Introduction to Jonah

Jonah. Who hasn’t heard of Jonah? We all have, right? Jonah and the whale is one of the beloved stories that is repeated time and again in our Sunday School classes and children’s story hours. Even people outside the church may be familiar with this tale. So, if everyone has heard this story before, then why study it? Why retrace the well-worn path and rehash the familiar storyline: God calls–Jonah rebels–Jonah calls–God rescues–God calls–Nineveh repents–Jonah complains–God reasons.

First of all, I believe that the Church needs to be reminded of the fact that Jonah is not just a “story” containing almost unbelievable details that make for some fun and imaginative coloring pages for our children. Jonah was a prophet of the Living God, and even though he may not be the best example of what it means to serve God well, the events that unfold in this short book still speak volumes to the Church today. Moreover, I believe that there are times when a “bad example” is a better example than a “good example,” that is, sometimes when someone offers a model of perfection or outstanding performance, the onlookers may think to themselves, “I could never do that” or “I could never achieve that level of skill.” Think about it. When was the last time you watched Olympic figure skating or the Decathlon competition and thought to yourself, “I should take up skating” or “Maybe I should join a Crossfit exercise group to train for competition”?

But having said that, I am not suggesting that we should study the book of Jonah to highlight all his failures in order to congratulate ourselves on the fact that we would never fail so catastrophically as Jonah. I believe that honest reflection on the narrative details of this book may highlight a few shortcomings of our own or reveal to us patterns of “un-Christian” thinking or underlying assumptions that may be displeasing to the God we claim to serve. So, the ancient text of Jonah, as part of the Scriptures that we affirm are “living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), can speak to our contemporary context.

If I may, I would like to get up on my “soapbox” for a minute. As I have just mentioned, I affirm that Jonah is part of the received text that the ancient Jewish community and the early Church both honored as part of the Sacred Scriptures. This perspective has been challenged on many fronts and great doubt has overshadowed the historical veracity of the book, even though Jesus himself believed that Jonah was real and resided in the belly of a great fish for 3 days and 3 nights ((Matt. 12:40). Some might still affirm that Jonah belongs to the “Scriptures,” but that it should be received as one of the myths that was granted canonical status within the “believing community,” but on critical reflection must be acknowledged as a-historical or un-historical. These so-called scholars might affirm that even as we can learn moral principles or life-lessons from stories like Aesop’s Fables or other wisdom literature, we can also learn moral principles or life-lessons from Jonah. That is, they would assert, a Christian can still learn a lesson from Jonah, even though the details of the “story” are not necessarily accurate or even close to representing the truth. I believe that this is a dangerous path to tread.

So, as to my “soapbox,” I avoid using the word “story” to describe any account in the Bible (even though I used it earlier to make my current point). “Story” has “too much baggage.” It conjures up the mindset of “Once upon a time,” the idea that what one is referring to may or may not be true, that it may or may not be rooted in reality or history. For that reason, I use words like narrative, events, historical account, or record when I refer to the “stories” of Scripture. I would encourage our Bible study leaders to do the same in the coming weeks as we consider this little book. In some small way, this practice might help our Bible study participants overcome the notion that “Jonah” is just a fun Sunday School lesson–one of the stories we use to entertain our children.

As for the historicity of Jonah, the Bible notes that there was indeed a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai from Gath Hepher. Second Kings 14:23-29 provides an overview of the reign of King Jeroboam II who ruled the northern tribes of Israel (ca. 790-750 B.C.). In v. 25 we see that the Lord prophesied through Jonah son of Amittai from Gath Hepher that Jeroboam, though he was a wicked king, would extend the borders of Israel in the north nearly back to the Solomonic holdings—thus pushing back the nations of Aram and Syria. Prior to and in the early years of Jeroboam’s reign, the Assyrian Empire was ruled by a militaristic king whose savage armies expanded his influence over the Arameans, Phoenicians, Philistines, Israelites, Neo- Hittites and Edomites, Persians, Medes and Manneans and Babylonia. After Adad-Nirari III’s death (ca. 783), the threat of Assyrian military power nearly vanished making it possible for Jeroboam to attack his neighbors to the north whose territories were subjugated by the former Emperor. From 783-746 B.C., Assyria languished under weak leadership until Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kings 15:29) filled the vacuum of leadership, reestablished the military machine and turned his attention to empire building. So, the “window of opportunity” for Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh was somewhere between 783-746 B.C.

While Jonah is a historical character (about whom we know very little), the account recorded in this short book—that is included in the collection known (unfortunately) as the Minor Prophets—is neither characterized by “historiography”1  nor by typical features of prophetic literature. The book of Jonah gives us precious little in terms of historical detail that could help the careful reader know the time the book was written. There is nothing included that would identify the ruler of Nineveh. The only cryptic geographical detail he offers is that the city took 3 days to walk through and that it was populated by 120,000 that did not know their right hand from their left.2  Moreover, the prophetic “message” of Jonah did not provide any context as to the sin of Nineveh or any of the typical indications that repentance was an option in terms of a response. There are no prophetic oracles or promises of hope—just the simple “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!”

