How to read Jonah


  • Content: through a very reluctant prophet, God shows compassion for one of Israel's hated enemies

  • Prophet: Jonah son of Amittai, who prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II (see 2 Kgs 14:25)

  • Emphases: Yahweh as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all; Yahweh's compassionate concern for the Gentiles (represented by Nineveh); Israel's reluctance (represented by Jonah) to acknowledge Yahweh's compassion for the nations


The book of Jonah is unique among the Latter Prophets. Rather than a collection of prophetic oracles, it is instead a narrative about God's compassion for some hated Gentiles by way of a Hebrew prophet who wants nothing to do with it.

The story is in four easily discernible parts (corresponding to our present chapter divisions): (1) Jonah is called to preach judgment against Nineveh-in Nineveh!-to which he responds by fleeing as far in the other direction as he can go. Yahweh sends a storm, and Jonah is thrown

overboard and is rescued by God's miraculous provision of a large fish. (2) Jonah responds in prayer, a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. (3) Jonah accepts his mission to Nineveh, with these results: Nineveh repents and God relents (in keeping with Jer 18:7-8). (4) Jonah erupts

in anger, to which God responds with an object lesson and a final question to Jonah (Jonah 4:9-10)-the point of everything.


First' in order to appreciate the power of this to put yourself narrative, you might try in the sandals of its intended Israelite hearers. The story functions in much the same way as the parables of Jesus, as the narrator draws his hearers/readers into the story and then catches them off guard with the final question.

The narrator's literary skills are reflected in several ways. For example, the basic story is framed by Jonah's flight from God (1:3) and his reason for it (4:2). Note also how the sailors'response to God,s rescue of them anticipates God's compassion on Nineveh. Irony is used throughout to secure theological points: The pagan sailors end up sacrificing to Yahweh, after Yahweh's defiant prophet is thrown into the sea. At the end of his psalm Jonah exclaims (of his own deliverance): "Salvation comes from the Lord"-which is then played out by Nineveh,s repentance and God's withholding of judgment. Jonah in his anger with Yahweh nonetheless speaks the truth about Yahweh,s character (4:2), which turns out to be the very reason for his anger. And Jonah, rescued from death by Yahweh, in the ends wishes to die rather than to live- because the Ninevites get to live rather than die.

Second this story is primarily about Yahweh and only secondarily about Jonah' Yahweh is the protagonist throughout: He calls Jonah; he sends a storm when Jonah disobeys-and intensifies it to keep the sailors from rescuing him; he provides a great fish to rescue Jonah; he is the object of praise and thanksgiving in Jonah's psalm; he sends Jonah a second time and then stays his hand when Jonah,s preaching is successful; and in the end he provides both the plant and the worm and the scorching east wind to instruct Jonah in Yahweh,s ways. Jonah, on the other hand' serves as the foil so that Yahweh's story can be told with power and punch.

At issue in all of this is the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:3)-that Yahweh is full of compassion and mercy for all that he has made (Ps 145:8-9, 13, 17) and that he intended all along to bless the nations through his election of Israel. But God's election, always an act of mercy, sometimes becomes the basis for pride and prejudice. And in this case remember that Assyria was the most cruel empire in ancient history (see the book of Nahum), yet God was giving such people a chance to repent-not conversion to Yahweh, but nonetheless a response sufficient for Yahweh to withhold his punishments. It is this "injustice" of God's mercy that is so offensive of to Jonah.



Jonah Runs from the Lord

This opening narrative sets you up for the rest. Besides the basic story about Jonah, don't miss the two main elements: (1) Yahweh is in control of everything (note especially his role as Lord of land and sea, which the sailors come to recognize and Jonah does not understand), and (2) the deliberate contrasts between Yahweh's close-minded prophet and the increasingly open-minded pagan sailors.


Jonah's Prayer of Thanksgiving

Note that this "prayer" takes the form of an individual psalm of thanksgiving and is thus expressed in terms of Yahweh's deliverance even while Jonah is still engulfed by the sea. The psalm is in three parts (vv. 2-4, 5-7 ,8-9), the first two of which are parallel, as they interweave distress, rescue, and testimony, and conclude on a similar note-that of looking toward the temple. The final, testimonial, stanza (vv. 8-9) then anticipates the rest of the narrative, expressing Jonah's trust in Yahweh-from whom salvation comes-but doing so in contrast to those who "cling to worthless idols" (e.g., the Ninevites).


Jonah's Preaching and Nineveh's Repentance

Jonah is given a second chance, to which he responds with obedience (vv. 1-3).Note that the repentance of the city focuses on the king, who both sets the example (v. 6) and issues a decree that calls not only for fasting and sackcloth-even by the animals!-but a turning away from their evil ways and violence (vv. 7 -8), hoping that such a display of repentance may cause God to relent (v. 9), which in fact he does (v. 10).


Jonah's Anger at Yahweh's Compassion

Here you come to the point of it all. Jonah does not want God to relent and is angry with Yahweh for being true to himself (see Exod 34:4-6)I The rest is dominated by Yahweh's twice-asked question, "Have you any right to be angry?/Do you have a right to be angry?" and Jonah's conviction that he does (vv. 4,9). Using language from 1:17, the narrator three times points out that Yahweh "provides"-first the vine to give shade, then the worm, and finally the scorching wind. And then the second shoe drops. Jonah's selfish "compassion" more over the plant than justifies God's compassion for Nineveh's people-and animals. And we the readers are implicitly invited to answer Yahweh,s question for ourselves-with regard to our enemies.

The book of Jonah continues the biblical story of the creator and Redeemer God who shows compassion not only for his own but also for all whom he has created; the God of scripture loves his enemies-and