Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reflections on Jonah's prayer - 2:2

Jonah's prayer is as surprisingly modern as all of the Book of Jonah. It is not empty words but a genuine and deeply felt prayer. At the same time it is Hebrew poetry full of rich religious and psychological imagery that sets it firmly to the mainstream of Biblical Psalms.

In these reflections I discuss only some of the verbal signs in more detail. A comprehensive commentary of Jonah 2 could fill an entire book or two.

Jesus of Nazareth refers to the introduction verse of the prayer in the Gospel of Matthew but we shall see how crucially the contents of the entire prayer are related to Him.
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Matthew 12:39-40 NIV

Jonah 2:2

ויאמר קראתי מצרה לי אל־יהוה ויענני מבטן שׁאול שׁועתי שׁמעת קולי׃

In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

The Hebrew text has the expression beten sheol - literally "the belly of Sheol" the rather sad place where dead souls were after death. In other words, dead Jonah is calling God from the real of the dead, Sheol, as NIV translates the verse.

Dead man praying in the tomb (belly of Sheol) and God hearing him. Truly paranormal activity!

Two views on resurrection in New Testament period Judaism
Judaism was deeply divided on the matter of resurrection of the dead: Sadducees held the traditional view saying in essence that a dead man is dead. The souls are in Sheol maybe in some sort of existence but the story is essentially over.  Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the new teaching in Judaism (some scholars suggests possibly of Iranian background) that God will eventually raise the dead and bring them back from Sheol.

Resurrection and marriage laws
Sadducees confronted Jesus on the matter of resurrection by demonstrating how illogical the new doctrine is. Since Moses commands that one of the brothers marries a woman if the deceases man has no offspring the belief in resurrection rises an impossibility: suppose seven brothers all marry the same woman and die without  having a child with her "whose wife she will be in the resurrection"?

Jesus answers the question and teaches Sadducees about the Biblical roots of the faith in resurrection by referring to the name of God used in the Torah "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". So what?
Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?  When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?
He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
Mark 12:24-27 

Rich man and Lazarus
The parable of the Rich man and Lazarus does not refer to resurrection of dead but rather to life after death. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus talks about two kinds of existence after death that are essentially connected to what happens in this life before death.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
Luke 16:19-26 NIV
Gospel of Luke uses here the well-known Greek word Hades ᾅδης that King James Version translates "Hell" while Lazarus is "in the bosom of Abraham".

These dead people exist in their realms and talk with Father Abraham in the same way as dead Jonah exists and prays in the Sheol.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On third day

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The expression "on third day" appears in the following passages of the Bible

Book of Jonah visualized in Antiquity

Catacomb of St. Peter and St. Marcellino, Rome
Image American Institute of Orthodoxy

Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome 
"Stories of Jonah, from a late 2nd century fresco in the Catacomb of Callixtus. From right to left, Jonah is thrown into the sea, where a monster is about to swallow him; Jonah is spat out of the sea-monster; Jonah rests under the vine. The Greek and Latin words for “whale” can also mean “sea-monster”, and the creature that swallows the prophet is usually shown as such in early Christian art."

Pio-Christo collection, Vatican 
"A third-century sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums’ Pio-Christian collection. This is one of the most elaborate versions of the Jonah story, and is therefore known as the Jonah Sarcophagus, although there are many other ancient representations of the prophet. Note that Noah is seen standing in a square ark above the sea-monster on the right, a clever use of the extra space to add another important Biblical episode." 
Gregory Dipippo
New Liturgical Movement

Jonah's prayer

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
    and you listened to my cry.

You hurled me into the depths,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
    swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished
    from your sight;
yet I will look again
    toward your holy temple.’

The engulfing waters threatened me,
    the deep surrounded me;
    seaweed was wrapped around my head.

To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
    the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you, Lord my God,
    brought my life up from the pit.

“When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.

“Those who cling to worthless idols
    turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah 1:17-2:10 NIV

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pinocchio - The Terrible Dogfish

File:Terribile pescecane.jpg
Il Terrible Pescecane by Enrico Mazzanti
"Pinocchio is a fictional character and the main protagonist of the 1883 children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, an Italian writer, and has since appeared in many adaptations of that story and others.

Carved by a woodcarver named Geppetto in a small Italian village, he was created as a wooden puppet but dreamed of becoming a real boy. He has also been used as a character who is prone to telling lies and fabricating stories for various reasons."

