The Sign of Jonah: A Sign of Salvation For The Whole World

The Sign of Jonah: A Sign of Salvation For The Whole World July 8, 2011

Despite its short length, the Book of Jonah is a major text for the Christian faith. When asked for a sign to prove his messianic claims, Jesus responded, “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. On Judgment day the men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation and condemn it, because when Jonah preached they repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:39-41 Jerusalem Bible).

The connection between Jonah’s descent into the belly of the sea-monster is easily understood as analogous to Jesus’ descent into hades. However, the relationship between Nineveh’s repentance and salvation after Jonah’s exit from the belly of the beast with the salvation of the world after Jesus’ anabasis is not often discussed. While Christ indicated the central feature of the sign is with his death and descent into the abyss, he also indicated the whole event relates to the eschatological judgment. That means the soteriological aspect of the Jonah story must not be ignored, and indeed, it should be explored. St. Cyril of Alexandra, in his homilies on Jonah, sees this. He makes a rather interesting observation: Jonah’s mission is one to the gentiles, one which extends beyond the domain of Israel, but this mission to the gentiles is only actualized after his release from the belly of the beast. Until then, he was hesitant to preach to Nineveh. This connects with Jesus’s own understanding of his mission as being primary with Israel until the time of the resurrection, when he at last sends out his disciples into the world, telling them baptize everyone in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, we read St Cyril saying:

So before the precious crucifixion we shall find Christ still somewhat hesitant – that is, as far as proposing the message of the Gospel oracles to the gentiles goes. For instance, he openly admits, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ and he personally instructs the holy disciples, ‘Go nowhere among the gentiles, and do not enter a town of the Samaritans, but go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ He was ‘in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights,’ and went ‘to the springs of the sea, and walked in the recesses of the deep.’ He entered ‘mountain caverns,’ as it were, and descended to the earth, whose ‘eternal bars’ were shut tight. He then plundered Hades, preached to the spirits there, opened the immovable doors, and came to life again; his life came back from corruption, and in this condition he appeared, before the others, to the women seeking him in the garden.  After telling them to rejoice, he then bade them report to the holy disciples that he was going before them into Galilee.

Then it was his message finally went also to the gentiles by means of the blessed apostles; then it was that he preached the message told before. It was not, you see, that before his death he provided guidance to Israel by one set of commandments, and afterwards to the gentiles by another; instead, it was the Gospel that was given to everyone.[1]

Jonah’s story, therefore, can be used to help us understand greater the universal work of Christ, even if in his earthly mission, his work was primary with the Jews. We do see elements of Christ’s work with Samaritans and gentiles in his earthly ministry, showing that he did not neglect them, though his focus was not with them. Israel, in its records, also shows that God worked with and through those who were not of the Mosaic Covenant. It is only after the resurrection that the fullness of the Gospel can be preached, and preached to every creature throughout the earth, showing what was prepared by God in and through Israel is of universal significance.

But there is more to the story. We see in it something which hints at the cosmic work of Christ. When Jonah preached in Nineveh, we are told that the people – and the animals – of Nineveh performed rites of penance and were forgiven:

A proclamation was then promulgated throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his ministers, as follows: ‘Men and beasts, herds and flocks, are to taste nothing; they must not eat, they must not drink water. All are to put on sackcloth and call on God with all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil behaviour and the wicked things he has done’ (Jonah 3:7-8 Jerusalem Bible).

The people and the animals acted together, doing penance, gaining the merciful forgiveness of God. Jonah, who thought he had gone to preach doom upon Nineveh was upset, thinking it unfair of God to force him to preach upon that doom only to find  Nineveh saved. God’s answer to Jonah makes it clear, everyone and every living thing in Nineveh was dear to his heart, and God desired none of them to perish. “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing for all the animals?” (Jonah 4:11 Jerusalem Bible).

There are some interesting things which one can bring out of this account, two of which I want to bring out here. The first is that Scripture gives indication that animals can repent, that they can be seen as guilty of some sort of sin worthy of penance. The second is that God’s compassion for humanity does not end with humanity, but extends to the animal world as well. Salvation, though it is for humanity, is offered to and extended to the whole of the earth, to every living thing.  This should not surprise us, because Scripture has hinted at this before with  Noah’s Ark, where once again we see the salvation of animals as being a part of God’s plan, and Paul in Romans 8 speaks of the universal work of Christ, leading to the salvation of the earth. However, what is surprising and unexpected is what we have mentioned, the idea that animals, too, can do penance, that they have something to repent, and a means of giving word to God of their penitential desires. Is this really what we are to take out of these passages?

