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In the first century CE, both Jews and Christians believed that the events narrated in the book of Jonah occurred just as they had been recorded in the account. The aspects that many today regard as impossible developments posed no problem for them, for they recognized that God was not limited in what he could accomplish. Everything was under his control as the Creator, and he could use both plants and animals in extraordinary ways to accomplish his purpose.
In his Antiquities, the Jewish historian Josephus included a summary of what happened to Jonah and identified him, on the apparent basis of 2 Kings 14:23-25, as having prophesied during the reign of Israelite monarch Jeroboam II, the great-grandson of King Jehu. Josephus wrote: “Now one Jonah, a prophet, foretold to him [Jeroboam] that he should make war with the Syrians, and conquer their army, and enlarge the bounds of his kingdom on the northern parts, to the city Hamath, and on the southern to the lake Asphaltitis [the Dead Sea]; for the bounds of the Canaanites originally were these, as Joshua their general had determined them. So Jeroboam made an expedition against the Syrians, and overran all their country, as Jonah had foretold.” (Antiquities, IX, x, 1)
Depending on how it is reckoned, Jeroboam II’s 41-year reign could, in part, have overlapped that of Assyrian kings Adad-nirari III, Shalmaneser IV, Ashur-dan III, and Ashur-nirari V. Some have thought that Adad-nirari III was the monarch mentioned in the book of Jonah, but this is not a verifiable identification. Assyria experienced its most difficult time during the reign of Ashur-dan III. Two plagues and a revolt occurred during his rule, and the unfavorable circumstances would doubtless have made him and his subjects more responsive to a message of judgment. There is, however, no way to identify the king mentioned in the book of Jonah with any one of a number of known Assyrian monarchs.
Josephus considered it important to include the additional information about the experience of Jonah regarding his commission to go to Nineveh. He continued his account: “Now I cannot but think it necessary for me, who have promised to give an accurate account of our affairs, to describe the actions of this prophet, so far as I have found them written down in the Hebrew books. Jonah had been commanded by God to go to the kingdom of Nineveh; and, when he was there, to publish it in that city, how it should lose the dominion it had over the nations. But he went not, out of fear; nay, he ran away from God to the city of Joppa, and finding a ship there, he went into it, and sailed to Tarsus, to Cilicia, and upon the rise of a most terrible storm, which was so great that the ship was in danger of sinking, the mariners, the master, and the pilot himself made prayers and vows, in case they escaped the sea. But Jonah lay still and covered [in the ship], without imitating anything that the others did; but as the waves grew greater and the sea became more violent by the winds, they suspected, as is usual in such cases, that some one of the persons that sailed with them was the occasion of this storm, and agreed to discover by lot which of them it was. When they had cast lots, the lot fell upon the prophet; and when they asked him whence he came, and what he had done? he replied that he was an Hebrew by nation, and a prophet of Almighty God; and he persuaded them to cast him into the sea, if they would escape the danger they were in, for that he was the occasion of the storm which was upon them. Now at first they durst not do so, as esteeming it a wicked thing to cast a man, who was a stranger, and who had committed his life to them, into such manifest perdition; but at last, when their misfortunes overbore them, and the ship was just going to be drowned, and when they were animated to do it by the prophet himself, and by the fear concerning their own safety, they cast him into the sea; upon which the sea became calm. It is also related that Jonah was swallowed down by a whale [Whiston’s rendering of kétos, the Greek word found in the text of Josephus and also in the Septuagint and which noun designates a “sea monster” or a “huge fish”], and that when he had been there three days, and as many nights, he was vomited out upon the Euxine Sea [the Black Sea], and this alive, and without any hurt upon his body; and there, on his prayer to God, he obtained pardon for his sins, and went to the city Nineveh, where he stood so as to be heard; and preached, that in a very little time they should lose the dominion of Asia; and when he had published this, he returned. Now, I have given this account about him, as I found it written [in our books].” (Antiquities, IX, x, 2)
The book of Jonah is written in the third person, and some have regarded this as evidence that it is not a narration of historical events. Ancient historians, however, commonly wrote in the third person, as did Xenophon and Thucydides. Therefore, the use of the third person is not a valid basis for calling the account into question.
The manner in which Jesus Christ referred to Jonah indicates that he was not accommodating his words to what his contemporaries believed about the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge sea creature three days and three nights, so he would be in the “heart” of the earth three days and three nights. People of Nineveh would rise up in the judgment with the then-living generation of Jews and condemn it. This is because they repented upon hearing Jonah’s proclamation. Additionally, by implication, Jesus indicated that he was someone greater than Jonah. (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4) Jonah’s being inside the sea creature and coming out alive after three days could only serve as a sign for Jesus’ resurrection on the third day if it actually had happened. If people of Nineveh had not heard the proclamation of Jonah, they could not be said to rise up in the judgment and condemn the generation of Jews that heard the teaching of Jesus but refused to respond to it favorably.
