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Book of Jonah
JONAH, BOOK OF. Fifth in the canonical order of the Minor Prophets. It differs from them in that while they for the most part contain prophetic discourses, with a minimum of narrative material, theis mainly occupied with a narrative, and the prophetic message in it is almost incidental. The chapter divisions mark the natural divisions of the book: Chapter 1, Jonah’s disobedience; chapter 2, Jonah’s prayer; chapter 3, Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites; chapter 4, Jonah’s complaints. Chapter 1 records Jonah’s call to preach at Nineveh because of its great wickedness. Instead of obeying, he took a ship in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, probably in SW Spain. His disobedience undoubtedly arose from his fear that the Ninevites would heed his message and repent, and that God would forgive the city that had for many years grievously oppressed his own land. He was a narrow-minded patriot who feared that Assyria would someday destroy his own people; and he did not want to do anything that might contribute to that event. He was unwilling to be a foreign missionary to a people for whom he could feel nothing but bitterness. In the sequel of the account he frankly gives his reason for refusing to obey God’s command, “That is why I was so quick to flee 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). During a violent storm at sea, the heathen sailors prayed to their own gods who, they thought, must be offended with some person on board. They cast lots to discover the culprit, and when the lot fell on Jonah, he confessed that he was fleeing from the Lord and volunteered to be thrown overboard for their sakes. This was done, the storm subsided, and the sailors offered a sacrifice to God.
The Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. Surprised to find himself alive in the body of the fish, the prophet gave thanks to God and expressed the confident hope that he would ultimately be delivered. After three days and three nights the fish vomited him onto the dry land.
Commanded a second time to go to Nineveh, Jonah obeyed and delivered his message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (
When Jonah learned that Nineveh was to be spared, he broke out into loud and bitter complaint, not because he felt discredited as a prophet on account of the failure of his prediction, but because he was sure that the sparing of Nineveh sealed the doom of his own country. By the withering of a vine, the Lord taught the prophet that if a mean and perishable plant could come to have such value to him, how much greater should be the estimate put on the lives of thousands of children and cattle in the great city of Nineveh. These meant more to God than Jonah’s vine could ever mean to Jonah.
The purpose of the book is primarily to teach that God’s gracious purposes are not limited to Israel but extend to the Gentile world. The author wishes to enlarge the sympathies of Israel, so that as God’s missionaries they will lead the Gentiles to repentance and to God. The ready response of the Ninevites shows that the heathen are capable of genuine repentance.
The book is anonymous, and its authorship is in dispute. The traditional view is that the prophet Jonah is the author, and his book is a record of his own experiences. A more recent view is that the book was written long after Jonah’s time by some anonymous author and that it is a work of fiction with a moral lesson. Among the chief arguments advanced for the second view are the following: (1) In the prayer ascribed to Jonah, there are quotations from postexilic psalms (cf.
The traditional view, that Jonah is the author and the narrative is historically true, is supported by a number of considerations. (1) The book was written as a simple narrative, and it was so regarded by both Jews and Christians until about a century ago. (2) There seems no doubt that Jesus thought of the narrative as history and taught it as such. On three different occasions he referred to Jonah (
Most modern critical scholars in the last hundred years have regarded the book as a work of the imagination. Some call it a myth; others, an allegory; others, a parable; others, a didactic story, and so on. This interpretation avoids the miraculous elements in the narrative, which the critics find impossible to accept; but it does not do justice to the fact that our Lord very evidently held to the historicity of the book.
Bibliography: Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah: His Character and Mission to Nineveh, 1958; L. C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NIC), 1976.——SB
JONAH, BOOK OF (יוֹנָ֥ה, LXX ̓Ιωνα̂ς, G2731, dove). Cf.
Other than the mention of Nineveh and of Jonah, the contents offer little help in relating the book to its background. The events recorded in the book must have taken place prior to 612, when Nineveh was destroyed. Some evidence seems to support a date in the 8th cent., the period mentioned in
In modern times Eissfeldt has viewed Jonah as being composed of two legends. The first (
Traditionally, the book has been ascribed to Jonah, the son of Amittai, who lived in the 8th cent. b.c. He was born at Gath-Hepher (cf.
Jonah ben Amittai prophesied the victories which made possible Israel’s “Golden Age” in the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 782-753). If Jonah is not the author, then the book slanders the character of the 8th-cent. prophet unjustly.
Most modern scholars, other than conservative ones, reject the traditional belief that Jonah wrote the book. Among the arguments advanced against the thesis are the following: (1) The book itself does not claim he is the author. In rebuttal, one notes that the introductory formula (
Acceptance of the book’s authorship by Jonah would necessitate a date in the first half of the 8th cent., b.c. Events in Assyrian history, such as the trend toward monotheism in the reign of Adad-Nirari III (c. 810-783), or the great plague of the reign of Assurdan III (c. 771-754) would help explain the mass repentance. Archer (SOTI, p. 296) would date the book near the end of Jonah’s career, c. 760.
A terminus ad quem for the book’s composition would be 200 b.c. because
To sum up the arguments about the date of Jonah, it seems that the tendency to date the book late is based on the theological bias that the book is a rebuke of postexilic exclusivism and hyper-nationalism. These traits are seldom completely missing in any nation in any period. The late date seems predicated upon a religionsgeschichte approach to the content of Jonah. It leaves the student with the haunting question, “If Jonah was not written by the eighth century prophet, why was it admitted to the canon?”
