“The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (1:1)
Shipmates, this book containing only four chapters—four yearns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand!
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 9
Many of us know the story from Sunday school, but it is also part of Western culture. Everyone, it seems, has some familiarity with “Jonah and the Whale, the Great Fish Tale.” The wide appeal of Jonah’s story is evident. It is laced through the great American classic, Moby Dick, and it is also a favorite children’s story. From classic novels to children’s Bible stories, Jonah’s encounter with the “great fish” peaks our interest even if some don’t swallow the story.
Who is Jonah?
The first line of the book, quoted above, tells us next to nothing about Jonah. That we would know little about a prophet is not unusual, but what is rather curious is how the book, which bears his name, tells us relatively nothing about him unlike other written prophets (e.g., Amos).
Apparently, however, he was a well-known figure in his day. It is simply enough to say, “Jonah the son of Amittai.” His fame is confirmed by 2 Kings 14:23-27, which is the only other record in the Hebrew Bible about Jonah. We learn Jonah is a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II from the city of Gath-heper, which is located in the territory of Zebulun in the region of Galilee not far from what would become Nazareth in the Roman period.
In 2 Kings 14:23-27, Jonah affirms God’s intent to give Israel some rest in their land after several years of bitter suffering. The rise of King Jeroboam II (789-748 B.C.E.), the longest reigning King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), would see the recovery of northern Israel’s Solomonic borders. Jeroboam II presided over prosperity and peace. Jonah is, according to the record in 2 Kings, a faithful prophet to whom the people listened during this period.
The literary work known as Jonah, however, is anonymous—no authorial credit is given, and it is undated. The composition may date anywhere from the 700s-300s B.C.E. Based on linguistics, many date the book in the post-exilic period, and that may be correct.
While there is no verifiable way to assign a date to the composition, the historical circumstances are firmly rooted in the eighth century B.C.E.
Jeroboam II was a fourth generation descendant of Jehu (842-815) who is mentioned in the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser III (858-824): “I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri.” This indicates Assyria was a dominant power about forty years before the reign of Jeroboam II. However, during the reign of Jeroboam II the Assyrian hegemony had receded due to internal strife though by the end of his reign the Assyrians were once again threatening the borders of Israel.
During the prophetic ministry of Jonah, it appears, Assyria was in a holding pattern, though its power was about to rise once again. We might imagine Jonah does not want to encourage them because they will oppress Israel. As 2 Kings 14:23-27 notes, God had renewed mercy and goodness toward Israel, and Jonah does not want to contribute to such a renewal of mercy and grace toward Assyria.
As Eli Wiesel wrote, Jonah “does not wish Nineveh to die, yet he does not wish Nineveh to live at the expense of Israel” (Five Biblical Potraits, 154). What Jonah perhaps feared is exactly what happened to Elijah. When Elijah was told to anoint Hazael as king over Aram (Syria), but Elijah did not (1 Kings 19:15). When Elisha, Elijah’s successor, finally did, Elisha wept (2 Kings 8:7-13), and Hazael ultimately did oppress Israel (2 Kings 13:22). This, perhaps, is what Jonah fears, as probably the whole nation of Israel fears the renewal of Assyrian power in the region.
The Plot of the Book
Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 45) helpfully suggests the book has three major movements: resistance to acceptance to resentment.
- Jonah resists his commission to call Nineveh to repentance, fleeing in the opposite direction to avoid the mission (Jonah 1-2).
- Finally, through God’s pursuit and discipline, Jonah accepts the mission and obeys with God’s call (Jonah 3).
- Afterward Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah resents God’s mercy (Jonah 4).
These movements provide a way of reading the story, which highlights God’s mercy, both to Jonah and the nations represented in the book. God pursues Jonah rather than abandoning him, God heals the nations rather than abandoning them, and God comforts Jonah despite his resentments.
While the story of Jonah and the whale is popular, what is the meaning of Jonah’s mission to the nations in the light of Jonah’s resistance, God’s mercy, and Jonah’s resentment?
Jonah, as portrayed in the story, is not an isolated prophet on an isolated task. Jonah represents Israel, and Jonah’s commission is Israel’s commission. God intended to bless all nations through Israel, and God intended Israel serve as a model for the nations. Through their priestly service to the nations (“light to the nations,” Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), Yahweh would draw all the nations into relationship as well (Deuteronomy 4:6-8; 28:8-10).
God did not choose Israel to exclude the nations but to include them through Israel. The nations are invited to the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61) so that they might know God. As examples of God’s love for the nations, the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha include provision for the widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24) and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5).
Israel, however, failed to fulfill its mission. Instead, they warred with the surrounding nations, and the people and their prophets generally refused to herald the good news of the God of Israel to the nations. That this is a function of the prophets of Israel, as well as the people of Israel (who are royal priests among the nations, Exodus 19:6) is evidenced by the many addresses to the nations in the writing prophets (e.g., Isaiah 45:20-23) as well as the ministry of Elisha and Elijah among them.
Jonah represents Israel refusal to carry out God’s mission among the nations, and it provides the reason for their refusal. Just as Jonah resented God’s mercy to Nineveh, so Israel resented God’s mercy to the nations. Fearing the nations, they did not want them to know God’s grace, and when some came to know God’s grace, they resented God for saving them.
The book of Jonah, then, is a message about God’s mercy to both Israel and the nations. Just as Jonah was redeemed despite his refusal, so the nations are redeemed despite Israel’s failures. God’s mercy will win despite our stubbornness.
I. From Silent Resistance to Jubilant Acceptance: The Compelling Nature of God’s Mercy (1:1-2:11).
- Silent Escape from God’s Mercy (1:1-4a).
- The Relentless Pursuit of God’s Mercy (1:5-2:1b).
- A Prayer of Praise for God’s Mercy (2:1c-11).
II. From Compliant Acceptance to Angry Resentment: The Offense of God’s Mercy (3:1-4:11).
- A Second Chance at Compliance with God’s Mercy (3:1-3b).
- Responsiveness to and Responsiveness of God’s Mercy (3:3c-10).
- Resentment of God’s Mercy (4:1-4).
- Object Lesson on God’s Mercy (4:5-11).