Jonah the prophet swallowed by a fish

It seems people could have issues with the fact that apparently he was swallowed by a fish as it reads in the OT, but in the NT (Matthew 12:40), it reads a whale. People wonder if there was a mistranslation, and how this could be so. The purpose of the book is to illustrate that God delayed the destruction of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire for almost a century – so we see the powerful mercy of our God. His Salvation is not only for the Jew, Jonah’s nation, but also for all humanity and even the enemy. If the wicked shall repent and turn to God, God would be merciful to them.

Sources verifying Jonah’s calling and work

  • 2 Kings 14:25-27 – This refers to the fact that the Lord spoke through Jonah the Prophet.
  • Matthew 12:38-42 – This refers to the fact that there was a sign of the Prophet Jonah, for Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days – and therefore, the Son of man would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. The old Jonah had been declared before, but the new Jonah is now here.
  • Matthew 16:4 – This is a reference to Christ comparing Himself to Jonah. Jonah was in many ways an important sign and type of Christ. This generation was seeking a sign and couldn’t find it, so the Lord points the Pharisees to the sign of the Prophet Jonah – which, comparing to Jonah, there are many different ways that Jesus had compared to him:
    • Jonah was thrown overboard by his shipmates – Christ was delivered to His death by the Jews.
    • Jonah was willingly thrown overboard – Christ laid down His Life, and Man couldn’t take it.
    • Jonah was thrown into the sea to save the others on the ship – Christ in His death had saved people.
    • Jonah, after three days in the belly of the whale, was cast up onto dry land – Christ rose again on the Third Day!
  • Luke 11:29-32 – Here, Christ promised one more sign be given, as the sign of Jonah – to which, He warns them not to avoid the sign. People had repented at the preaching of Jonah – and the same shall be done here, so God’s People can be saved. Christ is telling them that the same sign is apparent here, is that Man has sinned, and atonement is necessary (He plans on atoning).

Jonah’s background

Tradition says: Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath and therefore was the lad whom Elijah had raised from the dead; they are one and the same. Jonah was a native of Gath-hepher, near Nazareth, this would make him most likely a Galilean. His mission was to the city of Nineveh – which he would deliver a message to the Ninevites.

Jonah’s Prophetic Office is confirmed and vouched for by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 12:38-42. He was unlike Jesus in Commitment: Jonah, overlooking repentant Nineveh, pouted; Jesus, overlooking unrepentant Jerusalem, wept. Jonah has been called “The Elder Prodigal son” of the Old Testament. The people of Nineveh believed God, as we see in 3:5, and proclaimed a fast and wore sackcloth. They lastly repented at the word that came through Jonah. God saw their works, as we see in 3:10, and that they repented – so God repented of the evil (which means He withdrew what He was going to do).

Lessons of value for all people

  • Self-will always brings destruction, for it is futile to resist the will of God.
  • Do not rush to meet the storms of life without God.
  • God loves and seeks Salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile.
  • You cannot escape from God.
  • Your sin always affects others.
  • A right Spirit quick to obey, and one full of thanksgiving, pleases God.

Actual Evidence Jonah Bible Study with Archaeology of Nineveh

Aquileia Basilica of Jonah Swallowed by the Serpent – CC-BY-SA of Yukio Sanjo

During the reign of Jeroboam II for the Israel side of the divided kingdoms, and during the reign of Amaziah on the Judah side – there was a prophet named Jonah. He was a disobedient man of God until the adversity he faced resulted in proper action and obedience.

While we won’t be posting the entire Scripture of Jonah due to its length, please read the Book of Jonah when you have a chance. We review Jonah below…

The Book of Jonah, written by Jonah around 760 BC, was about a prophet named Jonah who was to preach about God to the Ninevites during the reign of Jeroboam II. The book talks about the journey of Jonah being called, his disobedience, swallowing by the fish, doing God’s work, and the lesson he learned about God’s mercy.

God had called Jonah to warn the sinful people of Nineveh of a coming judgment (because they were unrepentant). However, Jonah decided to be disobedient and flee away from the place, and went into the opposite direction. God, then, because of the disobedience, wanted Jonah to come back, so He sent a storm that threatened to sink Jonah’s ship. Therefore, Jonah’s men decided to pray to their gods and wanted him to do the same. However, Jonah didn’t see much change in this, and therefore, Jonah didn’t pray. Soon, Jonah had realized this could be God’s judgment for his disobedience, and therefore, he confessed his sin before God. Jonah was so repentant in this situation, that his men started acknowledging God. However, they decided nothing else would save them, so they threw Jonah overboard. God had a great plan then and sent a great fish to swallow Jonah to save Jonah from drowning.

Now in the belly of the fish, Jonah awoke and began a psalm of thanksgiving for the salvation of his life by God. After that, he felt his life was in danger, because he sunk so deeply into the fish, however, then God had saved him from the fish entirely. Therefore, after this, God commanded him again to go and preach unto the Ninevites, for the Ninevites had to repent. Jonah obeyed God this time around. The message from God was that the Ninevites would be overthrown within forty days. Jonah then preached this unto them, and they came to repentance to God because of the warning. Because of their repentance, God did not destroy them after all.