The manner in which the “word of YHWH” came to Jonah the son of Amittai” is not revealed in the account. Nothing is known about his father Amittai. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah (whose name means “dove”) lived in Gath-hepher, a town in the territory of Zebulun. (Joshua 19:10, 13) This town has commonly been identified with Khirbet ez-Zurra‛ (Tel Gat Hefer), located about 14 miles (c. 22.5 kilometers) west of the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The account indicates that the prophet had sufficient means for a long sea voyage and living expenses while outside the land of Israel. (1:1; compare 1:3.)
Jonah was divinely directed to arise and head to “Nineveh, the great city” and make a proclamation against it, for its “badness” had “come up” before God. Two mounds in northern Iraq on the east bank of the Tigris River and opposite the city of Mosul occupy the site of ancient Nineveh. (1:2)
The Septuagint rendering indicates that Jonah was to proclaim the message in Nineveh because the cry of the city’s badness had ascended to God. This could be understood to mean that there was a general outcry from the people who suffered from the evil deeds that had been committed in Nineveh. Both the extant Hebrew text and the Septuagint reveal that the wickedness of the city had not escaped God’s attention. (1:2)
Instead of following through on his assignment, Jonah tried to run away from the “face of YHWH” or to get far away from his God, possibly thinking that he could escape from YHWH’s presence by taking up residence in a distant foreign land. He wanted to reach Tarshish. This is a location commonly associated with the Iberian Peninsula, but the identification is not certain. Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) understood the place to be Tarsus in Cilicia, a region in the southeastern part of Asia Minor. (1:3)
If Jonah was in Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25) at the time he received his commission to go to Nineveh, he would have traveled some 60 miles (roughly 100 kilometers) southwestward down to the seaport of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. (For pictures of and comments about Joppa, see Joppa.) He took along sufficient funds (probably silver, if not also gold) for the voyage he was about to undertake and for living expenses. This suggests that Jonah was not a man of limited means. (1:3)
At Joppa, he found a ship that would take him to Tarshish. According to the Seputagint rendering, Jonah “gave” or paid the “fare” (naulon, a noun related to naus, meaning “ship”). The Hebrew text may also have this significance. There is, however, another possibility. In this context, the Hebrew word sakár is commonly understood to mean “fare” or “passage money,” but its basic significance is “hire” or “wages.” Since the account makes no mention of other passengers, possibly Jonah hired both the ship and the crew to take him to Tarshish. Whatever the financial arrangements may have been, he spared no expense in his effort to get away from the presence of YHWH. (1:3)
Jonah, however, did not get away from YHWH, the God who, for his purpose, can control all creation and the forces of nature. YHWH caused a “great wind” to rush down upon the sea. The mighty tempest churned up the water, and the powerful high waves threatened to wreck the ship. (1:4)
Fear gripped the sailors, “they cried out [each] man to his gods [their god (LXX)].” To increase the ship’s buoyancy, the crew began to lighten the vessel, casting into the sea whatever items (Hebrew, the plural of keli; Greek, the plural of skeuos) they could. Both the Hebrew word keli and the corresponding Greek word skeuos are general designations that can refer to equipment, an item, an instrument, a thing, an implement, a vessel, or a weapon. (1:5)
While the storm was raging and the sailors did everything they could to keep the vessel from being wrecked, Jonah was fast asleep. He may well have been exhausted from his long journey to Joppa. Possibly when the storm began, he had gone down into the bowels or recesses of the vessel. According to the Septuagint rendering, he “was sleeping and snoring.” Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) referred to him as lying still and covered, not “imitating anything that the others did.” (1:5)
Upon finding Jonah asleep, the captain (literally, “chief of the sailors”) woke him up, saying to him, “What [is] this, sleeper? Get up, call upon your gods. Perhaps the gods will grant consideration to us, and we will not perish.” The Hebrew word for “god” is plural, but it can here be understood as a plural of excellence and, therefore, as singular. According to the Septuagint, the captain said to Jonah, “Why are you snoring? Get up, call upon your god so that the god might save us and we might not be destroyed.” (1:6; see the Notes section.)