It would seem evident that the book was called forth by God’s concern for the spiritual welfare of the great city of Nineveh. Some would also see another factor at work, namely, God’s concern for His chosen people who needed teaching and admonition which the prophet accomplished through the events recorded in the book rather than by direct oracles or prophetic utterances.
Various scholars have seen different purposes for the
Since the book is mentioned during the inter-testamental period as one of the twelve prophets, there seems to have been an early acceptance of it as canonical.
The Heb. text of Jonah is well preserved. The language is clear, classical Heb. with a few Aramaisms which some consider late, but Aram. influences are found in pre-exilic times. The LXX adds little to our understanding of the text. Some scholars think
A number of problems of importance emerge in the study of Jonah. Chief among these are the questions regarding its literary form and its historicity.
Various students have classified Jonah in widely different literary genres. Traditionally, it has been listed as history (except
Those who view the book as allegory frequently identify the following elements: Jonah is disobedient Israel; the sea is the Gentile world (the dispersion); the great fish is Babylon (cf.
The view that the book is legend or myth was advocated by Cheyne. Oesterley refuted the mythological interpretation that the great fish was Tehom (the deep, i.e. the salt sea), pointing out that in Jonah, the sea is not looked upon as evil. Others have viewed the monster as a reference to Nebuchadnezzar. While there are supernatural elements in the story as there are in myth, these supernatural elements may be interpreted historically rather than mythically.
Those who look upon Jonah as a parable point to passages such as
Another view is that the book is part of a sermon in which certain events, either actual or fictitious, are narrated to impart a spiritual truth much as a modern minister may use anecdotes of actual or imaginary events to drive home his points. Thus Jonah would be an early example of a midrashic homily.
Finally, the view most commonly espoused by conservatives is that the book is history. Except for
Many critics deny the historicity of Jonah. Usually this is done because of the supernatural elements in the story. These include the great fish that swallowed Jonah, the conversion of the whole city of Nineveh, the gourd prepared to shelter Jonah, and the worm that destroyed the gourd. For all these objections to the supernatural the response must be to ask whether God is limited by His creation or is free to supervene in the operation of so-called “natural laws.”
The arguments for the late date of the book also are used to support the thesis that the book is not historical. These arguments include the use of the phrase “king of Nineveh” (
The historicity of the book has been upheld by some outstanding scholars in the 19th cent. (e.g. Keil, Delitzsch, Pusey, Orelli), as well as almost all conservative scholars of the 20th cent. In addition to refuting the arguments for the non-historical character of the book, most advocates of its historicity point out that from early times the Jews regarded it as historical (cf. 3 Macc 6:8;
Content and outline.
The chapter divisions of the Eng. VSS of Jonah follow the natural thought of the book.
Some have seen in the Book of Jonah a detailed typology of Christ. In some items this typology has been positive, in some details it has been a typology of contrast. (1) Both Jonah and Christ have a special commission (cf.
Jonah also has been taken by most premillenialists to be typical of Israel. (1) He was called to witness to Gentiles. (2) Jonah suffered a disaster in a great storm as Israel suffered disaster in rejecting Christ. (3) Jonah, like Israel, did not deny his people or his God. (4) Jonah’s grave was the belly of a fish, while Israel’s grave is among the nations. (5) Jonah cried out to God as Israel will do at the end of time. (6) As Jonah was delivered from the fish, so Israel will be given a national resurrection. (7) Jonah preached to Nineveh, so Israel will be God’s witness (
may be called biographic typology. One approaches the view that the book is predictive history. It is predictive of Christ who was sent by the Father, suffered entombment, was resurrected and preached salvation for “all the world.” It is predictive of Israel who was a trouble to the Gentiles (as Jonah was to the sailors), was a witness to them, but was cast out by Gentiles and miraculously preserved for twenty centuries to be God’s missionaries at the end of time (
The Book of Jonah offers some insights into the theology of the writer. He viewed God as having universal rule (vs. henotheism so prevalent in the ancient Near E). God is in all places—the land of Zebulun, the sea, Nineveh—and among all nations—the Israelites, the sailors (Phoenicians?), the Assyrians. He offers mercy and forgiveness to all. The terms of forgiveness for Nineveh are the same as for Israel—repentance. One notes, too, that the book freely depicts the openness of Gentiles to the message of Yahweh. The sailors hearken to His command to cast Jonah overboard. The Ninevites (as the Samaritans in the gospels) are open to Jonah’s stern warnings. A third major topic of the book’s theology is the inference that Israel (and the church) is responsible for proclaiming God’s message, and must leave the results to God. Some have inferred that Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh was rooted in his belief that the message would bring repentance (which as an ardent nationalist he didn’t want to see happen).
F. W. Farrar, “Jonah,” The Minor Prophets (n.d.); S. R. Driver, “Jonah,” Introduction to Literature of the OT (1897), 321-325; J. Bewer, “Jonah,” A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Haggai...Jonah (ICC), (1912); J. R. Sampey, “Jonah, Book of,” ISBE, III (1939), 728, 729; F. E. Gaebelein, The Servant and the Dove (1946), 52-143; T. Laetsch, “Jonah,” The Minor Prophets (1956), 214-244; J. D. Smart, “Jonah,” IB, VI (1956), 871-894; W. Oesterley and T. Robinson, “Jonah,” Introduction to the Books of the OT (1958, reprint), 372-380; J. M. Myers, “Jonah,” Layman’s Bible Comentary (1959), 160-176; E. J. Young, Introduction to OT (1960), 277-282; W. D. McHardy, “Jonah,” HDBrev (1963), 524ff.; G. Archer, SOTI (1964), 295-303.