Many interpretations of Jonah, to be sure, do not want us to read the text in this fashion. The general, classical understanding what animals were like, what they were capable of, was used by many to indicate that we must not read the text too literally. What is impossible cannot be suggested by Scripture, so one cannot follow the letter when they appear to be suggesting the impossible. Allegorical interpretations ended up suggesting that the animals here represented various kinds of sinful, human conditions, making people like beasts.[2] Other interpreters, however, suggest the solution is not that the text is allegorical, but rather, the text is using hyperbole. This, for example, is what St Cyril of Alexandria does, contending against the allegorical interpretation:

They even ordered people and animals to join in mourning, to abstain from food and drink, and to be forced, as it were, to grieve – a case of hyperbole: it did not necessarily happen, God’s requiring hardship on the part of the animals. Instead, the sacred text suggested it as well as to bring out the extraordinary degree of the Ninevites’ repentance. I am aware, then, that some commentators are embarrassed at this, claiming that by animals we should understand the most brutish of human beings. Scripture is true, and it would be right at times for this view to be taken by some; but as far as the meaning of the present passage goes, the other interpretation could perhaps be applied, namely, the indication of the extraordinary degree of repentance, by assigning the hardship also to the very animals.[3]

Nonetheless, there are those who say, whatever other levels of meaning one can find in the text, the text does allow us to understand animals can be forced to do some sort of penance, and their cries to God were also heard. Many, like St John Chrysostom, look at if the people of Nineveh made the animals do such penance with them because they would share in the sufferings of the land if God’s doom fell upon it, and so they could be rightfully made to cry out to God so as to receive in God’s mercy:

What sayest thou? Tell me-must even the irrational things fast, and the horses and the mules be covered with sackcloth? “Even so,” he replies. For as when, at the decease of some rich man, the relatives clothe not only the men servants and maid servants, but the horses also with sackcloth, and give orders that they should follow the procession to the sepulchre, led by their grooms; thus signifying the greatness of the calamity, and inviting all to pity; thus also, indeed, when that city was about to be destroyed, even the irrational nature was enveloped in sackcloth, and subjected to the yoke of fasting. “It is not possible,” saith he, “that irrational creatures should learn the wrath of God by means of reason; let them be taught by means of fasting, that this stroke is of divine infliction. For if the city should be overturned, not only would it be one common sepulchre for us, the dwellers therein, but for these likewise. Inasmuch then as these would participate in the punishment, let them also do so in the fast.”[4]

What we see, in all of these, is an understanding of animals being presupposed, and then used to suggest that the verses cannot mean what they appear to say. While this is a valid way of looking at a verse, when there are real significant reasons as to why one might question a simple reading of it, we must also be willing to change our reading if and when we find reason to deny an ancient hermeneutical lens. In the way we can read Genesis in the light of evolution, changing how we read it in light of our better scientific knowledge, so too can we and should we reexamine texts which have used other, ancient scientific ideas which have radically changed since those interpretations were given. This, of course, does not reduce the value of the allegorical interpretation given to the text, nor much of what these interpreters have said, since much of what they suggest transcends their scientific understanding. It is when someone does not allow animals to have a voice, a chance to do penance for themselves, based upon the idea that animals know no sense of shame, and so, no sense of guilt, that we must counter them with modern scientific observation. If we can find evidence that animals do have a sense of guilt, then why should they not be able to do some sort of penance, either of their own making, or of a kind imposed upon them from others? This, I think, is something we must consider, especially in light of biological sciences and what they tell us about animals.

Simple observation with many animals, such as with dogs and cats, reveal to those who are with them a variety of emotions. As Marc Bekoff says, “For most people, spending half an hour with a dog is all the ‘proof’ they need that animals have emotions, for dogs don’t hide what they feel.”[5] We see happiness and joy, sorrow and loneliness in them. But, as any dog owner knows, dogs also have a sense of guilt and shame; they know if and when they have done something wrong. They often try to hide or do some play acting to try to divert attention away from what they have done. The fact that we can see and experience this in dogs should allow us to realize that animals, as a whole, have a variety of emotions and thoughts which connect them to the world at large, and they include those which involve an understanding of right and wrong. Their right and wrong and their understanding of it might differ from ours, because, after all, their being and essence differs from ours, and so their place in the world and work in the world will differ from ours. Just as we can understand the similarity and differences in their organs with ours, so we can compare their emotions with ours. “Their hearts and stomachs and kidneys differ from ours, and those of one species differ from those of another species, but this doesn’t stop us from recognizing that animals have hearts, stomachs, and kidneys that serve the same function as ours. There’s dog-joy and chimpanzee-joy and pig-joy, and dog-grief, and pig-grief. Just because other animals feel differently does not mean that those animals don’t feel.”[6] Biological scientists have learned a great deal about animals, and have even come to see various levels of reasoning ability, indeed, some animals, such as prairie dogs, have been shown to have evolving languages.