From Chapters XXXIV-XXXV
After swimming for a long time, Pinocchio saw a large rock in the middle of the sea, a rock as white as marble. High on the rock stood a little Goat bleating and calling and beckoning to the Marionette to come to her.

There was something very strange about that little Goat. Her coat was not white or black or brown as that of any other goat, but azure, a deep brilliant color that reminded one of the hair of the lovely maiden.

Pinocchio's heart beat fast, and then faster and faster. He redoubled his efforts and swam as hard as he could toward the white rock. He was almost halfway over, when suddenly a horrible sea monster stuck its head out of the water, an enormous head with a huge mouth, wide open, showing three rows of gleaming teeth, the mere sight of which would have filled you with fear.

Do you know what it was?

That sea monster was no other than the enormous Shark, which has often been mentioned in this story and which, on account of its cruelty, had been nicknamed "The Attila of the Sea" by both fish and fishermen.

Poor Pinocchio! The sight of that monster frightened him almost to death! He tried to swim away from him, to change his path, to escape, but that immense mouth kept coming nearer and nearer.

"Hasten, Pinocchio, I beg you!" bleated the little Goat on the high rock.

And Pinocchio swam desperately with his arms, his body, his legs, his feet.

"Quick, Pinocchio, the monster is coming nearer!"

Pinocchio swam faster and faster, and harder and harder.

"Faster, Pinocchio! The monster will get you! There he is! There he is! Quick, quick, or you are lost!"

Pinocchio went through the water like a shot--swifter and swifter. He came close to the rock. The Goat leaned over and gave him one of her hoofs to help him up out of the water.

Alas! It was too late. The monster overtook him and the Marionette found himself in between the rows of gleaming white teeth. Only for a moment, however, for the Shark took a deep breath and, as he breathed, he drank in the Marionette as easily as he would have sucked an egg. Then he swallowed him so fast that Pinocchio, falling down into the body of the fish, lay stunned for a half hour.

When he recovered his senses the Marionette could not remember where he was. Around him all was darkness, a darkness so deep and so black that for a moment he thought he had put his head into an inkwell. He listened for a few moments and heard nothing. Once in a while a cold wind blew on his face. At first he could not understand where that wind was coming from, but after a while he understood that it came from the lungs of the monster. I forgot to tell you that the Shark was suffering from asthma, so that whenever he breathed a storm seemed to blow.

Pinocchio at first tried to be brave, but as soon as he became convinced that he was really and truly in the Shark's stomach, he burst into sobs and tears. "Help! Help!" he cried. "Oh, poor me! Won't someone come to save me?"

Pinocchio, as soon as he had said good-by to his good friend, the Tunny, tottered away in the darkness and began to walk as well as he could toward the faint light which glowed in the distance.

As he walked his feet splashed in a pool of greasy and slippery water, which had such a heavy smell of fish fried in oil that Pinocchio thought it was Lent.

The farther on he went, the brighter and clearer grew the tiny light. On and on he walked till finally he found --I give you a thousand guesses, my dear children! He found a little table set for dinner and lighted by a candle stuck in a glass bottle; and near the table sat a little old man, white as the snow, eating live fish. They wriggled so that, now and again, one of them slipped out of the old man's mouth and escaped into the darkness under the table.

At this sight, the poor Marionette was filled with such great and sudden happiness that he almost dropped in a faint. He wanted to laugh, he wanted to cry, he wanted to say a thousand and one things, but all he could do was to stand still, stuttering and stammering brokenly. At last, with a great effort, he was able to let out a scream of joy and, opening wide his arms he threw them around the old man's neck.

"Oh, Father, dear Father! Have I found you at last? Now I shall never, never leave you again!"

"Are my eyes really telling me the truth?" answered the old man, rubbing his eyes. "Are you really my own dear Pinocchio?"
The Adventures of Pinochio 

Dating the Book of Jonah - references

Prophet Jonah
Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, Vatican
Image wikimedia

Set in the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC), it was probably written in the post-exilic period, sometime between the late 5th to early 4th century BC.

If Jonah is the same Jonah as in 2 Kings 14:25, the date of the book would be in early 8th century B.C.E. - at this time Assyria would be on the rise seeking to become a world empire.

