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Last modified: March, 2002

From the Oxford Annotated Bible, the introduction has this to say about the prophetic book of Jonah:

The book of Jonah is unique among the prophetic books. It contains no collection of oracles in verse against Israel and foreign nations, but presents a prose narrative about the prophet himself. Instead of portraying a prophet who is an obedient servant of the Lord, calling his people to repentance, it features a recalcitrant prophet who flees from his mission and sulks when his hearers repent.

The book is a didactic narrative that has taken older material from the realm of popular legend and put it to new, more consequential use. Its two parts, Jonah 1–2 and Jonah 3–4, are now united by having in common a central character (Jonah), a similar plot (the ironical conversion of the heathen), and an identical theme (the breadth of God’s saving love).

The principal figure of this artful story is an obscure Galilean prophet from Gath-hepher who counseled Jeroboam II (786 - 746 b.c.) in a successful conflict with the Syrians (2 Kings 14.25) and with whom some of the earlier traditional material was probably associated. Its author, however, probably lived in the post-exilic period because he shows the influence of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, and opposes the type of a narrow sectarianism and exclusivism. Although the linguistic evidence is indecisive, a date sometime in the fifth or fourth century b.c. seems indicated.

With skill and finesse this little book calls Israel to repentance and reminds it of its mission to preach to all the nations the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness (Genesis 12.1–3; Isaiah 42.6–7; Isaiah 49.6). In spirit, therefore, the book remains truly prophetic and justifies its place in the Book of the Twelve Prophets.

To read Jonah is to read the direction of God's evolving Kingdom, to understand the workings of mercy among humankind; strikingly, one who reads Jonah with only an ear for the controversies surrounding the book and no or little appreciation for God's intricate plan revealed in the smallest subsection of His written word will miss entirely how early an insight  Jonah provides for  the foundation work of Jesus in the Gospels. Jonah, like Jesus, proclaims God's mercy; like Jesus, too, Jonah takes a message of compassion outside a chosen and covenanted people; in both worlds, the world of Jonah and that of Jesus, a strict formula for justice would say the people deserved punishment, yet in both cases, God relents: the Ninevites repent and are saved; Gentiles see the light that is the glory of God's people.  Both Jonah and Jesus bear authority recognized in the symbolism of the dove: for Jonah, his Hebrew name meaning dove, suggests he may run but not escape his providential destiny; Jesus came to announce the kingdom of God and  the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.  Symbolism uniting Jonah and Jesus extends even farther: both are sacrificed in order to save others, and both endured lots being cast: Jonah, to determine who was responsible for the calamity, and Jesus, to determine who would take his clothes. The sea narrative is common to both: Jonah is cast into the sea at his own request in order to save the sailors; Jesus, preaching to his disciples, revealed that he knew his destiny: "The Son of Man  is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again" (Mark 9.31).  Finally, no one should miss the buried into death and resurrected into life symbolism: "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and nights" (1.17); Jesus said, "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days, I will build another not made with hands" (Mark 14.58).  Both Jonah and Jesus entered into death:  Jonah says, "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried" (2.2); the body of Jesus was granted to Joseph, who "wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock" (15.46) Both Jonah and Jesus were elevated to original and rightful place. Jonah found himself back in route to Nineveh, "spewed out upon the dry land" (2. 10 ) and told a second time to "Get up and go to Nineveh" (3.3); Jesus "was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God" (16.19).

To understand Jonah  as an exciting proclamation of God's mercy among humankind, the reader will need some background. First, exactly, who is Jonah? Read 2 Kings 14. We must recall that the reign of Jeroboam II was a long and prosperous one.  We learn that Jonah is a prophet from Galilee (Gath-hepher) who counseled Jeroboam II in his successful conflict with the Syrians; this would make our date for the prophet Jonah to be that of 786-746 B.C.E. During Jeroboam II's reign, the boundaries of Israel reached the former limits of David's kingdom.  On the horizon, though, a new threat exists in the move of Assyria once again as it expands and swallows up kingdoms. Jonah has come from Galilee to prophesy during expansion of Israel under Jeroboam II.  Verse 26 reveals God as responding compassionately, mercifully, to Israel: "the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam, son of Jehoash."   

