With friends recently, Jonah and the whale came up in conversation, a story even those who’ve never read a word of the Bible are familiar with from one source or another. It is remarkably well-known mostly because it is the “big fish” story, and one that has been repeated down through the ages in settings far apart from Bible study. Like so many stories in the Bible, Jonah’s three days in the belly of a fish make for a good story, and one that has proven especially effective with children. The Book of Jonah is an ancient piece of narrative literature written sometime between the late fifth to early fourth century BC. Naturally enough, the story has its roots in a deeply foreign culture and was written in a language far from English. It is included among the other prophetical books of the Bible, but unlike others contains only three or four lines of prophesy. The story revolves around an ordinary man trying to run from a God-given mission. Like all good literature, the story has plot, character and theme that work as effectively today as they did with early Jewish listeners.
Jonah was a prophet from the city of Galilee sometime between 780 BC and 760 BC. During this period of history, Assyria was a powerful nation and Israel’s most dreaded enemy. The Lord speaks to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and preach to the people there. Jonah’s mission is to warn the people to repent or suffer the consequences of their wickedness. Unwilling to undertake such a mission, Jonah takes off in the opposite direction. Attempting to hide out from God Jonah goes to the port of Jaffa where he boards a boat headed away from Nineveh. God sends a violent storm, which threatens to destroy and sink the ship and the terrified sailors cast lots, determining that Jonah is responsible for the storm. Afraid of God, the sailors finally toss Jonah into the sea, whereupon the water immediately grows calm. Instead of drowning, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. He remains in the belly of the fish for three days, time enough for him to repent and cry out to God in prayer. God then commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.
This time Jonah obeys God and traveling to Nineveh, walks through the city streets proclaiming that in forty days the city will be destroyed. The crowds believe Jonah’s message and repent. God has compassion and does not destroy them. But once again Jonah questions God, angry that Israel’s enemies have been spared. Resting outside the city, God provides a vine to shelter him from the hot sun and Jonah is happy with the shade. The next day God sends a worm to wither the vine. When Jonah complains, God scolds him for concern over a vine and his disinterest in the fate of Nineveh and its 120,000 people. The story ends with God expressing his concern even for the wicked.
The Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam, contains many stories and events also found in the Bible, and while the stories are generally comparable in most respects, important differences sometimes emerge. The story of Jonah in the Qur'an is similar to the Biblical story.
In the Qur’an version God sends Jonah as a messenger to an unnamed people. When the people reject his message, Jonah abandons them in anger, and flees like a runaway slave, failing to realize that God would hold him accountable. The ship that he boards runs into a storm and he ends up being thrown into the sea. According to one tradition, the people at that time believed that runaway slaves bring ill luck to a ship. No one on Jonah’s ship admits to being a fugitive slave, so the crew decides to take lots. The lot falls on Jonah, and he is cast into the sea, whereupon a great fish swallows him. The implication is that Jonah is indeed a fugitive slave, not trusting God and escaping from the mission God has given him. In the darkness of the fish’s belly Jonah says a prayer, words that become the key to his deliverance. Were it not for his honest repentance he would never have gotten out of the fish. Thus, Jonah’s prayer is the turning point of the story. Soon after his prayer, God rescues Jonah bringing him to the shore. Thereafter, he is sent back to those same people to deliver his message. God foregoes the impeding destruction of the city, and allows the people to enjoy their life during the time allotted them.
The name of Jonah has in modern times come to carry a particular meaning in certain circumstances. Sailors call a person whose presence on board brings bad luck and endangers the ship ‘a Jonah.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the classic example of a bad luck ‘Jonah,’ the sailor cursed to be lost at sea after killing an albatross. The meaning was gradually extended to include a person who carries a jinx, who will bring bad luck to any enterprise.