How do some contemporary audiences understand the book of Jonah?
The first time I ever encountered the book of Jonah was through a plush toy. Children could unzip the mouth of the big, blue whale and neatly place Jonah inside to be zipped back up. One website that sells such a toy teaches the child (or perhaps the parent?), “God gave Jonah a very important job, but Jonah did not want to do it. He tried to run, but he could not hide. God sent a big fish to teach Jonah a lesson! (Jonah 1-4) Children can make this story come to life with this cuddly, soft play set.”
For many, the first thought that comes to mind when hearing the book of Jonah is the incredible story about a person being swallowed by a whale. And here I mean incredible in the sense of unbelievable or impossible. Can whales (or rather fish, as the Hebrew word dag suggests) really swallow humans only to be vomited up later unharmed?
Despite the pressing concerns of modern readers about the feasibility of surviving three days in the digestive system of a fish, this was not a central question for many of Jonah’s early interpreters. Instead, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpreters throughout history have grappled with other issues like divine providence, the role of the prophet, and Jonah as an antetype of Jesus of Nazareth in this short four-chapter book.
How have some early interpreters understood the book of Jonah?
One Jewish text from the eighth century CE explains Jonah’s flight from God: “Jonah argued within himself, saying, ‘I know that the nations are [close] to repentance, [and] now they will repent and the Holy One, blessed be He, will direct his anger against Israel. And is it not enough for me that Israel should call me a lying prophet; but shall also the nations of the world [the Gentiles] (do likewise)?’” (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer [translation by author]). In this case, Jonah is interested in his own prophetic reputation and care for the people of Israel. The rabbis here understand Jonah as a prophet concerned with the question of what happens to a prophet and their reputation if God has changed his mind (Jonah 3:10).
Many Christian theologians connected Jonah’s three-day sojourn in the fish to Jesus of Nazareth’s three days in the tomb. In the preface to his Commentary on Jonah, fifth century patriarch Cyril of Alexandria does just this, citing a text from the New Testament to conclude that “the mystery of Christ, therefore, is foreshadowed and somehow represented to us in the story of the divinely inspired Jonah; I shall see it as my task to explain that to the readers” (translation by Robert C. Hill). Thus, the positive attributes Cyril sees in Jonah—preaching to the gentiles and willingly undergoing death for three days—are those characteristics he will point out as also foreshadowing the character Jesus.
Meanwhile, Surah 21 in the Quran summarily describes Yunus’s (Jonah) wrongdoing, his repentance, and finally the moral of the story: “And (remember) Dhu ’n-Noon (Jonah of the fish), when he went away in anger and imagined We will not test him (with distress). Then he called out in the darkness: ‘There is no god other than You. All glory to You; surely I was a sinner.’ We heard his cry, and saved him from the anguish. That is how We deliver those who believe” (translation by Ahmed Ali). In this passage, Yunus flees angrily from God, believing the prophet could escape from his presence. Yet when faced with his punishment, Yunus confesses the Shahadah and repents. The brief retelling of the story of Yunus instructs the reader about the saving actions of the deity.
While Jonah’s whale captures the imaginations of many modern readers today, interpretations of Jonah throughout history display an interest in other components. From the eighth-century Jewish text that questions the possibility of prophesy through a deity who changes his mind to the Quran’s didactic retelling of Jonah’s situation, the brief book of Jonah continues to inspire a remarkably wide variety of interpretations.