Displeasure: The Prophet Runs Against God (Jonah 4)

Jonah’s flawed character is on full display in the concluding chapter. He is “displeased” with Yahweh’s decision to relent from destroying Nineveh. That is, “What pleased God displeased Jonah.”[1] There is a wordplay in Hebrew which Phillip Cary attempts to capture in his translation: “It was grievous to Jonah, a great evil.”[2] So as the Ninevites repent of their evil, Yahweh relents of His evil declared for Nineveh, and all this is regarded as evil by Jonah. In addition, Jonah becomes angry with God. The twist is stunning: previously Yahweh had “fierce anger” (3.9) toward Nineveh which has now been diverted only for Jonah to become angry over Yahweh’s grace. Taken together the reader is to understand that Jonah hated Yahweh’s decision to spare Nineveh.

Compounding Jonah’s hatred over Yahweh’s grace is his heated prayer to God (4.2). The contrast between the prayer of 4.2-3 and the prayer of 2.2-9 is striking. First, Jonah is defiant. He begins, “Please Yahweh” (NASB). Read as a tragic comedy this could be translated as, “Please! Tell me you’re not serious!”[3] Second, Jonah is self-centered. In the ESV, the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” appear eight times.[4] Though addressed to Yahweh, this prayer is about Jonah. Third, Jonah interprets his actions at the beginning. While yet in his country and during his flight to Tarshish he knew the God of Israel. He fled from his prophetic office in chapter one because he knew Yahweh’s gracious nature. Fourth, Jonah’s prayer has deep ties throughout the Hebrew Bible (cf. Ex 34.6-7; Num 14.18; Psa 145.8; Joel 2.13). Jonah’s knowledge of the identity of Yahweh comes from Yahweh’s self-revelation in Torah. Yahweh is a God of grace and mercy. Yahweh is patient, longsuffering, and full of covenantal steadfast love (Heb. hesed). Yahweh relents of impending disaster. Hannah explains Jonah “feared that all these attributes of God would be extended toward the despicable, cruel Ninevites—and it happened!”[5] The reader is left to wonder: What happened to Jonah’s declaration “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (2.10)? Did he only mean his salvation and/or Israel’s salvation, but not the salvation of pagan nations? Finally, Jonah longed for death (3). Death is better than life for Jonah. The one who had been saved from certain death (2.2, 7) has become the one who wishes to die. Whatever ground gained by his conversion in chapter two seems to have been lost by his anger over God’s grace.

One is left to wonder why Jonah is so outraged and disgusted with Yahweh. Some have suggested that his anger stems from his misguided nationalism which could even be interpreted as racism and bigotry. Others have suggested that Jonah is grossly embarrassed over being essentially made a fool for proclaiming destruction only to have the prophecy fail. It is also suggested that Jonah knows that Assyria will be the nation which brings about violent destruction upon the Northern tribes of Israel.[6] Each of these are good options. Whatever the cause, the net result is a joyless Jonah at the salvation of God for Nineveh.

Despite his impassioned speech/prayer, he is unable to move Yahweh to repent of His repentance and destroy Nineveh. On the contrary, Yahweh asks Jonah a pointed question: “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4.4, NASB) The intent is to confront the darkness in Jonah’s heart. Jonah’s theology is on-point, but it has not impacted his heart.

As the book nears the conclusion, there is what some call a parable[7] or illustration[8] involving a plant, a worm, and the sun. Jonah seems to have been left speechless by Yahweh’s question so he goes out “east” of the city. Perhaps the motif from the early chapters in Genesis is in view here where the east signifies rebellion against God.[9] Jonah is then pictured in rebellion to God. Or it could be an exile motif since the kingdoms of Israel and then Judah would be taken east to Assyria then Babylon, respectively. Hence, this is a self-imposed exile where he attempts once again to get away from God. Whether rebellion or exile (perhaps both), Jonah finds a place to view the city and builds a shelter to watch what God will do with Nineveh.

