Updated: Apr 24
Do you know the whole story of Jonah? Likely you've heard the story titled something like “Jonah and the Whale” where Jonah is running away from God, then swallowed by a fish, and finally listens to God and tells the people of Nineveh to stop doing bad things. It's often used as a lesson to teach the importance of obeying God.
This isn't just a children's story
This “children's story” is often skipped over in adult reading because we “already know it”, or because it's one of those stories that seems a little far-fetched. I'm no different. I hadn't given Jonah a thought in a long time, at least until I was reading through Luke and came upon Jesus saying this,
“As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, 'This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation . . . The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.'” - Luke 11:29-30, 32
The parallel text in Matthew does something slightly different and says this,
“But he answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 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.'” - Matthew 12:38-40.
For a long time, I thought Luke was saying the same thing as Matthew, that the sign is Jesus' death and resurrection in three days. Yet, while both talk about Jonah and speak of his preaching, Luke doesn't mention the whale at all.
Why is this story different in Matthew and Luke?
Variations in the text are not mistakes, are they aren't meant to be mashed together. They show the writers emphasizing different aspects of the same story.
So the sign of Jonah is not only Jesus' death and His resurrection three days later as Matthew points out. Luke seems to be highlighting the importance of the preaching of Jonah and Jesus.
Let's go back to the story of Jonah to find the history of Jonah and Nineveh, and see why their story is highlighted in Scripture.
Who (and when) was Jonah?
Jonah is called the son of Amittai in Jonah 1:1. It came as a surprise to me that Jonah is also mentioned in the book of 2 Kings 14:25,
“He [Jeroboam] restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.”
This king, Jeroboam II, ruled Israel from about 786-746 BC according to the resources on Logos. (Remember, at this time the promised land was currently divided, with ten tribes called Israel ruled by one king, and two tribes in Judah—which included Jerusalem—ruled by another king.) This king's name gives us a general date of the book of Jonah to be placed.
To place this timeline within familiar contexts, in the days of Jonah, the prophet Elisha has recently died. (2 Kings 13:20) Two of Jonah's contemporary prophets in Israel are Amos and Hosea, who prophesied during the reign of the same king (Amos 1:1 and Hosea 1:1). In the land of Judah, it is the time of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1). This is an era when many prophecies are being spoken out against Israel because she is playing the “harlot” and chasing after other gods and the ways of other countries. Jonah, being less than eager to go to Nineveh, likely saw the city as a corrupting influence on God's people.
What was Nineveh?
Nineveh was a city in ancient Assyria on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, which is now in modern-day Iraq. The ruins have been found near the city of Mosul, Iraq. Though the location was known prior, excavations began in 1842. Many artifacts were removed and taken to various museums. Huge statues can be seen in the British Museum with the famous lion's bodies and human heads. The ruins of great palaces, libraries of cuneiform clay tablets, carved reliefs, and other priceless relics have been unearthed, revealing a dazzling city. Sadly, in modern times, neglect, war, vandals, and looters have damaged the site, and it is still at risk.
In its height, Nineveh was larger than Babylon. Jonah describes it as taking three days to walk across and supporting 120,000 citizens! Jonah wasn't sent to some obscure town, this was the center of the ancient world, and everyone had heard about it.
The first mention of Nineveh is in Genesis 10:11, shortly after the flood. Assyria reappears in the history of Israel in 2 Kings 15:19, and we see Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria in 2 Kings 19:36.
What Were The Prophecies of Nineveh's Destruction?
So we see in the familiar story that Jonah goes to Nineveh and they repent by dressing in sackcloth, even putting sackcloth on their animals. (This is not usual, and might comically illustrate how little the people of Nineveh understood about the God of Israel.) The book of Jonah ends with God challenging Jonah about His decision to have compassion on a vast city with people who don't even know their right hand from their left, perhaps a barb at their ignorance.
However, Jonah is not the only one to prophesy Nineveh's doom.
Here is a timeline with some important facts for this story:
1. Jonah went to Nineveh sometime around the reign of Jeroboam king of Israel, but not necessarily during his reign. I'm going to use this king, Jeroboam II, as a starting point for this timeline.
