Jonah

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Jonah - his name in Hebrew is יוֹנָה, yonah - was a Jewish prophet who lived in the eighth century BCE and whose story is told in the Old Testament book of Jonah. According to the biblical account he was swallowed by a big fish or whale and survived three days inside it.

Jonah was told by God to go to the city of Nineveh (near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq) to warn its inhabitants of God's anger at their wickedness, but he disobeyed and went instead to Joppa (modern Yafo, on Israel's Mediterranean coast) where he boarded a ship for Tarshish (probably Tarsus in Cilicia in Asia Minor) (Jonah, ch. 1, vv. 1-3). Once the ship had set sail and was on the open sea God sent a great storm which threatened to sink the ship. When the captain ordered the passengers to cast lots to discover which of them was responsible for the storm, Jonah confessed that he was responsible because of his failure to obey God's command (ibid. ch. 1, vv. 4-10); and he urged the crew to throw him overboard to placate God - which they eventually did. Immediately the storm abated, but Jonah was swallowed by a very large fish or whale. Inside the fish he repented of his disobedience and prayed to God to save him, and after three days the fish vomited him out onto dry land (ibid. ch. 1, v. 11 - ch. 2, v. 10).

God told Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and this time he obeyed. His warnings were effective: the people of Nineveh from the king down put on sackcloth and fasted, and God, pleased at their response, decided not to punish the city as he had planned (ibid. ch. 3). Jonah, however, was angry that the city was spared, thinking that God, being merciful, would have spared the city anyway. So he had to be taught another lesson (ibid. ch. 4, vv. 1-3). He went to live in a tent just outside the city, and one day God caused a gourd to grow up very high beside the tent so that its large leaves would shelter Jonah from the sun. The next day God sent a worm which attacked the root of the gourd and caused it to wither so that Jonah was once more exposed to the sun's heat (ibid. ch. 4, vv. 4-8). When Jonah was angry at the destruction of the gourd, God pointed out to him how unreasonable it was for him to 'have pity' on the gourd, for which he had 'not laboured and <which> came up in a night and perished in a night', while being angry with God for having pity on Nineveh, 'that great city wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons' (ibid. ch. 4, vv. 9-11).

Like other biblical stories, the story of Jonah has been the subject of many paintings, among them Jonah Leaves the Whale's Belly by Il Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) (1518-1594) and Jonah and the Whale by Adam Willaerts (1577-1664).

The story of Jonah and the whale is also told in the Qur'an (ch. 37, vv. 139-148). There are many other references to Jonah - his name in Arabic is يونس, yunus - in the Qur'an, which sometimes refers to him as ذو النون (dhu an-nun, The One of the Whale). Chapter (Sura) 10 of the Qur'an has the title Jonah, although it contains only a brief mention of him (at v. 98).

Nowadays when a person is referred to as a Jonah, it is because he is believed to bring misfortune or bad luck to those around him (just as Jonah brought misfortune to his fellow passengers on the ship to Tarshish).