Jonah’s story is an oft-told one from the Bible. We have many examples of prophets who were given hard assignments, who, the second they were called, took any risk to follow the Lord’s will. Especially in the Book of Mormon, there are many stories of prophets who instantly obeyed and took the gospel message to savage peoples. But when the prophet Jonah received the call to preach repentance to the wicked heathens of Nineveh, he fled to Tarshish. It appears that it wasn’t fear that motivated Jonah, but anger that the Lord had given the citizens of Nineveh the opportunity to repent ( Jonah 4:1–2).
Most people think that our only introduction to Jonah is in the Book of Jonah, but we are introduced to him earlier on. “In the first verse of the book under his name he is said to be ‘the son of Amittai.’ But the Book of Jonah is not the only Old Testament book in which he is mentioned. In II Kings 14:25 we are told that Jeroboam II, king of Israel, ‘. . . restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath unto the sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.’” Jonah was from a village about 3 miles northeast of Nazareth among the tribe of Zebulun.
Some have thought that the story of Jonah is a fanciful tale, but there is evidence that the story is a true one. “The story of Jonah was referred to by our Lord on two occasions when he was asked for a sign from heaven. In each case he gave ‘the sign of the prophet Jonah,’ the event in that prophet’s life being a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection ( Matt. 12:39–41 ; 16:4 ; Luke 11:29–30 ).” ( Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Jonah.” )
Christ refered to Jonah in His teachings… “He answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the Prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” ( Doctrines of Salvation, 2:314–15.)
“Jonah was a type of Christ in that he was in the belly of the whale—in ‘hell,’ in his own words ( Jonah 2:2 )—just as Jesus was in the grave for three days, and then came forth again. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch showed that the significance of Jonah’s story is broader than that:
“The mission of Jonah was a fact of symbolical and typical importance, which was intended not only to enlighten Israel as to the position of the Gentile world in relation to the kingdom of God, but also to typify the future adoption of such of the heathen, as should observe the word of God, into the fellowship of the salvation prepared in Israel for all nations.
“In this state of mind on the part of the prophet, there are reflected the feelings and the general state of mind of the Israelitish nation towards the Gentiles. According to his natural man, Jonah shares in this, and is thereby fitted to be the representative of Israel in its pride at its own election. . . . The infliction of this punishment, which falls upon him on account of his obstinate resistance to the will of God, typifies that rejection and banishment from the face of God which Israel will assuredly bring upon itself by its obstinate resistance to the divine call. But Jonah, when cast into the sea, is swallowed up by a great fish; and when he prays to the Lord in the fish’s belly, he is vomited upon the land unhurt. This miracle has also a symbolical meaning for Israel. It shows that if the carnal nation, with its ungodly mind, should turn to the Lord even in the last extremity, it will be raised up again by a divine miracle from destruction to newness of life. And lastly, the manner in which God reproves the prophet, when he is angry because Nineveh has been spared ( ch. iv. ), is intended to set forth as in a mirror before all Israel the greatness of the divine compassion, which embraces all mankind, in order that it may reflect upon it and lay it to heart.” ( Commentary on the Old Testament, 10:1:383–85.)
“The exact location of Tarshish is unknown, but it is supposed by Adam Clarke and others that it is the same place as Tartessus in Spain, near the Straits of Gibraltar (see The Holy Bible . . . with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 4:700). Whether it was there that Jonah fled or some other port on the Mediterranean, it is certain that Tarshish was in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Joppa was a significant seaport on Israel’s coast in Jonah’s day. From there ships sailed to points throughout the Mediterranean. Joppa is the same as the present-day city of Jaffa, beside which the modern city of Tel Aviv has grown.”
The great fish that swallowed Jonah was probably a whale shark, but of course, his survival is miraculous. Jonah, in his extremity, finally turned back to God. His prayer was one of sincere and meaningful repentance. His use of hell ( sheol in Hebrew, which means the spirit world and is sometimes translated as “grave”) adds to the parallels with Christ’s burial.
Jonah 3:1–3 – Nineveh was a well-known trade center in Jonah’s day. It had terraces, arsenals, barracks, libraries, and temples. The walls were so broad that chariots could drive abreast on them. Beyond the walls were great suburbs, towns, and villages. The circumference of the great city was about sixty miles, or three days’ journey. (See Sperry, Voice of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 331–32n.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith re-translated Jonah 3:10 to read… “And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way and repented; and God turned away the evil that he had said he would bring upon them” ( JST, Jonah 3:10 ).
The people of Nineveh were quick to repent, assuaging God’s wrath. This made Jonah angry. We can see his pride. The Lord used a simple lesson to teach Jonah that the Lord is no respecter of persons; He loves all His children, and not just the descendants of Israel. The Lord brought up a hot wind from the east to afflict Jonah, and Jonah mourned the gourd that had given him shade. “Because the thousands who lived in Nineveh were ignorant of the saving gospel principles, they could not fully ‘discern between their right hand and their left hand’ ( Jonah 4:11 ). Surely the Lord felt more pity for them than Jonah felt for the gourd (see Alma 26:27, 37 ). By means of this simple plant, the Lord taught Jonah about the way in which God loves all of His children.”
*This article was adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.