We can read even farther back and gain yet more insight. Elisha the prophet has just died (20) and has been buried.  We learn that King Hazael of Aram has been oppressing Israel all the days of Jehoahaz with the Lord having compassion on them and turning to them because of His covenant  with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God did not destroy Israel but through Joash, God permits Hazel to be defeated three times with Joash beginning the work of reclaiming Israel's land. God's evolving mercy is farther underlined in chapter 14 when the writer explains that justice is to be meted out to the individual: "The parent shall not be put to death for the children, or the children for the parents: but all shall be put to death for their own sins," a law evolving as early as Deuteronomy 24.16.

What then is one to make of Jonah?  Hazael of Damascus and his son and successor Benhadad II have been constant enemies of Israel.  Assyria has captured Damascus in 805 B.C.E.; Jonah  appears announcing the coming victories of Jeroboam II,  a prophecy fulfilled in a dramatic reversal of fortunes which brings both Judah and Israel prosperity unknown since David and Solomon. Assyria was itself under attack form Ararat to the north; from 783 B.C.E. to 746 B.C.E., it has weak and ineffectual rulers.  Jonah's voice is the only prophetic voice recorded between Elisha and the prophecies of Amos and Hosea; both of these prophets speak of coming judgment against God's sinful people: Amos prophesies destruction, and Hosea speaks of judgment. Thus, until we read again of Jonah in his own book, we have the story of a prophet speaking the easy message of God's compassion and mercy for his people during a time of expansion and prosperity.  In Jonah, the message will still be that of mercy and compassion, but Jonah's mission is to the Ninevites, a people threatening the security of Israel.  At the same time, though, the reader should recognize that Assyria is also being threatened and the idea that Nineveh could be overthrown is no longer a vague possibility. Jonah's message, though, is that God's judgment, even if prophesied, can be averted by genuine repentance. What gives here?

The NRSV Oxford Annotated Bible reveals the meaning of the name Jonah as being "dove."  Here is a hint of what is to come in the Gospels.  All four Gospels tell the same story: the spirit of God descends upon Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove.

Consider: Matthew 3 (Also, see Mark 1. 9-11; Luke 3.21-22; and John 1. 32-34)

21: Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
22: And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

One does well to recall what has been said about Jesus in Matthew just prior to this baptism:

25: And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
26: And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
27: And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
28: Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31: Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32: A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
33: And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him.
34: And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
35: (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
36: And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Panel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
37: And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
38: And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

Jonah's name ties him with Jesus: the mission is that of mercy; Jonah is to go to the Ninevites; what Simon reveals is that the Kingdom of God in Jesus extends out from Israel to the Gentiles:  Jesus is to be "32: A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." 

That Jonah is linked to Jesus and the mission of mercy becomes even clearer in the repeated sea-going narratives: Jonah flees the presence of God, the mandate to go to Nineveh and tell the great city that its wickedness has come before God. Fleeing, Jonah goes by ship in the direction of Tarshish, a destination at odds with God's command.  He endangers the ship which carries him: going beneath to sleep, he is awakened by the sailors who demand to know who he is (Jonah), what his country is (Galilee), of what people he is (Hebrew), and what his occupation is (prophet).  They are afraid, but draw lots to determine who has brought the storm at sea upon them; Jonah is identified and is thrown over into the sea that none of the rest of them should perish. God repeats the command to Jonah in the second chapter: he is to proclaim the message God gives him.  And what is that message:  God may relent and change his mind 3.9).  The parallel in the Gospels is clear. Jesus, too, has something that He came into the world to do (Mark 1.38); He sets out to do it with his disciples: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God."   But did they understand, even when Jesus explained everything to them in private (4.33).  No, the storm  at sea narrative is repeated twice: Mark 4. 37-41 and Mark 6:47-52): 

34: But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.
35: And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.
36: And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.
37: And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
38: And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
39: And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
40: And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?
41: And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

47: And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.
48: And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them.
49: But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out:
50: For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.
51: And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
52: For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.
53: And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.
54: And when they were come out of the ship, straightway they knew him,

