The Book of Jonah
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 15 June 2013; Revised 21 November 2014
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB" and the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009).
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).
For the context of the book of Jonah see the map of the Ancient Near East.
Jonah (Heb. Yonah; LXX Grk. Iōna), whose name meant "dove," was a court prophet who prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II (ca. 793-753 B.C.) (2 Kings 14:23-25). His name appears 17 times in the Tanakh, all but one in the book bearing his name, and 8 times in the Besekh, all in the books of Matthew and Luke (Matt 12:39, 40, 41; 16:4, 17; Luke 11:29, 30, 32). The only background information provided about the prophet is that he was the son of Amittai ("truthful"), from Gath Hepher in Galilee (about 4 miles NE of what was later Nazareth), in the region originally given to the tribe of Zebulun, west of the sea of Galilee (Josh 19:10, 13). No information is provided of Jonah's tribal ancestry. Jonah prophesied in the same time period as Amos and Hosea. Morris suggests Jonah may also have been a contemporary of Elisha and even one of the "sons of the prophets" Elisha trained (2 Kgs 6:1-7) (18).
During 8th century B.C. Assyria was the dominant power, and at the time of Jonah's ministry was contending with internal struggles and war with Syria. Under Jeroboam II Israel had security because of Assyria's preoccupation, but idolatry and decadence flourished. The Northern Kingdom of Israel would eventually fall to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The date for the book of Jonah may be about 760 B.C.
The story of Jonah, full of drama and miracles, is told in four chapters. His book does not contain prophecy per se, rather it contains the history of the prophet. Jonah is certainly an interesting character. He didn't really want to carry out the mission God gave him and yet was successful in spite of his negative attitude. What kind of prophet is that?
Chapter 1: Call of God and the Chutzpah of Jonah
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." (Jonah 1:1-2)
Without preamble the story of Jonah begins with the divine commission to go to Nineveh and announce judgment. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, located on the Tigris River about 220 miles NNW of the present city of Baghdad. It was originally built by Nimrod, grandson of Noah. The city flourished from 800 to 612 B.C. Nineveh is referred to as a "great city" four times in this short book (1:2; 3:2-3; 4:11) and was of considerable size. (See the note on chapter three below.)
Instead of obeying God, as a good prophet of Israel would do, Jonah had the audacity to head in the opposite direction (verse 3). He went to Joppa, a port of debarkation located on the Mediterranean coast. At the time Joppa was situated at the extreme north of Philistia and on the same latitude as Shiloh. Joppa is located some thirty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem. Joppa dates from 1650 B.C. and had the only natural harbor between Egypt and Tyre. When Canaan was conquered, the tribe of Dan received Joppa; but it never came firmly into Hebrew hands. The Philistines took the city, but David recaptured it. Solomon developed it into the major port serving Jerusalem. To Joppa rafts of cedar logs were floated from Lebanon to be transported to Jerusalem for Solomon's splendid Temple (2 Chron 2:16). Phoenicia had control of Joppa in the time of Jonah.
Jonah's destination is given as Tarshish, but its actual location is not certain. Tarshish is generally considered to have been a Phoenician port on the Mediterranean. Most authorities associate Tarshish with the port Tartessus at the southern tip of Spain near Gibraltar, but some suggest Tarsus in Cilicia. Others suggest a location in Italy or Cyprus. Ships from Tarshish carried high value cargo, including precious metals (Ezek 27:12, 25). Tarshish probably represents a distance that was as at least as far west of Israel as Nineveh was east of Israel. The ancient maritime trade route circled the Mediterranean in a generally counter-clockwise direction and boats did not venture far away from the shoreline. The Phoenician boat set sail up the coast in a generally northern direction, but within a short time judgment naturally fell on Jonah’s disobedience.
