The Prophet Jonah And His Book
Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor)
ACCORDING TO THE BOOK OF JONAH, was the son of Amittai. He lived in the eighth
century before Christ and he was born in the city of Gath-hepher in the land of
Zebulun, five miles north of Nazareth. We know from (2 Kings 14:25) that he
prophesied in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (782-753 BC). At the
beginning of his mission he was known and loved because he foretold Israel’s
victory and the restoration of its original borders (from Hamath in the north
to the sea in the south).
God allowed him to remain a prophet over Israel. During Jeroboam’s reign the land of Israel was extremely fertile (2 Kings 14:24) and God blessed both Israel and Judah with abundance. The people, however, took this for granted.
During Jonah’s mission Assyria was being attacked by the Orarto mountain tribes. There was no war in the West of Palestine until the coming of Tiglath-pileser III in 745 BC, who re-established Assyria’s power. While Assyria was under pressure, Israel prospered and continued to protect its fortresses, strengthen its defenses and fortified cities and build up its army through diplomacy with other nations.
When the kingdom of Israel heard that Jonah was proclaiming God’s judgment on Nineveh, they treated Jonah as a national hero. But Israel did not realize that God was free to deal with Assyria kindly and transfer His wrath to Israel, this seemed utterly unjust.
The name Jonah means dove. The sources of information about him are the book of the same name, the references in 2 Kings 14:25 concerning his mission, and the New Testament books where Christ referred to his stay in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights as a picture of himself. Jonah was a contemporary of the prophets Amos, Hosea, and Micah.
Israel’s prophet had been called by God to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh because of its increasing sinfulness, but Jonah had tried to escape this mission. He boarded a ship going to Tarshish, that is Cilicia, in Asia Minor, not in disdain of God’s mission, but, as proved later, because he knew God would relent and have mercy on Nineveh and as a consequence Jonah’s position would become precarious. At the same time he was afraid of being treated harshly by the Assyrians. Jonah boarded the ship and fell asleep and God raised a great storm that began to sink the ship. Finally the sailors discovered Jonah’s secret and Jonah suggested that they throw him overboard to calm the sea and save the ship, which they did. God brought a whale, said to be of the ‘Zafa’ species, with a throat as wide as a tomb’s entrance, and the whale swallowed him. God miraculously kept Jonah alive for three days and three nights. The whale finally vomited him onto the shore. Then Jonah agreed to go to Nineveh. He went to Nineveh and three times proclaimed the judgment of destruction that would befall the city in forty days. But Nineveh, its king and all its people repented and declared a fast.
At the time, Assyria was a powerful empire surrounded by other countries and Nineveh was a great city with a large population. Following Jeroboam’s death, Israel was under tribute to Assyria during the reign of its king Menahem (2 Kin 15:19). During Jeroboam and Jonah’s days Assyria was in relationship with Palestine. Tiglath-pileser I (1114 – 1076 BC) extended Assyria’s borders by invasions which reached westwards to the Mediterranean sea. In 853 BC Shalmaneser II invaded Palestine and attacked many kings, among whom were Ahab and Ahaz in Karkar, after-which the Israelites paid tribute to Assyria during the reigns of Jehu, Josiah and Hoshea.
Nineveh was the last capital of the Assyrian empire. It lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris River and was destroyed in 612 BC by a combined force of Medians, Babylonians, and Scythians. It was founded by Nimrod (Gen 10:9,10) and is mentioned in the cuneiform Babylonian manuscripts.
Nineveh in the book of Jonah is called “that great city” meaning a city with boundaries (Gen 10:11,12). It is one of the cities the Assyrian kings has ruled from since 1100 BC. The description of its size and huge population in the book of Jonah agrees with other historical information. At that time Nineveh had sunk into debauchery, corruption and evil not less than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet Nahum spoke concerning the extent of its debauchery.
Jonah appeared in Nineveh during the days of one of the following known kings: Nerari III (810-783 BC), Shalmaneser IV (782-773 BC), Assyr-dan III (772-755 BC), Assyr–nerari V (754-745) or Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC). If the time of Jonah’s entry to Nineveh was during the reign of King Assyr-dan III, a plague is known historically to affected the city then, and it could have been seen by the Assyrians as symbolizing God’s anger and thus preparing them for Jonah’s message.
The Book’s Genuineness and Aim
The book contains two miraculous events: The first is that Jonah survived incarceration in the belly of a whale for three days and nights and the second is the castor plant that grew up to become a shelter for Jonah and then withered within a day.
Added to these two events is the miracle of the people of Nineveh’s repentance in response to a message from a foreign prophet of a foreign God.
