Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Jonas, prophet

While many of the faithful today observe the fast of Ember Wednesday with works of penance and mortification, and the Church Universal celebrates the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, many other heroes of faith and sanctity are also commemorated this day. Among them is yet another of the Old Testament saints whom the Church annually venerates. Standing immediately after St. Matthew in the list of saints for "This Day, the Twenty-First Day of September," we find the following notice of a heavenly birthday  in the traditional Roman Martyrology:

In the land of Saar, the holy prophet Jonas, who was buried in Geth.

The account of "Jonah and the whale" is one of the best known stories in the Bible, teaching us of the importance of humble obedience to God's calling, the holy justice of God, the salvific power of penance, and God's triumphant mercy and forgiveness of sinners whether Jew or Gentile. On two separate occasions, when the Jewish people sought a miraculous "sign" from the Lord Jesus, He directed their attention to the wondrous works that God accomplished in and through St. Jonas:

An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was in the whale' s belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas. And behold a greater than Jonas here. (Matt. 12:39-41)

A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. And he left them, and went away. (Matt. 16:4)

And the multitudes running together, he began to say: This generation is a wicked generation: it asketh a sign, and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign to the Ninivites; so shall the Son of man also be to this generation. . . . The men of Ninive shall rise in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they did penance at the preaching of Jonas; and behold more than Jonas here. (Luke 11:29-30, 32)

In pointing to "the sign of the Jonas the prophet," Jesus foretells His resurrection from the dead on the third day, just as St. Jonas came forth alive after three days in the belly of the great fish. But Jesus does not speak merely of the memorable and miraculous deliverance of Jonas from death -- He refers to the prophet's entire mission to Ninive, in which Jonas was told to announce God's wrathful judgment. This aspect of "the sign of Jonas the prophet" is a warning to the sinful Jews that divine judgment had been pronounced against the city of Jerusalem. The implication is that Jesus' hearers could avert the outpouring of God's wrath if they did penance, just as the humble penance of the wicked pagans in Ninive turned aside God's judgment against them. They did not heed Christ's warning, however -- where St. Jonas announced that Ninive would be destroyed in 40 days, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans about 40 years after the Messiah admonished Israel to do penance and believe the Gospel. We ourselves, living in a time when the mountain of the filth and wretchedness of human iniquity and debauchery has reached a height never before seen, must accept the sign of Jonas the prophet as a warning of this generation's inevitable and impending destruction unless it does penance.

In light of the fact that the story of St. Jonas was given to us by the Holy Spirit to teach us to do penance that we may receive the mercy of God, it is probably significant that the Church commemorates St. Jonas in the latter part of September, near the Fall Ember Days and close to the time of the solemn Jewish fast of the Day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim) which falls in late September or early October. Israel was commanded through Moses to do acts of self-mortification annually on Yom Kippur, in penance for sin and to implore God's forgiveness. In Jewish synagogues, the Book of Jonas is read on the Day of Atonement, while in the Church the Pentateuch's account of the divine institution of the Day of Atonement is read during the Fall Ember Day Masses.

As for St. Jonas himself, the Holy Scriptures provide scant biographical information about him. He first appears in IV Kings 14:25, where we read that King Jeroboam II of Israel "restored the borders of Israel from the entrance of Emath, unto the sea of the wilderness, according to the word of the Lord the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonas the son of Amathi, the prophet, who was of Geth, which is in Opher." The town of Geth, which is in Opher, is also called Gath-Hepher -- according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, it was located in the territory of the Tribe of Zebulun, near the Sea of Galilee. The only other place in the Old Testament where Jonas is mentioned is in the book named for him, the fifth of the 12 Minor Prophets, which tells of how God sent Jonas to preach to the pagan Gentile Assyrians. (The Catholic Church and all of the Fathers of the Church have always maintained that the Book of Jonas relates real events and actions -- see the old Catholic Encyclopedia's treatment of this subject.)  Jeroboam's reign, which occurred during the first half of the 700s B.C., was a period of great prosperity and military prowess for the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but the kingdom would fall to the invading Ninivite king a mere three decades after Jeroboam II's death. Were it not for the mission of St. Jonas, the Ninivites would not have repented and thus could not have sacked Samaria in 722/1 B.C., carrying the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom into captivity as divine punishment for their idolatry and other sins.