God sent a "great wind" (verse 4) and a "great storm" (verse 12) that severely buffeted the boat and its passengers. Hoping to spare their lives the sailors threw cargo overboard and prayed to their gods (verse 5). The sailors then decided the fault for the storm must lie with someone on board and they determined the cause was Jonah. After an extended discussion the sailors eventually agreed to throw Jonah into the sea (verse 15). They had been reluctant to eject Jonah because it would be murder, but Jonah was not about to commit suicide. They finally did as he bid them, but in the process of throwing Jonah to certain death the sailors turned to the God of Israel (verses 14, 16). So, without even trying Jonah converted some heathen sailors to the God of Israel. The spiritual change in them is apparent by comparing 1:5 and 1:14-16.
In the meantime God had prepared a new means of transportation for Jonah in a great fish (Heb. dag, verse 17) in which he spent three days and three nights. Secularists and liberal scholars have longed denied the possibility of this great miracle, but there is no logical reason not to accept Jonah's story at face value. God could have specially created a fish for the occasion, but there are several species of fish that are large enough to swallow a man. Indeed, there are stories from the history of whaling of that very thing happening. The Hebrew word for fish is a broad taxonomic category, but probably would be one that met the requirements of a clean animal. It's unlikely that the holy God would use an unclean animal to transport his prophet.
The LXX translates dag with Grk. kētos, which is used in Yeshua's mention of the event in Matthew 12:40. Some versions renders kētos in Matthew 12:40 with "whale" (ASV, DRA, HNV; KJV; RSV). The early English Bibles from Wycliffe (1395) to Mace (1729) also used "whale" in Matthew 12:40. Wesley departed from the trend and translated kētos as "great fish," even though the normal Greek word for fish is ichthus. The NASB and NRSV translate kētos as "sea monster," which implies a fantasy. Most modern versions follow Wesley's example and render kētos as "great fish," but a species of whale is very likely.
With the end of chapter one, Jonah is now in the belly of the whale. Having run away from God, we find him sinking into the sea and lifting up his voice to God in prayer.
Chapter 2: The Crucible of God and the Contriteness of Jonah
"Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish." (Jonah 2:1)
The scene in chapter two takes place first inside the whale and then outside after his deliverance. Verses 1-2 mention Jonah's prayer inside the whale and verses 3-9 contain Jonah's prayer of remembrance and thanksgiving after deliverance. Verses 2-4 read much like a lamentation psalm, but yet the entire chapter contains a detailed narrative of his experience.
Jonah mentions crying for help from the depth of Sheol, the place of the dead (verse 2), and then later expressing praise that God has brought him up from the pit (verse 6, Heb. shachath), a synonym for Sheol and located in the lower parts of the earth (BDB 1001). Morris interprets the narrative as meaning Jonah actually died and went to Sheol (75), but this creates a theological contradiction about salvation after death. Job said, "He who goes down to Sheol does not come up" (Job 7:9). The Besekh is clear that it's appointed for man to die once and after that the judgment (Heb 9:27). There is no second chance as the rich man who went to Hades found out (Luke 16:23).
Instead, the poetic description reflects Jonah's feeling of being as good as dead. The whale was symbolic of Sheol. Several psalms make the same poetic use of Sheol for suffering while still living (Ps 18:5; 30:3; 86:13; 88:3-4; 116:3). The psalmists also point out the folly of thinking one can communicate with God from Sheol (Ps 6:5; 28:1; 30:9). Jonah reported that he spent three days and three nights in the whale (1:17) and prayed from inside the whale (2:1). Nowhere does Jonah actually say that he died. The assumption that Jonah died is not unlike the assumption of people in Yeshua's day that a little girl was dead but Yeshua told the people flatly that she had not died (Mark 5:35-43).
Jonah uses parallel expressions to indicate the depth and location of his experience in the fish. In verse 2 “depth of Sheol” likely refers to the deepest point in the Mediterranean, 5,267 feet (in the Ionian Sea, south of Italy), and in verse 3 “heart of the seas” (pl. of Heb. yam) possibly means the center of the Mediterranean Sea. After all, the Mediterranean consists of a number of seas identified by the land masses with which they are contiguous (e.g., Acts 27:27). For example (from east to west), the Cilician Sea, Thracian Sea, Aegean Sea, Myrtoan Sea, Libyan Sea, Ionian Sea, Adriatic Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Ligurian Sea, Balearic Sea and Alboran Sea. See the map here.
