Esor Ben-Sorek

Jonah and the Whale Who Wasn’t

The biblical Book of Jonah can be found in the collection of twelve minor prophets. Containing only four chapters it is the smallest book in the Bible and yet is one of the most popular. Jonah ben Amittai lived during the reign of King Jereboam II. His story reveals his conflict with the God of Israel.

God commissioned Jonah to travel to the wicked Assyrian city of Ninevah and there he was to prophesy to the people to abandon their evil ways or to face God’s wrath and destruction.

Jonah believed the mission was futile, convinced that the people of the large city of Ninevah would never repent and so he took a ship sailing from Jaffa to Tarshish in Spain in an effort to escape from his God. In that period, the idea of a universal God was not yet known. Each nation or kingdom had their own individual god who had power only to those living within the individual kingdom. Therefore, Job thought by fleeing from the God of Israel, He could have no power over him as he fled to another country in order to be freed from God’s command.

A great storm shook the ship and waters began to pour in. The captain urged each man to pray to his god for safety and deliverance from the storm. When nothing caused the storm to abate, the captain turned to Jonah and urged him to pray to his God. Believing that prayer was futile, Jonah admits that his God had caused the storm and the only way for it to subside was by throwing him overboard.

In the sea, as Jonah is close to drowning, God send a great fish to swallow him up. The Hebrew reads “dag gadol”, a big fish and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, the Septaguinta,the term used is “ketos megas”, a huge fish. William Tyndale translated the Greek And came up with the word “whale” which was included in the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 and has been popular ever since in English versions.

However, there were no whales in that part of the world and so the Hebrew “dag gadol, big fish” and the Greek “ketos megas, huge fish” are the accepted translations of biblical scholars today.

In short, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah. To believe to the contrary is a whale of a lie !

From the belly of the big fish, Jonah repents and pleads with God for mercy. And when a man truly repents, God responds. He caused the big fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land and from there he continued on his mission to Ninevah.

He preached God’s message of imminent destruction unless the Ninevites ceased from idol worship and turned to the One God of Israel. To Jonah’s amazement, the king and all the people of his kingdom repented their evil ways and begged for the mercy of God.

Jonah was angry. He had come all the long way and had endured dangers and sufferings hoping that Ninevah would be destroyed. His disappointment was great and he climbed a hill and sat in the heat of the sun moping. God took pity on him and created a vine to grow above him to shelter him from the beastly rays of the sun. But shortly after, the vine withered, dried up and died.

Jonah, sitting in the hot sun, cried out to God: “what has the vine done to you that you have created it and then caused it to die?”

God’s reply was instantaneous. “You cry for a vine which you did not plant and which you did not nourish. How much more so should you cry for the people of Ninevah, a city of 120,000 people who have repented from evil and have turned to do good?   Should I not have pity for them?”

Jonah submits to God, returns to his native land and probably lived happily forever after. At least that is the expected ending of every good story.

The Book of Jonah is read as the Haftorah portion on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the most sacred and solemn day of the Jewish year. Its purpose is to teach us that repentance of our sins and our return to the laws of God will grant us forgiveness and long life.

So there is no truth to the legend of Jonah and the whale. But one day I will write a story about another Jonah, an American in New England, who is concerned for the welfare of our Palestinian Arab enemies.

That story will be entitled “Jonah and the Wail”.



About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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