The Book of Jonas does not directly or even indirectly mention what happened to Jonas, the Ninivites, and Israel after the book ends. The subsequent history of Ninive and Israel are known from biblical and secular historical and archaeological sources, but for the subsequent life of Jonas we have only later Jewish and Christian traditions. It is generally held, for example, that after his mission to Ninive ended, Jonas returned to Israel. That seems to be implied by the first century B.C. Jewish apocryphal history III Maccabees 6:8, which says, "When Jonah was pining away in the belly of the sea-bred monster, thou didst look upon him, O Father, and recover him to the sight of his own" -- "his own" referring probably to his family or nation. Somewhat later, the Jewish apocryphal work, The Lives of the Prophets, dating from the first century A.D., offers these legends and traditions about St. Jonas:

He was from the district of Kiriath-maon, near the Gentile city of Azotus on the sea. After he had been cast on shore by the whale and had made his journey to Nineveh, on his return he did not stay in his own land, but took his mother and settled in Tyre, a country of foreign peoples. For he said, "In this way I will take away my reproach, that I prophesied falsely against the great city Nineveh." Elijah was at that time rebuking the house of Ahab, and having called a famine upon the land he fled. Coming to the region of Tyre he found the widow and her son, for he himself could not lodge with the uncircumcised. He brought her a blessing; and when her child died, God raised him from the dead through Elijah, for he wished to show him that it is not possible to flee from God. After the famine was over, Jonah came into the land of Judea. On the way thither his mother died, and he buried her beside the oak of Deborah. Thereafter having settled in the land of Seir, he died there and was buried in the tomb of the Kenizzite, the first who became judge in the days when there was no king. He gave a sign to Jerusalem and to all the land: When they should see a stone crying aloud in distress, the end would be at hand; and when they should see all the Gentiles gathered in Jerusalem, the city would be razed to its foundations.

The tradition that Jonas felt personally embarrassed by God's mercy toward the Ninivites is in agreement with the disappointed attitude he expresses in the Book of Jonas when God does not destroy Ninive. (Yet the longstanding tradition of the Church's veneration of St. Jonas assures us that, despite his embarrassment and anger over God's mercy, he ended his days in holiness and faith.) On the other hand, the statement that Jonas came from a district near the Philistine city of Azotus (Ashdod) conflicts with the testimony of Josephus that Gath-Hepher was a town near the Sea of Galilee. No doubt this error arose from a confusion of Gath-Hepher with the Philistine city of Gath, home of the giant Goliath. Also, the legend identifying Jonas as the widow's son of Sarepta who was raised from the dead by St. Elias the Prophet is chronologically amiss, since Jonas is associated with the reign of Jeroboam II in the 700s B.C., not the dynasty of Omri in the 800s B.C. Concerning this particular legend, the old Catholic Encyclopedia comments:

According to an ancient tradition mentioned by St. Jerome (Comm., in Jonas, Prol., P.L., XXV, 118), and which is found in Pseudo-Epiphanius (De Vitis Prophetarum, xvi, P.L., XLIII, 407), Jonah was the son of the widow of Sarephta whose resuscitation by the Prophet Elias is narrated in 3 Kings 17, but this legend seems to have no other foundation than the phonetic resemblance between the proper name Amathi, father of the Prophet, and the Hebrew Emeth, "truth", applied to the word of God through Elias by the widow of Sarephta (3 Kings 17:24).

The Catholic Encyclopedia does, however, recommend St. Jerome's favored interpretation of the name of Jonas the prophet:

The name is usually taken to mean "dove", but in view of the complaining words of the Prophet (Jonah 4), it is not unlikely that the name is derived from the root Yanah = to mourn, with the signification dolens or "complaining". This interpretation goes back to St. Jerome (Comm. on Jonah, iv, 1).

One passage in the old Catholic Encyclopedia's article on St. Jonas is in error, however. The article says, "According to the Septuagint text of the Book of Tobias (xiv, 4), the words of Jonah in regard to the destruction of Ninive are accepted as facts." In the Latin Vulgate, this particular verse from the Book of Tobias does not mention Jonas, whose prediction of Ninive's destruction did not come to pass due to the Ninivites' penance. In various other ancient Greek manuscripts of Tobias 14:4, the reference is to the prophecy of Naum (Nahum), whose prediction of Ninive's destruction did come to pass in 612 B.C., and the context of that passage of Tobias shows beyond all doubt that "Naum" is the correct reading, not "Jonas."

The traditional Roman Martyrology's statement that Jonas died "in the land of Saar" evidently derives from The Lives of the Prophets, which says he died in the land of Seir (Edom), today in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Martyrology's "Geth," burial place of St. Jonas, is his hometown of Gath-Hepher. Writing in the latter 300s A.D., St. Jerome mentions in his Commentary on the Book of Jonah that in his day the tomb of Jonas was located in Gath-Hepher. Later on, a shrine was built in Ninive (today called Mosul) at the site said to be the tomb of Jonas. Presumably the prophet's relics were translated from Gath-Hepher to Ninive, even as they were previously translated in ancient times, according to tradition, from the tomb of Othniel the Judge to Gath-Hepher. The tomb and shrine of the holy prophet Jonas in Ninive was destroyed by the iconoclast Mohammedan caliphate in Northern Mesopotamia in July 2014.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!