This post covers various topics relating to the book of Jonah.
The basic structure of Jonah can be seen in this table1:
|Chapters 1 and 3 place Jonah in the pagan world (sailors and Ninevites). Both of the pagan leaders (the captain and the king) acknowledge a single deity to whom they can turn. The sailors make vows to YHWH while the Ninevites make an act of repentance before Elohim.||Chapter 1||Chapter 3|
|Call (arise, go, call) (v. 2)||Call (arise, go, call) (v. 2)|
|Jonah arises, flees to Tarshish (v. 3)||Jonah arises, goes to Nineveh (v. 3)|
|God acts, storm (v. 4)||Jonah acts, prophesies destruction (v. 4)|
|Sailors call to their gods (v. 5)||Ninevites believe, fast, don sackcloth (v. 5)|
|Captain identifies Elohim‘s power behind the storm (v. 6)||King dons sackcloth, issues decree, seeks Elohim‘s will (vv. 6-8)|
|Sailors seek YHWH’s will (vv. 7-13)|
|Sailors pray to YHWH to not let them perish (v. 14)||King orders Ninevites to pray to Elohim “lest we perish” (v. 9)|
|Storm abates (v. 15)||God “relents” (v. 10)|
|Chapters 2 and 4 contain the discussion between Jonah and God represented in the language of prayer, of divine responses in words and actions, and some physical activity directed against Jonah’s body.||Chapter 2||Chapter 4|
|Jonah saved||Jonah angry|
|Jonah prays||Jonah prays|
|God responds||God responds|
The author of Jonah repeats certain keywords throughout the book in order to reinforce his messages.
The Hebrew root yarad (“go down”) occurs four times in Jonah (1:3 twice; 1:5; 2:7). There is also a wordplay in 1:5 where yarad can be seen in wayyeradam (“fell into a deep sleep”). This repetition implies that Jonah’s flight from God is not merely from one place of the earth to another, but a descent into death and the underworld.
The Hebrew term gadol (“great”) occurs frequently in Jonah (1:2, 4, 10, 12, 16; 2:1; 3:2, 3, 5, 7; 4:1, 11). “It is also present as a verb meaning to ‘raise a child,’ but here in terms of Jonah not ‘raising’ (growing) the plant (4:10). When one remembers that biblical Hebrew uses adjectives very sparingly and that this repetition is quite obtrusive, some explanation is demanded”2. The use of gadol may imply that the events described are larger than life.
Four miraculous events are introduced by the root manah, meaning “appoint” (2:1; 4:6, 7, 8). In each of these cases a different divine name is used. In the Rabbinic view, Elohim suggests God’s just nature and YHWH suggests God’s attribute of mercy. The sending of the fish was a merciful act, so YHWH is used. The sending of the worm and the wind was a just act to teach Jonah, so Elohim was used. The sending of the plant was both a merciful and instructional act so both terms are used together.
One final example is also highly suggestive, particularly because it shows the variety of meanings contained within the individual Heb[rew] root. Thus the word raa refers to the “evil” of the Ninevites that has risen up to God (1:2); the “great evil” of the storm according to the sailors (1:7, 8); and the “evil way” from which the king of Nineveh asks his citizens to turn back (3:8). It is the latter that introduces the most striking sequence utilizing this word. In 3:10, God sees that they turn from their “evil” way, and repents of the “evil” (i.e. punishment) that He had intended to do to them. But this will be experienced by Jonah as “a great evil” (4:1), a phrase usually translated in terms of Jonah being “displeased.” Again, the significance of this is subject to a variety of interpretations, but the “evil” that shifts between the Ninevites, God, and Jonah within the space of two verses, binds the three “characters” of the story together at this crucial moment.3
Use of Quotations
Jonah contains many sentences or phrases that are similar to passages found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible4. These similarities suggest that the author was making a conscious literary ploy. The “contrast between the behavior of Jonah and that of Elijah, the irony of the king of Nineveh quoting Jeremiah’s theology back at Jonah, as well as Jonah’s use of God’s ‘attributes,’ all complement the narrative and seem to conform with the author’s overall strategy of reversing expectations and conventions”5.
The theme of ironic inversion runs throughout the book of Jonah. The “author reverses the conventions of biblical narrative in terms of the encounter between a prophet and the people, and between Israel and the outside world”6.
The Jonah story is quite different from all the other prophetic books. Other biblical prophets were primarily concerned with Israel and Judah. Although they had only minimal success, their books are filled with oracles passionately urging the people to observe Israel’s covenant obligations to God. Jonah, on the other hand, is sent to the Assyrians in Nineveh — a people whose brutal actions had made their name a byword among the Israelites (cf. Nahum). He then delivers only a one-verse oracle (3.4) and succeeds marvelously, despite his best efforts to run and fail. The story is a satire, giving us a hero who says the right things in a context where his actions belie his words (1.9; 2.2-9; 4.2).7
In biblical narratives, the reader usually identifies with the hero. In Jonah’s case, the hero acts in inexcusable ways. After God calls Jonah, Jonah heads in the opposite direction of Nineveh (1:3). During his prayer (ch. 2), Jonah does not admit that he was wrong for fleeing from God. Jonah’s prophecy concerning the destruction of Nineveh (3:4) proves inaccurate. Jonah complains to God because God is merciful and compassionate (4:2).
