Despite being grouped among the Twelve Minor Prophets, Jonah stands out as being very different. Instead of being a collection of oracles from a prophet, it is a story about a prophet, even though Jonah is never called a prophet in the book. He is identified, however, as a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25, where he prophesied that Jeroboam II would expand the territory of the Northern Kingdom (ca 780 BCE). There, it states that "Jonah, the prophet" hailed from Gath Hepher, located approximately fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee from the tribe of Zebulun. Scholars agree, however, that Jonah was probably not the author of the book that bears his name and furthermore, it might have been written long after that time.
During the reign of Jeroboam II, Assyria was not a major player on the international stage. That began to change with the reign of Tiglath-pileser (745-727 BCE) and by 701 BCE, Sennacherib had made Nineveh his capital city. Riding the crest of Assyrian domination, it was probably the most powerful city in the Ancient Near East in its day. But its fortunes changed dramatically in 612 BCE when the Babylonians and Medes overtook Assyria. Nineveh was reduced to rubble, and it was never rebuilt. Since Jonah was told to preach to Nineveh, he would have had to do so prior to its destruction. But some of the language in the book dates to the Persian period (as late at 330BCE), leading some scholars to suggest a date anytime between 750 and 250 BCE.
The question on everyone's mind, however, is, "Is the story true?" It has been variously labeled a short story, a legend, a folk tale, a sermon, a myth, an allegory, a parable, or a midrash. It doesn't fit any of these genres completely; rather it embodies parts of most of them. In general, it can be called a prophetic narrative, much like that of Elijah and Elisha. The difference is, of course, that those stories focused on the prophets' faithfulness, whereas Jonah did the opposite of what God told him to do.
But scholars are not so quick to dismiss the historical argument. They point out that it really makes a big difference as to how one reads the book. If the purpose of Jonah is to show God's compassion to a nation other than his chosen people, that's one thing. But if the purpose of the book is to show how a prophet had to learn this lesson the hard way, then it's a bit more serious. That would say that God will be compassionate, even to those we don't think are deserving of it. In such an instance, the book then becomes God's revelation of Himself, as opposed to just an interesting story by a narrator.
Scholars debate Jonah's placement among the prophets. Some feel that it was added simply to bring the number of the Minor Prophets to twelve. Perhaps, but its length and subject matter fit best with the prophetic works. Moreover, is it not interesting that this is the book that follows Obadiah? Obadiah was told to prophesy about the destruction of Edom; Jonah was told to prophesy about the destruction of Nineveh, but he resisted that command and tried to hide from God. When that didn't work, he finally did as he had been commanded to do only to have the citizens listen and repent. When God spared them, Jonah was irritated beyond belief.
In a sense, both books wrestle with God's dealings with the Gentiles, but they do it in very different ways and come to very different conclusions. Obadiah speaks from the point of a chastened Israelite who has experienced God's judgment firsthand. He maintains that Edom (as well as the other nations) would, in turn, soon experience God's judgment. His words to Edom are borne out of a deep respect for divine justice. Evil will simply not have the final word. Jonah, on the other hand, is a sanctimonious Israelite who cannot believe God intends to be merciful to an enemy. Edom's destiny was to be destroyed for its sins; Nineveh's destiny was to repent and find forgiveness for its sins. Given their close proximity, Obadiah and Jonah are strange bedfellows, indeed. Read in sequence, they reveal much about God's compassionate nature and care and concern for all people. It is always God's intent to overturn evil and to show mercy to those who repent.
There are two main sections to the book of Jonah: Jonah's disobedience 1-2; Jonah's obedience 3-4.