God was teaching Jonah a lesson through all this, not only about his disobedience, but also about God’s mercy – for God was indeed a loving God, but also just. Humans through history have completely misunderstood God, and until the coming of Jesus Christ, haven’t understood God’s loving and merciful nature. People still misunderstand God, but thankfully, God is still revealing Himself through His Word, everyday situations, and the Holy Spirit. Anyway, Jonah was afraid to preach in Nineveh, because of the potential destruction coming unto them, but God wanted Jonah to know that there was nothing to be afraid of or angry at – for if he were to preach in Nineveh, they might listen and heed the warning. This caused Jonah to realize that God wanted Jonah to be the carrier of His Message so that Nineveh could be saved – for God’s Message was one of salvation, not of doom. God always expresses messages of salvation and love, not of doom and misfortune. He only wants the best for people, and therefore, He thought the same of the Ninevites, just as the other nations: they can be saved if they will repent.

Jonah was thankful overall for God’s salvation and had realized God’s mercy, and repentant for his disobedience. People in their ignorance can face destruction for their unrepentant and disobedient hearts. Jonah did not want to be one of these people, so God gave Jonah a mission, he declined and faced near destruction – to which, he repented and received God’s mercy. This became his testimony, therefore, he could now go and minister unto people that they need to repent, because God is merciful and saved him – and therefore, he would save the Ninevites after all, if they repented.

Archaeological and Historical Evidence

The connection between archaeology and this book have been quite difficult, and some of the different themed literature, such as the Akkadian Hymn to Shamash, describes the troublesome predicaments of different sailors. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be a fisher, because of the risks of harsh seas, capsizing, boat accidents/damage, and other various issues. Research in texts such as Ugarit describe Yam, the Ugaritic god of the sea, as a dragon with a fish tail.

We also see in the Mesopotamian Descent of Inanna speaks of Inanna’s bemoaning, that if she were to stay in the belly of the fish for three more days, then lamenting shall begin. Other than that, fifth century BC texts from Greek historian, Herodotus, describe the Persian custom of slicing off horses’ manes as a mourning procedure, similar to how fasting was done in the lamentation process of funerals in this time in Greek history.

Due to the difficulty of the historicity of this era, we have emerging evidence, however. We layer the detail line-by-line below to describe each archaeological find. Any questions, please post in the comments…

Tarshish: The location of this city or region has yet to be identified as certain. Although, we do see it in Genesis 10:4, so its use in Jonah is not mistaken, because it was near Kittim, which we can traditionally identify with Cyprus. Antiquity remarks that it was quite distant from Israel—which is already remarked in First Kings 10:22. Of course, Jehoshaphat built ships at Ezion-geber in the Red Sea to travel to Tarshish. Yet another clue to the puzzle. Here’s where it is interesting and conclusive: It is likely Tarshish was a port just as Joppa was. This evidence is next in the discovery, we only need a few more clues.

The great fish: As said earlier, it was possible this was of a Ulgaritic god, the sea god Yam, which is depicted in various boundary stones uncovered regarding giant fish. Since it appears a giant fish swallowed up Jonah, we see the Christian historical text; however, Baal believers thought confidently and asserted it was actually the sea god Yam that swallowed up Jonah. See Job 38:17 and Isaiah 38:10 for more info on this idolatry.

Nineveh: This was situated, according to the mapping atlas available, between the Tigris and Khoser Rivers (as we see this is located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq). As we see in Genesis 10:11, Nimrod created Nineveh and ruled it. The rule of Nineveh later was attributed to the Assyrians, as it shows in the Assyrian Empiric history of 1420-609 BC. The great revival of Assyrian power occurred in and around 1000 BC. Nineveh had become a royal city, which was before Jonah’s time (c. 760 BC). The library of King Assurbanipal is found around the area where Nineveh was (Ezra 4:10 remarks similar finds) – and this discovery was around the reflection of how Nineveh operated just after Jonah’s time (this find dated around 669-627 BC). What we do know as well, is that the literature from Assyrian archives confirm these finds as well as the city being quite large, so the number of about 120,000 people seems correct. Modern surveys also confirmed this in comparison, because of the size of this city. (See Bob Harper’s “Assyrian and Babylonian Literature” of 1901 from D. Appleton – and Marcus Parker’s “Ulgaritic Narrative Poetry. Writings from the Ancient World” and Dennis Pardee’s “Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Writings from the Ancient World” from Atlanta Society of Biblical Literature).

Donald J Wiseman contended once that there is sufficient evidence historically describing a large repentance of Ninevites in response to Jonah’s prophetic utterings (see Jonah 3:4). A list of events leading to Nineveh’s Repentance was marked for around 758 BC, and are dated as follows:

  • 787 BC: Monotheistic worship of the god Nabu began
  • 765 BC: Assyrian plague began
  • 763 BC: Asshur city revolt began and a solar eclipse erupted
  • 762 BC: Asshur revolt again
  • 761 BC: Arrapha city revolt
  • 760 BC: Arrapha revolt again; Jonah begins prophetic work
  • 759 BC: Another plague erupts
  • 758 BC: A repentance begins in the land (in response to Jonah’s obedience in prophetic utterance)
Art from antiquity: Inside the Huqoq Synagogue, there are mosaics depicting Jonah’s journey, being swallowed by the great fish, and the wars and scenery from the Ninevite time. The Huqoq Synagogue sits near Capernaum to the west, and Northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Architectural fragments are found just outside of Huqoq city, and Joshua 19:34 mentions Huqoq as a village apportioned to the Tribe of Naphtali – meaning this is a Jewish village. (Reference: Journal of Roman Archaeology 27 (2014), pp. 327-355). There are different workings of art related to this story of Jonah, including the similar depiction of Jonah being swallowed by a serpent in Aquileia’s church in Italy.

This evidence is not exhaustive and does not represent all of the possibilities in verifying Jonah’s prophetic work, but what we do have is evidence that the Ninevites repented due to a prophecy by an obedient man of God. This is important, because it was able to release the Ninevites from corruption at that time.