Jonah, book of the Old Testament, one of 12 brief prophetic books known, chiefly because of their brevity, as the Minor Prophets.


The book relates a number of incidents in the life of an 8th-century bc Hebrew prophet named Jonah. In the first incident, Jonah is commanded by God to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2). Jonah, however, seeks to flee by ship from “the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10). A tempest arises; the frightened, reluctant mariners cast Jonah overboard (on Jonah’s request), and he is swallowed by “a great fish” (1:17). In consequent incidents, Jonah prays from the belly of the fish (2:1-9), is subsequently “vomited out … upon the dry land” (2:10), and again is commanded to “go to Nineveh … and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (3:2). Jonah preaches (3:3, 4), the people repent (3:5-9), and God, seeing their works, spares them (3:10). In the final incident, God reproves Jonah for being “displeased … exceedingly” (4:1) after he spares “more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (4:11).


Many modern biblical commentators and scholars regard the book as an allegory or a parable, because little has been found to support it as a historical narrative. No word, for example, of any mass repentance like that described in Jonah is preserved among the known historical records of ancient Assyria. Moreover, on the basis of internal evidence, some scholars now maintain that the Book of Jonah is the work of an unknown, postexilic (that is, after 538 bc) author (not, as tradition holds it to be, the work of the historical prophet Jonah). This evidence includes the late form of Hebrew used by the writer and his apparent familiarity with certain biblical books dating from the immediate preexilic and the postexilic periods. Other scholars still believe that it may date from some time between Jonah’s age and the destruction of Nineveh, that is, between the mid-8th century bc and 612 bc.


Much discussion has also arisen over interpretations of the book considered as allegory or parable. The story of Jonah and the fish that swallows and later disgorges him is often taken by Christians to prefigure the entombment and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself compares his entombment with Jonah’s confinement in the belly of the whale (see Matthew 12:39-41). Other commentators see in the story of Jonah a parable concerning the unwillingness of the Jews to proclaim God’s word to the eager Gentiles and their consequent historical fate. Jews, on the other hand, interpret the book as an illustration of God’s universal mercy.


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