Something greater here

Jonah-marbleThe “sign of Jonah” is mentioned three times in the Gospels, twice in Matthew (12:38-41; 16:4) and once in Luke (11:29-32) – as well as indirectly perhaps in Mark 8:12 (“Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”). A comparison of the two gospels is perhaps of interest:


Matthew 12:38-42
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40 Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41 At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. 42 At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here

Luke 11:28-32
28 He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” 29 While still more people gathered in the crowd, he said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. 30 Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. 32 At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.


Matthew 12:40 is questioned by some scholars and thought to be a later interpolation. Justin Martyr did not include it in his early commentary on Matthew, plausibly because it was not part of the gospel available to him, the gospel not having reached final written form. Not convincing in itself, but one wonders why it is not part of Luke’s gospel given how similar the two passages are. The Matthean passage focuses on the “three days” while the Lukan passage focuses on Jonah as a sign to the Ninevites.

Without explaining it in detail, let me just offer that being swallowed by the whale was not a form of punishment, but rather the means of Jonah’s salvation. Without the whale, Jonah drowns. The sea is the enemy, the bearer of death; the fish is Jonah’s ally by divine provision. This view is supported by Jonah’s prayer while in the belly of the beast which borrows from Ps 18: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction terrified me… He reached down from on high and seized me; drew me out of the deep waters” (Ps 18:5,17).

It should be noted that the Psalm does not reference death and subsequent resurrection, but rather a deliverance from the drowning and death altogether. Then again, Jonah’s time under the sea afforded a close enough parallel to Jesus’ burial in the earth to generate the analogy used in Matthew 12:40.

Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites – they repented at the preaching of Jonah. Given that the Ninevites were about as evil as they come, it must have been a heck of a preaching to get them to convert. Consider Jonah’s proclamation: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”  Eight words in English; only five in Hebrew. Short, sweet and to the point. Delivered with passion? With a 21st-century teenager “whatever” attitude? Intended to change hearts and minds? Intended to be so unenthusiastic that destruction of Nineveh is inevitable? 

I think it is important to return to the idea of Jonah as the run-away prophet, now saved, but is he committed to the mission? At the beginning of the story, Jonah may want no part of Nineveh or its king, but more than that, he does not want God to forgive them. He wants divine retribution upon them for all the evil they had done. I would suggest that he accepts rescue from God, but in no way wants that same grace extended to the Ninevites. I think it possible, perhaps likely, that Jonah is engaging in a little prophetic sabotage. He does the minimum, hoping they will ignore him, not repent, and thus not find forgiveness or grace. Besides, the world would be a better place without the Ninevites. This hypothesis is consistent with the trajectory of Jonah’s behavior before the great fish, and, as we will see in Jonah 4, consistent with the behavior there.

Abraham interceded for Sodom
but Jonah couldn’t have cared less
if Nineveh had harbored one
relatively innocent inhabitant
or even one hundred and twenty.
They all looked alike to him—
seeing he hadn’t tried to see them.
But God’s vision is better than twenty-twenty. (Thomas John Carlisle)

But then, the vision and the power of the words of the prophet were never about the prophet.

The people of Jesus’ time want a sign? Really? Nineveh repented on 5 words. Israel has had 3 years, lots of words, lot of miracles – they have yet to repent and now want more signs? No wonder the men of Nineveh will arise and condemn them.

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