Jonah also mentions breakers and surface waves over his head (verse 3) and that he descended to the “roots” of mountains (verse 6). In verse 5 Jonah describes himself as wrapped in "weeds" (Heb. suph, reeds or rushes, BDB 693), suggesting the condition inside the fish. The word suph in this context very likely refers to phytoplankton ("plant plankton"), which includes all kinds of drifting plants, like microscopic diatoms and algae, that float in the water. Whales are known to eat phytoplankton.
Finally, the chapter ends with God commanding the whale to vomit Jonah onto dry land (Heb. yabbashah, dry land or dry ground, BDB 387). The word yabbashah is the same word used of the dried ground of the Red Sea (Ex 14:16, 22, 29; 15:19) and the Jordan (Josh 4:22) that made miraculous crossings possible, both of which are recounted in Psalm 66:6. In other words God created dry ground for Jonah as he did in the previous great miracles. The whale did not have to beach itself on the land in order to get rid of his passenger.
Chapter 3: The Confrontation of God and the Cooperation of Jonah
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you. 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown." (Jonah 3:1-4)
The Lord again commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time Jonah obeyed. How did Jonah get to Nineveh? The most expeditious route would be if the whale deposited Jonah on the northern coast of Syria where he could connect with a trade caravan headed for Nineveh. See the map of Ancient Trade Routes. From that point it would have been a three to four week trip to Nineveh. The reader is again reminded that Nineveh was a “great city,” a three days walk. The Greek historian Herodotus described a "day's journey" as about 150 stadia (The History, Book V) or almost six miles. This would suggest that at the time Nineveh was about 18 miles in diameter with a circumference of 55 miles (Allen 221). These dimensions are comparable with many major modern cities.
God gave Jonah a very specific message for Nineveh, total destruction in forty days. Ironically, the LXX has "three days" instead of forty (ABP). Keil points out that the other Greek translators of Jonah (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion) had the number forty; and so also had the Syriac version (275). Clarke, attributing the difference to a scribal error, says that had the Ninevites only three days until judgment, the denunciation would have so completely confounded them, as to excite nothing but terror, and prevent repentance and conversion. Thus God gave them time to think, reflect, take counsel, and turn to Him.
Striking is the fact that the message from God was not "repent or else." God's judgment would fall as it did on Sodom and Gomorrah. In that story Abraham interceded for the cities on the basis of whether there were a certain number of righteous people, not whether the sinners repented. Jonah did not call for repentance as Paul did to the pagan Athenians (Acts 17:30). Even though Jonah said nothing about penitence, an amazing thing happened.
5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish. 10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
The people who heard Jonah's proclamation responded with putting on sackcloth and fasting, both symbolic of mourning over their sinful condition and repenting of their wickedness. The fast was unique in that the people abstained from both food and water. Only three other people in Scripture engaged in a total fast: Moses, Ex 34:28; Ezra, Ezra 10:6; and Paul, Acts 9:9. Even the king joined his people in humble response to God and furthered decreed that the total fast would extend to animals and that they would be covered in sackcloth as their owners. Perhaps the king reasoned as the prophet Joel:
12 Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; 13 and rend your heart and not your garments." Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD your God?" (Joel 2:12-14)
The enigma is why the people repented at all. Why would the Ninevites believe Jonah? An answer perhaps lies in the appearance and message of Jonah. Three days and three nights in the whale stomach likely bleached Jonah's skin white. While the message of Jonah recorded in his book only pronounces judgment, he probably said more than that for the king to issue a decree calling on the people to repent. Jonah likely appeared before the king and recounted his experience. This possibility is hinted at in Yeshua's reference to Jonah as "a sign to the Ninevites" (Luke 11:30). In Matthew 12:39-40 Yeshua confirms the nature of the sign as having been in the fish for three days and three nights. The combination of his physical appearance and his unequivocal message made the Ninevites believe Jonah to be an authentic prophet.
