For other uses, see Jonah (disambiguation).

Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Born 9th century BC
Died 8th century BC
Venerated in Judaism
Major shrine Tomb of Jonah (destroyed), Mosul, Iraq
Feast September 21 – Roman Catholicism
July 31

Jonah or Jonas (Hebrew: יוֹנָה, Modern Yona, Tiberian Yônā; dove; Arabic: يونس Yūnus, Yūnis or يونان Yūnān ; Latin: Ionas) is the name given in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/Old Testament) to a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC. He is the eponymous central figure in the Book of Jonah, famous for being swallowed by a fish. The biblical narrative of Jonah is repeated, with a few notable differences, in the Quran.

In the Hebrew Bible

Oh Jonah!
"Oh Jonah!", a Gospel music summary of the Book of Jonah, sung by the Golden Jubilee Quartet.

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Jonah is the son of Amittai,[1] and he appears in 2 Kings[2] as a prophet from Gath-Hepher, a few miles north of Nazareth. He is therein described as being active during the reign of the second King Jeroboam (c.786–746 BC), and as predicting that Jeroboam will recover certain lost territories.

Jonah is the central character in the Book of Jonah. Commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it "for their great wickedness is come up before me,"[3] Jonah instead seeks to flee from "the presence of the Lord" by going to Jaffa, identified as Joppa or Joppe, and sailing to Tarshish, which, geographically, is in the opposite direction. A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing that it is no ordinary storm, cast lots and discover that Jonah is to blame. Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard, the storm will cease. The sailors try to dump as much cargo as possible before giving up, but feel forced to throw him overboard, at which point the sea calms. The sailors then offer sacrifices to God. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish in whose belly he spends three days and three nights.[4] While in the great fish, Jonah prays to God in his affliction and commits to thanksgiving and to paying what he has vowed. God commands the fish to spew Jonah out.

God again commands Jonah to visit Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants. This time he goes and enters the city, crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown." After Jonah has walked across Nineveh, the people of Nineveh begin to believe his word and proclaim a fast. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, making a proclamation which decrees fasting, sackcloth, prayer, and repentance. God sees their repentant hearts and spares the city at that time.[5] The entire city is humbled and broken with the people (and even the animals) in sackcloth and ashes. Even the king comes off his throne to repent.

Displeased by this, Jonah refers to his earlier flight to Tarshish while asserting that, since God is merciful, it was inevitable that God would turn from the threatened calamities. He then leaves the city and makes himself a shelter, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed. God causes a plant (in Hebrew a Kikayon) to grow over Jonah's shelter to give him some shade from the sun. Later, God causes a worm to bite the plant's root and it withers. Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and desires that God take him out of the world.

And God said to Jonah: "Art thou greatly angry for the Kikayon?" And he said: "I am greatly angry, even unto death."
And the LORD said: "Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night;
and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?"
Book of Jonah, chapter 4, verses 9-11[6]

Jonah in Christianity

On the Last Judgment fresco, Michelangelo depicted Christ below Jonah (IONAS) to qualify the prophet as his precursor.

In the New Testament, Jonah is mentioned in Matthew 12:38–41, 16:4 and Luke 11:29–32. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes a reference to Jonah when he is asked for a miraculous sign by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Jesus says that the sign will be the sign of Jonah. Jesus implies that Jonah's restoration after three days inside the great fish prefigures His own resurrection.

39He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here."
Gospel of Matthew 12:39-41 (New International Version [NIV] ed.) .[7]

Jonah is regarded as a saint by a number of Christian denominations. He is commemorated as a prophet in the Calendar of Saints of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church on September 22. On the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar his feast day is also September 22 (for those churches which follow the traditional Julian calendar; September 22 currently falls in October on the modern Gregorian calendar). In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Book of Jonah is chanted in its entirety at the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday before Pascha. He is commemorated as one of the Twelve Minor Prophets in the Calendar of saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 31. Jonah's mission to the Ninevites is commemorated by the Fast of Nineveh in Syriac and Oriental Orthodox Churches.[8]

The apocryphal Lives of the Prophets, which may be Jewish or Christian in origin, offers further biographical details about Jonah.

