The book of Jonah is a story about a prophet who bitterly resented the fact that God loves and cares for evil people. The book does not teach that God loves evil people because they are evil, but rather because they are human, of intrinsic worth to him in spite of their behaviour and their disregard for the true God. Much is made in the book of how Jonah attempted to resist the assignment that God gave him, which was to preach a warning to the people of Nineveh, a great city in ancient Assyria. Jonah knew that this warning might prompt the people of Nineveh to repent and be forgiven.
This is precisely the outcome that he opposed, since the ancient superpower Assyria was a cruel enemy of the Israelites, among many other nations, and Jonah, a nationalistic Israelite, wanted the Assyrians to be harmed, not helped. Nevertheless, the Lord forced Jonah to carry out his prophetic assignment, and in the process taught Jonah—and the readers of the book—that he is a God who has concern for peoples and nations beyond his own special chosen people.
The book does not suggest universalism, that all peoples or nations are chosen, but does teach that non-believing peoples may still benefit in some ways from God’s compassion. In this regard the book teaches the biblical doctrine of common grace (i.e. that some of God’s blessings in this life are given to all people in general, not just believers). The book also represents one of several OT foreshadowings of the new covenant enlargement of the kingdom of God to include believers from the Gentiles as well as from the Israelites. And most especially, it is an early version of Jesus’ radical teaching that his followers must love their enemies.
There is no hint in the book that Jonah thought of himself as trying to introduce the people of Nineveh to the one true God that they, in their mistaken polytheism and pagan worship, had nevertheless been dealing with all along (as Paul does for the Athenians in Acts 17). Nor does the book give any indication that the Ninevites thought of themselves as converting to faith in Yahweh in any way whatever by their repentance described in ch. 3. Thus the book does not attribute to the Ninevites what is commonly called ‘special grace’, the benefits of actually knowing and obeying the one true God revealed in the Bible.
Outside the book of Jonah itself, Jonah is mentioned at only one place in the OT (2Ki. 14:25) where he is identified as a northern Israelite prophet who rightly predicted during the days of King Jeroboam II that Israel would recapture territory from Syria that was traditionally part of the promised land. Both Jonah and Jesus were prophets from Galilee. Jonah was from Gath-Hepher (1:1), a city in the district of Zebulun, just three miles north east of Nazareth. It is not surprising therefore, that Jesus, who grew up in Nazareth, should take the story of this well-known local prophet to symbolize his own resurrection, and to use Jonah’s warning to the people of Nineveh to repent as a symbol of his own call for repentance (Mt. 12:38–41; Lk. 11:29–32).
Jonah’s name means ‘dove’ in Hebrew, but there is no symbolism to his name. Many Israelites bore similar animal names (cf. Peter’s father Jonah, Mt. 16:17). His father’s name was Amittai (1:1) but otherwise nothing can be known of his family or personal background. It is usual for prophetic books to give few family details about their authors or subjects. Like virtually all ancient prophets, Jonah was a poet, so that his composition or recitation of a poem, even from inside a great fish or whale (ch. 2) is hardly surprising. He appears in the book as an ardent nationalist, pro-Israelite and anti-foreign. Presumably, whatever advanced Israel and contributed to the decline or defeat of its enemies, he would have favoured. His strong nationalism led him to sin by resenting God’s compassion towards an enemy people, and resisting God’s command. His theology was also imperfect in regard to God’s sovereignty. His attempted flight indicates that Jonah may have thought, as many ancient peoples did, that a god or goddess had greatest power in those regions where he or she was known and worshipped, and that geographical distance from Yahweh’s land meant at least some degree of freedom from Yahweh’s control. Alternatively, he may have believed that he could best resist the call of God by heading in the opposite direction to Nineveh (which was to the east), sailing as far west as possible (out to sea on the Mediterranean) hoping that God would then choose some other prophet to preach to Nineveh and leave him alone. Getting away from Israel meant getting away from the Lord’s assignment in this view. Jonah quickly learned better, of course, but the book honestly portrays him as one whom God spared and used in spite of his follies and failures, as is the case with all human beings whom God uses. Jonah, in other words, is hardly a model for us to follow. Some of his behaviour and some of his beliefs were absolutely reprehensible, but he was a genuine, inspired Israelite prophet.
The author of the book is not identified. All the information in the book could have come to the author’s attention from as few as two human sources: Jonah himself, who knew the details of most of the story, and the sailors mentioned in ch. 1, who knew that they had brought sacrifices to the Lord after their sudden deliverance at sea from the storm (1:16). The fact that the book is so often critical of Jonah does not mean that he could not have been its author. Comparably, the NT gospels are frequently critical of the disciples, among whom are their authors. The book shows no evidence of composite authorship or of insertions or deletions from the original text (See the chart ‘The prophet’ in The Song of Songs.)
