By Jeremy Ben Royston
Was the sign of Jonah the equation of days in the belly of a whale to the days Jesus was in his grave, as is proposed in Matthew (12:40). Or is it something else, more akin to the events surrounding Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba in antiquity?
Reconstruction of the double walls of Nineveh by Marjon Verburg
Second Time of Asking
According to both Meyer’s linguistic commentary and Bengel’s Gnomen, when the priests asked for a sign, they wanted to see a sign from Jesus that he had a Divine mission. They wanted a heavenly sign from him, not because they had not seen him [calm daemons], but because [on whim] they thought this sign was insufficient and required him to attempt a stronger test (and fail it). Meyer claims the incident in Mark (8:11), Luke (11:16) 1nd Matthew (16:1) is the second time a sign is asked. This is despite both Luke (Chapter 11) and Matthew (Chapter 12) containing the trial of Be-el′zebul, the incident in which the priests claim the sign of calming daemons was from the Prince of daemons rather than from heaven.
The Prince of Daemons
In both Matthew and Luke, the response of Jesus was:
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand / a divided household falls; and if Satan casts out Satan / for [if] you say that I cast out demons by Be-el′zebul, he / Satan is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Be-el′zebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore, they shall be your judges. But if it is by the spirit/finger of God that I cast out daemons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you (Matthew 12:25-28, Luke 11:17-20).”
The parable of the strong man that follows the above simile is worded differently, but its message is the same:
“Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house (Matthew 12:29).” / “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted, and divides his spoil (Luke 11:21-23).”
“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters (Luke 11:24, Matthew 12:30).”
The People of Nineveh
According to the book of Jonah, after Jonah returned from the whale or shark, he threatened the people of Nineveh with God’s punishment, hoping that it would come about (Ellicott’s Commentary). He preached,
“Not forty days shall pass before Nineveh shall be overthrown (Jonah 3:4)!”
However, instead, of rejecting his message and challenging him, the people repented and followed the advice of their king, who proclaimed,
“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not (Jonah 3:7-9)?”
When Jonah realised God would not destroy the enemies of Israel, he angrily left the city and went out into the desert. To teach him a lesson, God then caused a plant to grow up and provide for him overnight, and then, the following night, caused it to wither. Jonah complained to God about destroying the plant, but God retorted:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. 11 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)?”
This calmed Jonah down and he returned to the city to guide them in their new creed and their worship of God.
We know that he was swallowed by a huge fish or whale when he fled to sea. The question to ask is, when did he flee? Was it before he, a stranger from Israel, ever went to Nineveh, as is stated in the Book of Jonah? Or after he grew up in Nineveh and was called to be their Prophet, as is stated in the Quran?
Alternative Viewpoints on the Prophet Jonah
Let us grant that, although it places it after Jonah’s passage through the whale, the Bible truly describes the preaching of God’s impending punishment by the prophet to the people of Nineveh. In Islamic narrative, he deserted his calling in anger, rather than patiently staying on the job, because the people had rejected his message. Hence, the impending doom would have been shown to the people of Nineveh after he left the city. Furthermore, rather than after he returned from the being swallowed, his preaching would have come before the event. Moreover, can it be plausibly asserted that the plant that sheltered him in the desert was simply a means to his recovery after his ordeal in the stomach of a great fish or whale? Or could we say its provision, as is stated in the Bible, was simply to demonstrate that those who did not know God are all as precious to God as the plant was to Jonah, and so may be apportioned His mercy. In either case, it still occurred just before his (second) return to the city.
Manifest Doom and Last-minute Redemption
Thus, let us suppose that Jonah did warn Nineveh of its impending doom if they repented not, and in despair of them heeding the warning when it was nigh upon them, he fled on a ship of Tarshish. Let us suppose, further, that the event described in the Quran then occurred where the city witnessed its doom about to fall on it. Let us also suppose that the king made his proclamation in response, and the people repented. Would this not account for Jesus talking about the sign of Jonah and its relation to Nineveh? No sign would be more appropriate for “this evil generation” of hypocritical disbelievers [priests of the Temple] than the looming evidence of doom seen by the people of Nineveh when Jonah left them.
|This phenomenal storm, with two tornadoes spinning simultaneously, was photographed in early June 2015 near Simla, Colo. (Kelly DeLay)|
Obedience to God
It is interesting that Luke’s,
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28)!”
juxtaposes neatly with Matthew’s homily,
“On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37),”
at this point of the narrative, just before mentioning the sign of Jonah.
