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18. Bible and Qur'an Series
BOOKLET 2 - What Indeed Was the Sign of Jonah?
(A reply to Ahmad Deedat's Booklet: What was the Sign of Jonah?)

3. Jonah a Sign to the Men of Nineveh

Two momentous events occurred when God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn the people of that city that God was about to destroy it for its wickedness. The first we have already briefly considered, namely the casting of the prophet into the sea and his sojourn in the stomach of the fish over a period of three days. It will be useful at this stage, however, to record the story as it is found in the Qur'an and to compare it with the story as it appears in the Bible to see to what extent the stories coincide. The narrative in the Qur'an reads:

And lo! Jonah verily was of those sent (to warn). When he fled unto the laden ship, and then drew lots and was of those rejected; and the fish swallowed him while he was blameworthy; and had he not been one of those who glorify (Allah), He would have tarried in its belly till the day when they are raised. Then We cast him on a desert shore while he was sick; and We caused a tree of gourd to grow above him; and We sent him to a hundred thousand (folk) or more. And they believed, therefore We gave them comfort for a while. (Surah al-Saffat 37:139-148).

The story is rather disjointed in this passage as there is no sequence of events showing how each incident leads on to the next one. It is in the Book of Jonah in the Bible, however, that one finds the whole narrative properly knit together. Jonah agreed to join in the throwing of lots with the other soldiers on the boat to discover, who was the cause of the storm which threatened to drown them all. The lot fell on him and so he was thrown into the sea where he was duly swallowed up by a large fish. After three days the fish coughed him up on dry land and he duly went to Nineveh, proclaiming that the city would be overthrown in forty days.

The other great event was the total repentance of the whole city, from its king to all its slaves, when they heard the ominous warning. Jonah, surprisingly, was angry when he saw the people turn from their sins for he knew that God was merciful and would probably spare the city. As a patriotic Hebrew he had hoped for its overthrow for it was the main city of Assyria and a constant threat to the people of Israel. In the heat of the day he went up a mound hoping to see its demise, and God caused a gourd (a large plant) to grow up and give him shelter. The next day, however, God appointed a worm to consume its stem and thus cause it to wither. Jonah was very upset about this but God said to him:

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

The second great event in this story, that is, the repentance of the whole city of Nineveh, was all the more remarkable when one considers that the Assyrians neither knew nor feared God and had no obvious reason why they should heed the word and warning which Jonah brought. There was no sign that the city would be destroyed in forty days, as Jonah warned, as life was just going on normally from day to day without any suggestion from the weather or the elements that any danger was near.

No thunderclouds formed over the city as had happened at the time of Noah when the great flood burst on the earth. Nineveh was a mighty city and was in no way under any military threat. All that the city heard was the solitary voice of a Jewish prophet who came proclaiming: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).

We often see cartoons of bearded old men carrying placards “the world ends tonight” and such men are always a source of amusement when they appear on the streets with such messages. Indeed the Ninevites might have considered that Jonah was just one of these religious freaks and while being amused at his apparent earnestness, they might have become somewhat indignant at the content of his warning.

When the Apostle Paul went to the city of Athens he was met with such a reception. In response to his preaching some said “What would this babbler say?” (Acts 17:18). The people of Nineveh listening to the Hebrew prophet Jonah might well have mused as the Athenians did about the Apostle Paul, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18). We discover, however, that:

The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5)

From the throne of the king down to the least of the common folk the hundreds of thousands of Ninevites took Jonah in all seriousness, repented in great earnest, and desperately sought to remove the imminent judgment from their city. Jonah in no way endeavored to persuade them of the truth of his short, simple warning - he just proclaimed it as a matter of fact. He also gave them no assurance that God would spare the city if they repented. It was, on the contrary, his wish and expectation that the city would be destroyed in terms of God's warning whether the Ninevites took him seriously or not.

Why then did the whole city repent and do so in the hope that God would not cause them to perish? (Jonah 3:9) Jewish historians were fascinated by this story and concluded that the only possible explanation was that the Ninevites knew that Jonah had been swallowed up by a fish as God's judgment on his disobedience, and also knew that while he would normally die in such circumstances, God in mercy kept him alive and delivered him from the stomach of the fish on the third day. This alone could explain the seriousness with which they listened to Jonah and their hope of mercy if they repented.

The Jewish historians concluded that the Ninevites reasoned that if God treats his beloved prophets so severely when they disobey him, what could they expect when the city was in the gall of bitterness against him and in the bond of iniquity and sin?

The reasoning of the Jews was correct. Jesus confirmed that Nineveh's repentance came about as a result of their full knowledge of Jonah's ordeal of the preceding days. He made this quite plain when he said:

“Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh.” (Luke 11:30)

In saying this Jesus put the seal of authenticity on the story of Jonah's ordeal and Nineveh's repentance and confirmed that it was historically true. At the same time he also gave credence to the theory that the people of Nineveh had heard of Jonah's ordeal and remarkable deliverance and as a result of this took his message in all seriousness, hoping for a similar deliverance in turning from their wickedness in repentance before God. By saying that Jonah had become a sign to the men of Nineveh he made it plain that the city knew of the recent history of God's dealing with the rebellious Jewish prophet. This explained the earnestness with which the Ninevites repented before God.

It was not Jesus' intention merely to confirm Jewish speculations, however. He wished to show that what had happened at the time of Jonah and its sequel was applicable to the people of Israel in his own generation and that a similar sign was about to be given which would likewise lead to the redemption of those who received it and the destruction of all those who did not.

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