The same steadfast love that would not let the penitent Ninevites see destruction is the same steadfast love that will not allow Jonah to continue in his self-destructive cycle without being confronted. God’s patience (“slow to anger”) is on display as He deals with Jonah. First, Yahweh God (Heb. yahweh elohim) miraculously provides a plant to grow up rather quickly to shade Jonah from his “discomfort” (4.6; lit. evil, see ESV marginal reading). As God has sovereignly done before by providing a big fish to swallow Jonah, now God sovereignly provides a large plant to shade him. For the only time in the whole book Jonah is “exceedingly glad.” It was not the miraculous salvation from the sea nor the mass repentance of the Ninevites which brought delirious joy to Jonah. His frustration and fury is abated by a plant. The next day, God sends a worm that destroys Jonah’s plant (4.7). Interestingly, of all the things that have been threatened with destruction throughout the book (ship, sailors, Jonah, the Ninevites, et al) it is only Jonah’s plant that is destroyed and that by a worm “appointed” by God. Third, accompanying the worm is a divinely appointed “scorching east wind” (4.8). There is wordplay in the original concerning the actions of the worm and wind. As the worm had “attacked” the plant so the sun “beat down” upon Jonah’s head (both from Heb. nākâ, “to strike”). These compounding circumstances lead to Jonah once again longing for death. He begs for death saying that death is better than life.

The book concludes how it began: with a word from God. God repeats verbatim his question from the previous day to Jonah, although God poses the question about the plant: does Jonah have a good reason to be angry about the plant? (4.9, cf.v.4) Jonah answers that he does have a right to be angry. So Yahweh provides Jonah and the reader with the divine perspective (10-11). The argument is essentially a lesser-to-greater argument. The lesser thing is the plant. Jonah was compassionate toward a plant he did not work for and that withered in less than a day. The greater thing is the people of Nineveh. There were over 120,000 people living in Nineveh along with “many animals” (NASB). In addition, the citizens of Nineveh do not know their right hand from their left, “thus picturing their spiritual and moral condition without God.”[10] Jonah is concerned about a tiny part of creation whereas God was concerned about many of His creatures. Therefore, if Jonah can have concern for a plant, why should not God have mercy on people? The book ends with this question from Yahweh and leaves Jonah and the reader to decide what to do with the divine perspective.

[1] Ibid., 271.

[2] Cary, 25.

[3] Ibid., 17, 129. Cary approaches the book of Jonah in this fashion, saying, “Jonah is a comic figure.” His commentary on 4.2 explains this interpretation.

[4] Smith and Page note that it is nine times in the original (273).

[5] Hannah, 1470.

[6] See Smith and Page, 271-271, where they rehearse the various options.

[7] Cary, 138.

[8] Hannah, 1471.

[9] Adam and Eve are driven “east of the Garden of Eden” (3.24); after slaughtering his brother, Abel, Cain settles “east of Eden” (4.16); construction on the Tower of Babel happens because of the migration of “people from the east” (11.2).

[10] Hannah, 1472. There are some who say that the 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left are children. Such an understanding would balloon the population figure up over 600,000. However, archaeology cannot confirm such an inflated number.

Declaration: The Prophet Runs With God (Jonah 3.1-10)

Chapter three records the fulfillment of Yahweh’s mission for Jonah. It repeats nearly verbatim the command from 1.2. There is the addition of “the second time,” a phrase which is unique to Jonah the prophet. Once again Jonah is to “call out” against Ninevah. The word for “call out” is the same which has appeared so many time already in the book (see notes on 2.1). There is no purpose statement as before (cf. 1.2, “for their evil has come up before me”). Instead, Jonah is also told that Yahweh will provide his prophetic message (2, “the message that I tell you”).  While there is some confusion about the tense (past, present or future tense?) Jonah is assured that what he “calls out” to Ninevah will be the word of Yahweh.

What readers expected when reading 1.1-3 now comes to fruition in 3.3 as Jonah manifests simple obedience and “arose and went to Ninevah” thus fulfilling the word of Yahweh. If Jonah was vomited out by the big fish near his original starting point (several commentators say this is possible), then it would have taken him a month to five weeks to complete the 500-600 mile trek from Joppa depending on his mode of transportation.[1] Such a trip shows the high cost obedience to God.