The sailors concluded that the storm was an evidence of divine wrath and that someone on the ship must have incurred divine anger. As was commonly done in such situations, they decided to cast lots to learn on whose account the calamity had come upon them. “And they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.” (1:7)
Likely with one mariner raising one question and another seaman asking another one, Jonah faced a barrage of questions. “Tell us, please, on what account has this calamity come upon us? What [is] your occupation? And from where do you come? What [is] your country? And from which people [are] you?” (1:8)
According to the Septuagint rendering, Jonah identified himself as a “slave of the Lord,” but the Masoretic Text refers to him as identifying himself as a “Hebrew.” Otherwise, the Septuagint reads much like the Masoretic Text. Jonah continued, “YHWH the God of the heavens I am fearing, [the one] who made the sea and the dry land.” In this manner, Jonah made it clear that he recognized YHWH alone as the true God and as the Creator of everything. (1:9)
His response to the questioning gave rise to dread among the seamen, for they would have perceived that their perilous situation had YHWH, the Creator of the sea and the dry land, as the source. Having learned from Jonah that he was running away from the presence (literally, the “face”) of YHWH, the seamen were very fearful, saying to him, “What [is] this you have done?” In the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, their horror is expressed in an intensified manner by means of the repetition of the verb and the noun for “fear” (“feared [with] a great fear”). (1:10)
Meanwhile the threat to their lives had become greater. The sea kept “coming” or lashing against the ship and “raging” (“stirred up more [of] a swell” [LXX]). Therefore, the mariners then asked Jonah what they should do to him so that the sea would become calm for them. (1:11)
He told the mariners to pick him up and to cast him into the sea so that it would calm down, acknowledging that the “great tempest” had come upon them on his account. Instead of endangering the lives of everyone, Jonah was prepared to face death by drowning so that all the others might be saved. (1:12)
The seamen, however, did not want to share in an act that they perceived as certain to kill Jonah. They tried hard to get the ship back to land, rowing as hard as they could. Their efforts did not succeed, for the sea “kept coming and raging against them.” The powerful wind caused ever-higher waves to batter the ship. (1:13)
Without any possibility for getting safely to land, the mariners were forced to act on Jonah’s words. Nevertheless, they wanted to avoid incurring YHWH’s wrath for sharing responsibility for the prophet’s death. This prompted them to cry out to YHWH, entreating him, “O YHWH, let us not perish for the soul [or life] of this man and lay not innocent blood on us, for you, O YHWH, have done as it has pleased you.” (1:14)
They then “picked up Jonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea stopped from its raging.” For the mariners, the return of calm confirmed that Jonah had been responsible for their dire situation and that YHWH, the Creator of the sea and dry land, had acted. (1:15)
This development caused them to “fear YHWH with great fear” or with profound awe. Apparently in gratitude for having been delivered, the men “offered a sacrifice to YHWH and vowed vows.” The account does not disclose the nature of the sacrifice nor what the men vowed to do in expression of their thankfulness. In view of the absence of any mention of a postponement of the sacrifice until their once again being on land, with the proper location being at YHWH’s temple in Jerusalem, one may conclude that they did so while on the ship. Their interaction with Jonah was not of a nature to reveal to them that the temple in Jerusalem was the place for presenting acceptable sacrifices to YHWH. Moreover, any previous contact with Israelites from the ten-tribe kingdom would not have enlightened them regarding what constituted acceptable worship. In their worship of YHWH, the majority in the realm practiced a corrupt form that was associated with golden calves that Jeroboam, the first monarch, had set up at the northern city of Dan and the southern city of Bethel. (1 Kings 12:28-33; 2 Kings 17:16, 17, 22-28) Accordingly, the seamen may well have acted in keeping with what they believed to be a fitting expression of their gratitude to YHWH as the God who had saved them from certain death. (1:16; see the Notes section.)
“YHWH assigned [manáh] a huge fish to swallow Jonah.” The Hebrew word manáh basically means “number,” “reckon,” or “count.” In this context, however, its apparent significance is “assign” or “appoint.” The Septuagint rendering is a form of the verb prostásso, meaning “command.” So YHWH is here represented as directing the sea creature to fulfill his purpose respecting Jonah. Neither the Hebrew word for “fish” (dag) nor the corresponding Greek noun kétos (“sea monster” or “huge fish”) provides any clue about which large sea creature then found in the Mediterranean Sea swallowed Jonah. Although a sperm whale and a great white shark would have been capable of gulping down a man whole, there is no way to establish that either one of these creatures did so. (1:17 [2:1])
Jonah remained in the inward parts or belly (koilía) of the fish “three days and three nights.” Without direct divine action, he could not have survived, to be later disgorged without having suffered any apparent harm. Some commentators have conjectured that Jonah did die inside the large sea creature but was resurrected upon being vomited out on dry land. There are, however, no specifics in the account to support this view. (1:17 [2:1])
In verse 6, the Hebrew text does not include a verb when quoting the initial words of the captain. For this reason, translations vary in their renderings. “How can you sleep?” (NIV) “What are you doing asleep?” (NAB) “What do you mean by sleeping?” (NJB) “What, fast asleep?” (REB)
The sacrificing referred to in verse 16 would not necessarily have involved an animal offering. It could have been a libation or included items that they had intended as votive offerings upon completing a successful sea voyage.
