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Literature / Book of Jonah

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The Book of Jonah comes from the Old Testament and is grouped with the Minor Prophets. You probably know it from the Signature Scene where our hero gets swallowed by a giant fish. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

In the reign of Jeroboam II, the Lord speaks to His prophet Jonah ben Ammitai, telling him to go to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. The city's wickedness will be punished with destruction if they persist, but God wants Jonah to give them a warning so they have a chance to repent. However, Jonah doesn't want to go to Nineveh, as they had a reputation for being extremely cruel, and instead flees his mission on a voyage to Tarshish in modern-day Spain, which is in the exact opposite direction.

The Lord strikes the ship with a storm, and the sailors cast lots to find out why it's happening. When the lot falls on Jonah, he admits that he's a prophet who's abandoning his mission. He urges the sailors to throw him overboard so that the storm will cease upon his death. Though the sailors try to avoid this by attempting to row back to land, the storm proves too great and they toss Jonah into the sea. Immediately the storm ends.

Jonah doesn't drown, though, because God provides a great fish to swallow him and take him to Nineveh. For three days Jonah prays inside the beast, thanking God for giving him a second chance. The beast then vomits Jonah onto dry land and the prophet treks away to the city.

At Nineveh, Jonah preaches to the people that, unless they repent, the entire city will be destroyed in forty days due to their evil. The Ninevites are struck with fear and spend those days in fasting and mourning, thus convincing God to spare them. The Ninevites rejoice at being given mercy, but Jonah does not celebrate with them. He exits the city soon after and watches it from the plains in hope of God still smiting them anyway.

The Lord provides a vine to grow and give His prophet shade. The next day, though, Jonah wakes up to find the vine dead. He curses God for killing the plant, and the Lord responds to Jonah with a What the Hell, Hero? for being more concerned about a plant than for a city filled with thousands of people.

Structure of the book:

  • Jonah's call, his attempt to flee, and his sacrifice (Jonah chapter 1)
  • Jonah's song in the belly of the great fish (Jonah chapter 2)
  • Jonah preaches to Nineveh (Jonah chapter 3)
  • Jonah is taught a lesson by God (Jonah chapter 4)