Verse 3b is a sticking point for textual critics. First is the statement, “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city” (emphasis mine). Smith and Page note, “several scholars point to this as proof that Nineveh had ceased to exist by the time of Jonah’s writing.”[2] As discussed under “Date,” the composition of the book could have been done during or following the Babylonian captivity and therefore had already been eliminated from the world stage as a nation. The author, then, is merely reporting the historical account of when Jonah went to Nineveh circa 8th century B.C. Second, the text says that Nineveh’s size was “three days journey in breadth.” Archaeologists have found that the circumference of the inner wall of Nineveh “was less than eight miles. So the diameter of the city, less than two miles, was hardly a three-day journey.”[3]This has led some to argue that the three days “is not a reference to the circumference of the city; the diameter of the city; or the circuit of the administrative districts,” but instead is to be understood in reference to how long it would take Jonah to complete his prophetic assignment.[4] However, this seems unnecessary since some have identified this as Greater Nineveh, “which was an area encompassing four cities, including Nineveh and its environs.”[5] Therefore a literal explanation seems the best way to understand the phrase.

Jonah is obedient to his prophetic mission and the people of Nineveh in turn obey God (4-5). Jonah’s mission begins as soon as he arrives and very simply. There is no fanfare or meetings with the power-players of the city. The message Jonah delivers is austere. It is only five words in Hebrew. The word Jonah was promised by God is a message of certain doom in forty days. Jonah does not even mention which deity has sent him. There is no call for repentance, no hope of ameliorating the wrath to come. Or is there? The forty days seem to have been a grace period whereby the “overthrow” of the city could be understood as an overthrow of the evil in hearts. Despite the brevity of the message, the people of Nineveh believed God (Heb. elohim). Every person in Nineveh “from the greatest to the least of them” show the marks of contrition: fasting and sackcloth. Even the king is roused to repent (6-7).

One may wonder why the whole city would be so receptive to the preaching of Jonah? Hannah explains: “Before Jonah arrived at this seemingly impregnable fortress-city, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 b.c.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message, around 759.”[6] Perhaps signs and wonders played a role in preparing a superstitious pagan culture for the doomsday message of Jonah. Or perhaps this is more a testimony that the word of God has always been “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4.12).

Critics have cited the phrase “king of Nineveh” in 3.6 to dispute the authenticity of the book. The argument is that the writer, whoever he or she was, should have called him the king of Assyria, since Nineveh is the capital of the empire of Assyria. However, there is evidence which indicates this was an accepted practice in describing suzerains of that time. For example, Elwell and Beitzel note that Ahab, the king of Israel, is called “king of Samaria” (1 Kgs 21.1), and Ben-hadad, the king of Syria, is designated “king of Damascus” (2 Chr 24.23).[7] So there is precedent for the city designation for an ancient Near East king. In addition, we know historically at the time of Jonah (early to mid 8th century B.C.) the kingdom of Assyria was tenuously held together. Only after decades of weakness would Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.) consolidate the power of the kingdom.[8] Therefore, this could also explain the phrase “king of Nineveh,” as well as the phrase “and his nobles” in the proclamation (3.7); these are indicative of the diminished power of the monarchy at that time.

The king’s proclamation (7-9) is universal in scope including people and animals. The people of Nineveh are to “call out [same word used to describe Jonah’s preaching, 1.2; 3.2] mightily [lit. with strength] to God” (Heb. elohim). Jonah’s preaching did not mention Yahweh. Thus it seems the Ninevites did not call out specifically to Yahweh. They know God, but it does not appear they know Yahweh. They never mention him by name, opting instead to call on elohim. Nevertheless, their conversion to the supreme God is evidence by the fact that Jesus affirms that their conversion was genuine for they “repented at the preaching of Jonah” and they will rise to condemn Jesus’ generation at the judgment (Matt 12.41; Luke 11.32). Even the text of Jonah indicates true repentance (fasting, sackcloth, pleading with God, abandoning sinful practices).

As they call out to God, they are to “turn” from their evil ways and from the “violence” of their hands. The Assyrians were a vicious, wicked nation and Nineveh was the wicked capital. The prophet Nahum documents the sordid history of violence this nation perpetrated against other nations. He calls Nineveh “the bloody city” (Nah 3.1) guilty of “unceasing evil” (3.17). Specifically, Nineveh was full of deceit (3.1), guilty of carnage and slaughter (3.2-3), and full of the dark arts and magical practices (3.4). They would be the war machine that would crush the Northern Tribes. This record is the evil and violence of which they were repenting.