Jonah in Judaism

The Book of Jonah (Yonah יונה) is one of the twelve minor prophets included in the Tanakh. According to tradition, Jonah was the boy brought back to life by Elijah the prophet, and hence shares many of his characteristics (particularly his desire for "strict judgment"). The Book of Jonah is read every year, in its original Hebrew and in its entirety, on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, as the Haftarah at the afternoon mincha prayer.

Teshuva – the ability to repent and be forgiven by God – is a prominent idea in Jewish thought. This concept is developed in the Book of Jonah: Jonah, the son of truth (the name of his father "Amitai" in Hebrew means truth), refuses to ask the people of Nineveh to repent. He seeks the truth only, and not forgiveness. When forced to go, his call is heard loud and clear. The people of Nineveh repent ecstatically, "fasting, including the sheep," and the Jewish scripts are critical of this.[9] The Book of Jonah also highlights the sometimes unstable relationship between two religious needs: comfort and truth.[10]

Jonah in Islam

Jonah and the fish, Jeremiah in wilderness, and Uzeyr awakened after the destruction of Jerusalem
Jonah and the Whale in the Jami' al-tawarikh (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jonah (Yunus in Arabic, or Yunan for Christian Arabs) is highly important in Islam as a prophet who was faithful to God and delivered His messages. In Islam, Jonah is also called Dhul-Nun (Arabic: ذو النون; meaning The One of the Whale). Chapter 10 of the Qur'an is named Jonah, although in this chapter only verse 98 refers to him directly. It is said in Muslim tradition that Jonah came from the tribe of Benjamin and that his father was Amittai.[11] Jonah is the only one of the Twelve Minor Prophets[11] of the Hebrew Bible to be mentioned by name in the Qur'an.

Jonah's Qur'anic narrative has some similarities as well as substantial differences to the Hebrew Bible story. The Qur'an describes Jonah as a righteous preacher of the message of God but a messenger who, one day, fled from his mission because of its overwhelming difficulty. The Qur'an says that Jonah made it onto a ship but, because of the powerfully stormy weather, the men aboard the ship suggested casting lots to throw off the individual responsible. When the lots were cast three times and Jonah's name came out each time, he was thrown into the open ocean that night. A gigantic fish came and swallowed him, and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish repenting and glorifying God. As the Qur'an says:

So also was Jonah among those sent (by Us).
When he ran away (like a slave from captivity) to the ship (fully) laden,
He (agreed to) cast lots, and he was condemned:
Then the big Fish did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
Had it not been that he (repented and) glorified Allah,
He would certainly have remained inside the Fish till the Day of Resurrection.
Qur'an, chapter 37 (As-Saaffat), verse 139–144[12]

God forgave Jonah out of His mercy and kindness for the man, and because he knew that Jonah was, at heart, one of the best of men. Therefore, the fish cast Jonah out onto dry land, with Jonah in a state of sickness. God caused a plant to grow where Jonah was lying to provide shade and comfort for him. After Jonah got up, fresh and well, God told him to go back and preach in his land. As the Qur'an says:

But We cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness,
And We caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
And We sent him (on a mission) to a hundred thousand (men) or more.
And they believed; so We permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while.
Qur'an, chapter 37 (As-Saaffat), verse 145–148[13]

In Hadith

Jonah is also mentioned in a few incidents during the lifetime of Muhammad. In some instances, Jonah's name is spoken of with praise and reverence by Muhammad. According to historical narrations about Muhammad's life, after ten years of receiving revelations, Muhammad went to the city of Ta’if to see if its leaders would allow him to preach his message from there rather than Mecca, but he was cast from the city by the people. He took shelter in the garden of Utbah and Shaybah, two members of the Quraysh tribe. They sent their servant, Addas, to serve him grapes for sustenance. Muhammad asked Addas where he was from and the servant replied Nineveh. "The town of Jonah the just, son of Amittai!" Muhammad exclaimed. Addas was shocked because he knew that the pagan Arabs had no knowledge of the prophet Jonah. He then asked how Muhammad knew of this man. "We are brothers" Muhammad replied. "Jonah was a Prophet of God and I, too, am a Prophet of God." Addas immediately accepted Islam and kissed the hands and feet of Muhammad.[14]

