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Jonah is one of the most famous stories of the Old Testament, a Sunday School classic up there with Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath and Jesus feeding the 5,000. Although for Christians it’s rarely used in sermons, observant Jews read it start-to-finish every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
A lot of ink has been used in speculating whether Jonah’s time in the ‘whale’ (the Hebrew just has dag gadol, or ‘big fish’) was real or figurative. However, there are reasons to think this question misunderstands the purpose of the book. It’s quite possible it is a satire and a parody designed to make a particular point to its audience by subverting a well-known form of biblical literature.
Jonah is a historical character. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. ‘[Jeroboam] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.’ (Gath Hepher seems to have been a relatively small settlement, a few miles from Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.) So the book is set in the reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 BC), one of the last kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.
However, most critics believe that the book of Jonah was written in the exilic period, after the return from Babylon towards the end of the 6th century. For a start, 2 Kings records a very different version of history than the one in Jonah. Instead of repenting in sackcloth and ashes, the Assyrians invade Israel and first exact heavy tribute, then wipe it from the map. The book of Jonah uses language more characteristic of later Hebrew, including a number of terms adopted from Aramaic, and there are a few anachronisms – such as the fact that Nineveh wasn’t the capital of Assyria until the 7th century. In the time of Jereboam II the capital city of Assyria was Ashur. Then there is the theme – found in different forms in postexilic books including Ezra, Nehemiah and Ruth – of Israel’s relationship with the nations.
All of this is consistent with a later author using the historical character to teach his contemporaries a lesson they needed to hear. There was a tradition of taking minor characters and developing them into longer narratives, like the Book of Enoch. Jonah may be an early example of what we today call fanfiction, though whether it’s historical or not doesn’t change its main themes, only how we approach them.
There are also hints to the book’s purpose in the way that Jonah responds to his prophetic calling. Assyria was Israel’s sworn enemy. The Neo-Assyrian Empire had emerged as a regional power in the 10th century BC. Tiglath-Pileser III, whom the Bible calls Pul, reinvigorated the decaying empire in the 8th century and turned it into a formidable political and military power with a policy of aggressive expansionism. Conquered states like Babylonia were forced to pay tribute. Judah, which was allied to the conquered city Arpad, ended up as an Assyrian vassal. A couple of years later, Judean king Ahaz paid Assyria to intervene in the war that his country was fighting with Israel and Aram. Assyria laid waste to Judah’s enemies and ended the war. Subsequent Assyrian rulers finished the job, destroying Israel’s capital city Samaria and exiling the population in 721 BC. Although the southern kingdom of Judah continued its uneasy relationship with Assyria, that was effectively the end of Israel. After an ill-judged rebellion, Judah’s king Hezekiah pays enormous tribute in 701 BC but it was ultimately the Babylonians who exiled the southern kingdom, over 100 years later. Nineveh itself fell to the Babylonians in 612.
This was the narrative context into which Jonah stepped. Assyria was God’s instrument, ‘the rod of my anger’, but it had overstepped its mark by killing and destroying the people it was sent to chastise (Isaiah 10:5-11). The empire was the oppressor, a vast power which consumed and destroyed everything in its vicinity without compassion. God’s call to Jonah was akin to a Jew being sent to preach to the Third Reich.
The first verse of Jonah is instantly recognisable to the book’s readers. ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.’ This is comfortable, familiar territory, the classic Old Testament formula for introducing a prophetic declaration or ministry. The phrase ‘the word of the Lord came to…’ occurs over 100 times in the OT (NIV), including 24 times in Jeremiah and 50 in Ezekiel, and it opens the books of Jeremiah (1:2), Ezekiel (1:3) and Zechariah (1:1), as well as Jonah.
But that’s where the familiarity ends. Jonah 1:2 entails a grinding gear change. Instead of being sent to the people of Israel or Judah, like every other prophet in the Old Testament, he is sent to a gentile nation. Not just any gentile nation, either, but the most abusive and ungodly power on earth at the time. Two verses into the book and Jonah’s audience must realise that something is already very odd – offensively odd – about this book.
Prophets respond differently to their callings. Ezekiel carries out God’s wishes – even the strangest forms of enacted prophesy (chapter 4; 5:1-4) – without question. God gives Ezekiel superhuman resilience (3:8-9) to deal with the opposition he will face. Jeremiah is reluctantly obedient to his call. But Jonah simply gets up and heads for Tarshish, a distant and mysterious location that may have functioned to the book’s listeners much as ‘Timbuktu’ might do to modern readers.
Running from the omnipresent God by boarding a ship bound for the ends of the earth doesn’t go well for Jonah. A storm blows up and the pagan sailors – who seem remarkably accepting about the Lord’s remit as ‘God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ (1:9) – soon figure out that Jonah is to blame. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Jonah accepts responsibility and suggests they throw him overboard. The sailors decline, but the waves grow worse. After a lightning-fast conversion (1:14), they relent, throw him overboard and then offer sacrifices to God. Jonah has done nothing but run from God so far but he can’t help bringing pagans to the Lord.
After some fishy business, Jonah ends up in Nineveh. Unlike the prophets of Israel and Judah, who typically serve for years, his prophetic ministry lasts all of three days. Nineveh not only listens, but – unlike Israel and Judah – repents, led by the king, and in a heartfelt and dramatic way. Even the animals are covered in sackcloth and made to fast.
The only person in Nineveh who is displeased with God’s grace is Jonah, who complains that God should not have sent him due to the risk that Nineveh might repent. Jonah is simultaneously the Bible’s best and worst evangelist. He grudgingly brings to repentance 120,000 people and is then furious at his success. ‘He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”’ (4:2) He leaves the city and sits down to see what will happen next.
In response, God causes a vine to grow over him to shade him – then sends a worm to kill the vine and a hot wind to torment him. Jonah expresses his anger about the vine’s death. God’s response (paraphrased) is: ‘Over there are 120,000 people who desperately need saving. You’re upset about a plant. Do you think you might have missed the point?’
And so the book of Jonah inverts almost every major theme of the traditional prophetic literature. Like other books of the postexilic age, it shows a willingness to reach out to the foreigner and an emphasis on God’s compassion and forgiveness. In the New Testament, Jonah is used as a parallel to Jesus (Matthew 12:39-41).
For Christians today, Jonah still holds a challenging message and prompts a series of questions:
- Is there anyone we assume is beyond God’s grace, perhaps whom we think we shouldn’t even bother with?
- Is there a calling we ignore, or actively run from?
- Are there times or situations where we are more interested in judgement than mercy?
- Do we ever, intentionally or unwittingly, place barriers to faith in front of anyone? (Matthew 23 harsh criticises the Pharisees who do this.)
- Where is our Tarshish – is there a place, activity or justification to which we run when faced with an unwanted challenge?
- Did we miss the point somewhere, perhaps losing sight of our ultimate goal in the day-to-day work of achieving it?
 Sorry. Couldn’t pass up the opportunity.