The purpose of the Ninevites’s repentance is that God would repent of His “fierce anger” (Jon 3.9). Their desire is that God “turn and relent and turn,” a three-fold expression for divine mercy. Jonah had not told them what to do or if there was anything they could do. Hence, the king’s question of “Who knows?” It is reminiscent of the captain’s “perhaps” in 1.6. The pagan’s don’t really know what they can do to appease Yahweh’s wrath. They hold the philosophy, “Something is better than nothing.” They are hopeful that whatever they do it will cause them not to perish.

Verse 10 is the culmination of the purposes of God toward Ninevah through the prophet Jonah. God has “disaster” (lit. evil; Heb. rāʿâ) in store for them. However, because they “turned” from their evil, God turned from the evil (i.e. disastrous judgment) He was going to bring upon them. This is in total agreement with His nature as revealed through Jeremiah (Jer 18.7-8).

The crisis was averted; or at least disaster is delayed for a century and a half until the time of Babylon. In the meantime, the forty days came and went but no destruction came upon Nineveh. “Here one finds irrefutable evidence that God wishes not for the destruction of the sinner but for the redemption and reconciliation of all his creation.”[9] Out of His immeasurable mercy God did not bring judgment.

[1] Stephen R. Schrader, “Jonah,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 647.

[2] Smith and Page, 256.

[3] John D. Hannah, “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1463.

[4] Schrader, 648.

[5] Phillip Cary, Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2008), 107.

[6] Hannah, 1462.

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Jonah, Book Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1205.

[8] Smith and Page, 205.

[9] Ibid., 270.

Deliverance: The Prophet Runs to God (Jonah 2.2-10)

Throughout the first chapter, the word “cry/call out” (Heb. ûqĕrāʾ) was used several times (vs. 2, 6, 14) and will be used again later in Jonah (3.2, 4, 5, 8). It is a key word in Jonah. It denotes (1) Jonah’s mission to proclaim in Ninevah God’s message or (2) petitioning God or gods for special favors. Chapter two begins with Jonah crying out to Yahweh “his God” in prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1). His prayer, though, is not so much a petition for deliverance as much as it is a prayer of thanksgiving to Yahweh for hearing his prayer and saving him from calamity.

The prayer begins (2.2) with a definite affirmation that Yahweh “answered” and “heard” Jonah’s prayer. Jonah describes his situation as “distress” in “the belly of Sheol.” Later in the prayer he says that Yahweh his God “brought up my life from the pit” (v.6). In this way Jonah is acknowledging that had it not been for the power and grace of Yahweh, he would be as good as dead. It is as if he has come back from the dead, from sheol, i.e. the unseen realm of the dead. But Yahweh heard and answered his prayer and so Jonah was saved.

Jonah leaves no doubt about his fate had Yahweh not intervened. He faced certain death and he uses several images to describe it. Though it was the mariners who throw Jonah overboard, he recognizes that they were merely the instruments of divine judgment when he says, “you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas” (3a). Once in the waters Jonah was overwhelmed by “the flood…your waves and your billows” (3b). He is so deep in the sea that it is as if Yahweh cannot see him (4a, “I am driven from your sight”). Jonah laments that he will “never again see your holy temple” (4b, NET).[1] His life was threatened when “the waters closed in over” him (5). Down and down he went into “the deep” (5), to “the roots of the mountains,” even to “the land whose bars closed upon me forever” which is language used to describe the subterranean fort of sheol (5b-6).[2] Thus, his life was “fainting away” (7). That is, he was drowning. Taken together this is a description of a man who was doomed to die.

As death crept over him was when Yahweh came to save him. Jonah “remembered Yahweh” (7), implying up to that point he had forgotten Yahweh. To remember God is to repent of having forgotten Him. So with repentance Jonah sought Yahweh in prayer and he was heard. Jonah says his prayer came to Yahweh in His holy temple (4). This is the language of sacrifice. It is as if Jonah pictures his prayer as the sweet aroma of an offering wafted not necessarily to Jerusalem, but into the sacred temple in heaven, into the presence of Yahweh.