Do these homilies point to the mythical connection between Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a shark or whale and Jesus’s sojourn in his grave, or to the more important and evident message that only by obeying God and being careful not to disobey Him will their blessed afterlife be guaranteed?
Three Days and Three Nights
Let us see what Luke said about the sign of Jonah. He says,
“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, [he warned of doom in forty days, and – according to the Quran – the men of Nineveh saw it approaching [and repented]] so will the Son of man be to this generation (Luke 11:29-30).”
Indeed, the temple was torn down and the people of Israel scattered within 40 years of his crucifixion. Matthew, however, adds, as he is wont to do, his interpretation of verses from the Old Testament. He says,
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale …. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Matthew 12:39-41).”
Basically, Matthew and Luke are in accord except for that phrase upon which much of Christian faith hangs,
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).”
Are these really the words of the original Aramaic scripture, or added in conveniently by the Greek translator to fit in with his creed?
All the commentaries on the sign of Jonah focus on these “three days and three nights” and explaining the evident misfit with being buried Friday evening and disappearing from his grave by dawn on Sunday, rather than on the more important theological implication that Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, and they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah. Luke (11:28), in his chapter, recalls a beatitude. I suggest Christians recall all the beatitudes of Matthew gathered, rather than scattered as in Luke, in one of his chapters (Chapter 5).
In Meyer’s Commentary it states that the language suggests these beatitudes will result in
“attaining the salvation of the kingdom, which is nigh at hand”.
by those doing what is based on these.
What are these beatitudes? Matthew, in his Gospel, says, that the poor in spirit, the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, are all blessed, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They shall see God, inherit the earth, receive mercy, and be called sons of God. Also blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and mourn. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, too, and they shall be satisfied and comforted (Matthew 5:1-10).
The Light of the World
Jesus also preached, in the same chapter, that,
“when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of God’s messenger, then rejoice and be glad, because your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).”
In accepting such persecution for God’s sake, and for struggling against it, Jesus says,
“You are the salt of the earth (who the misguided ignore, cast aside and trample) and “the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14)” to “shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).”
Not surprisingly, Luke (11:33-36) mentions the parable of “the Light” in the chapter of “The Sign of Jonah.” Equally, it is not surprising that the Bible editors calls the parable, there, “the lamp of the body” (NIV) rather than “the light of the World” or “the light of God’s message.”
This Light refers to a similar Light in Qur’an (24:35),
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.”
It is also alluded to in the Gospel of John when Jesus says,
“While I am in the world, I am the light of the world (John 9:5),” and “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should remain in darkness (John 12:46),” and “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12),” and “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).”
It is also how “The Word” is described by John in his Gospel.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and (to) God was the Word. It was in the beginning with God; all things were made through it, and without it was not anything made that was made. In it was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through it. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9).” [The text from RSV is modified, here, so that the pronoun “he” is “it” when referring to “The Word”.]
To drive the point home, Jesus adds,
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. So, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. And unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven… Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:17-20 & 48).”
Many a Christian says that the perfection God requires to approach Him is impossible for men to attain and only through God’s sacrifice of His only son is such required perfection attained through washing the Christian soul with the blood of their “Saviour” (their Christ God). Yet, in this statement, Jesus tells his followers that to be perfect like the Father, one needs to follow the Law, teach others to follow it, and love not only your brethren, but also love the stranger – even the enemy, and be merciful towards them. In the prayer he teaches, he tells us to ask the Father to forgive our sins as we forgive the sins committed against us by others. This is the key to righteousness. The righteousness of perfection. Not some mythical cleansing effect of Christ God’s sacrificial blood. As it is said in the Quran (22:37),
“It is neither their meat or blood [i.e. of your sacrifice] that reaches God, but the piety of yourself that reaches Him.”