The book of Jonah with its story of Nineveh's repentance serves as an implied rebuke of Israel, as it says, "The LORD warned Israel and Judah through all His prophets (2 Kgs 17:13). So, this story complements the ministries of Hosea and Amos who prophesied to Israel during this same time period. Unlike Hosea and Amos, Jonah's mission was a success! Souls headed for destruction were saved! You would think that Jonah would have been elated. But in the final chapter we are surprised to see this prophet was less than pleased.
Chapter 4: The Compassion of God and the Complaint of Jonah
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity."
Jonah’s attitude may seem inexplicable. He was greatly displeased and angry because God did not destroy the city. As Jonah declared his anger he also demonstrates that his theology was entirely in line with biblical revelation. Jonah echoed the declaration of the Torah and the Prophets that God is gracious and forgiving.
"The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth." (Ex 34:6)
"The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression." (Num 14:18)
"The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die." (Ezek 18:20-21)
Why was Jonah angry? In his mind Assyrians deserved death, not mercy. They were the enemy. However, if God had not extended grace in response to repentance He would have violated His own Torah, which declares that there is one law for Israelite and non-Israelite (Ex 12:49; Num 15:16, 29). In fact, God pronounced a curse on anyone who denied justice to a non-Israelite (Deut 27:19).
3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life. 4 The LORD said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"
Jonah perhaps assumed rightly that his friends and family would not understand why God did not carry out the judgment He decreed. Jonah did not preach repentance as the apostles would later do in Gentile cities. The message to Nineveh was simple and straightforward. Perhaps he felt that if he went home without his prophetic message being fulfilled he would be discredited as a prophet. After all God had declared in His Torah, "When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously" (Deut 18:22). So, Jonah would rather die than face potential shame at home.
God responds by asking the first of three rhetorical questions. "Do you have good reason to be angry?" The words "good reason" renders the Heb. yatab, which means to be good, glad, well or pleasing. BDB translates as "are you rightly angry?" (405). There could also be the nuance of "does being angry make you happy?" Jonah wisely did not respond to God's question, but it's still a good question. David counseled, "In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent" (Ps 4:4 NIV).
5 Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city.
Jonah still hoped that God would destroy the city, so he decided to tarry in the area. He camped a safe distance away so he would not be caught in the fiery blast from heaven. The word for "shelter" is Heb. sukkah, which normally referred to a rude or temporary shelter for cattle. Sukkah was also used of the booths made of boughs and branches from leafy trees during the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:39-43). The shelter was a substantial structure. Jonah may have chosen the east side of the city for his camp since the Tigris River was on the west. The fact that the shelter cast a shadow may mean that it was the summer season or at least a hot time of the year. Morris suggests that Jonah's bleached skin was painfully sensitive to the sun, so he remained in the shade.
6 So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. 7 But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. 8 When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life." 9 Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death."
Jonah was not doing much self-evaluation on the real cause of his anger, so God decided to provide an object lesson. God gave Jonah a plant and so for a brief time he enjoyed its shade. The Heb. word is qiqayon, a garden plant of unknown variety. The KJV has "gourd," but speculation ranges from a castor-oil tree to a bottle gourd (BDB 884). Whatever it was it grew rapidly and became large enough to provide shade. Such rapid growth can only be accounted as a providential miracle.
However, the very next day God appointed a worm to eat the plant and it withered, Heb. yabesh (to dry up, to wither, BDB 386). Plants are not alive so when plants cease to be able to process photosynthesis of the sun and transport nutrients from the soil, the plant dries up (Gen 41:23; Ps 37:2; 90:6; Matt 13:6; John 15:6). Plants do not die since they don't have souls. After destroying the plant with the worm God then sent a hot wind out of the east to increase Jonah's misery. Jonah again resorted to self-pity. God tried to prick Jonah's conscience with the second rhetorical question, but Jonah's answer indicates an unwillingness to admit the truth.