Some scholars argue that book was written later
Reasons for
  • References to Nineveh are vague
  • Author used title "King of Nineveh" rather than "King of Assyria" which would have been more correct
  • Nineveh not become capital of Assyria until long after time of Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25
  • If reference to Nineveh is historical, city would be only the small capital of a small city-state and not huge capital of a world empire as is stated (1:1, 3:3)
  • Language and customs of story are more appropriate for 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.
  • Author of 2 Kings seems not to have been aware of the story - one might argue back, however, that Kings is unaware of or unconcerned with most of the canonical prophets
  • Opposes narrow nationalistic views of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zechariah so must have been composed after their time
  • Those who are convinced by this evidence date the book to the 5th or 4th century B.C.E.
Sirach 49:10 and Tobit 14:4,8 in the Apocrypha mention Jonah so the book must have been written before the 2nd century B.C.E.
Cumberland College WebArchive

F. Although some have dated the book late because of Aramaisms and expressions unfamiliar to Classical Hebrew, they are inconclusive and do not prove a post-exilic date 28

G. Although some date the book after the exile as a response to the ultra-nationalistic spirit of Ezra and Nehemiah, this universalistic emphasis also occurred during the eighth century in Isaiah 2:2ff 29

Scholarly references to "ultra-nationalistic spirit" against which Book of Jonah could have been written in post-exilic period does not necessarily involve the "post-Holocaust" anger that I am suggesting in this blog.

Aramaic influence on the Hebrew language is important when trying to date the text. I need to study this more in detail.

Monday, February 25, 2013

How did Jonah pay the fare?

Lydian 1/3 starter. 6th century BC
image wikipedia
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa,where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.Jonah 1:3 NIV

 ויתן שׂכרה
שׂכר śâkâr payment of contract; concretely salary, fare, maintenance; by implication compensation, benefit: - hire, price, reward [-ed], wages, worth
Strong's Hebrew Dictionary

Jonah ben Amittai only needed a one way ticket to Tarshish. But how did he pay for the fare since minted coins were used only by the Lydians during the Assyrian period?

Lydian legendary wealth is associated with their first king Croisos who had rich source of gold in the Pactolus river. This abundant source of the yellow metal was associated with the touch of the tragic golden  king of Midas.

First coinage
According to Herodotus, the Lydians were the first people to use gold and silver coins and the first to establish retail shops in permanent locations. It is not known, however, whether Herodotus meant that the Lydians were the first to use coins of pure gold and pure silver or the first precious metal coins in general. Despite this ambiguity, this statement of Herodotus is one of the pieces of evidence often cited in behalf of the argument that Lydians invented coinage, at least in the West, even though the first coins were neither gold nor silver but an alloy of the two.
The dating of these first stamped coins is one of the most frequently debated topics of ancient numismatics, with dates ranging from 700 BC to 550 BC, but the most common opinion is that they were minted at or near the beginning of the reign of King Alyattes (sometimes referred to incorrectly as Alyattes II), who ruled Lydia c. 610-550 BC. The first coins were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver that occurs naturally but that was further debased by the Lydians with added silver and copper.
The largest of these coins are commonly referred to as a 1/3 stater (trite) denomination, weighing around 4.7 grams, though no full staters of this type have ever been found, and the 1/3 stater probably should be referred to more correctly as a stater, after a type of a transversely held scale, the weights used in such a scale (from ancient Greek ίστημι=to stand), which also means "standard."  These coins were stamped with a lion's head adorned with what is likely a sunburst, which was the king's symbol. To complement the largest denomination, fractions were made, including a hekte (sixth), hemihekte (twelfth), and so forth down to a 96th, with the 1/96 stater weighing only about 0.15 grams. There is disagreement, however, over whether the fractions below the twelfth are actually Lydian.
Alyattes' son was Croesus, who became associated with great wealth. Sardis was renowned as a beautiful city. Around 550 BC, near the beginning of his reign, Croesus paid for the construction of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Croesus was defeated in battle by Cyrus II of Persia in 546 BC, with the Lydian kingdom losing its autonomy and becoming a Persian satrapy.

Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah
Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron Image Jewish Virtual Library
Historical Abraham lived during the Canaanite period around 2000 BC but many scholars date the final editing of the patriarchal narratives in the Bible to the Assyrian Babylonian period (some even to early Persian period). Among these stories there is a very detailed - and today also politically highly significant - pericope telling how Abraham bought a piece of land from Hebron as the burial place for his wife Sarah who had died there.

Much later on King Herod raised a monumental building over the Cave of Machpelah inside which according to Jewish and Muslim tradition also Abraham himself and other members of his family were buried.