2. Assyria begins exacting money from Israel about 10 years or so after Jeroboam's death. (2 Kings 15:19)
3. Assyria (with Nineveh as their capital) captures many cities in Israel in 2 Kings 15:29. This is during the reign of Pekah, who began his reign only 13 years after Jeroboam's death.
4. Assyria besieges Samaria in 2 Kings 17:5 and carries Israel away into exile in 17:6. This is during the 9th year of Hoshea king of Israel, only about 42 years after Jeroboam, when we know Jonah was living. Many historians put the date of Israel's captivity around 722 BC.
5. Zephaniah, who prophesied after the fall of Israel, speaks against Assyria and Nineveh in Zephaniah 2:13-15.
6. The book of Nahum gives a little more detail of what Nineveh was like. This prophecy of Nineveh's doom (also given after Israel's captivity) takes place between the destruction of No-amon in 633 BC (Nahum 3:8) and the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, some 100 years after the beginning of Israel's captivity.
What Do The Other Prophets Have To Say?
The three contemporaries of Jonah—Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah—each reveal more of the picture of why Israel was allowed to be carried off to captivity, and what God's plans were for Nineveh and Assyria.
Hosea begins with a story of the prophet being commanded to take a harlot for a wife, to illustrate the way the people keep playing the harlot and chasing after other gods and the ways of other nations. Hosea speaks of God's people seeking protection from other countries instead of trusting to God. (Hosea 7:11; 8:8-9). All this leads to Israel's punishment, though He has plans to woo her back.
Amos has harsh words for the sins in the land of Israel. (Amos 2:6-8).
Isaiah, who was a prophet in Judah during the rule of Uzziah through Hezekiah, lived at the time Israel was taken away by Assyria. Like the writer of 2 Kings 17:7-23, Isaiah sees Assyria, evil as it is, being used as a "rod" for the correction of wayward Israel. (Isaiah 10) Yet, included in this acknowledgment that Israel is being disciplined, Assyria will have her own punishments. Isaiah says,
“So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, 'I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.'” - Isaiah 10:12
Coming back to the story of Jonah
Knowing a little more about Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria—a country that did not honor God—we can understand better why Jonah preferred their destruction over their forgiveness. Jonah could not find compassion in his heart for his rich and proud enemies.
It is possible, if he lived to a ripe old age, that Jonah might have lived to see the city that God spared take Israel captive. If he did, what did he feel? We can only imagine.
Yet God, in His compassion, allowed the current inhabitants of Nineveh to survive—though He surely knew future generations would scorn Him. The story of Jonah is a powerful example of how God does not simply desire to be the God of Israel, He has plans for the whole world to live under His lovingkindness.
How does Jesus use the story of Jonah?
The story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 highlights some of these same emotions we see playing out in Jonah's experiences. How can someone who has done so much wrong be forgiven? The obedient son sees his wayward brother, who has squandered his father's wealth on prostitutes, is welcomed home with a feast, and it angers him.
The power of God's forgiveness is astounding! For those who are the wayward sons, all they have to do is turn to God and He will welcome them home! For those who are obedient sons, they must learn to forgive and accept as God does.
While I'd prefer to end on this pleasant note, I'm curious about the rest of what Jesus says about Nineveh, and how it would sound to Jesus' listeners.
Jesus speaks of judgment for the unrepentant by saying that the people of Nineveh will cast judgment on “this generation” in Luke 11:32. This would be deeply insulting to Jesus' listeners! Nineveh would judge the people of God? Would this painfully remind them of Assyria being used as a rod against Israel like in Isaiah 10?
There is a judgment that comes to Jerusalem for refusing to listen to Jesus' call to repent.
The prophecies in Luke 21:20-24 are a painful reminder to the Jewish people of their time carried away into captivity because of their unbelief. The temple and Jerusalem fall to Rome in 70 AD, less than forty years after Jesus says these words. The fulfillment of Jesus' prophecies is in itself a sign to an unbelieving generation.
Is this why both Matthew and Luke include this saying in their gospels in slightly different ways? Perhaps Matthew wanted to highlight Jesus coming glory through His death and resurrection, and Luke wanted to emphasize his theme of God calling and accepting the outsiders and the lost.
The story of Jonah is multilayered, with several things to take away beyond the whale and Jonah's surly attitude. I had so much fun digging into the historical world of Jonah, I get a little rush when I learn something new! If you learned something new today, please share it in the comments!