On the other hand, the non-Israelites, the sailors and the “evil” Ninevites, act in exemplary fashion. The sailors tried to save Jonah’s life even though they knew he was guilty (1:13). The sailors displayed piety to YHWH (1:16). The king and the city fast, put on sackcloth, and turn from their evil ways (3:7-8).
The historicity of the book of Jonah was generally taken for granted until the modern era. Since there is no record of a mass repentance in the city of Nineveh its historicity has been questioned.
Jonah’s genre . . . is best described as a short story, “a fictional story developed around a historical figure for didactic purposes” (Limburg). In presenting his message, the author uses humor and a mocking irony that is very striking. The story is fictional; it is unlikely that the events narrated in Jonah actually happened, and whether they did or not is irrelevant to the author’s purpose. The characters and setting in Jonah are “types,” or stock characters. The characters, aside from Jonah and God, are all nameless; Nineveh is any big city, and Tarshish is simply a faraway place. Readers are meant to identify with Jonah and learn the lesson God wishes to teach him.8
Date and Authorship
The dating of the book of Jonah is dependent entirely on internal evidence. The book does not say what kings ruled during Jonah’s mission. This may be because the author assumed his readers would identify Jonah as the Jonah from 2 Kings 14:25. On the other hand, the author may have created an anonymous and timeless character who struggled with his prophetic calling.
The use of words and phrases that reflect Aramaic usage has been seen as pointing to a late date for the book. However, some of the words relating to the sea voyage may be technical maritime terms, possibly Phoenician in origin, which could have been available at any period. Other grammatical constructions may reflect the earlier influence of Aramaic in the [northern] kingdom. In general, the number of such forms is suggestive of a post-exilic date, but there is no conclusive evidence.9
In 3:3, it says that Nineveh was a great city. This suggests that Nineveh had been destroyed before the composition of the book. This means it was written after 612 B.C.E. Other factors also support the theory that Jonah was written some time after the destruction of Nineveh. The book of Jonah describes a city much larger than Nineveh ever was and it calls the king the king of the city when he would have been the king of the Assyrian Empire10.
The book of Jonah was probably written anywhere from the sixth to the fourth century B.C.E. (it could not have been written after 200 B.C.E. when it was included in the Book of the Twelve)11. The problem of dating the book also makes it impossible to determine the author of the book.
Theological Issues and Motifs
This was a time of great trauma but also of great regeneration within the Jewish community. Jews had been driven out of their homeland, and there was a real possibility that the people — now living as minority groups throughout the Near East — would be assimilated into the neighboring populations. Although they were permitted to return to there homeland after exile, there was a strong concern with maintaining traditional covenant values and identity as God’s holy people over against the melting pot of the vast Persian Empire. The only recourse, many leaders concluded, was to separate the Jewish community from the outside world as much as possible. Thus one issue in the story is surely the relationship between Jew and Gentile, between the God of Israel and the nations of the world. A second concern was God’s apparent unfair treatment of the Jews. Biblical traditions explained the exile as God’s punishment for the Jews’ neglect of the covenant laws, yet Jews now living among foreigners soon realized that the ethical norms and behavior of the surrounding peoples were more abhorrent than their own. If we deserved punishment, they asked, how could God possibly spare others whose offenses were far more serious? Finally, many Jews believed that the suffering of the present generation was caused by the sins of past generations (cf. Ezek 18.2). If God’s judgment continues on to the third and fourth generations (cf. Ex 20.5), does that mean that our lives are hopelessly determined by the past? Would God be merciful if people repent of their sins and truly change their ways (cf. Jer 18.1-22)?12
These issues are particularly seen by Jonah’s objection to God’s command to preach to Nineveh. Some see Jonah objecting to God extending his love to Israel’s enemies (the particularistic/universalistic conflict). Others see Jonah upset over God not punishing the wicked (the justice/mercy conflict). The reader needs to explore the reasons on his own. This exercise forces the reader to continually reassess his own motivations and opinions and is encouraged by the narrator’s ability to challenge commonly held ideas. The book itself ends with a question that both Jonah and the reader must answer: should not God be concerned with Nineveh? This question challenges the reader to think about Israel’s relationship with the Gentile world and about God’s judgment and mercy.
[ABD] D. N. Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
[HCBC] James L. Mays. HarperCollins Bible Commentary. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000.
[HCSB] Wayne A. Meeks. HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
[NJBC] Raymond E. Brown. New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.
1Modified from [ABD], vol. 6, p. 937
2[ABD], vol. 6, p. 938
3[ABD], vol. 6, p. 938
4Jonah 2:4 resembles Psalm 42:8; Jonah 3:9 resembles Jeremiah 18:7, 8, 11; 26:3, 13, 19; Jonah 4:2 resembles Exodus 14:12; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8-13; Nahum 1:3; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 4:5, 9 resemble Psalm 31:7, 23; Jonah 4:8 resembles 1 Kings 19:4
5[ABD], vol. 6, p. 939
6[ABD], vol. 6, p. 939
9[ABD], vol. 6, p. 940