The story nicely describes polite but very strict Oriental bargaining as Ephron ben Zohar the Hittite initially offers the land for free. But Abraham knows the habits of the local people and offers to pay in full the extraordinary payment that Ephron hints at.
Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land 13 and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”

Ephron answered Abraham,  “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.
Genesis 23:12-16
Method of payment
Old man weighing silver in Morocco.
Image credit Lars From Ashton to Zagora
From the cash payment Abraham made for the cave of Machpelah and surrounding land we learn that there was a weight standard for silver current among the merchants that determined the amount of silver to be given.

The fact that the silver or gold metal used for payment had to be weighed at the cash was somewhat inconvenient but what to do?

The idea of the king of Lydia was to stamp weighed pieces of metal made life much easier as long as the coins were genuine and their silver or gold content as announced. Achmenidian rulers of Persia were highly gifted and practical. They adopted the idea of Croisos and in their empire coinage became common place around the Mediterranean Sea. From there the use of coinage spread to Hellenic and Roman world... and gold standard is still today at the heart of banks backing the true value of their coinage and other forms of money.

(By the way, the young State of Israel wanted to be "international" and called their money Lira. Today there is more confidence in own culture and heritage and New Israel Sheqel (NIS) it is!)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sign of Jonah in the Gospels

The Sign of Jonah appears in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke and seems to come from some shared source other than Mark. (The big question mark of modern scientific study of the sources of Synoptic gospels is Q).

Matthew: Sign of Jonah
Matthew has a pericope that mentions wtihout further elaborating what the Sign of Jonah is:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Matthew 16:1-4 NIV

Luke: Jonah himself was a sign
The Gospel of Luke explains that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites
As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Luke 11:29-32 NIV

Matthew: Jonah and the Big Fish
Matthew has another pericope that includes a discussion resembling that in Luke but precedes it with a powerful interpretation of the Sign of Jonah
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.
Matthew 12:39-42 NIV

Jonah's planned sea trip


The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-2

The distance from the harbour city of Joppa to Tarsus is 543 km as crow flies. The trip would be taken by a wooden boat sailing near the coast.

The city of Joppa/Yafo by modern Tel Aviv is among the oldest harbours of the Holy Land. It is mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Canaanite and other historical sources. In general, the coast of Israel is shallow and offered only few good harbours for ancient sail ships: Acre in the North, Joppa in the middle and Ashqelon in the South had natural conditions that allowed the anchoring ships. But for example at Caesarea King Herod went to great lengths in order to build massive structures that protected ships from gusty winter winds and destructive waves.

Phoenician merchant ship

Biblical Israelites were landlubbers. Much of the commercial sea traffic was in the hands of Phoenicians who were excellent seafarers. It was rumoured that they had even sailed pass the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. Later on, Hellenic and Roman ships competed with the Phoenician galleys in Eastern Mediterranean.

The nationality of the boat taken by Jonah is not mentioned in the text. The idea that they accepted Jonah's proposal to throw him in the dangerously stormy sea has a definite "Phoenician taste" to it. For these people were sadly famous in ancient world for their habit of sacrificing their own children to their goddess Tanit in Carthage and elsewhere.

Lottery found Jonah and his story about running away from his God frightened the sailors

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven,who made the sea and the dry land.”

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
Jonah 1:7-10


Location of Tarsus
Map Bible

Tarsus (Hittite: Tarsa, Greek: Ταρσός) is a historic city in south-central Turkey, 20 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea. It is part of the Adana-Mersin Metropolitan Area, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in Turkey with a population of 3 million. Tarsus District forms an administrative district in the eastern part of the Mersin Province and lies in the core of Çukurova region.

With a history going back over 2,000 years, Tarsus has long been an important stop for traders, a focal point of many civilisations including the Roman Empire, when Tarsus was capital of the province of Cilicia, the scene of the first meeting between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the birthplace of Paul the Apostle.

Friday, February 22, 2013

post-Holocaust Jonah

The generic historical background in the Book of Jonah can be understood as "post-Holocaust" Israel not totally different from the atmosphere prevailing in the State of Israel after 1948.

The events in Jonah are set to the reign of Jeroboam II and thus before the awful destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians. But a lingering cold religious hatred reflecting the times after the events at 721/701 BC is there and the writer of the book is taking aim at the hearts of believers justly angry at the God of Israel.

Impaling and skinning prisoners of war.
Lachish relief British Museum
Image Architecture of the Bible
Assyrians really were the Nazis of ancient Near East aggressively expanding their Empire with fearsome military power. For in addition of being excellent soldiers nobody, not even Egypt, was able to resist, they not only bragged about their cruelties in their cuneiform documents but also depicted them in art showing, for example, impaling and skinning prisoners at Lachish.