The chapter concludes (2.10) with the word of Yahweh coming to the fish that had swallowed Jonah. Yahweh “spoke” to His instrument of salvation and it responded with obedience. This is still another instance of God’s sovereign control over His creation. Jonah is “vomited” out onto dry ground. While graphic the translation is accurate. Thus concludes the miracle of the great fish.

[1] While most English translations favor a vocalized reading of ’kh (ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, ASV, et al), both internal and external evidence favors the reading found in the NET (cf. RSV, NRSV). First, the surrounding context (3-6) is Jonah lamenting his plight in the deep. A declaration of confidence in seeing the temple once again simply does not fit this motif. Second, both the Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls read this in agreement with the NRSV as a rhetorical question anticipating a negative response: “Shall I indeed look again toward your holy temple?” It is the wistful plea of a man wondering if he will live or die.

[2] Sheol is said to have “gates” (Isa 38.10) and “bars” (Job 17.16), hence the fortress language.

Defiance: The Prophet Runs From God (Jonah 1.1-2.1)

Modern and Postmodern scholarship on the short book of Jonah has not been kind to the story of the wayward prophet. Much of what is written about the book tends to be a deconstruction of the historicity of the book while also a demythologizing of the story itself. As a result, the potent message of the book is missed. The prophets of Yahweh tended to labor for decades without ever seeing the fruit of their labor. Yet Jonah, the reluctant prophet, saw what next to no prophet saw in their ministry: a mass turning to God by the people to whom he preached. Then, in an unprecedented turn, Jonah actually resents the success of his ministry and the grace of God.

The book begins immediately with the phrase “the word of Yahweh came to Jonah” (1.1). This is stock language for prophetic revelation.[1] Here it seems to be the narrator’s way of dropping us right into the sweeping narrative of the work of Yahweh. Usually His work is accomplished among His people. In this case it will be accomplished among the nations, specifically pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh.

The call of the prophet is very succinct and clear. It is “the word of Yahweh” which comes to Jonah. The entire command spans a single verse. It contains the imperatives “arise” and “go.” The destination is Ninevah, described as a “great city.” The greatness of the city is again emphasized elsewhere in the book (3.2, 3). Here the emphasis is on the severity of the “evil” of the city. Later, it will emphasize the size of the territory the city covers. The mission is to “call out against” Ninevah because “their evil has come up before me.” Smith and Page note that “[a]rchaeology confirms the biblical witness to the wickedness of the Assyrians. They were well known in the ancient world for brutality and cruelty. Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib, was accustomed to tearing off the lips and hands of his victims. Tiglath-Pileser flayed victims alive and made great piles of their skulls.”[2] To these vicious people God sends a prophet with a message of repentance, grace, and mercy.

The reader expects to read that Jonah “arose” to go to Ninevah. Instead one reads that Jonah indeed “rose” but to go in a completely different direction “to Tarshish” (1.3). Tarshish (cf. Tartessus in the table of nations, Gen 10.4) is often identified as a place in southern or southwestern Spain. It is the other side of the known world. The reason for Jonah’s flight is that he wants to get “away from the presence of Yahweh.” This phrase means more than Jonah was trying to get away from Yahweh, as though he viewed his God as a territorial deity (he did not, see 1.9). Literally Jonah is fleeing from “before (Heb. millifne) Yahweh,” an interesting phrase which has prophetic connections. Prophets are said to “stand before Yahweh,” i.e. they are in service to him.[3] Further, this is language which is virtually identical to when Cain, after he killed his brother Abel, “went away from the presence of Yahweh” (Gen 4.16). Taken together we see that this is a technical phrase for Jonah’s rebellion manifesting as his rejection of serving Yahweh.

While storms are a natural part of the environment, particularly at sea, the “mighty tempest” that the boat Jonah is on encounters is “hurled” (like cargo into the sea, 1.5) by Yahweh. Wind, storm, sea, even the boat which “seriously considered breaking apart” (NET) are subject to the will of Yahweh. That Jonah thought he could flee from his mission by getting on a man-made boat and sailing across the Yahweh-made sea is rather quixotic. Smith and Page go further and say, “To run away from a god was foolish; but to run from ‘the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ was suicidal.”[4]

Jonah’s absurd flight threatens to be lethal for the ship’s crew. For the “mariners” who were seafaring men and no doubt had seen their share of storms, it was a terrifying experience. They each cry out to their personal deities in an attempt to calm the storm. When that proves ineffective, they attempt to lighten the ship by throwing cargo overboard. The frantic frenzy of the sailors is contrasted with Jonah’s sleeping in the midst of the boat. Jonah is in the middle of running from God, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of a storm, in the midst of the boat, in the middle of a nap. It is also suggested that Jonah may have gone unconscious due to the fear such a stormy sea could induce in someone acclimated to the land.