One of the sayings of Muhammad, in the collection of Imam Bukhari, says that Muhammad said "One should not say that I am better than Jonah".[15] This is understood by both mainstream Muslims and historians to have been stated by Muhammad to emphasize the notion of equality between all the prophets and the law of making no distinction between any of the messengers. The Arab tribes of the time may have begun to exalt Muhammad above Jonah because of the recent revelation Muhammad received, which recounted the story of Jonah's fleeing from his mission. Muhammad, by saying this, clearly made it a point to the Arabs to not make any distinction between the great apostles of God.

Tomb at Nineveh

At the present time, Nineveh's location is marked by excavations of five gates, parts of walls on four sides, and two large mounds: the hill of Kuyunjik and hill of Nabi Yunus (see map link in footnote).[16] On Nabi Yunus there was a shrine dedicated to the prophet Jonah, which was revered by both Muslims and Christians, as it was believed to hold Jonah's tomb.[17] The Tomb of Jonah was a "popular place of pilgrimage for people who would come from around the world to see it, before the arrival of ISIS in Mosul".[18] On July 24, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant destroyed the masjid containing the tomb as part of a campaign to destroy religious sanctuaries it deemed to be idolatrous.[19]

Jonah in sailors' superstition

A long-established expression among sailors uses the term "a Jonah" to mean a person (either a sailor or a passenger) whose presence on board brings bad luck and endangers the ship.[20] Later, this meaning was extended to "a Jonah" referring to "a person who carries a jinx, one who will bring bad luck to any enterprise."[21]

The fish

Depiction of Jonah and the "great fish" on the south doorway of the Gothic-era Dom St. Peter in Worms, Germany

Interpretations of the "fish" fall into a variety of categories:[22]

  1. A big fish or whale (of unspecified species) did indeed swallow Jonah.
  2. A special creation (not any fish we know of) of God accomplished the act.
  3. There was no fish: the story is an allegory, the fish is a literary device in the story, the story is a vision or a dream.


Though it is often called a whale today, the Hebrew, as throughout scripture, refers to no species in particular, simply saying "great fish" or "big fish" (whales are today classified as mammals and not fish, but no such distinction was made in antiquity). While some biblical scholars suggest the size and habits of the great white shark correspond better to the representations given of Jonah's being swallowed, normally an adult human is too large to be swallowed whole.[23]

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translations), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol[24] (דג גדול) or, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, dāḡ gā·ḏō·wl (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל), which means "great fish."[24][25] The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as kētei megalōi (κήτει μεγάλῳ), meaning "huge fish,"[26][27] and in Greek mythology it was closely associated with sea monsters, including sea serpents.[28] Jerome later translated this phrase as piscem grandem in his Latin Vulgate[Ionas 2:1]. He translated kétos, however, as ventre ceti in Matthew 12:40: this second case occurs only in this verse of the New Testament.[29][30]

At some point cetus became synonymous with "whale" (the study of whales is now called cetology). In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe" and the word kétos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in Matthew 12:40 as "whale". Tyndale's translation was later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611. Since then, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale. In English some translations use the word "whale" for Matthew 12:40, while others use "sea creature" or "big fish".[31]

In Turkish, "Jonah fish" (in Turkish yunus baligi) is the term used for dolphin, often shortened to just yunus.

Suggested literal interpretations

Some believers claim that God, being omnipotent, altered things as needed and sustained Jonah – the same as in other miraculous accounts in the Hebrew scriptures. Other believers claim {Dr. Brant Pitre, The Case for Christ: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ} that Jonah died in the belly of the great fish, and was resurrected by God since in Matthew 12:40 Jesus himself associated this event in Jonah's life with his own death and resurrection.{[32]}

The largest whales—baleen whales, a group which includes the blue whale—eat plankton and "it is commonly said that this species would be choked if it attempted to swallow a herring."[33] As for the whale shark, Dr. E. W. Gudger, an Honorary Associate in Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, noted that "while the mouth is cavernous, the throat itself is only four inches wide and has a sharp elbow or bend behind the opening. This gullet would not permit the passage of a man's arm". In another publication he stated that "the whale shark is not the fish that swallowed Jonah."[34][35]

Various locations associated with Jonah

Depiction of Jonah in a champlevé enamel (1181) by Nicholas of Verdun in the Verduner altar at Klosterneuburg abbey, Austria.