The Queen of Sheba
عرش بلقيس – معبد بران في إقليم سبأ
In addition to the example of Nineveh, Jesus invokes the story of the Queen of Sheba. She and her nation, too, would judge the disbelieving generation of priests as the people of Nineveh would. In the classical texts explaining the visit of the Queen Sheba to Solomon in the Bible, the focus is on the surprising wisdom of Solomon and his ability to provide answers to her “hard questions” (Ellicott’s Commentary) and demonstrate his wisdom to the inquirer [the Queen of Sheba]. It also focusses on from whence she came – the nether ends [Yamani] of the earth [edge of the known world], which invokes the spread of God’s word across the modern globe. The Bible records the Queen of Sheba giving sumptuous gifts in return for his advice, the wisdom of which amazed her. Jewish tradition suggests that she became one of Solomon’s wives or concubines (Rashi’s Commentary), which suggests she accepted his religion, too. Rashi also states that she gave birth to Nebuchadnezzar, who was instrumental in bringing down the temple at the second exile to Babylon – reflecting what happened in 70 C.E.
Turning to the Islamic interpretation and lessons, the Queen of Sheba is not so much a free-thinking philosophical inquirer, impressed by Solomon’s wisdom and justice which she repays with rich material gifts, but a self-confident rival vanquished and confounded by Solomon.
In the Quran, Solomon discovers the Queen Sheba in Yemen through the report of a bird, whom God had taught him to understand. She was the ruler of a rich and powerful country and sat on a wonderful throne, but she and her people worshipped the sun, not Allah. He sent her a message, telling her to present herself to him and submit to the True God [Allah]. She consulted with her advisors and they told her that she had the army and the ability to go to war, if she so desired. However, the advice did not make her precipitate the nation into war; rather, she displayed wisdom. She would send Solomon a rich gift as if to buy him off from attacking her and open the way to her payment of tribute. However, this would be a test by which to measure him. She said to her advisors that if Solomon accepted the gift and tribute, it would prove that he was but a king desiring her queendom to submit to his, but if he refused it, it would prove he was a prophet who wanted their submission to God for the sake of God.
When Solomon received her gift, he sent it back with a message that he was coming to her with his army to conquer her in the name of God. In return, she returned a message with the good news that she was inclined to listen to his call to God and would come with all her commanders and advisers to receive instruction in his religion. She reserved her trustees, whom she charged with the protection of her magnificent throne and the government of the people.
Further proofs of God’s power were supplied by God to Solomon for her education when she arrived. The first was the appropriation of her throne, brought to him by Jinn whom God had placed under his command, despite all the defences her trustees had set up. Before she arrived, he changed it – swapping the placement of its jewels, restructuring some of its body – and then tested her with its altered shape (Tafsir Ibn Kathir). “Is this your throne?” he asked her.
She was cautious, so she did not deny that it was, but said, “It is very like it.”
He also constructed a glass floor in a tower where he housed her that covered a pool of water. When Solomon invited her to enter the room with the pool, she lifted her skirts so as not to wet her hem. How surprised she was when she walked on water, rather than in water. When Solomon told her how God had helped him prepare the tests he had waiting for her, she recognised how powerful and gifted and blessed Solomon was, and attributed his magnificence to his relationship with God, and thus entered wholly into his religion – submission to God (Tafsir Ibn Kathir).
The Sign of Jonah
Whether one takes the Muslim or Jewish account of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, she clearly was convinced of his God given gifts and knew he was a Prophet of God. Although there is no indication she accepted Judaism in 1 Kings 10, the reference Jesus makes to her witness against the insincere generation of Pharisees and Sadducees along with people of Nineveh indicates that he was aware she did submit to God.
What Jesus means by the sign of Jonah is therefore clear. The disbelieving hypocritical priests of the Judaic institution would only believe if they saw their doom looming, and their refusal in the face of what they had already witnessed [of the light] would be held against them not only by God, but by the groups of people who accepted God’s guidance among the gentiles on the day of Judgement.
Sahih International Translation of the Quran [all Quran quotes are from here unless otherwise stated]
Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir of the Quran (translated)
Rashi’s Commentary on The Complete Jewish Bible
Revised Standard Version of the Bible [all Bible quotes are from here unless otherwise stated]
New International Version of the Bible
Meyer’s Commentary of the Bible
Ellicott’s Commentary of the Bible for English Readers