The ship’s captain rouses Jonah from his slumber and tells him to call out to his god. He and his men have exhausted all other deities for help to no avail. Perhaps they just have not addressed the right one who can save them from their predicament. Meanwhile, the crew has concluded that they are experiencing a visitation of divine wrath. They cast lots in an attempt to determine which person is responsible for “this evil” which has befallen them (1.7). Elsewhere the Bible says that the lot’s “every decision is from Yahweh” (Prov 16.33). Thus, even the lot is obedient to Yahweh, identifying Jonah as the one responsible for their calamity.

The sailors interrogate Jonah once they identify him as the one responsible for the storm. Their questions come rapid fire and range from his job to country of origin to race and ethnicity. In his first words of the book and the turning point of this section (4-16), Jonah does not hold back and informs them he is “a Hebrew” and he fears Yahweh “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Here we find the source of Jonah’s troubling character flaws: he professes faith and worship with his mouth yet his actions are contrary to his confession. His disobedience has brought calamity upon these pagan foreigners.

The feigned fear of Jonah is contrasted with the genuine terror (“exceedingly afraid,” 1.10) of the mariners. Their terror is vocalized with the exclamation, “What is this you have done!” The end of verse 10 is a parenthetical insertion telling the reader that Jonah had informed them, perhaps when he secured his place on the ship by paying his fee, of his purpose for travelling abroad: Jonah was abandoning his calling as prophetic servant (see 1.3 comments).

Verses 11-15 report the various methods the mariners attempt to try to calm the storm which was only increasing in intensity by the minute. First, they ask Jonah, “What shall we do?” Jonah recommends they “hurl” (same word from vs. 4 and 5) him into the sea. Jonah is confident if he is off the boat the sea will be calm. Interestingly, Jonah is essentially saying he would rather die than cry out to Yahweh. The initial reaction of the sailors to Jonah’s plan is to reject it. They have no interest in being responsible for someone’s death (see 1.14). Rather than hurl Jonah overboard, they “rowed hard” in a futile attempt to reach dry land (1.13). Once more the tempest only grows in ferocity. Second, they “called out” (lit. “cry out,” same as Jonah was supposed to do in 1.6 and from the beginning in 1.1) to Yahweh. They pray they would not be held responsible for taking Jonah’s life and his “innocent blood” would not be on their heads. They even recognize the sovereignty of Yahweh by acknowledging He has done what He pleased (14b). In this way the pagan sailors are pictured as more devout than Jonah. Finally, after they have prayed they pick Jonah up and “hurl” him into the sea. The way the text reads it seems as soon as Jonah hit the water “the sea stopped raging” (NET). The sailors now know that Jonah was right, Yahweh was the wrathful deity to be appeased, and Yahweh rules “the raging sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Psa 89.9).

The opening scene closes with a contrast in fates (1.16-17). The pagan sailors redirect their fear from the storm (1.5, same phrase) to Yahweh. Yahweh did what their gods could not: rescue them from calamity. Therefore they offered sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows, though the type of sacrifice and vows is not specified. Meanwhile, Jonah, who is in the sea, is not forgotten by Yahweh. One reads that Yahweh “appointed” or “prepared” (KJV, NKJV) or “provided” (NRSV, NIV) a great fish (Heb. dāg; LXX: kētous, a sea monster) which swallowed Jonah. The word is used four times in the book (see 4.6-8) and “always points to the Lord’s power to accomplish his will.”[5] The fish was in the right place at the right time to do what Yahweh needed to be done.