A Minor Prophets scroll (8HevXIIgr) in Greek (thought to date between 50 BCE and 50 CE) contains the divine name in ancient Hebrew script (paleo-Hebrew). This scroll includes a very fragmentary portion of the book of Jonah. In what would be verse 16 of chapter 1, the first two letters (yod [Y] and he [H] of the divine name [written from right to left according to Hebrew style, not left to right as is the Greek text]) are preserved. Two other occurrences of the divine name likewise do not preserve all the letters (3:3 [the last letter he (H)] and 4:2 [the last two letters waw (W) and he (H)]).
“And Jonah prayed to YHWH his God from the inward parts [belly (LXX)] of the fish.” The account does not include when he began to pray. It appears that when he found himself alive in the sea creature he recognized that YHWH had intervened to save him from drowning. Many of the thoughts in his prayer parallel words found in the book of Psalms. (2:1)
In this verse, the Hebrew word for “fish” (dagáh) is feminine gender. The change in gender from masculine (1:17 [2:1]) to feminine is immaterial, for Jonah would not have known whether the sea creature was male or female. (2:1)
In prayer, Jonah said, “I called to YHWH out of my distress, and he answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried; you heard my voice.” In view of the reference to waves in the next verse, the “belly of Sheol [Hades (LXX)]” seemingly is the sea, which Jonah thought would be his grave. If this is the case, the distress he experienced related to the sensation of drowning. The perceived answer to his appeal would have been the realization that he had not perished. In the Septuagint, the wording is slightly different. “In my distress, I cried to the Lord my God, and he heard me. Out of the belly of Hades you heard my outcry, my voice.”(2:2; see the Notes section.)
“And you cast me into the deep [depths (LXX)], into the heart of the seas [of the heart of the sea (LXX)], and a stream [streams (LXX)] surrounded me. All your waves and your billows passed over me.” Although the seamen threw him overboard, Jonah could speak of YHWH has having done it, as his sending the tremendous storm led to this act. The expression “heart of the seas” may be understood to mean the “midst of the sea,” with the plural “seas” designating a huge body of water (the Mediterranean Sea). Once in the sea, Jonah would have been surrounded by water as if engulfed by a river, and the waves and billows would have passed over him. Acknowledging that the waves and billows were under the control of his God, he spoke of them as belonging to YHWH (“your waves and your billows”). (2:3; see the Notes section.)
Jonah continued, “I have been driven away from before your eyes. How shall I again look upon your holy temple?” Thrown into the sea that he considered to be his grave, Jonah felt that he had been tossed away from before the eyes or the presence of YHWH his God. There seemed to be no possibility of his ever again beholding YHWH’s temple and worshiping him there. (2:4; see the Notes section.)
“Waters encompassed me as far as [my] soul. The deep surrounded me. Weeds [a collective singular in Hebrew] were wrapped around my head.” The Septuagint rendering is similar. “Water poured around me as far as [my] soul. The uttermost abyss surrounded me.” There is no reference to “weeds,” but the concluding sentence in the Septuagint incorporates parts of the last phrase of this verse (“my head”) and of the first phrase of the next verse of the Hebrew text (the verb for “went down” or “sank” and “the mountains”). “My head sank into the clefts of the mountains.” (2:5)
Jonah must have felt that the water was closing in on him, rushing over his “soul” or his person. The “deep,” “abyss” (LXX), or sea completely surrounded him. As he sank below the water, seaweeds or marine algae would have wound around his head. (2:5; see the Notes section.)
