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Jonah Overview

Author and Date

Jonah was the son of Amittai, and came from the town Gath-hepher, located three miles northeast of Nazareth in the tribal area of Zebulon He lived during the reign of the Northern Israelite king, Jeroboam II (820-753 BC), and would’ve been a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Amos. His immediate prophetic predecessors would’ve been Elijah and Elisha.

Jewish legend holds that Jonah was the son of the widow of Sarephta whose resuscitation by the prophet Elijah is narrated in 1 Kings 17, but this legend seems to have no other foundation than the phonetic resemblance between the proper name Amatti, father of the prophet, and the Hebrew word emeth, “truth”, applied to the word of God through Elijah by the widow of Sarephta (1 Kings 17:24).8

Jonah means “dove” and Amittai, his father, means “true one”1 Both were rare Hebrew names.It is often noted that a dove was used as representative of Israel (ex. Hosea 7:11 – “a silly dove”).11

Jonah is mentioned only once in the Old Testament outside of the Book of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25. There Jonah is said to have prophesied that the kingdom of Israel would expand its borders during the reign of Jeroboam, a wicked king. It does seem safe to conclude that this “Jonah” is the same person as the “Jonah” who is the subject of the Book of Jonah, especially since both are identified as “the son of Amittai”1

The Book of Jonah is an anonymous work, with no author named or implied. Traditionally the authorship has been ascribed to the prophet himself. However, many think that it may have been written by  disciples of Jonah, or perhaps a group of scribes, at a later date. It is also possible that it is the work of a member of Israel’s royal court who took the life of a historical person and expanded it to present a theological truth.3

If the author is Jonah, then the book should be dated to the reign of king Jeroboam II  in Israel (783-743 BC), and to either king Asurdanil or Asurnirar (770-745 BC) in Assyria.3,8

Many modern scholars agree that the editing process which produced the book containing the twelve minor prophets (including Jonah) reached its final form in Jerusalem during the Achaemenid period (538–332 BC), though some contend that the Book of Jonah, in particular, was composed even later, in the Hellenistic period (332–167 BC).7

Historical Context

Nineveh

Nineveh was the capital city of the notoriously cruel and powerful empire of the Assyrians. They were known for their brutal treatment of those whom they defeated including cutting off the heads and hands of warriors, flaying the skin of their victims and spreading it upon the wall of the city (Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia),2 as well as the deportation of entire populations to distant lands. The leaders of conquered cities were said to be tortured and horribly mutilated before being executed.1,11

According to the Old Testament, Nineveh’s wickedness was comprised of her idolatry, her inordinate pride (Is. 10:5-19), and her cruel oppression of the conquered nations (Is. 36:16, 17).1

Nineveh was located on the Tigris River, over 500 miles to the northeast of Israel, and was the largest city in the world for some fifty years. The enclosed area of the city had 100,000  to 150,000 inhabitants, about twice as many as Babylon at the time.6

The original meaning of the name of the city is unclear, but may have referred to a patron goddess. The cuneiform for Ninâ is a fish within a house. This may have simply intended “Place of Fish” or may have indicated a goddess associated with fish or the river itself. The city was later said to be devoted to “the Ishtar of Nineveh” and Nina was one of the Sumerian and Assyrian names of that goddess.6

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, was the one who made Nineveh a truly magnificent city (c. 700 BC). He laid out new streets and squares and built a magnificent palace comprised at least 80 rooms. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone door figures, resembling winged lions or man-headed bulls, weighing up to 30 tons. The stone carvings in the walls include many battle scenes, impalings and scenes showing Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him. On them he also bragged about his conquests: he wrote of Babylon: “Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city.” About a battle in Lachish he wrote: “And Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke…him I shut up in Jerusalem his royal city like a caged bird. Earthworks I threw up against him, and anyone coming out of his city gate I made pay for his crime. His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from his land.” 6

Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC when, after a bitter period of civil war in Assyria itself, it was sacked by an unusual coalition of former enemies, the Babylonians and the Chaldeans. Before its end, however, it would become the strongest military force in the world, and eventually overtake the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deport all its inhabitants (701 BC).6,2

The book of the prophet Nahum is almost exclusively taken up with prophetic denunciations against Nineveh. Its ruin and utter desolation are foretold. Its end was strange, sudden, and tragic. The prophet Zephaniah also (2:13–15) predicts its destruction along with the fall of the Assyrian empire of which it was the capital.6

In the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800–750 BC), the Assyrian ruler, Adad Nirari III, came west and defeated the Syrians. This took pressure off Israel and Judah and allowed them to rise from their previous century of decline. King Jeroboam II took this opportunity to restore Israel’s traditional borders. Nevertheless, Assyria remained the real threat from the north.11

Literary Style

The Book of Jonah is unlike most other prophetic parts of the Old Testament in that it is a narrative account of a single prophetic mission. Its treatment of that mission is more similar to the accounts of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha found in 1 & 2 Kings, and to certain narrative sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, than most of the other prophets.11

The Book of Jonah is usually considered one of three types of literature: 1) historical, 2) allegorical, or 3) fictional.