Jonah's Disobedience – 1:1-2:10
- Jonah's call
- God commanded Jonah to preach against Nineveh because of its wickedness
- Jonah ran in the opposite direction
- Boarded a ship to Tarshish
- Attempted to "flee from the Lord"
- The great storm
- God whipped up a great wind
- Sailors were terrified; Jonah was asleep below deck
- Sailors threw cargo into the sea to lighten their load
- Captain woke Jonah to ask for help in praying
- Casting of lots – fell on Jonah
- Failure of God to answer prayer resulted in casting lots to determine fault
- Lot fell on Jonah
- Battery of questions accused Jonah of responsibility for calamity
- Jonah confessed what he had done
- Now sailors really were terrified
- Asked Jonah to help them find solution
- Jonah took responsibility, offered to be thrown overboard to save them
- Sailors convert to the Lord
- Initially sailors tried to return to land, but could not
- Asked for forgiveness from the Lord for what they were about to do
- Then they threw Jonah overboard; it was their last resort
- The sea grew calm; sailors offered sacrifices
- God's control over events
- A fish swallowed Jonah – protected him from the sea
- He remained in the fish for three days and nights
- (No additional information is given, either about the fish or how he survived inside its belly for three days)
- Jonah's prayer
- A psalm of thanksgiving – for being saved by the whale
- He deserved death for disobedience; instead he was delivered
- He realized his dependence upon God for his very being
- The Lord speaks to the fish
- Fish vomited Jonah out onto dry land
- (Remember how hard the sailors had tried to get to dry land? Fish did it with ease.)
The Obedience of Jonah – 3:1-4:11
- God repeated his command to go to Nineveh
- Jonah had a second chance to fulfill God's command
- Chastened, he "got up and went"
- It took him three days to walk through the city (a slight exaggeration)
- He prophesied that in 40 days the city would be "overturned"
- It was a prophesy of total destruction (same word used for Sodom and Gomorrah)
- Nineveh's repentance
- Entire city believed Jonah
- King decreed that all were to fast and repent for their sins
- All were to cover themselves with sackcloth and refrain from food and water (including the cattle and flocks)
- They were to beg for God's divine forgiveness
- A merciful God
- When God saw how they repented of their evil, he did not destroy them
- This was an act of undeserved mercy
- Shows God's sovereignty over all (not just his chosen people)
- Jonah's wrath
- Jonah was very angry over this turn of events
- Prayed that God would take his life, since it "is better for me to die than to live"
- Did this impugn his integrity as a prophet?
- Or was he just jealous that God might love the people of Nineveh too?
- Having experienced God's grace, it was hard for him to see it extended to others as well
- God has pity upon Jonah
- Jonah went outside the city to (hopefully) wait for its destruction
- God caused a plant to grow to provide shade for him
- Jonah was happy
- The next day, God caused a worm to destroy the plant
- Jonah again asked to die
- God asked if it was worth dying over a dead plant
- Without hesitation, Jonah said "yes"
- The moral of the story
- Jonah was angry at God for not destroying an entire city
- Then he was angry because one plant had been destroyed
- (Of course, the plant affected him personally; the inhabitants of the city did not)
- God continued to be tender, patient with Jonah
- If God cared for one plant, cattle, should he not also care for humans
- God's question: "Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…and cattle…?"
Jonah was not given an opportunity to respond to God's question. In a sense, it remains open – even for today. Jonah knew from the beginning that God was gracious and merciful. That is why he refused his first command to preach against Nineveh – perhaps expecting that God would, indeed, change His mind, which would reflect badly on Jonah. But after experiencing God's mercy for himself, Jonah had a change of heart and complied with God's command. Clearly, however, Jonah was not ready to allow God to extend His mercy to others – especially sworn enemies of His chosen people. The portrayal of Jonah borders on the comical, but the book's unanswered question continues to burn in our hearts. Does God have the right to bless our enemies? Do we pray for or against those with whom we disagree? It is a question that is as timely today as it was centuries ago.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. "Minor Prophets I." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Jonah." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Stuart, Douglas. "Hosea-Jonah." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Obadiah and Jonah. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, Trans. by Margaret Kohl. 1986.