  • An Aesop:
  • Artistic License – Biology: If the "great fish" is indeed a whale, though obviously this book was written before it was discovered whales are mammals. There's also how Jonah survived inside it without being digested or suffocating, but divine intervention is already a factor here.
    • Then again, ancient cultures like the Hebrews categorized animals based on their habitat rather than their evolutionary line.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: God wants Jonah to deliver a warning to Nineveh. Jonah tries to shirk the mission, but God's intervention prevents him from getting away till he agrees to fulfill the mission.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When Jonah (post-fish) sits on a hillside overlooking the Nineveh he hates and is angry that his preaching has led to the citizens' repenting and the city not being destroyed, God causes a vine with a gourd on it to grow over Jonah to shade him from the sun. God then causes the vine to die, and when Jonah is angry over the gourd's absence, He replies "You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!"
  • Easily Forgiven: Jonah thinks Nineveh still deserves to be punished despite repenting, but God lectures him about forgiveness.
  • Easy Evangelism: Jonah's bare-bones message, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown," causes every person in Nineveh to turn to God and repent.
  • Eaten Alive: Jonah winds up swallowed by the Great Fish when he's thrown overboard. However, this was more a form of rescue via Divine Intervention than with the fish getting a meal, and it vomits him back onto dry land three days later.
  • Egocentrically Religious: Deconstructed. The Aesop of the story is that Jonah is wrong to be more concerned about God providing for his personal comfort than about the fate of the tens of thousands of people in Nineveh.
  • Either/Or Prophecy: Sort of. The people of Nineveh are clever enough to hear "God will smite you for your evil" as "Repent or be destroyed". The prophet himself didn't catch it, and complains.
  • The End Is Nigh: The message Jonah preaches in Nineveh. Turns out, though, God cancels the planned destruction of the city because the people make a Heel–Faith Turn.
  • Getting Eaten Is Harmless: Jonah comes out not much the worse for wear after spending three days inside the fish's stomach. Divine Intervention is a factor.
    • Subverted in, off all places, a Chick Tract. Jonah is covered in acid burns when he gets out.
  • God Is Good: Far from being eager to smite evildoers, the Almighty gives Jonah a second chance when he definitely didn't deserve it, then spares the entire city of Nineveh when they repent. He even takes the time to teach Jonah An Aesop about mercy and compassion.
  • Happily Ever Before: Nineveh may have repented now, but eventually the city becomes wicked again, as God declares in the Book of Isaiah that now He will destroy it. (The prophetic Book of Nahum also spells doom for Nineveh.) Plus, Assyria became the conqueror of the northern kingdom of Israel.
  • Heel–Face Town: the city of Nineveh is so wicked that when God tells the prophet Jonah to go and preach to it, Jonah tries to run away. When he eventually turns around and preaches to Nineveh, the city repents.
    "They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish." God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.
    Jonah 3:8-10
  • Heel–Faith Turn:
    • Jonah's prayer in Chapter 2 is a widely cited example of repentance, used in the Jewish liturgy for Yom Kippur. However, in-story Jonah had a few more lessons to learn about compassion for others even after he repented for himself.
    • Every single person in the city of Nineveh starts repenting when they hear Jonah's message, and the king decrees that everyone should fast and wear sackcloth—even the animals.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Jonah probably didn't expect to survive being thrown overboard. It's a more literal sacrifice than usual because his life is actually being offered to appease a God.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Defied. God calls Jonah out on showing no concern as to whether 120,000 people in Nineveh repent or not. To be specific, Jonah tried running away to Tarshish when he was told to go to Nineveh. Then, after spending three days in the belly of a whale, he warns Nineveh of its imminent destruction, only for the Ninevites to, surprise-surprise, repent! Jonah is furious and throws a temper tantrum about it, but God reminds him that He created all 120,000 of these people, including little children, and as many cattle.
  • No Ending: The story abruptly ends after God's What the Hell, Hero? speech. We never see if Jonah learned his lesson, if he did anything else, or if he just died there in the desert. On the other hand, who else would have written such a frank and unflattering portrayal of Jonah, other than Jonah himself?
  • No Ontological Inertia: After Jonah is thrown in the sea, the storm suddenly ends and the ocean becomes as calm as can be.
  • Pet the Dog: Compared to the wrathful God associated with most of the Old Testament, God here is incredibly benevolent to Nineveh despite their evil, even defying A Million Is a Statistic by saying He cares for everyone in the city, up to and including the cows.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort: Inside the fish, Jonah prays in repentance, noting that it took him going to the bottom of the ocean before he realized he needed to change his ways. God gives him a second chance anyway.
  • Refusing the Call: Jonah tried doing this with his voyage. It didn't work. But you do have to give the guy credit for attempting to run to the literal end of the Earth (for people in the 8th Century BC).
  • Sea Monster: This would be a more accurate translation of the Hebrew dag gadol, "great fish," which can mean any type of giant sea creature in general. It could mean "whale," but not exclusively.
  • Self-Defeating Prophecy: Jonah's prophecy that Nineveh will be destroyed frightens the Ninevites into repenting, and since they repent, God has mercy and decides not to destroy them. Significantly, Jonah reveals that he was Genre Savvy enough to know that this was God's plan all along, and he ran away because he didn't want the Ninevites to be spared. God calls him out for not wanting mercy for his enemies.
  • Skewed Priorities: Called out by God in the closing words. Jonah is so angry about the plant's death that HE wants to die. Yet he cared nothing about letting thousands of Ninevites die. See Yank the Dog's Chain thought.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Jonah petulantly prays for God to take away his life.
  • Swallowed Whole: Yep, you remember the part where Jonah meets the Great Fish...
  • Symbolic Hero Rebirth: "In the belly of a whale" is often used to refer to a period in a story where the protagonist is caught in a situation with no hope. However, in the story of Jonah the whale is actually not a punishment but God's way of saving Jonah from drowning. It also represented him giving Jonah a second chance by taking him back to land. Though the Bible itself compares being in the whale as a trial, when Christ compares the three days in the whale with his upcoming three days dead before resurrection. Jonah's three days in the whale were ultimately for a good purpose, since he was saved from death as well as allowed to continue living and preaching the message of God, but was nevertheless painful, unpleasant, and something no one in their right mind would want to go through.
  • Thwarted Escape: Jonah, Refusing the Call, books passage as far as possible in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Turns out, it's not that easy to escape from The Omnipotent.
  • Too Spicy for Yog-Sothoth: After three days, the Great Fish pukes Jonah out onto dry land.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: One delivered by God has got to hurt. Specifically, God chews out Jonah for caring more about his shade plant than all the people of Nineveh, which God specially points out includes those who don't know right from left and much cattle. Essentially, thousands of innocent children and animals.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Jonah explains to God that he didn't want to preach in Nineveh because he hated the Ninevites and feared they might repent, meaning that since God is compassionate and merciful, He would cancel the destruction of the city. God replies that yes, that was kind of the whole point.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: God provided a plant to give shade for Jonah, only to kill it the next day. Then caused a hot desert wind to give Jonah heatstroke. That'd get him quite mad. He kind of deserves it, though.


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That's How it Ends?

The oft-forgotten "ending" of the Book of Jonah is adapted in the VeggieTales version, with Khalil (in place of God) telling Jonah the importance of forgiveness, and we never find out if Jonah learned anything.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (20 votes)

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Main / NoEnding

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