With reference to the mountains, there is uncertainty about the point to which Jonah sank. The plural form of the Hebrew word qétsev has commonly been translated “roots,” “bottoms,” and “base.” In relation to the mountains, the “bottoms” may designate the deepest part of the sea, where the ancients believed the mountains to have their base. The Septuagint refers to the “clefts of the mountains.” This suggests that the translator considered qétsev to be from a root that means “to cut.” (2:6)
The “land” to which Jonah considered himself as going down would be the realm of the dead. He envisioned himself as entering that land, with its bars shutting him in for unending time. What he dreaded did not happen. “And you,” Jonah continued, “brought up my life from the pit, O YHWH my God.” A similar wording is found in Psalm 30:3(4), “O YHWH, you brought up my soul from Sheol. You preserved me alive, [preventing me] from going down to the pit.” (2:6; regarding the rendering of the Septuagint, see the Notes section.)
Jonah’s expression about his “soul” fainting could denote that he sensed that his life was slipping away. (Compare Psalm 142:3, where the phrase is the same with the exception that the word for “spirit” (not “soul”) is used and the reference seemingly is to being reduced to a weak and helpless state.) At this point, he remembered YHWH his God, the one from whom he had tried to get away to avoid going to Nineveh. In his dire condition, he made his appeal to YHWH. Because he had not perished, Jonah recognized that his prayer had reached YHWH in his “holy temple,” his heavenly sanctuary. (2:7; compare Psalm 18:6.)
Persons who disregarded YHWH, giving attention to “idols of falsehood” (“vanities and lies” [LXX]), “abandoned their mercy.” (LXX) Idols are representations of nonexistent deities and, therefore, are worthless and untrustworthy, as are lies or falsehoods. The images can do nothing for those who venerate them. As expressed in the Septuagint, they are “vanities” or empty things and “lies” or delusions. (2:8)
The Hebrew word that denotes what the idolaters forsake is chésed, which may be defined as meaning “graciousness,” “enduring loyalty,” “steadfast love,” and “mercy.” It is a compassionate care and loving concern that expresses itself in action. In the Septuagint, chésed is here translated éleos (“mercy,” “pity,” or “compassion”). (2:8)
A number of translations interpretively render the verse to indicate that idolaters forsake their loyalty to God. “Those who worship worthless idols have abandoned their loyalty to you.” (GNT, Second Edition) “People who worship useless idols give up their loyalty to you.” (NCV) Others represent the idolaters as forsaking their hope of being shown steadfast love, forfeiting being shown grace or divine favor, or abandoning God, the one who extends mercy. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” (ESV) “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (NIV) “All who worship worthless idols turn from the God who offers them mercy.” (CEV) (2:8
In his letter to the Romans (1:20-23, 28-31), the apostle Paul indicated that forsaking the worship of the true God and turning to the veneration of idols lead to moral corruption, which includes treating others in a merciless manner. So it may be that, with reference to the idolaters, the abandoning of “their mercy” (LXX) applies to a failure to be compassionate when that should be the humane response. (2:8)
Grateful that he had been preserved alive, Jonah promised to raise his voice in thanksgiving when sacrificing to YHWH (“with praise and acknowledgment” or thanksgiving, “I will sacrifice to you” [LXX]). In his desperate circumstances, he appears to have made a vow, and what he had vowed he resolved to fulfill. Jonah then acknowledged YHWH to be the source of deliverance. (2:9)
YHWH is represented as having spoken to the fish. This serves to indicate that what next happened was totally under God’s control and was not a spontaneous act that originated with the huge sea creature. In keeping with the divine command or directive or under the compelling power of God’s will, the fish disgorged Jonah upon the dry land. According to the Septuagint rendering, the sea creature did what it was “assigned from the Lord.” (2:10)
The words of the first part of verse 2(3) express the same thought as those of Psalm 120:1. (“To YHWH I called in my distress and he answered me.”) For the second half, verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 130 contain parallel wording. (“Out of the depths I called to you, O YHWH. O Lord, hear my voice.”)
Psalm 69:2(3) somewhat parallels the wording of the first part of Jonah 2:3(4). (“I have come into deep waters, and a stream rushes over me.”) The words of the second half of Jonah 2:3(4) and those of Psalm 42:7(8) are the same (“all your waves and your billows passed over me”).
A thought similar to Jonah 2:4(5) is found in Psalm 31:22(23). (“I have been cut off from before your eyes”).
Part of Psalm 69:1(2) contains wording like that of Jonah 2:5(6). (“Waters have come as far as [my] soul.”)
Based on the superscriptions that attribute to David a number of the psalms with parallel language in the book of Jonah, one may conclude that Jonah was so familiar with these compositions that he used the words to apply to his own situation.
According to fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and a number of other manuscripts, the phrase that includes the word for “life” (verse 6) could be translated, “And let the corruption of my life ascend, O Lord my God.” This could denote that whatever was corrupt about Jonah’s life should ascend or be taken away from him. In certain other Greek manuscripts, the preposition ek (“from” or “out of”) precedes the word for “corruption,” conveying a more understandable significance. “And let my life ascend from corruption.” This would refer to the preservation of Jonah’s life, as it would not be undergoing corruption or decay.
