Updated: Apr 24, 2020
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,