Virtually no evidence exists to tell us when the book itself was composed. We cannot be sure of the precise date, since its language does not betray any features known to be either especially late or early in the development of Hebrew. Attempts to discern supposed ‘Aramaisms’ (Hebrew word forms derived from Aramaic after about 600 bc) or dependence of statements in Jonah on other prophets, such as Jeremiah, have been unsuccessful. The psalm in ch. 2 does employ some early terminology (e.g. Hebrew nephesh in the sense of ‘throat’; v 5 is [lit] ‘water enveloped me to my throat’) but such is characteristic of Hebrew poetry so often as to be insignificant. Assyria was widely hated after 745 bc, when Tiglath-pileser III revived and institutionalized its imperialism and began threatening Syria and Palestine, so that one of the book’s central emphases (that God loves even the Assyrians) would certainly have been greatly needed in Israel any time after that date. The book could have been composed in advance of 745 in anticipation of that need, or thereafter in response to it. The message of the book is virtually timeless at any rate, and the language simple and direct—standard, classical Hebrew.
As to the events described, these are easier to pin down. 2 Ki. 14:25 links Jonah to the period of the long reign of Jeroboam II in Israel (793–753 bc). 1:1 refers to Nineveh’s ‘trouble’ (or hardship, calamity, misery; niv ‘wickedness’ is a less likely translation, especially since throughout the book God’s attitude towards Nineveh is not denunciatory but merciful, in sharp contrast to Jonah’s). This suggests a date in the decades prior to Tiglath-pileser III, during which Assyria experienced a period of political turmoil and economic decline (i.e. ‘trouble’) under a succession of weak kings. Any date between about 800 and about 750 would fit. But it may be possible to be even more precise. Assyria’s weakest point during that half-century came during the reign of Ashurdan III (772–756) under whose leadership Assyria suffered both major military losses and economic reversals. Anti-government riots forced Ashurdan to flee his royal residence at least once, and a total solar eclipse on June 15, 763 bc (considered an omen of severe divine displeasure by the highly superstitious Assyrians) may well have provided the occasion for the sort of popular repentance rituals described in 3:5–9. There was probably good reason for a weak king to join and support officially the popular outpouring of repentance at Jonah’s preaching on the part of a war-weary, famine-stricken population frightened by a solar eclipse. A date for Jonah’s mission in the late 760s bc cannot be too far afield.
The book of Jonah presents a contrast between Jonah’s self-centred hatred of his enemies and God’s compassion for them. It is clearly intended to teach readers of the book that they ought not to reflect Jonah’s attitude and practice. Twice in ch. 4 God asks Jonah what right he has to be angry—first, about God’s sparing Nineveh (v 4) and then about the loss of the leafy gourd (niv, vine) that had shaded Jonah’s hut from the blazing sun (v 9). This latter God made an object lesson for the prophet. If Jonah cared about a plant, not wanting to see it die, should not God care about a whole city of people, not wanting to see them die (v 11)? Are not people (or animals, for that matter, v 11) much more valuable than plants? Don’t they have intrinsic worth? Even if they are our enemies, that should not mean that we think that they deserve no compassion from God.
The contrasting of the relative values of plant and people in ch. 4 is only one of the two major object lessons in the book, however. The other is the contrast between Jonah’s gratitude for being rescued from a fate he well deserved, and his resentment at the Ninevites’ rescue from a fate they well deserved. In ch. 1 he confesses to the sailors that the divinely sent storm that threatens their lives is his fault and that his drowning will spare them. About to drown, he is suddenly swallowed, and thus rescued from death, by a large fish or whale (1:17). Ch. 2 records Jonah’s eloquent prayer of thanksgiving for his own rescue, thus setting up a contrast with his hypocritical dissatisfaction at the rescue of the people of Nineveh in ch. 4.
The form of the book is biographical narrative, a sub-category of Hebrew historical narrative, similar to that found in biographical portions of the prophetical books (most notably Jeremiah) and the stories of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. The sentence constructions, transitions, scene descriptions and prominent use of dialogue are all standard characteristics of OT Hebrew historical narrative. So also is the presence of a poem (ch. 2) in the midst of what is otherwise prose. The occasional inclusion of poetry in the course of historical narrative is the norm, not the exception, in OT historical books. Throughout the Pentateuch and Former Prophets one finds dozens of examples. The fact that the book is a teaching narrative is also not exceptional; all OT narratives are, to some degree.
