This is perhaps the strangest book listed among the Minor Prophets The book does not give any definite clues, either to its dating or to its intended audience.
This is a prophetic book unlike any other for there is only one line of prophecy in the text – Jonah 3:4b. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
I always tended to find this a rather unsatisfactory book. I didn’t know what to make of the fish story and then the plant that died. Jonah gets angry with God and the last verse seemed rather truncated to me especially as it ends “and also much cattle!” So is the book incomplete?
That is always a possibility but none of the plot seems to be incomplete.
When in doubt look at the structure of the work
1:1-16 The first call – disobedience Events at sea
2:1-10 Prayer – discussion with God
3:1-10 The second call – Obedience
4:2-11 Prayer – discussion with God
Now that to me looks quite orderly – surprisingly so.
It would possibly be true to say that I am putting a brave face on the neatness.
In chapter 2:1-10 I am sure there is more prayer than there is discussion
And in 4:2-1 there is more discussion than there is prayer.
It is also true that chapter 2 is in verse whereas chapter 4 is in prose.
Nevertheless I think this structure is a starting point.
Given that this book is found among the minor prophets and given that the book only contains one line of prophecy. Why should it be there at all?
Who was Jonah?
In 2 Kings 14:25 there might be this clue “He (Jeroboam II) restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet.
As our present book begins “ now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai saying arise go to Nineveh…”
I think it is reasonably clear that we are dealing with the same person.
So what we have therefore is a historical link. This means that Jonah probably lived during the reign of the northern king Jeroboam II 786-746 close to the time of Amos and Hosea. It also allows us a time frame into which we might be able to place these oracles
There are though some quite difficult problems here.
Apart from the fish there are dubious features
- The king of Nineveh (not named) is a very unusual title - one would normally read “the king of Assyria”
- No repentance at the preaching of a Hebrew prophet is known from any Assyrian source.
- Nineveh did not become the chief city of Assyria until the time of Sennacherib in 701.
- The detail that it took three days to cross the city would not be supported by archaeological remains (7 miles across).
On the other hand there are some hefty theological concerns in the book.
- Worship and thanksgiving - Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving in chapter 2 is an example of the true devotion of a grateful worshipper and there are clear similarities with other psalms of thanksgiving
- The issue of retribution – does God punish the guilty along with the innocent sailors for Jonah’s disobedience?
- God’s forgiveness extends to all. This is a theme that we have already seen in the work of other prophets.
- The question can God repent. When R E Clements wrote his commentary on Jonah back in 1975 he clearly felt that repentance was a key issue in the book. This of course poses the question can God change his mind?
Question of omnipotence?
God changing his mind was clearly not a problem for the writers of the Old Testament eg Hezekiah’s sickness…
What is going on here?
I have a feeling that our friend Jonah was far better known and far more important than we give him credit for. The historical person seems to have been a prophet in the royal court. I think if is perfectly possible that a number of stories and legends were attached to the man.
Here we are experiencing the skill of a professional story teller. Don’t overlook the fact that the book as we have it contains a narrator who guides us through the events.
His story has excitement and tension with the storm, a mythical monster, a poem/prayer of thanksgiving, a journey to a king who heeds the timely warning and a rather comic episode with a plant which behaves in the way that plants only behave in stories, by growing and then perishing in less than 24 hours. It is a wonderful story with great messages for the hearers about repentance, forgiveness and the need to listen to and obey the word of the Lord.
Verdict on the story
Nevertheless, I think, what we see today in the “Book of Jonah” is just a story. It will have been one of the legends (and a very popular one at that) about the man. It is as well to remember that the Old Testament has other “stories.” The book of Job is a fictional story about a righteous man.
In the New Testament remember there never was a prodigal son or a good Samaritan. In the case of the latter the story has so transferred itself into popular reality that a Jewish entrepreneur has set up the “Good Samaritan Inn” – a popular roadhouse with tourists a few miles out of Jerusalem at the junction of the road down to Jericho.
Behind each of these there is a powerful story teller who, with great skill seeks to pass on to his hearers wonderful messages about the nature of God.
The “sign of Jonah” is of course mentioned in three New Testament texts Matt 12:38-41, 16:1-4 and Luke 11:29-32. It is used in slightly different ways
Matthew draws on the similarity between Jonah who spent three days and nights in the belly of the great fish and Jesus’ three days in the tomb.
In Luke Jonah himself is the sign to the people of Nineveh and is therefore like the Son of Man to his generation.