10 Then the LORD said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?"
God rebuked Jonah with a dose of truth. God said that Jonah had compassion or pity for something transitory. While no mention is made of what Jonah did that constituted empathy, it may be the Jonah watered the plant. Yet God points out that plants only grow because God causes them to grow. The process of plant growth is much too complex for man to control all the elements. So God asks His third rhetorical question, “Should I not have compassion?” (v. 11) After all, God implies, "you had compassion on that which has no soul and will never live again, whereas I had compassion on thousands of souls who will live eternally somewhere." Among those thousands were 120,000 who did not know their right from their left. This idiomatic expression may indicate mental infancy and refer to the number of children under the age of seven. Learning to distinguish right from left is a developmental process in children. If this is the meaning, then the total population could have been as much as 600,000, not impossible for the boundaries of Nineveh.
The fact that God "relented concerning the calamity which He had declared" (3:10) suggests for some a contradiction. Scripture declares,
"God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" (Num 23:19)
"He is not a man that He should change his mind." (1 Sam 15:29)
"For I the LORD do not change." (Mal 3:1)
The truth is that God did not change his mind about the city. He simply responded in grace for those who repented. The final biblical references concerning Nineveh are from the prophet Nahum (3:7) and Zephaniah (2:13), who predicted the devastation of Nineveh by the attack of the allied Medes and Chaldeans, which occurred in 612 B.C. By 500 B.C. the prophet's words “Nineveh is laid waste” (Nah 3:7) were echoed by the Greek historian Herodotus who spoke of the Tigris as “the river on which the town of Nineveh formerly stood” (The History, Chap. I). So, Nineveh did indeed receive its judgment from God, only seventy years after Jonah's mission to the city.
Jonah does not seem to be a very likable character, so why would this book be included in the canon? Unfortunately, many Bible interpreters are prone to judgmentalism toward characters in the Tanakh, often imposing a standard that not even God required. Those of us in the West have not experienced the kind of oppression that exists in Islamic countries where attacks on Jews and Christians are commonplace and where conversion to the God of Israel is a death sentence for a Muslim. Too many professed Christians refuse to criticize the actions of Islamic countries or even Palestinian terrorists that seek daily to kill and maim citizens of Israel. Would we be so indifferent if it were our families being slaughtered and our churches being bombed? No, we would cry with the martyrs of Revelation, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6:10).
Yet, God from the beginning desired the whole world to know His grace and mercy. Jonah was the first missionary to the Gentiles, but God had no intention of stopping with him. After the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria a few decades later God repeated His will through Isaiah:
"Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. … I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, and I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations." (Isa 42:1, 6)
"It is not enough that you are merely my servant to raise up the tribes of Ya'akov and restore the offspring of Isra'el. I will also make you a light to the nations, so my salvation can spread to the ends of the earth." (Isa 49:6 CJB)
"Pay attention to me, my people! My nation, listen to me! For Torah will go out from me; I will calm them with my justice as a light for the peoples." (Isa 51:4 CJB)
Jonah is one of those prophets lauded in Hebrews 11:32, whom "women received back by resurrection” (Heb 11:35). Whatever his personal shortcomings might have been Jonah obeyed God and preached the message God wanted Nineveh to hear. Jonah's personal prejudice had no influence on God's mercy. However, the significance of Jonah did not end with his mission to Nineveh. His sufferings and service became a sign of something greater to come in the ministry of Yeshua and his descendant Simon Peter.
A Sign of the Messiah
The true significance of Jonah's mission to Nineveh would not be realized until the coming of Yeshua the Messiah.
Sign of Salvation for the Nations
"So that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned." (Matt 4:14-16 ESV)
Jonah represented the prophecy found in Isaiah 9:1-2 of light dawning from Zebulun (cf. Ps 107:10-14), since his birthplace was located in the area belonging to the tribe of Zebulun. The promise of light was echoed in the prophetic sermon of Zechariah: "Through our God's heart of mercy, the Sunrise from on high will come upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of Shalom" (Luke 1:78-79 TLV). Yeshua is that Light (John 1:4-9).
