Jonah, the Bible & the Greek Whale

Jonah, the Bible & the Greek Whale

H. Abdul Al-Dahir

Jonah, The Bible & the Greek Whale

Jonah is identified as the son of Amittai and he appears in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet from Gath-Hepher, a few miles north of Nazareth . He is therein described as being active during the reign of the second king of Israel Jeroboam (c.786–746 BC), and as predicting that Jeroboam will recover certain lost territories. The brief mention of Jonah son of Amittai in 2 Kings inspired a 5th or 4th Century BCE author to expand this brief mention into a well known tale.

According to Wikipedia, the narrative begins when Yhwh calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee. He goes to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish. Yhwh calls up a great storm at sea, and the ship’s crew cast Jonah overboard in an attempt to appease Yhwh. A great sea creature sent by Yhwh, swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish’s belly. He says a prayer in which he repents for his disobedience and thanks Yhwh for His mercy. Yhwh speaks to the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land. After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, causing the people of the city to repent and Yhwh to forgive them. Jonah is furious, however, and angrily tells Yhwh that this is the reason he tried to flee from Him, as he knew Him to be a just and merciful god. He then beseeches Yhwh to kill him, a request which is denied when Yhwh causes a tree to grow over him, giving him shade. Initially grateful, Jonah’s anger returns the next day, when Yhwh sends a worm to eat the plant, withering it, and he tells Yhwh that it would be better if he were dead. Yhwh then points out: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

Here is an exploration of the Jonah narrative in the Biblical Book of Jonah. Most scholars agree that anachronisms in this text date it to between the 5th & 4th Centuries BCE. However, the name Jonah or ywnh is very similar to the Hebrew word for the Greek speaking people or  ywny. The great fish is comparable to the Greek sea monster Ketos who was slain by Perseus and Herakles. The Septuagint actually names this great fish as ‘mega ketos’ or huge fish. According to Wikipedia:

The English place name Nineveh comes from Latin Ninive and Septuagint Greek Nineye under influence of the Biblical Hebrew Nineweh itself from the Akkadian Ninua ( Ninâ) or Old Babylonian  Ninuw?. The original meaning of the name is unclear, but may have referred to a patron goddess. The cuneiform for Ninâ is a fish within a house (cf. Aramaic nuna, “fish”). This may have simply intended “Place of Fish” or may have indicated a goddess associated with fish or the river itself, possibly originally of Hurrian  origin. The city was later said to be devoted to “the Ishtar of Nineveh” and Nina was one of the Babylonian names of that goddess.”

Amittai, Jonah’s father, is Amathi in the Septuagint and means ‘illiterate’ or not learned in Koine Greek. It seems that this tale was written when the Hebrews were under the influence of the Greeks or during the alternating Ptolemaic and Seleucid domination of Samaria and Judea. The tale seems to be a parable which covertly depicts the Hebrew re-conquest of the Fish City of Nineveh which is symbolic of Shechem, the first capital of Israel which became Samaria after theAssyrian conquest. Shechem was controlled alternately by the Macedonian (aka Greek) Ptolemies and Seleucids.

The Judeans viewed the Samaritans as Cutheans or descendants of the people whom the Assyrians brought into Samaria to replace the captured Judeans who were transplanted to other parts of the Assyrian empire. According to Rabbi Schetcher: “The Talmudic Sages are divided on the question whether the Cutheans are true converts or only converted out of fear (see Babylonian Kiddushim 75b). In later Talmudic times they were considered a community of idolaters [Talmud Hullin 6a] and Cutheans were not allowed to marry Israelites (see Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 29a). In the printed edition of the Talmud, words like “goy” or “nokhri”, two terms meaning non-Jew, were changed by censors to the word “Cuthean” that came to refer to any idolaters, without relation to the original Cutheans.” So, according to the Judean author of the Jonah tale, the population of Nineveh would be equivalent to the population of Samaria as both were seen as descended from the idolatrous vassals of the Assyrian Empire. According to this tale, Yhwh sent Jonah to convert the denizens of Nineveh to Yahwism.

The protagonist of the Book of Jonah, the prophet to the 8th Century king of Israel, Jeroboam, was chosen by the authors of this text because of the resemblance of his name, ywnh, to the Hebrew word for Greeks or ywny. Because of the similarity between these two words, the authors used this prophet’s name to represent the Hellenized Jews who were collaborating and/or acceding to domination under the Ptolemy and Seleucid rulers. These Hellenized Jews would have been depicted as cowards and traitors who disobeyed the direct order of Yhwh. The character Jonah, who rebelled against Yhwh, personified these collaborators. The Hellenized Jonah in this tale has a change of heart after a run in with the Ketos who symbolized the great Greek political monster or ‘bad fish’ who was ravaging Yhwh’s religion. When Jonah escapes the belly of the ‘great bad fish’, he preaches Yahwism in Nineveh which became the city of the good fish. The people convert to Yahwism and Jonah’s name is disassociated  from ‘the Greeks’ or Ywny to become linked to Ywnh or Dove. This is the same dove who signalled to Noah that the flood had receded and the land was now safe for the worship of Yhwh because the flood had wiped out all of humanity except for those dedicated to Yhwh. The writer of the Jonah tale was hoping for a similar ending for the Cutheans of Samaria which were personified as the City of Nineveh. So, according to the tale of Jonah, the author was hoping to re-conquer the Ptolemy/Seleucid controlled areas of Palestine and then convert the Cutheans to Judaism.

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