Those inclined to regard the book as fictional usually classify it as either an allegory, a parable or a fable. It bears the form of none of these, however. OT allegories are characterized by groups of obviously stylized characters fitted to a simple contrived plot, together symbolizing known historical developments (e.g. Ps. 80:8–19; Ezk. 19). Parables are very short stories (normally a few sentences) told in a spare style, as a way of illustrating a single point or principle (e.g. Isa. 5:1–7; Ezk. 17:22–24). Fables are stories involving talking plants or animals to highlight symbolically some facet of history, culture, or personal experience (e.g. Jdg. 9:7–15). Jonah is too long, too complex, too historically detailed and too straightforwardly biographical and narrative to be any of these.
The book’s style is simple and normal for Hebrew narrative. It reads easily in the original, and contains no humour or lurid descriptions. Those who find the book somehow humorous or lurid are interpreting parts of the story according to their own expectations, not analysing the style of the book itself. The language is not exaggerated, the events not silly, and Jonah’s own demeanour is anything but humorous. While the book contains irony (e.g. Jonah’s resentment at the sparing of Nineveh after his own willingness to be spared personally, or his valuing the life of a single plant above many human lives) it is, like much biblical irony, not humorous but tragic. Jonah is not a hapless oaf or bungler at whom (or with whom) we should laugh—even ruefully. He is deadly serious about his hatred of the enemies of his people, and distraught to the point of death that God should be willing to spare rather than to crush Nineveh. To laugh at Jonah would be to fail to take seriously the sober purpose of the book—which is to keep us from viewing our enemies as Jonah did his. Those who speak in the book—God, the sailors, Jonah and the king—do so naturally, according to the norms of Hebrew narrative dialogue. The poem in ch. 2 is a typical example of a thanksgiving psalm, of which there are several in the Psalter.
The story of Jonah is complete and self-contained and shows no evidence of having lost any content by reason of textual corruption or deliberate manipulation. The text, in fact, is remarkably well preserved. Some scholars have argued that the psalm in ch. 2 is out of place, added by a later editor, since the story still supposedly reads nicely if the psalm and the words of introduction to it are omitted. However, virtually all poetic sections of OT historical narratives are similar in this regard. Moreover, an important element of the original story would be lost if the psalm were left out: the hypocrisy of Jonah’s eloquent gratitude at his own undeserved rescue from death (which the psalm clearly reflects) over against his petulant resentment at the undeserved rescue of Nineveh from death (ch. 4). On the close interconnection of the psalm to the rest of the book see also G. Landes, ‘The Kerygma of the book of Jonah’, Interpretation 21 (1967) 3–31.
Did the events described in the book really happen? Aren’t parts of the story so unusual as to be obviously fictional? Did a man live for three days in a large fish, and a great city repent en masse at the preaching of an obscure foreign prophet? Did a large plant grow next to Jonah’s hut and then die suddenly in order to teach Jonah a lesson? Did God really manipulate nature—from a mighty storm to a small grub—for the sake of one rebellious prophet?
The book claims that all these things did happen. Of course, if one believes that miracles can’t happen, that God never intervenes decisively in human affairs, then the book of Jonah as well as all other accounts that speak of supernatural matters must be false. Such a rigid refusal to consider the supernatural a part of reality is, of course, unprovable, and the mere denial that certain sorts of events can occur is hardly a worthy means of argumentation. Could and would a supernatural Creator manipulate nature to his ends, sometimes so intensely as even to threaten or take human life? The Bible in general and the book of Jonah in particular certainly portray God in exactly this manner.
In any case careful examination of the events described in the book reveals that none is especially outlandish if one is willing to grant the possibility of supernatural events in a world still controlled by its divine Creator. For example, the storm in ch. 1 is by no means unusual for the eastern Mediterranean; its interception of Jonah and the ship he was on being more a matter of timing than of quantity or quality. It is well documented that several people (mostly whalers) have survived long periods of time inside sea creatures. The ability of the body to concentrate oxygen in critical tissues, including the brain, in the presence of cold water is so well established medically as to be commonplace. The conditions necessary for the highly superstitious Assyrians to respond to Jonah’s preaching with wide-scale repentance, however ritualized, were in fact present during the early decades of the eighth century bc in and around Nineveh. Numerous examples of short-lived regional and national periods of repentance such as that described in the book are in fact chronicled in Assyrian historical records. As to the plant that died quickly in broiling heat when its roots were consumed, timing and placement are the primary requisites. There is nothing otherwise about its growth or death that is especially unusual.
The circumstances surrounding these super-natural events are addressed in further detail in the commentary, below.
P. C. Craigie, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, DSB (St Andrew Press, 1984).
———, in USA, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 1, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. Alexander, Jonah, in D. W. Baker, D. Alexander and B. K. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, TOTC (IVP, 1988).
H. L. Ellison, Jonah, EBC (Zondervan, 1985).
D. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, WBC (Word, 1987).
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
niv New International Version
DSB Daily Study Bible
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
WBC Word Biblical Commentary