The book of Jonah consists primarily of a narrative with a poetic insert in chapter 2 that I believe was purposefully crafted much later after reflection on the entire experience. The features of Jonah’s poetic prayer are characteristic of psalms of thanksgiving we find in the book of Psalms.3  These psalms were most likely composed in the aftermath of a God-fearer’s desperate appeal for deliverance in the midst of a crisis and God’s subsequent salvation. The “occasion” for the psalm of thanksgiving was normally a “public witness” through temple sacrifice that was offered by the individual (or nation as a whole) to declare publicly God’s faithfulness. In fulfillment of the vow made during the earlier crisis, the supplicant now makes good his promise to honor God through a sacrifice. This is accompanied by a poetic recounting of the earlier crisis and offers evidence of his deliverance.

The book of Jonah ends rather abruptly. God poses a question that Jonah refuses to answer in the heat of the moment. Jonah’s anger—which may have been rooted in nationalistic pride, or in prophetic embarrassment (since his prophecy did not come “true”), or in genuine fear that a spared Nineveh would eventually result in a destroyed Israel—is unresolved and is shown to be unfounded and self-serving. So, how did this book ever come into being? Put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. It is unlikely that an unrepentant Jonah would go back to Israel and tell anyone about his catastrophic failures. Although it is not recorded anywhere in Scripture, if I may be excused for exercising a little bit of “holy imagination,” I believe that Jonah had plenty of time to think through the Lord’s final question on the long trip back to Israel (500+ miles/800+ kilometers). It may very well be that Jonah made a promise to the Lord in the belly of the great fish that he felt compelled to honor after his return. I would suggest that Jonah “came to his senses” on the long journey home as he took time to reflect on his recent “adventures.” And as he arrived back in Israel, he continued on to Jerusalem to offer his sacrifice and at that time actually composed his “belly of the great fish” prayer which he declared in the temple precincts as a public witness to God’s deliverance.

But why would Jonah “put pen to paper” to recount his failures and make public what would have been a very private experience? Obviously in those days, there were no major publishing houses that were offering lots of money for people to write their memoirs or author #1 best-sellers for profit.

In the sphere of biblical studies, those that give themselves to the investigation of such narrative accounts answer the question “why?” by discerning the underlying message of the book. Some might refer to this as the “theology” of the book of Jonah. So the answer to the question “why would Jonah put pen to paper?” they would insist that Jonah had a message (which ultimately came from God) that he wanted to declare to future readers of the book. Within the greater “message” there may be lessons that should be derived and principles that should be applied to the lives of the readers.

Depending on the source one reads, there are a number of proposals as to the essential message or theology of the book of Jonah. My friend Kevin Youngblood whose commentary I recently purchased characterizes the theme of the book as “God’s Scandalous Mercy.”4  Given that Jonah quotes from Exodus 34:6-7 (the most often quoted Bible verse within the Old Testament) in his response to the Lord in chapter 4, I believe that Kevin might be pointing in the right direction. Others have noted the Lord’s concern for the nations is a key theme or contribution that Jonah makes within the Old Testament canon. I wonder, given the fact that Israel (where Jonah lived and served as a prophet) would be taken into exile within a generation or so of Jonah’s trip to Assyria, if the message of the book for Israel was not related to the need for Israel’s own repentance. Surely if the most wicked of all peoples could repent and be spared God’s promised judgment, the rebellious Israelites could repent and be spared its forthcoming prophesied judgment, right? We’ll explore some of these ideas in the coming weeks.

I look forward to this journey with you in the coming weeks as we explore the book of Jonah and prayerfully seek to learn from this ancient text and apply its message to our contemporary lives.

1  Historiography is a term that scholars use to describe a careful examination of sources in the recording of a narrative that will serve as a verifiable account of actual events that constitute history. The “historical books” of the Old Testament (Joshua – 2 Kings, especially 1 Samuel – 2 Kings) are described by many as historiography.

2  But even these details are uncertain. Did it take Jonah three days to walk from one side to the other (meaning 45-60 miles if he walked a straight line at a consistently fast pace), did he meander throughout the city to “cover” the populated area with his message, or did he spend that 3 days preaching in the public places around the city? Does the reference to the 120,000 mean that there were 120,000 infants who could not distinguish their right and left hands? Or was the total population of the city 120,000 (it is highly unlikely an ancient city could sustain that size a population)? Or was the entire population of the region surrounding Nineveh under threat of destruction?

3  Examples of psalms of thanksgiving can be found in Pss. 18, 30, 34, 40, 65, 66, 67, 75, 92, 107, 116, 118, 124, 136, and 138.

4  Kevin Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, 2nd  ed., edited by Daniel I. Block (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019).