For three days and three nights Jonah is in the belly of the fish (17b). This verse with 2.10 are the parts of the book which give critics the most trouble in allowing Jonah to be an historical book. The main question is, of course, Is it possible? Yes. Documented cases historically have shown that a man can be swallowed by a sperm whale and survive being in the beast for several hours.[6] Leaving off the scientific explanation one must not forget (a) God had ordained the great fish to swallow His misguided prophet and (b) Jesus validated the event as historical when He cited it in reference to His resurrection (Matt 12.38-41; Luke 11.29-30). Without a doubt Jonah was in the “stomach” (2.1, NASB) of the large fish when he voiced his prayer. Therefore, this was nothing short of miraculous divine intervention on behalf of the wayward prophet.

[1] Cf. Jeremiah 1.2, 4; Ezekiel 1.3; Hosea 1.1; Joel 1.1; Zechariah 1.1; et al.

[2] Smith and Page, 225.

[3] Elijah is perhaps the quintessential example. He spoke of his prophetic ministry as standing before Yahweh, the God of Israel (“before whom I stand”). See 1 Kgs 17.1; 18.15.

[4] Smith and Page, 235.

[5] Ibid., 239

[6] There is the curious case of James Bartley who in 1891 was swallowed by a sperm whale and spent approximately 36 hours in the creature before his fellow crewmen dug him out of the stomach. He was alive, driven somewhat insane by the event, but after about two weeks he fully recovered except for his skin remaining bleached due to the whale’s stomach acid. See Ambrose John Wilson, “The Sign of Jonah and its Modern Confirmations,” Princeton Theological Review 25.4 (1927): 634-636.

Jonah – Introductory Material

There are two main characters in the book of Jonah. The first main character is the prophet Jonah (whose name means “dove”) son of Amittai for whom the book is named. He hailed from Gath-hepher which was a city in the territory of Zebulun. From the biblical record one finds that Jonah was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel (2 Kings 14.25). This means he lived during the 8th century B.C. The other main character of the book of Jonah is Yahweh, God of Israel. Only Yahweh and Jonah are named. Everyone else in the narrative is anonymous. This shows that God and Jonah are the main characters of the narrative and everyone else is support.

On the one hand, times in Israel in the early 8th century B.C. were better than they had been. During the reign of Jehoahaz Israel’s national power had been greatly diminished by Syria and their internal affairs were regulated by the king of Syria (2 Kings 13.7). However, a change in the throne led to a resurgence of military power that culminated in Jeroboam II restoring the traditional borders of Israel (2 Kings 14.25). No doubt this served to buoy the nation for a time.

On the other hand, these were perilous times for the nation of Israel. The war machine which was the Assyrian nation was sweeping the Mediterranean world and Israel was in its path. In fact, it was because of the Assyrian campaign under Shalmaneser III in the 9th century B.C. that Israel was able to defeat and capture Damascus.[1] It was only a matter of time before Assyria would come just a bit further south and threaten then conquer the northern tribes.

Into this milieu enters Jonah’s story. Jonah is one of many prophets called to prophesy during the 8th century B.C.[2] He had prophesied that Israel’s border would be restored (2 Kings 14.25). Now he is called by God to go and cry against the capital of the Assyrians, Nineveh, for their wickedness.

The book may have been written by Jonah himself. This would put the writing back into the 8th century B.C. However, there are no parts written in the first person. It is written in the third person. It must be noted, though, that if Jonah did not himself write the book, it is impossible to know for certain who authored it. Internal evidence could put the date later than Jonah; in describing Nineveh in 3.3 the past tense is used (“Nineveh was a great city” [italics mine]). So a date after the fall of Nineveh would place the composition of the book after 612 B.C. The book was received as canon among the twelve Minor Prophets as early as 200 B.C. since Sirach 49.10 mentions “the Twelve Prophets.” Therefore, its composition would have to be sometime before that. These various factors, and several others,[3] are why many scholars place the writing of this book in the exilic or post-exilic years

[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Syria, Syrians,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 2011.

[2] The list of contemporary prophets includes Hosea, Amos, and, later in that century, Micah and Isaiah.

[3] See Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, vol. 19B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 206–209. Smith and Page present the case for the pre-exilic/exilic date. The usage of certain words and phrases and the message of Jonah being a rejection of exclusivism and nationalism are the two main arguments which work in favor of a later pre-exilic or exilic date.