The Meanings and Gleanings of Jonah the Prophet

“Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights,* so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:40)

Andrea Vaccaro, “Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites,” 17th Century
Andrea Vaccaro, “Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites,” 17th Century (photo: Public Domain)

Jonah is a remarkable prophet. He is more than a forecaster of God’s revelations, more than a preacher of persistent patience, or impending wrath. To readers, Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim, his story is inspiring from many angles, some awakening and others retold from the pulpit to ears familiar with the basics.

I think Jonah is unique in this sense. All of the Old Testament prophets, minor and major, have a special aspect to them, but Jonah is the one we most identify with, and Jonah is the one whom Christians especially look to as an inimitable forerunner.

The first thing we notice about Jonah is how he is troubled and conflicted, as we all tend to be, representing the inner doubt and temptation common to all people. Jonah, a prophet who must go where God send him to preach the message as given, decides that instead, he will deal in his own terms. When God commands that he must preach justice and mercy to the incomprehensibly sinful city of Nineveh, his idea is to board a ship to head to the farthest reach of his known world, Tarshish. His eager act is suddenly not unlike the world we see in abundance in our present day — a generation raised on Christian values running away from God’s commands.

Yet, Jonah is also an icon of victory. Eventually he acknowledges his imminent and just demise and the unjust demise of those mariners on the ship’s deck, and his heart is moved, if only imperfectly. Finally, after being swallowed by a fish and somehow surviving, he offers a sincere prayer and thanksgiving and once spat up, regains his composure and set out to complete the mission of origin. Even after his disputation over the whole matter, most historical scholars report a happy ending.

Parents have to be exceptionally enamored with this story. Doesn’t it reflect nearly every frustrating correction we give our children? In the way God handles Jonah, we find patience, consistency and mercy. All the way to the end, in fact — as the bush that is one of Jonah’s only comforts shrivels, he exclaims it would be better to die! And how many times have our kids thrown themselves on the floor in a fit over a disproportionate estimation of the facts? Even adults aren’t immune.

Even the smallest children, too, know and cherish the story of Jonah. They are rapt — as are adults — with the idea of a person residing in a whale for three days. A cartoon I saw as a kid has him with a campfire in the belly of the beast. Kids, too, are able to piece together the over-the-top message of disobedience and repentance, and moreover grasp the central message: God’s universal mercy.

Adults, not just those with children, are struck in a different way, but perhaps with astonishment in the same measure. A bona fide prophet, doubtful of the Lord’s command? It’s a confusing bit of irony that causes us to introspect until we realize we’ve also gone the opposite direction of what God has asked of us.

The many perspectives are good, but we can’t do well if we forget that Jonah was also a real person. These events are true, not some ancient Hebrew poetry puzzle.

The Hebrews of Jesus’s time didn’t just appreciate the prophet — they honored him. So, when Jesus compared himself to Jonah, it was a sharp jab: “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” (Matthew 12:39).

For the Hebrews, the message wasn’t merely mathematical. That Jonah was in the belly for three days was referencing the mode in which salvation would come. Jesus chose his words carefully. Note he uses “as” rather than “like.” “Like” being a comparison and “as” joining two clauses, Jesus is indicating more than a similitude to the prophet’s time in the belly. In other words, Jesus means “In the way Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be…” Of course he wasn’t speaking English but his spoken language would render the same effect.

For this reason, Christians interpret Jonah and his story as fundamental to the Christian message. In the catacombs of Rome, and in fact a special tomb in Krka National Park in Croatia (ancient Illyricum) where Paul is said to have preached, the sign of a fish is carved into the earthen clay, and on tablets of stone. Why? It is because the fish of Jonah represents God’s plan of salvation for no just Nineveh should their hearts be moved, but for all mankind who choose to accept it.

And of course this is what Jonah could not bear. He, in his great love for God, does not want to share ultimate deliverance with a pagan race. Other prominent commentors say that Jonah’s disobedience was not motivated from a suppression of mercy but for his intense appreciation for God’s fidelity to Israel. Rabbis have also preached that Jonah understood more than we realize, for he understood God’s complete mercy and knew that his god could not be unmerciful to a repentant nation, and likewise would not withhold an equal justice on his one people for their continued waywardness. In a sense, Jonah was attempting to save Israel.

Whatever the case, this made him farsighted. And we find the same in Jesus, giving the sign of Jonah to his farsighted accusers. His message of universal mercy will put the incredulous Pharisees to shame — their missionary was not a mere prophet but the Son of Man himself.

We’ve all had our Jonah moments. And deep in the belly the ship, or deep in the belly of the whale, we are bewildered with confusion, impatience and our disproportionate estimation of God’s providence. Reflecting on Jonah, in times is such struggle offers a generous and gentle peek behind the frames that cause our own farsightedness.

I recently found this helpful lesson in the writing of Father Paul Murray. A Journey with Jonah offers a thorough look at this prophet, whose spiritual gait is capable of helping overcome our bewilderment in order to consider God’s providence and live a happy life.