Jonah: The story and why did the prophet run away

Jonah, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome

Running away from one’s responsibilities is something that can happen even to great men and women of GOD. The story of Jonah, his escape and the three days he spent inside the fish, is one of the most intriguing and enigmatic of the Bible. The prophet Jonah was charged by GOD to admonish the people of the great and modern Assyrian city of his time, Nineveh, prophesying their impending misfortune if they did not repent of their wicked behaviour. The prophet receives the command to admonish the inhabitants, but instead of following the instructions of GOD, frightened Jonah tries to run away, and in his escape he board a ship to go as far away as possible. Once on the journey suddenly the boat is threatened by a great storms, and all the sailors start praying invoking each one his own God, hoping to be saved. While all this is happening, Jonah was sleeping deeply in the stowage, a water storm was surely more manageable than the storm that dwelt in his soul. But the shipmaster went to wake him up, urging him to join them in prayer. IBut Jonah is aware of the reason for that storm, and that the blame for that wrath of GOD is his alone. He believes that the only way to save the ship is to be thrown overboard, so the sailors listen to Jonah, and when the prophet falls into the sea, the storm subsides and miraculously. Jonah is swallowed up by a big fish in the water, and while he is in his belly for three days, he prays GOD and finally accepts to fulfill his mission. The fish liberates Jonah and he becomes the admonisher and prophet of Nineveh, and because to the great mercy of GOD they repents of their sins. But Jonah is not happy to have guided the people, GOD has not yet completed His work and still teaches one last lesson to the prophet, GOD’s mercy and compassion continue to work for Jonah teaching him and guiding him to the essence of GOD.

Bible – Book of Jonah

[Vocation of Jonah; escape and punishment of the prophet]

Now the word of GOD came to Jonah the son of Amitai saying: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.”

But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of GOD, and went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid the fare of it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of GOD.

And GOD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship seemed likely to be wrecked. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man to his god, and threw out the articles that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah was gone down into the recesses of the ship; and he lay down, and was fast asleep.

So the shipmaster came to him, and said to him: “What meanest thou, Oh sleeper? Arise, call upon your God, perhaps GOD will think upon us, that we perish not!”

And they said, each one to his fellow: “Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

Then they said to him: “Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; what is your occupation? and where do you come from? what is your country? and of what people are you?”

And he said to them: “I am a Hebrew; and I fear GOD, the GOD of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and they said to him: Why have you done this? For the men knew that he had fled from the presence of GOD, because he had told them.

Then they said to him; “What shall we do to you, that the sea may be calm for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. And he said to them; “Take me up, and cast me into the sea, so shall the sea be calm for you; for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.”

The men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not; for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. So they cried to GOD, and said: “We beseech You, O GOD, we beseech You, let us not perish for this mans life, and lay not upon us innocent blood; for You, O GOD, have done as it pleased You.”

They took up Jonah, and cast him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared GOD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to GOD, and made vows.

[Jonah in the stomach of a fish; his prayer and his release]

And GOD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to GOD his GOD out of the fish’s belly, and said:

I cried to GOD out of my distress, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell I cried, and You did hear my voice.

For You did cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods compassed me about; all Your billows and all Your waves passed over me.

Then I said: I am cast out of Your sight; yet I will look again towards thy holy temple.

The waters compassed me about, to the point of death; the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.

I went down to the bottoms of the mountains, the earth with her bars closed on me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O GOD my GOD.

When my soul fainted within me I remembered GOD; and my prayer came in to You, into thy holy temple.

They that guard lying vanities forsake their loyalty. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation belongs to GOD.

And GOD commanded the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

[Preaching of Jonah at Nineveh]

And the word of GOD came to Jonah the second time, saying: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I bid you.” So Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of GOD.

Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city a days journey, and he cried, and said: “Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

And the people of Nineveh believed GOD, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. And word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water; but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to GOD; and let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their lands. Who can tell? GOD may turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we perish not.”

And GOD saw their deeds, in that they turned from their evil way; and GOD repented of the evil, which He had said that he would do to them; and He did not do it.

[Anger of Jonah; reproaches of the LORD]

It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was vexed.