For the first time in Near Eastern history Assyrian great kings wanted to secure their occupied countries by using forced population transfers. It was not ethnic cleansing but rather moving the people around Stalin style in order to destroy their national identity and interests.

Entire Northern Kingdom was utterly destroyed never to rise again. The surviving population was largely moved to other countries and the Ten Tribes of Israel disappear from history. Assyrians brought people from other occupied regions to live in Samaria giving birth to the Samaritans so despised by the Jews.

So how can God ask Jonah to go and help these hated "Germans" and help to bring them to peace with God?

Noway, Jose... the only justice in the world is to utterly smash the surviving people of Niniveh and to crash their newborn children on rocks, as the famous Psalm 137 wishes at the rivers of Babylon

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9 NIV

The hatred of Assyrians is easy to understand and religion gives it icy depth.

Jonah ben Amittai decides to skip the job of preaching because he knows that God will forgive.

Jonah does not forget nor forgive.

What's the point?

It seems to me that many commentators of the Book of Jonah miss the big idea in this amazing and surprisingly modern small great book.

For example, the contents of the book are well characterized in the English wikipedia article but it does little to highlight the powerful message underlying the Book of Jonah - religious hatred.
The story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah, whose name literally means "dove," is introduced to the reader in the very first verse. The name is decisive. While many other prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.

Jonah's passive character then is contrasted with the other main character: Yahweh. God's character is altogether active. While Jonah flees, God pursues. While Jonah falls, God lifts up. The character of God in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony. In the first part of the book, God is depicted as relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.

The other characters of the story include the sailors in chapter 1 and the people of Nineveh in chapter 3. These characters are also contrasted to Jonah's passivity. While Jonah sleeps in the hull, the sailors pray and try to save the ship from the storm (1:4-6). While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change his mind.

The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God. God calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee... After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, and they repent and God forgives them. Jonah is furious, however, and angrily tells God that this is the reason he tried to flee from Him, as he knew Him to be a just and merciful God. wikipedia

Similarly, D. Peach gives a sensible summary on the main purpose of the book that totally ignores the most disturbing and powerful message Book of Jonah has
The book of Jonah is an Old Testament story which tells about how the prophet Jonah refused to follow the Lord. Through some supernatural events, God convinced him to obey and carry out the Lord’s plan. While Jonah eventually did what he was asked to do, the book closes with showing Jonah as a bitter man.
David Peach
It is easy to find many quotes from various commentators on these generic lines.

The Big Idea
Pastor Chuck Swindoll (b. 1934) catches the somewhat hidden big idea in the Book of Jonah
When the call of God came to him, Jonah could not see beyond his own selfish desire for God to punish the Assyrians. How could God want him to take a message of mercy to such people? Before Jonah could relay God’s message, he had to be broken. He had to learn something about the mercy of the Lord.
Charles R. Swindoll

Great fish

Sperm whale ... not the Great Fish of Jonah
Image cetacenalliance
The story in the Book of Jonah is so powerful that when someone says "Jonah" this verbal sign immediately raises in many listeners minds verbal sign "fish" - assuming they are English speakers and "whale" (latin cetus) if they have pondered Vulgata or herd the urban legend of a sailor surviving in sperm whales belly.

Hebrew speakers would think verbal symbols  דג גדול "dag gadol" which means literally "big fish". Diligent yeshiva student hearing "Jonah ben Amittai" might start to think "daga" feminine form that suddenly appears in Jonah 2:1 instead of the masculine form used elsewhere.  He might ponder the rabbinical teaching that "Jonah was comfortable in the belly of the big male fish so God put him in the smaller belly of female fish so he became uncomfortable and began to pray for help". (wikipedia)

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 
Jonah 2:1 NIV

Ichthyologists might ponder that there is really no known Mediterranean fish that could swallow a grown-up man. Because of their anatomy dolphins are out of the question even the Turks call them yunus baligi, "Jonah fish" (wikipedia). Whales have very narrow throats made for eating plankton and such stuff.  It is true that complete body of man has been found in the belly of great white shark - a very dead man that is.

On closer examination modern students of the Book of Jonah would be impressed by the claim said to appear in a National Geographic 1992 volume that the Big Fish could have been a whale shark (rincodon typhus).