These enveloping waters, the flood that swallows up in death, form a motif that the reader reencounters in the Bible: Noah in the flood evidencing God's granting a second chance to sinful humanity; Moses in the Red Sea, heeding God's provision of an escape route for his people. On the other side is a new world, a new commission to a new people, a new realization of covenant promise. Like Jonah, the disciples on the other side in the first narrative in Mark find themselves among the Romans, Gentiles, in the lands of the Gerasenes.   With only the preemptive wisdom of God can every detail in book after book repeat the same good tidings: that God's kingdom is the kingdom of humankind, extending to all, both Hebrew and Gentile.  It's quite without accident that Jesus says to his family who take offense at him that "Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." Jesus means something quite different here than is normally understood: Jonah's message was to go to the Ninevites, to walk among them, and realize God's mercy in their lives; Jonah, quite understandably, questioned God's extending mercy to a people who had rightfully earned the leveling hand of justice for their violence among God's people.  If Jonah had remained recalcitrant, he would have been a prophet in his own land or a prophet fleeing God; his dishonor would have been to have done so, to have remained a prophet in his own country.   Jesus, as we know, walked among his own people, the Hebrew, and was not received by them; they wanted a kingdom on earth, but Jesus was not in the business of overthrowing kingdoms of the world simply to expand the Jewish kingdom.  What Jesus wanted was for people to return to the Lord; as Hosea reminds us, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he who will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up; After two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up that we may live before him..." (6.1-2).  The irony revealed in Jonah and Christ among his own is that the Ninevites repented and the Kingdom of God was received by the Gentiles, the Israelites continuing a long tradition of not repenting in spite of prophetic warnings.

The reader will also want to revisit Genesis ten and eleven and the account of Noah's sons and their contribution to the rebuilding of civilization after the flood; it helps to remember, too, Abram is bluntly told, "Go from your country and your people" (Genesis 12.1).

One wonders, too, about other aspects of the improbable unity unfolding in the Scripture.  For example, Exodus 6:2-3 has God say to Moses: "I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them."   Under the name El-Shaddai, God interacts with the patriarchs and accomplishes a progressive revelation of His nature.  In Moses' generation, relatively long-term, God comes to be experienced as Yahweh.   Abraham and Jacob both experience God as both Shaddai and Yahweh.  Yahweh is first in both cases Yahweh is associated with an initiation into an agreement concerning the promise of a land and people (Genesis 15.7-17; 28.13-15); El Shaddai marks an acceptance or participation in this agreement or covenant (17.1-8; 35.11-12).  Yahweh is always connected to the long-term fulfillment of God's promises; El Shaddai is connected with descendents, names changes, and allegiances made by individuals.  In the Old Testament, God is often identified El with the last part of the compound name serving as epithets to God's activity.  

How does one take a discussion of God's name to Jonah?  Jonah uses a compound name for God in 4.6: 6: And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.  This is Yahweh-Elohim.  Oxford says of the superscription used in the prophetic address for 'the word of the Lord" "The conviction that the word of the Lord comes to a prophet is fundamental to Hebrew prophecy: it asserts that the prophet's inspiration and authority is not self-generated but come from God whose will is disclosed through the prophet whose personal agent the prophet is and whom alone the prophet must obey."  Is it preemptive foresight that has Jonah use Yahweh and the Ninevites use God?  Jonah is fleeing from the word of the Lord; the Ninevites urge him to call on his God.  When asked his occupation, country, and people, Jonah replies he is Hebrew and worships "the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1.9).  Certainly, the Ninevites cry eventually to Jonah's Lord.   The word of Yahweh comes again to Jonah (3); Nineveh, repenting, believed God (3.5).  It is God who may relent (3.9).  The Lord speaks to Jonah again in chapter 4; Jonah acknowledges "I knew that you are a gracious God" (4.3); and it is the Lord Yahweh who then asks Jonah whether it is right for him to be angry (4.4).  The Lord-God then appoints the bush that comes up as protection over Jonah's head, but it is God who appoints the worm and the sun.  It is, however, Yahweh who is concerned about Nineveh.  Is it appropriate to see the Hebrew Yahweh as involved with the total course of humanity and the God El as intimately connected with people in the historical moment?  Is there mercy in the moment and justice in the long run?  Jeremiah 13.14 is unrelenting: "And I will dash them one against another, parents and children together, says the Lord.  I will not pity or spare or have compassion when I destroy them," but even here, the plea remains," Hear and give ear; do not be haughty, for the Lord has spoken.  Give glory to the Lord your God before He brings darkness."  In God's nature, one finds united both the Messianic and the apocalyptic; Habakkuk speaks the word of Yahweh: There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come" (2.3).