After the huge “fish” had disgorged Jonah on dry land, the “word of YHWH” came to him a second time. The manner in which he received this “word” or message is not revealed. (3:1)
YHWH’s word to Jonah was basically the same as that which had been directed to him the first time. He was told to “arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim to it the message” that YHWH would make known to him. The Septuagint rendering indicates that Jonah’s proclamation was to be according to what God had spoken to him previously or the first time. (3:2)
Jonah did get up and headed for Nineveh “according to the word of YHWH.” To reach his destination by walking from the Mediterranean coast or, based on the comments of Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2), from the coast of the Black Sea, Jonah would have been on the road for about one month. (3:3)
Nineveh is spoken of as a “city great to God.” This description is idiomatic and designates Nineveh as a very large city. With the words a “journey of three days,” the city is further identified as a sizable metropolis. It appears that the reference to a “journey of three days” applies to more than just the site of ancient Nineveh. Likely it means that it required three days to walk from one end to the other end of what has been called the “Assyrian triangle,” including the cities of Nineveh, Khorsabad and Nimrud. (3:3)
Jonah went into the city, completing the journey of “one day,” and cried out and said, “Yet forty days [three days (LXX)] and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The account does not reveal how it happened that the Ninevites were able to understand the proclamation of a Hebrew prophet. Nothing is said about whether Jonah was miraculously endowed with the ability to speak in the language of the Assyrians or whether he knew enough of the language to proclaim his brief message. The kingdom of Israel did have dealings with Assyria. Therefore, as was the case with officials in the court of Hezekiah the king of Judah decades later (2 Kings 18:26), Jonah may have been able to make known his message in the native tongue of the Assyrians. His role was like that of a herald and would not have required much interaction with the people. Another possibility is that Jonah spoke in Hebrew, which could have created considerable curiosity until someone was located who was able to translate his words. In view of the extensive contact the Assyrians had with other peoples, there would have been translators in Nineveh just as there were in ancient Egypt. (3:4; compare Genesis 42:23.)
“And the men of Nineveh believed in God.” They accepted as a message from God the words Jonah proclaimed. Whereas this may seem unbelievable to many today, it is not a development that was contrary to the prevailing views of the people. They attached great weight to the significance of omens. For a foreigner who had no apparent interest in them to make such a proclamation with unhesitating assurance would have made a powerful impression. Moreover, the people of Nineveh were fully aware that their conduct had not been meritorious, and the proclamation of a message of doom would have forced them to reflect on their lawless ways. Their consciences would have condemned them. (3:5)
In the hope that they might be spared, the Ninevites then followed the usual custom when faced with impending calamity. “They proclaimed a fast,” removed their attire and, in keeping with the usual practice, would have covered their bare loins with sackcloth, a coarse cloth usually made from goat’s hair. All the people did this, “from the greatest of them” or the most prominent ones to the “least of them” or the lowliest ones among them. (3:5)
When word about Jonah’s proclamation reached the king of Nineveh, “he rose from his throne,” “removed his garment, and covered himself with sackcloth.” As was customary, he would have put sackcloth around his bare loins and then seated himself on the ground where ashes had been strewn. (3:6; see the Notes section.)
The Assyrian monarch directed that a public proclamation be made in Nineveh, decreeing along with his “great ones” or high officials that man and beast and animals of the herd (cattle) and flock (sheep and goats) should not eat anything nor drink water. According to the Septuagint rendering, this was the extent of the decree, but the Hebrew text completes its contents at the end of verse 9. (3:7)
The official decree commanded man and beast to be covered with sackcloth and that the people let God hear their mighty outcry. This would have been a cry to be shown pity so as to be spared from destruction. Besides being told to make outward expressions of grief and regret about having acted contrary to their innate sense of right and wrong, the Ninevites were called upon to abandon their wrong ways. Each “man” or person was to “turn from his evil way and from the violence that [was] in his hands.” The reference to “violence” being in the “hands” could apply to any oppressive, ruthless, or hateful actions, including deeds that did not involve the use of the hands to inflict injury. (3:8)
According to the Septuagint, the “men” or people and the animals put on sackcloth, whereas the Hebrew text (as part of the royal decree) commanded the people and animals to do so. This elliptical expression must be understood to mean that, besides covering their bare loins with sackcloth, the Ninevites were to put (or did put [LXX]) sackcloth on their animals. The Septuagint concludes with the words, “They cried out fervently to God,” and each one of them “turned from his evil way and from the injustice in his hands.” (3:8)
According to the decree in the Hebrew text, the Ninevites were to fast, refrain from drinking, put on sackcloth, and turn from their corrupt ways in the hope that God might possibly “repent” or refrain from acting against them, turning from the “burning” or fierceness of “his anger” so that they would not perish. In the Septuagint, the people are represented as saying in response to the actions they had taken, “Who knows if God will repent and turn from the wrath of his fury and we will by no means be destroyed?” (3:9; see the Notes section.)
