Jonah

Often thought of as a story about a whale, the book of Jonah is actually more a whale of a story! It is also unique in that the prophet is depicted as an anti-hero. The book is the fifth of the twelve so-called Minor Prophets towards the end of the Old Testament.

According to 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah was a northern Israelite prophet from the time of Jeroboam II (ca. 750 BCE), but the book bearing his name is a work of fiction written many centuries later (see below). It is a self-contained work. Unlike the other Minor Prophets it consists of a story about a prophet rather than prophetic oracles.

In chapter 1 Jonah, son of Amittai, is commanded by God to preach against Nineveh because of its wickedness. However, instead he boards a ship in the opposite direction, to Tarshish. When a great storm arises and the ship is threatened, the sailors cast lots, indicating that Jonah was the cause of the storm, so he agrees to be cast overboard and the storm abates. Jonah, however, is swallowed by a great fish for three days and three nights.

In chapter 2 we are given Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of the fish. Surprisingly, this is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance rather than a lament. Following this the fish vomits out Jonah on dry land.

In chapter 3 Jonah is commanded again by God to preach against Nineveh and this time he fulfils his duty. He proclaims that within forty days Nineveh will be overthrown. As a result, the Ninevites repented, fasted and put on sackcloth, and by order of the king even the animals were made to join in. Following this God relented.

In chapter 4 Jonah is angry that Nineveh has been spared, saying that that is why he did not wish to preach to Nineveh in the first place; he knew God would be gracious. He therefore wants to die. God, however, makes a castor-oil plant (or gourd) grow up over Jonah to shade his head, and then appoints a worm to attack it so that it withers. Jonah becomes angry again and asks God once more to die. God, however, responds by saying that just as Jonah pitied the plant, so he should pity Nineveh with its many inhabitants, including animals.

Date and authorship

Although the book concerns an 8th-century northern Israelite prophet from the time of Jeroboam II, the book itself is agreed by modern scholars to date from the post-exilic period, probably the 4th century BCE. This is clear from the book’s historical inaccuracies, e.g., referring to the king of Assyria as the king of Nineveh (Nineveh not even being the capital in Jonah’s time) and its exaggerated notion of Nineveh’s size. The mass instantaneous repentance of the Ninevites is also unlikely and unknown to history. In addition, the text contains Aramaic words that came into Hebrew only at a late date and other late Hebrew words.

It is unknown who the author was, though he was clearly a liberal-minded Jew (see below). The book is basically a unity (i.e., one piece), except that the psalm of Jonah in chapter 2 has widely been seen as a later addition. In an otherwise artfully told story its prayer of thanksgiving seems inappropriate while Jonah is still stuck in the belly of the fish, especially from a prophet who appears so grudging elsewhere in the book. However, a number of scholars in recent years have defended its authenticity, seeing it either as Jonah’s thanksgiving for deliverance from drowning or as ironical.

Interpretation

Granted that the book is not a historical narrative, how should one regard its genre? From its position in the canon it can be viewed as a story about a prophet. However, it also has a marked didactic character. Though parabolic in intention, it is far too long to be a parable in the strict literary sense. In recent times some have called it a satire, and there are doubtless satirical elements in the story, even if no formal category of literature called satire existed in ancient Israel. On the other hand, the description of it as a midrash (a pious expansion of a biblical text) is inappropriate, since it is difficult to see which particular biblical text is being expanded. Overall, it is best regarded as a didactic story about a prophet.

As for the purpose of the book, a majority of scholars see it as universalistic in intention, illustrating the breadth of God’s love towards the gentiles, who are symbolised by the city of Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, thus, parodies a certain type of narrow-minded Jew of the post-exilic era, wishing the hated Ninevites to stew in their own juice.

A minority of scholars deny that the book has a universalistic purpose. For example, it has been argued that the book is simply teaching the possibility of repentance. However, 4:2 makes clear that the prophet already believed in this; that is why he did not wish to preach to the Ninevites in the first place. Again, it has sometimes been claimed that it is not that the prophet hated Ninevites, but rather that he just wanted his prophecies to be fulfilled. However, it is difficult to believe that a post-exilic Jew could think of Nineveh with neutrality, since it was the capital of an oppressive empire that had destroyed the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Granted that the book has a universalistic purpose, how exactly is this to be envisaged? Most likely the book was directed against proto-apocalyptic prophets like Joel who were looking forward to the coming of God’s judgment on hated foreign nations (see Joel 3). This is supported by the fact that the book of Jonah applies verbatim words about God’s love for gentiles that Joel had applied to Israel (4:2; compare Joel 2:13).

Reception history

The incident with the great fish

Throughout history the thing that has been most known about Jonah by people is that he was swallowed and regurgitated by a great fish, or whale as it is popularly called. This is true of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. For example, in Matthew (12:39-40; compare 16:4) Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish prior to his reappearance, “the sign of Jonah,” is presented as an analogy to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is possibly the case also in Luke (11:29-30), though some see the sign of Jonah there as referring rather to Jonah as a preacher. Again, in Jewish writings Jonah’s experience with the fish is highlighted in 3 Maccabees 6:8, Sanhedrin 89ab (in the Babylonian Talmud), and in Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer 10 (the last even referring to it as a sign, as in the New Testament). Furthermore, the Qur’an refers to Jonah as “the man of the fish” (Surah 21:87; 68:48), and interestingly Jonah is the only canonical prophet to be mentioned by name in the Qur’an, which gives an abbreviated version of the biblical story in Surah 37:139-48.

Post-Enlightenment perspectives

Until the Enlightenment the story of Jonah was generally understood by religious believers as literal history (though some non-believers had queried it earlier), but since then belief or disbelief in its historicity has been a crucial dividing line between fundamentalists and those taking a more scholarly, critical approach to the Bible. It is also since the Enlightenment that scholars have generally adopted a universalistic understanding of the purpose of the story (though this was anticipated by Augustine and Luther) reflecting the outlook of a more liberal strain within post-exilic Judaism (compare Ruth; Isaiah 56:7). Jews, however, have often rejected this understanding, seeing it rather as simply providing an example of human repentance. In keeping with this it is regularly read on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Further reading

Limburg, James. Jonah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
Salters, Robin B. Jonah & Lamentations. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
Sherwood, Yvonne. A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Wolff, Hans W. Obadiah and Jonah. Translated by Margaret Kohl. London: SPCK, 1986.
Youngblood, Kevin J. Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy. Hearing the Message of Scripture 28. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. Repr., Jonah. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament. A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.