The light would be given to those who sit, that is, those who have given up, those without hope, those who have joined the scoffer by turning away from Torah (Ps 1:1) and gained the dregs of life instead of its joy. Thus two metaphors, 'darkness' and 'in the shadow of death', are used to describe their bleak condition. The Israelites were in darkness because of their rebellion against God. Yet, when salvation came to Israel in the person of Yeshua the knowledge of God's mercy spread to the nations. As the light from Heaven Yeshua demonstrated God's intention for the Gentiles to receive the knowledge and mercy of God. On four occasions Yeshua brought ministry to the lives of Gentiles.
● In Capernaum Yeshua healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matt 8:13).
● While visiting the cities of Tyre and Sidon in Syria Yeshua healed the demon-possessed daughter of a Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15:21; para. Mark 7:24).
● Yeshua visited the Decapolis, a region of 10 Greek cities. While there he healed a deaf and dumb man (Matt 15:29-31) and fed 4,000 people (Matt 15:32-39).
● Yeshua visited the region of Caesarea Philippi, located in the northern most part of the Tetrarchy of Philip. There on the slope of Mt. Hermon Yeshua revealed his Messianic purpose (Matt 16:13-28). Then he freed a demon-possessed boy (Matt 17:14-18).
Sign of the Suffering and Risen Messiah
"But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given it but the sign of Yonah, the prophet. 40 For as Yonah 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 eretz." (Matt 12:39-40 HNV)
Jonah grew up only a few miles from Nazareth, the childhood home of Yeshua. Yet, the fullest typology of the Messiah was being swallowed and imprisoned by a whale for three days and nights. In mentioning Jonah to the Pharisees Yeshua treated Jonah’s story as true history, which is appropriate since Jonah was the son of Amittai (“truthfulness”). Jonah was a type of the Messiah in that he was willing to die to save those in the boat (Jon 1:12-15; John 10:15-18). Neither could commit suicide to accomplish deliverance. Both the sailors and the Sanhedrin/Pilate were guilty of murder (cf. Jon 1:15; Acts 2:23; 7:53).
Jonah's experience with the whale not only symbolized suffering and death, but also resurrection. God did not allow the whale to keep hold of Jonah and in like manner the tomb could not hold Yeshua (Acts 2:24; Heb 2:14). Most interpreters have regarded a literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40 to contradict all the other time references for the resurrection, and so they attempt to explain the "three days and three nights" as rhetorical rather than literal. Consider: was Jonah's experience rhetorical or literal? In reality Matthew 12:40 is a simple prediction based on a comparison, not a parable with symbolic meaning. In reality, there is no substantive conflict between Yeshua's prediction to the Pharisees and his prediction given to his disciples.
Yeshua obviously did not spend three days and nights (72 hours) in a tomb nor did he spend that length of time in Hades (cf. Eph 4:8-10; 1 Pet 3:18-20), because his spirit went to Paradise after death (Luke 23:43). The phrase "heart of the earth" should be translated "heart of the Land" by which he meant being confined in Jerusalem, just as Jonah was confined by the fish. In Yeshua's prediction the time clock ending in resurrection begins with his arrest, not his death. See my commentary on Mark 8:31 for more discussion on this topic.
Sign of Messiah's Judgment
But He answered and said to them, "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." (Matt 12:41 NASB)
Yeshua asserted that Nineveh’s repentance at the preaching of Jonah will condemn unbelieving Jews at the judgment (cf. Matt 16:27). He probably had in mind the judgment that occurs after the Second Coming. (See my commentary on Matthew 25:32-41.) While the religious leaders of Israel recoiled at the suggestion of being condemned while Gentiles would be saved, they knew God's standard as told in the story of Jonah. In the end no one can be saved by their ethnic identification, but all may be saved by the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua (John 1:13; Rom 9:6; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 3:28; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 7:27; 1 Pet 3:18).
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