714. The Arabic word for wrongdoers actually means that he put himself at risk and brought distress upon himself rather than that he committed a sin
- The Holy Qur’an, 21:88-89.
- LaMoine F. DeVries, Cities of the Biblical World (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 32.
- DeVries, Cities of the Biblical World, 31.
- De Vries, Cities of the Biblical World, 33.
- De Vries, Cities of the Biblical World, 34.
- NASA “Technology Through Time Issue #32: Ancient Babylon”, https://www.sunearthday.nasa.gov/2006/locations/babylon.php, accessed on 7 March 2015.
- Hershel Shanks, Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, (London: Biblical Archaeological Society, SPCK, 1989), 141. The armies of Media and Babylon combined to destroy Nineveh.
- Matthew 12:39-41 NRSV.