When God saw the “works” of the Ninevites, which included their outward expressions of grief and turning from “their evil ways,” he “repented of the evil” or calamity that he had threatened to bring upon them. In keeping with his manner of dealing with nations (as later expressed through the prophet Jeremiah [18:7, 8]), he did not cause the Ninevites to experience the punitive judgment after they repented and turned away from their corrupt practices. They then ceased to be the kind of people they had been before Jonah proclaimed the message of judgment. In this context, God’s repenting refers to his choosing not to execute the severe judgment because the people had turned from their evil ways. (3:10)
There is no way to identify the king (verse 6) with any known Assyrian monarch. For additional comments, see the introduction for the book of Jonah.
The expression “by no means” (in verse 9) translates two Greek words for “not” and serves to preserve the emphatic sense.
To Jonah it “was greatly displeasing” that YHWH had spared the Ninevites from the threatened judgment. In this context, the Hebrew verb that may be understood to mean “displease” (ra‘á‘) basically denotes “to be evil” and could denote “to be badly inclined,” “pained,” or “grieved.” To indicate that this was a very intense feeling on the part of Jonah, the Hebrew expression that is linked to ra‘á‘ is the noun form of ra‘á‘ modified by the adjective meaning “great.” These two Hebrew words are commonly translated as an adverb modifying “displeasing” (“greatly,” “highly,” or “exceedingly” displeasing). The Septuagint rendering reflects a literal reading of the Hebrew text, and the beginning of the verse may be translated, “And Jonah was grieved with great grief.” (4:1)
According to the Hebrew text, Jonah also became angry (literally, “it burned to him”). The Septuagint refers to him as “confounded,” “troubled,” “disturbed,” or “confused” (synchéo). (4:1)
Jonah’s reaction may have been prompted by his belief that the Ninevites were undeserving of being shown mercy. An inscription of Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III mentions receiving tribute from Israelite king Jehu, the great-grandfather of Jeroboam II (during whose reign Jonah prophesied). (For the picture of the Assyrian monument and accompanying description, see black obelisk.) So it is very likely that Jonah considered Assyria as a potential threat to the Israelites. (4:1; see the Notes section.)
In his troubled state, Jonah prayed to YHWH, saying, by implication, that he thought that the Ninevites would be forgiven at the time he was still in his own land. Not wanting this to happen, he determined to flee to Tarshish. Jonah continued, “for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and great in kindness (chésed) and repenting of evil.” These words reveal Jonah to have been fully aware that YHWH did not desire anyone to be destroyed but wanted to show mercy, granting individuals and nations the opportunity to repent so that he could choose not to bring the threatened judgment against them. Therefore, Jonah’s plan to make an escape to Tarshish so as not to carry out his commission suggests that he had resolved not to share in motivating the Ninevites to repent and to become recipients of YHWH’s mercy. (4:2; see the Notes section regarding chésed.)