Suggested connections to legends

Joseph Campbell suggested a parallel between the story of Jonah and the epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh obtains a plant from the bottom of the sea.[38] In the Book of Jonah a worm (in Hebrew tola'ath, "maggot") bites the shade-giving plant's root causing it to wither, while in the epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh plucks his plant from the floor of the sea which he reached by tying stones to his feet. Once he makes it back to the shore, the rejuvenating plant is eaten by a serpent.

Campbell also noted several similarities between the story of Jonah and that of Jason in Greek mythology. The Greek rendering of the name Jonah was Jonas, which differs from Jason only in the order of sounds—both os are omegas suggesting that Jason may have been confused with Jonah. Gildas Hamel, drawing on the Book of Jonah and Greco-Roman sources — including Greek vases and the accounts of Apollonius of Rhodes, Gaius Valerius Flaccus and Orphic Argonautica[39] identifies a number of shared motifs, including the names of the heroes, the presence of a dove, the idea of "fleeing" like the wind and causing a storm, the attitude of the sailors, the presence of a sea-monster or dragon threatening the hero or swallowing him, and the form and the word used for the "gourd" (kikayon). Hamel takes the view that it was the Hebrew author who reacted to and adapted this mythological material to communicate his own, quite different message. The Greek sources are, however, several centuries later than the Book of Jonah and the form Jonas which is similar to Jason is from the Septuagint translation of the book.

Jonah being swallowed by a great toothed sea-monster. Sculpted column capital from the nave of the abbey-church in Mozac, 12th century.

Biblical scholars have speculated that Jonah may have been in part the inspiration behind the figure of Oannes in late Babylonian mythology.[40] The deity name "Oannes" first occurs in texts from the Library of Ashurbanipal (more than a century after the time of Jonah) as Uanna or Uan but is assimilated to Adapa, a deity first mentioned on fragments of tablets from the 15th or 14th century BC found in Amarna in Egypt.[41][42] Oannes is described as dwelling in the Persian Gulf, and rising out of the waters in the daytime and furnishing humanity instruction in writing, the arts and the various sciences. Berossus describes Oannes as having the body of a fish but underneath the figure of a man—a detail that, some biblical scholars suggest, is not derived from Adapa but is perhaps based on a misinterpretation of images of Jonah emerging from the fish. Scholars of Mesopotamian mythology, however, suggest that Adapa was likely associated with fishing and depicted in half-fish form many centuries before the story of Jonah appeared.[41] Nineteenth-century Irish amateur scholar William Betham speculated that worship of Oannes is the origin of the cult of the Roman god Janus.[43]

Jonah is mentioned twice in Chapter 14 of the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, the conclusion of which finds Tobit's son, Tobias, at the extreme age of one hundred and twenty seven years, rejoicing at the news of Nineveh's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus in apparent fulfillment of Jonah's prophecy against the Assyrian capital.