While we have learned a great deal about animals through the practice of modern science, it is astonishing for many to learn that some in the classical world took an interest in showing human prejudice against animals and human understanding of animals was wrong. Porphyry, for example, brings out all kinds of observation on animals to show their reasoning ability in his famous work, On the Abstinence From Animal Food. Indeed, he shows they are even capable of learning from and understanding something of human speech, which requires intellection on their part, as well as examples of animals performing acts of reason:

Neither, therefore, are animals ignorant of the meaning of the voice of men, when they are angry, or speak kindly to, or call them, or pursue them, or ask them to do something, or give something to them; nor, in short, are they ignorant of any thing that is usually said to them, but are aptly obedient to it; which it would be impossible for them to do, unless that which is similar to intellection energized, in consequence of being excited by its similar. The immoderation of their passions, also, is suppressed by certain modulations, and stags, bulls, and other animals, from being wild become tame. Those, too, who are decidedly of opinion that brutes are deprived of reason, yet admit that dogs have a knowledge of dialectic, and make use of the syllogism which consists of many disjunctive propositions, when, in searching for their game, they happen to come to a place where there are three roads. For they thus reason, the beast has either fled through this road, or through that, or through the remaining road; but it has not fled either through this, or through that, and therefore it must have fled through the remaining third of these roads. After which syllogistic process, they resume their pursuit in that road.[7]

Most ignored such observations and remained with their unexplored bias, and so Scripture was read and interpreted with bad assumptions about what animals could and could not do. If one removes this hermeneutic lens, one can, however, find all kinds of Scripture telling us interesting things about animals, things which would go against such a prejudice. Animals are to praise God (Ps 148:7-13; Rev. 5:13); animals can partake of reason and act on it (Num. 22:21 -38); animals are not created purely for the human use, but rather, God has granted them their own place in the world and their own value (Gen. 1:31; Ps. 24:1; Ps 50:10-12; Luke 12:6), even giving them a shared covenant with humanity (Gen 9:9-10; Isaiah 11:6-9).

One of the problems we see in human history is that people tend to have biases which they do not test to see if they are correct. They read into others their bias with a confirmation bias, ignoring everything which runs contrary to their assumption while accepting everything which they think would affirm it. They do not take the time to find out of their bias is correct, to reform their opinions based upon experience. One who studies religion can see this all the time. So many non-Catholics assume all kinds of ideas about Catholics and Catholic theology which are wrong; so many non-Muslims assume all kinds of ideas about Muslims and Muslim theology which are wrong; so many non-Jews assume all kinds of ideas about the Jews and their beliefs and practices in the world, which are wrong; so many non-Hindus think all kinds of falsehood about Hindu thought; so many non-Buddhists misunderstand Buddhism, and misrepresent it to others, et. al. The thing is, one can have contact with and dialogue with people of other faiths, and if one is open, one can slowly reform one’s views of the other.

If we can see how humanity mistreats other humans, considering many to be “subhuman” based upon unexplored bias, so much more can be said with human interaction with animals.  Of course, there is more difficulty involved. There are various levels of communication possible, and what level of communication is possible is dependent upon the kind of animal in question. Since we do not have a significant means of getting in their heads, of realizing how they actually think and what they think, the assumption that they do not have the use of reason or the like is easily kept. Even if one shows signs of reasoning, the response is that it is all innate activity, and not reasoning after all. However, if we took this methodology and used it to determine whether or not another human is rational, we can see it can be used to dismiss human reason, and indeed, historically such has been how people have dehumanized other humans (Africans, Native Americans, et. al.). Nonetheless, at least among the higher forms of animal life, we can and do find acts of reason being performed, we do see acts of self-sacrifice for others (love) as well as act of self-preservation (desire for life) in them, qualities which also show a natural desire for the preservation of life and its perpetuation, desires which when shown in humanity is understood as demonstrative of a desire for eternal life. How can we not see the same desires in animals leading to the same conclusion as we do for humanity, especially when Scripture points out, time and again, that animals can be and should be saved?  Do we not have enough evidence for us to reconsider our understanding of animals, both in their earthly existence and what they are capable of doing in it, but also in their place in eternity? Isn’t this also what we can and should learn from the sign of Jonah? Jesus has given us the sign of Jonah. It is the sign of salvation for the world. It is the sign that tells us it is time to repent, before the judgment of God, and that those who do repent, who turn toward God, God’s mercy and grace will be theirs. Just as we do not know the inner thoughts of others, so too, we might not know the inner thoughts of those animals who journey with us in creation, but this does not mean we cannot see the sign of Jonah as hope for them and their salvation, even as we can and do hope for the salvation of every human being.

The kingdom of God is at hand.

It’s time to let the whole of creation come together and praise the Lord.


[1] St Cyril of Alexandria,  “Commentary on Jonah” in Commentary on the Twelve Prophets. Volume 2. Trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 167-8.

[2] Jerome, in his commentary on Jonah, gives this kind of interpretation. See T.M. Hegedus, Jerome’s Commentary on Jonah: Translation with Introduction and Critical Notes (M.A. Thesis. Wilfred Laurier University, 1991), 55.

[3] St Cyril of Alexandria, “Commentary on Johah,” 171-2.

[4] St John Chrysostom, “Concerning the Statues Homily III” in NPNF1(9): 358.

[5] Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals(Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007), 9.

[6] Marc Bekoff, The Animal Manifesto (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2010), 53-4.

[7] Porphyry, “On the Abstinence from Animal Food” in Select Works of Porphyry. Trans. Thomas Taylor (Frome, Somerset: The Prometheus Trust, 1994), 85-6.

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