Jonah may have felt indignant that his ordeal, including the long journey to Nineveh, served a purpose that he personally resented. Yet he must have known that it was wrong for him to find fault with YHWH for sparing the Ninevites. His attitude placed him in direct opposition to his God as a bitter complainer. Frustrated and angry, he wished that he was dead, for everything had worked out in a manner that was not to his liking. So he prayed to YHWH to take away his “soul” or life, believing that it would be better for him to die than to continue to live. (4:3)
YHWH is represented as responding with a question as to whether it was right for Jonah to be angry (literally, to “burn”). According to the Septuagint, the question is, “Are you exceedingly grieved?” (4:4)
Jonah left Nineveh and seated himself “to the east of the city,” where he constructed a booth for himself, probably from tree branches and their leaves. There he sat under its shade, waiting for what would happen to the city. (4:5)
YHWH “appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a plant to come up over Jonah to provide shade over his head, delivering him from his “evil,” calamity, or discomfort. “And, because of the plant, Jonah rejoiced with great rejoicing.” (4:6)
There is no way to establish just what kind of plant grew so rapidly overnight (verse 10) as to provide Jonah with welcome shade the next day. Without a miracle, the fastest-growing bamboo (which is not native to the region around Nineveh) can shoot up nearly three feet (about 90 centimeters) in a single day. So it need not be considered incredible that God could speed up the development of a different plant, possibly a large-leaved plant of the gourd family. Indicating that the amazing growth came about through divine intervention is the fact that the plant is described as one that God “appointed,” assigned or commanded to grow. In the Septuagint, the designation for the plant is kolókyntha (“gourd”). (4:6)
Jonah was very happy about the plant, as its shade contributed to his comfort. It may also be that he recognized the plant as a kindly provision from YHWH. Despite his bitter complaint, he had become the recipient of God’s compassionate attention. So he may have taken this to mean that YHWH had not rejected him, contributing to his great joy. (4:6)
Early the next morning, God “appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a worm to “strike” or feed on the plant, causing it to wither. Based on the wording in verse 10, the worm appears to have chewed on the plant before sunrise or early in the morning while it was still dark. Again this development is represented as having taken place on account of divine intervention. (4:7)
When “the sun rose, God appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a “scorching” [charishí] east wind to blow, and “the sun beat upon Jonah’s head,” causing him to become faint or to swoon. Having been deprived of the plant’s welcome shade, he was miserable and “asked for his soul [he himself] to die,” saying that death was better for him than life. According to the Septuagint, Jonah became disheartened or depressed, and he “renounced” his “soul” or despaired of his life. (4:8)
There is considerable uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word charishí, for it is not found elsewhere in the Scriptures. The words in the Septuagint about the wind could be translated, “God commanded a hot wind to scorch.” Winds blowing from the east are hot and dry, unlike the westerly winds that can bring rain. (4:8)
God asked Jonah (as he had previously [4:4]) whether it was right for him to be angry (literally, “burn”) “over the plant.” Jonah felt justified about his reaction to the situation, saying that he had rightly “become angry” (literally, “burned”) even “to death.” The loss of shade from the plant made him more miserable on account of the heat, and he may also have concluded that God had done this to him. From the standpoint of his personal discomfort and the absence of favorable attention from his God, Jonah thought that it would be better for him to die than to continue to live. (4:9)
In response, YHWH reminded Jonah that he had neither labored upon the plant for which he had pity nor had he made it grow. It was a “son of night” and “perished in a night.” The idiomatic expression “son of night” identifies the plant as having grown in one night. In another night (early in the morning while it was still dark [4:7]), this plant had perished on account of the harm a worm did to it. (4:10)
Especially since it had provided him with pleasant shade, Jonah felt “pity” for the plant. It just did not seem right to him that a plant that had brought him pleasure should die so quickly. As far as he was concerned, it was too bad that this had happened. (4:10)
YHWH is then represented as making Jonah aware of a vital lesson. While Jonah had done nothing for the plant, he felt bad about its having withered. YHWH, on the other hand, was the Creator, and the Ninevites and their animals were part of his creation. So, as he asked Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh the great city in which there are more than 120,000 men [adhám (earthling), a collective singular referring to men or people] who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals?” (4:11)
Some commentators have concluded that the reference to more than 120,000 people not knowing their right from their left applies to small children. This, however, would be a departure from the usual meaning of the Hebrew word adhám and the corresponding Greek word in the Septuagint (ánthropos [“man”]). Unlike the Israelites who had received the law that clearly set forth what constituted upright conduct from God’s standpoint, the Ninevites did not enjoy this benefit. The environment in which they lived also contributed to making their consciences less sensitive respecting moral judgments. Accordingly, as it pertained to moral discrimination and what was acceptable to YHWH, the people of Nineveh could be described as not knowing their right hand from their left hand. As humans who had responded to Jonah’s proclamation and as part of his creation, YHWH could rightly spare them. They had repented and so had ceased to be the kind of people against whom punitive judgment had been threatened. (4:11)
For pictures of Assyrian sculptures, see Assyrian galleries.
As in verse 8(9) of chapter 2, the Hebrew word chésed in verse 2 of chapter 4 can denote “graciousness,” “enduring loyalty,” “steadfast love,” “kindness,” or “mercy.” It is a compassionate care and loving concern that expresses itself in action. In this case, the Septuagint translates chésed (modified by the word for “great”) as the compound noun polyéleos (meaning “abundant mercy,” pity, or compassion).
Tarshish is commonly linked to the Iberian Peninsula, but this identification is not certain. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) understood the place to be Tarsus in Cilicia, a region in the southeastern part of Asia Minor.