See also


  1. Jonah 1:1
  2. 2 Kings 14:25
  3. Jonah 1:2
  4. Jonah 1:17
  5. Jonah 3:5–10
  6. Jonah 4:9-11
  7. Matthew 12:39–41
  8. "Three Day Fast of Nineveh". Syrian orthodox Church. Retrieved 1 February 2012.
  9. "Sanhedrin", Babylonian Talmud, 61a.
  10. Bashevkin, Dovid. "Jonah and the Varieties of Religious Motivation." Lehrhaus. 9 October 2016. 11 October 2016.
  11. 1 2 Encyclopedia of Islam, Yunus, pg. 348
  12. Quran 37:139–144
  13. Quran 37:145–148
  14. Summarized from the book of story of Muhammad by Ibn Hisham Volume 1 pg.419–421
  15. Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:55:608
  16. "Link to Google map with Nineveh markers at gates, wall sections, hills and mosque". 2013-03-19. Retrieved 2014-06-29.
  17. "ISIS destroys 'Jonah's tomb' in Mosul". Al Arabiya. 25 July 2014. Retrieved 28 July 2014. The radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has destroyed shrines belonging to two prophets, highly revered by both Christians and Muslims, in the northern city of Mosul, al-Sumaria News reported Thursday. "ISIS militants have destroyed the Prophet Younis (Jonah) shrine east of Mosul city after they seized control of the mosque completely," a security source, who kept his identity anonymous, told the Iraq-based al-Sumaria News.
  18. Hafiz, Yasmine (25 July 2014). "ISIS Destroys Jonah's Tomb In Mosul, Iraq, As Militant Violence Continues". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  19. "Officials: ISIS blows up Jonah's tomb in Iraq". 2014-07-24. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
  20. The New York Times Afflicted with a Jonah; The Sea Captain's Fear of Parsons Sons Wednesday, March 6, 1885.
  21. Jonah. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 11th Edition. Retrieved October 06, 2012.
  22. McCurdy, George. "Minor Prophets:Major Messages". Dove Press. Retrieved December 9, 2008.
  23. Theological Topic Search Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  24. 1 2 "Yonah - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (LXX)". Blue Letter Bible. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  25. "Interlinear Bible: Greek, Hebrew, Transliterated, English ...". Bible Hub. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  26. "Matthew 12:40 - for just as JONAH...". Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  27. Robertson, A. T. (197x). Word Pictures in the New Testament - Matthew. CCEL. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-610-25188-4. ISBN 1-61025188-1.
  28. "Theoi Project "Ketea" entry". Retrieved 2014-06-29.
  29. Ziolkowski, Jan M. (2007). Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales. The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-11568-6. ISBN 0-47211568-5. Although most text of the Bible refer vaguely to the monster that swallowed Jonah as a "great fish" [piscis grandis]...Christian commentators were predictably unanimous in following Jesus in assuming that the "great fish" was in truth a whale (cetus in the Latin of the Vulgate Bible at Matthew 12:40" (p. 81).
  30. Parris, David Paul (2015). Reading the Bible with Giants. How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts. Second Edition (2 ed.). Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1-625-64728-3. ISBN 1-62564728-X. What is the way that Jerome...translated the references to the big fish in Jonah and Matthew. [...] In translating Matt 12:40, however, he follows the Greek text and says that Jonah was in the ventre ceti—the belly of the whale/sea monster" (p. 40).
  31. Huber, Walt; Huber, Rose (2013). How Did God Do It? A Symphony of Science and Scripture. Victoria, British Columbia: Friesen Press. ISBN 978-1-460-21127-4. ISBN 1-46021127-8. The word whale is never used in the book of Jonah. The only biblical reference to "Jonah and the whale" appears in the New Testament in Matthew 12:40 (KJV & RSV). [...] Whale is not used in the other translations: TEV uses big fish; NLT, great fish; and TNIV, huge fish" (p. 216).
  32. Pitre, The Case for Christ; The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Chapter 12: The Resurrection
  33. Lydekker's New Natural History, Vol, III, p. 6
  34. The Scientific Monthly, March, 1940, p. 227
  35. Froth And Fraud In Fundamentalism, "Essays of an Atheist," Woolsey Teller. Copyright 1945, The Truth Seeker Company, Inc.
  36. A second look at the land of Israel by Prof. B.Z. Kedar
  37. ISIS militants blow up Prophet Jonas’ tomb in Iraq – video RT. July 25, 2014
  38. Campbell, Joseph (1988). The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press. pp. 90–95. ISBN 0-586-08571-8.
  39. Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean context, Judaism Summer, 1995.
  40. H. Clay Trumbull, Journal of Biblical literature, Volumes 11–12, Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis (U.S.), 1892
  41. 1 2 Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford World's Classics, 1989
  42. K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst: Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible Edition 2, revised, B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999
  43. Royal Numismatic Society, Proceedings of the Numismatic Society, James Fraser, 1837
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