And he prayed to GOD, and said: “I pray thee, O GOD, was not this my saying, when I was still in my own country? Therefore I fled beforehand to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious GOD, and merciful, slow to anger, and great in love and repentest of the evil. Therefore now, O GOD, take my life from me, I pray thee; for it is better for me to die than to live.” And GOD said: “Are you so greatly vexed?”

Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city; and there he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would come to pass in the city.

And GOD appointed a castor oil plant (kikayon), and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver um from his distress. And Jonah was exceeding glad of the plant.

Then GOD appointed a worm when the dawn came up the next day, and it attacked the plant, so that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun arose, that GOD prepared a vehement east wind, and the sun beat down upon the head of Jonah, so that he fainted; so he asked that he might die, and he said: It is better for me to die than to live.

And GOD said to Jonah: “Are you so greatly vexed on account of the plant?” And he said: “I am greatly vexed to death”

And GOD said: “You are concerned about the castor oil plant, for which you have not labored and which you did not rear, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should I not be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons that cannot discern between your right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

Why wouldn’t Jonah listen?

This story has clear messages about the power of repentance and the fact that we can never run away from the future that GOD has assigned to each of us in our lives. And that is why it is read as the haftarah of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when believers contemplate GOD’s judgment and repent.
Yet some parts of that story remain very enigmatic. Jonah was not an ordinary man who decided not to listen to his calling and proceed on his way. He was a righteous man and a prophet of the LORD who had received as a command to go and prophesy against the wrongdoing of the people, so why should he disobey?
The Jewish oral tradition (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chap. 10.) explains that what Jonah feared most was the success of his mission and the people of Nineveh would repent. He feared it for two reasons, the first being that Jonah knew that even the Jewish people of his time (referring to the time of 2 Kings, 9) were far from being perfect and had a great need to repent. Indeed, GOD had sent many prophets to instruct them. Yet they did not heed their warnings. If the people of Nineveh were to repent, how would the people of Israel appear in the end? The accuser angels could have said, “Look, the pagan inhabitants of Nineveh have repented. But your people do not listen to your words, even after being warned so many times”.
Jonah also feared that if he had warned Nineveh of their impending ruin and repented, and the decree would have been avoided, the people would have claimed that he was a false prophet. “Look” they could said “you told us that our city would be overthrown, but then nothing happened.” Surely Jonah knew that GOD has many messengers and that if he did not go, GOD would inspire someone else, but did he really think he could hide from the One who sees all and knows all? No, Jonah wanted to escape from himself, he did not feel ready but GOD led him to a mistake to guide him towards his own personal growth, to his own refinement.

Moreover, Jonah certainly also knew that a prophet who refrains from prophesying is responsible for death by the hand of heaven. Yet he tried to escape and even felt more comfortable with the idea of being thrown into the sea in the midst of a raging storm than to be the one to prophesy. Surely in the end the punishment would have come anyway, but at least he, Jonah, would not have been part of it. The lesson of this story is truly amazing, not only about the power of repentance or the fact that you can’t run away from GOD, but also that if you keep your faith (even while getting thrown into the sea in the storm) at the end GOD will always provides for believers so that everything will work out for their best.

In the Quran

Jonah (Arabic: يُونُس‎, romanized: Yūnus) is the title of the tenth chapter of the Quran. He is traditionally viewed as highly important in Islam as a prophet who was faithful to GOD and delivered His messages. Jonah is the only one of the Twelve Minor Prophets to be mentioned by name in the Quran. In the Chapters 21, 87 and 68, 48 Jonah is called Dhul-Nūn (Arabic: ذُو ٱلنُّوْن‎; meaning “The One of the Fish”). In 4, 163 and 6, 86 he is referred to as “an apostle of GOD”. Chapter 37, 139-148 retells the full story of Jonah:

So also was Jonah among those sent [by GOD].
When he ran away [like a slave from captivity] to the ship [fully] laden,
He [agreed to] cast lots, and he was condemned:
Then the big fish did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
Had it not been that he [repented and] glorified GOD,
He would certainly have remained inside the fish till the Day of Resurrection.
But [GOD] cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness,
And caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
And [GOD] sent him [on a mission] to a hundred thousand [men] or more.
And they believed; so [GOD] permitted them to enjoy [their life] for a while.
(Quran chapter 37 – As-Saaffat verses 139–148)