Whale of a tale
Whale Shark photo
Whale Shark ISBN-10 : 1429617314
The whale shark is the largest of all fishes. It is not a whale (mammal). First discovered in 1828, they remained a mystery for some time. Whale sharks grow 45 ft. long and perhaps even longer. They may weigh as much as 15 tons. It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout, small eyes, 5 large gill slits, 2 dorsal fins (on the back) and 2 pectoral fins (on the sides). It has distinctive light-yellow markings (random stripes and dots) on its very thick dark grey skin. Its skin is up to 4 inches thick. There are three promient ridges running along each side of the shark's body. But the most interesting thing about the whale shark is its huge mouth which can be up to 4 feet wide. Its mouth is at the very front of its head (not on the underside of the head like in most sharks). It has about 3,000 tiny teeth but are of little use and are covered by a flap of skin. (

But the most interesting fact of all, is the whale shark's ability to eject large objects by turning its stomach out of its mouth. (National Geographic, December 1992, Whale Sharks, Gentle Monsters of the Deep, page 127). Jonah 2:10 says, "And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land."
Whale of a tale
Dr. E. W. Gudger (1866-1956) was an Honorary Associate in Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History and a leading expert on whale sharks. He noted that "while the mouth is cavernous, the throat itself is only four inches wide and has a sharp elbow or bend behind the opening. This gullet would not permit the passage of a man's arm... The whale shark is not the fish that swallowed Jonah."

Important conclusion
As far as specialists on the sea creatures living in the Mediterranean Sea are concerned there is no clear candidate for the Big Fish of Jonah. Actually, it seems that literal interpretation of the story taking it as a historical description of a man being swallowed, surviving inside a big fish and being vomited on dry land appears quite unlikely to be true.

In fact, impossible in light of our current knowledge.

Jonah ben Amittai from Gath Hepher

23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. 25 He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

26 The Lord had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them.27 And since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.

28 As for the other events of Jeroboam’s reign, all he did, and his military achievements, including how he recovered for Israel both Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel? 29 Jeroboam rested with his ancestors, the kings of Israel. And Zechariah his son succeeded him as king.
2 Kings 14:23-29 NIS
This is a bit difficult text because of the contrast between the evil deeds of Jeroboam (24) and the praise given to that king (27)

Of great interest is the very short reference in a single verse 25 to a prophecy on military events that came true. The exact wording of the prophecy has not survived but it was given through Jonah Ben Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. This is the only reference in Tanakh to prophet Jonah Ben Amittai beyond the Book of Jonah and it gives some important historical and archaeological references.

King Jeroboam II
The rule of King of Israel Jeroboam II is usually dated 786-746 BC contemporary with the Kings of Judea Amaziah (2 Kings 14:23) and Uzziah (2 Kings 15:1).

The prophetic work of Isaiah began during the rule of King of Juda Uzzia so Jonah Ben Amittai lived during the times of the King of the Prophets.
The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham,Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Isaiah 1:1 NIV
There was a great earthquake in the time of King Jeroboam II mentioned in the Book of Amos
The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.
Amos 1:1 NIV
Archaeological evidence of this earthquake has been identified in the major sites of Tel Hazor and Lachish and dated to 760 BC. (wikipedia)

Gath Hepher

Map Leon's Message Board
Jonah ben Amittai is from the border town of Gath Hepher (wine press of digging) mentioned only here in 2 Kings 14:25 and in the border description in Joshua 19:13.
Jerome in Roman Times (Commentary on Jonah) describes the town ‘as an inconsiderable village’ and tells that the tomb of Jonah was nearby. Similarly the medieval geographer Benjamin of Tudela also relates the tomb of Jonah in his travels to the area.

Today the site, at Latitude 32° 44' 30" N and Longitude 35° 19' 30" E in the HaZafon region of the Galilee, is a small set of ruins on a hilltop near the Arab village of el-Meshed 5 km north of Nazareth and 1 km from Canna. The supposed tomb of Jonah, is still pointed out by locals.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why this blog?

Jonah is an amazingly deep and powerful religious document among the 66 books of the Bible with surprisingly modern and explosive imagery and message. Jonah is significant to Jews, important to Muslims and crucial to Christians because of the reference to it by Jesus Christ Himself.

I have opened this blog in order to study the Book of Jonah. I will write here on various themes, provide links to visual and textual resources and discuss and and analyse exegetical, historical and other research associated with it.

Feel free to comment, argue, fix errors in my texts, contribute to the content and participate in the effort.

My sincere prayer is that this site would be helpful to all those wanting to take a closer look at the Book of Jonah - and also through it at the Sign of the Signs!

Sola Dei Gloria