Scholars have entered into innumerable discussions and there have been unprecedented criticisms of the book. But the book has stood towering and firm, refuting critics with its miraculous historical facts. There are also many other reliable scholars who avow the book’s genuineness and assert that it can be accepted symbolically or as a lesson. But actually it is a historical, prophetic account, because the prophet is mentioned in other historical books that confirm the truth of his name, existence, acts and times.
The intention of the prophecy is to continue to teach Israel to accept that repentant nations may share in the blessings of faith in God and the salvation that Israel had first received for the sake of all nations (Gen 12:1-3). At the same time it was to correct Israel’s outlook as a chosen people living apart from other nations or as ‘chosen people’ among the rest of the nations. That God should show His mercy towards Nineveh and that Jonah, as an Israeli, should refuse the mission and flee, tells us something of Israel’s stance. So God uses Jonah’s repentance and acceptance of the mission to correct the outlook of Israel itself. The situation in which God admonishes Jonah for his sorrow for the castor plant and his lack of sorrow for the destruction of a great city is a lesson of great importance for Israel and reveals God’s love for the gentile nations and the whole world.
Yet the symbolic meaning of the book in no way minimises the prophetic facts and the depth of their historic authenticity as being a Divine truth equal to the truth of Christ’s death and entombment three days and three nights. Christ Himself mentions this, proving the truth of Jonah’s mission and the account of the whale to be a picture of Christ’s death and entombment (Mt 12:40).
Nineveh’s repentance was an event which was an example for Israel to follow. Israel had refused to accept Christ as the Messenger of truth. Jonah had declared to the pagan city that God’s anger was imminent if it did not heed the call to repent, fast and cover itself in ashes. Unlike Nineveh, Israel did not listen to Christ who was sent from Heaven, neither did it repent or fast but instead denied Christ and crucified Him. It refused to accept God’s warning and was consequently destroyed.
In the Old Testament Nineveh prophesied to Israel and stood as a sign to Israel concerning the future day of the Lord, not only the day of Christ, but also the day of judgment. It is a witness against Israel, as Christ said:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Mt 12:40, 41).
Even though the miracles in Jonah’s prophecy seem, from some critical scholars’ point of view, unscientific, they are not unfeasible. God wanted to use them as a lesson to the whole world and not only to Israel. The miracles of Jonah; the storm, the casting of lots that indicated Jonah’s guilt, Jonah’s willingness to be thrown into the sea, his survival in the whale’s belly for three days and nights, the whale vomiting him out whole after his time of prayer and fasting, the castor plant that appeared and withered and the repentance of the people of Nineveh, are all miracles equivalent to the miracles of Israel’s and every soul’s salvation. They are like the miracle of the flood and renewal of the earth afterwards. God makes use of heaven, earth and all creation to teach man to recognize that He is the Omnipotent God. What is this lesson compared to the lesson of man’s salvation through Christ the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son of God?
Jonah’s book is simple, composed of four chapters, each relating one of the four phases of the story. The second chapter is Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving, written in rhythmic balanced verse. The other chapters are the historical account of Jonah’s experience.
The book mentions Nineveh being a great city (3:3), with a huge population. In Jonah’s days this was due to its being a capital surrounded by numerous other cities. The event happened in 782 B.C., the first year of the reign of king Jeroboam and at the beginning of Jonah’s service (2 Kg 14:25), which means that Jonah’s prophecy occurred in the eighth century before Christ.
God, the great Jehovah, appears in Jonah’s prophecy as free to show mercy and compassion to whoever He chooses; all man needs to do is submit and follow His plans that are for the good. It also shows that He is the God of all nations.
It is extraordinary that Jonah the messenger of salvation to heathen Nineveh should, on the way to his mission, remain in the whale’s belly three days and three nights in resemblance of Christ who came to save the world and remained inside the earth for three days and three nights. Christ himself pointed out this resemblance. Jonah is the prophet of incarnation and salvation, the prophet of death and resurrection, the prophet of joyful tidings to the repentant heathen, the prophet who on the day of judgment will stand by to hear the city of Nineveh witness against the unrepentant.
Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale
“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
passed over me.
Then I said ‘I am cast out
from thy presence;
how shall I again look
upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2: 2-9)
Booklets on the Nativity and the Christian Life
by Father Matta El-Meskeen:
(1) The Hidden Aspect of the Nativity: The Kingdom of God.
(2) The Aim of the Christian Life.
(3) “When you pray, say: Our Father in Heaven”.
(4) The Birth of Christ is our Life.
(5) Be Transformed: A Message to those who Look Forward to a Better Life.
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