Those who say the book is a historical narrative generally cite that it was considered to be a factual account by the ancient Israelites, as well as that it was referenced as a fact by Jesus, himself in the New Testament as a foreshadowing of the resurrection he would experience.  Also, the story anchors on a particular person at a particular time in history, which is an unusual technique for parables.

Arguments for the allegorical and fictional views are generally centered around the credulity of the miracles in the book, namely the deliverance of Jonah by a fish. This portion of the story has been questioned since antiquity, with the early church facing ridicule through pagan philosopher’s writings.5  Porphyry, a 2nd century Roman philosopher, wrote, “…what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it.” The early church father, Augustine said the miracles in Jonah were discussed by pagans amidst loud laughter and with great scorn.7

In addition, many scholars think that if the book were a historical narrative, then certain key details would not be omitted; for instance, the place where the Jonah was vomited forth by the sea-monster, the particular sins of which the Ninivites were guilty, the particular kind of calamity by which the city was to be destroyed, and the name of theAssyrian king under whom these events took place.8

Major Themes

In many ways the Book of Jonah is a book of contrasts. Prophets normally obey their calling, here Jonah disobeys. When Jonah is told to go west, he goes east. When a storm strikes the boat, the sailors work feverishly while Jonah sleeps. Prophets normally have lengthy oracles concerning God’s mercy/judgment, but Jonah only preaches a single sentence. The Jews are normally the faithful people, favored by God, but here Gentiles are the ones who repent and worship God.

God’s Mercy

The Book of Jonah emphasizes that it is not the godliness on the part of any nation, or its leadership, or its priests, which result in God giving out his blessings. God shows grace to those who turn to him, as in the case of Nineveh, and he continues to show grace to those who still refuse to turn, as is the case of Jonah (as a representative of Israel). In this sense God’s grace was shown to be even greater to the Israelites than it was to the Ninevites, for God had promised to forgive those who repent, and Israel continued to pursued its wicked ways.1

God’s Sovereignty

Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 exalts God as the God of the universe. Pagan religion held to local gods. When one left the territory of one god, he sought out the god of the next territory. The idea of only one God, who controlled the elements because he had created them was foreign to the pagan world.4

This book showcases God’s power and sovereignty over nature, nations, and revelation. God has a freedom to act even beyond his covenant with Israel. His love for all mankind is seen clearly in the forgiveness of the Assyrians. And God is shown not only to love humans, but also the animals (4:1).3

Gentile Devotion vs. Jewish Devotion

Over and over again, the Book of Jonah highlights Israel’s unfaithfulness to God in contrast to the ease by which Gentiles repent and praise him. The sailors dedicated themselves to God, Nineveh repented, whereas Jonah was skeptical, reluctant and embittered. One would have expected Jonah to be the hero of the story, and the heathens to be the villains. This was certainly the perspective of Jonah, and of the Israelites, whom he typifies.1

The narrative highlights how heathen people were ready to repent at the first preaching of the prophet, a stranger to them; but Israel, who boasted of being God’s elect, repented not, though warned by their own prophets at all seasons. The patience and pity of God stand in striking contrast with the selfishness and hard-heartedness of man.10

Discussion

  • What category of literature do you think the Book of Jonah fits best into: Historical narrative? Allegory? Fiction? Why do you think this? Is the way you think about the story of Jonah indicative of how you interpret the Bible as a whole? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your perspective on Biblical literary types? What does this say about your theology? What does this say about your understanding of Biblical inspiration?
  • Jonah gives us a glimpse of God’s concern for all people, even our worst enemies, and the ease by which he is willing to forgive them. Do you think this is fair? What does this say about your sense of justice? How do justice and mercy relate to each other? Do you see God more through the lens of justice or mercy? What does this book teach us about both?
  • One of the themes of the Book of Jonah is that God is a universal God. Every nation is under his care (even Israel’s worst enemy, Assyria), there is no place he won’t go (even the sea – which the Jews associated with chaos), and he cares for all things (even the animals). Jonah took issue with this view of God. He thought he could get away from God by going to the end of the earth. He thought God should confine his love to only his people, Jonah’s people. In what ways have we limited God by maintaining an ethnocentric, self-centered perspective on his love? In what ways have we tried to put God in a box? Where have you tried to hide thinking God can’t see you, won’t find you? How has God shown you he cannot be contained?

References

  1. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  2. Malick’s commentary
  3. Utley’s commentary
  4. Heater’s commentary
  5. Jamieson’s commentary
  6. Nineveh and Assyria – Wikipedia
  7. Jonah Overview
  8. Jonah – Catholic Encyclopedia 
  9. Jonah – Jewish Encyclopedia 
  10. Various Jonah Commentaries
  11. IBS Commentary
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