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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, the Book of Jonah is 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” (Jonah.3.4). The effect of his message was undoubtedly greatly heightened by the account of his deliverance, which had either preceded him or been told by himself. The people of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes, and God spared the city.

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 of Jonah may be regarded as a great work on foreign missions. It anticipates the catholicity of the gospel program of Jesus, and is the OT counterpart of John.3.16, “For God so loved the world.”

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. Jonah.2.3 with Ps.42.7; Jonah.2.5 with Ps.69.1; Jonah.2.9 with Ps.50.1). (2) The narrative is written throughout in the third person, with no indication that the prophet involved was the writer. (3) There are in the book Aramaic linguistic features that are found in later books. (4) From Jonah.3.3 it is inferred that Nineveh was a thing of the past (the city was destroyed in 612 b.c.). (5) The failure to give the name of the king of Assyria indicates that it was unknown to the author. These arguments, however, are debatable and therefore inconclusive.

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 (Matt.12.38-Matt.12.41; Matt.16.4; Luke.11.29-Luke.11.32), saying that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the body of the fish, so should the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, and that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, while his own contemporaries for the most part rejected his message. Some critics, taking refuge in the doctrine of the Kenosis (that Christ was somehow limited by his human nature; see Phil.2.5-Phil.2.8), set aside the teaching of Jesus on this point as erroneous; others, holding to a doctrine of accommodation, think that Jesus did not consider it worthwhile to correct the wrong views of his contemporaries. Neither of these explanations harmonizes with a biblical view of the person of Christ.

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. Psalm 74:19 where Israel is called a “turtle dove.” Jonah was the name of an 8th-cent. prophet to whom the book bearing his name was attributed. The book stands fifth in the minor prophets (Eng. VSS) and also fifth in the order of the Heb. text. The little book of four chapters has been the subject of intense disagreement concerning its historicity and interpretation. The disagreement is occasioned primarily by its supernatural elements: the great fish, the repentance of Nineveh, the gourd and the worm.


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 2 Kings 14:25 in which Jonah the prophet lived. If this dating (to be discussed later) is accepted, then the historical situation would be that of the domination of the Assyrian Empire over the ancient Near E and the resurgence of power in the northern kingdom (Israel) during her Golden Age in the reign of Jeroboam II. The supposed motif of the book—its implicit rebuke of narrow nationalism and its implicit appeal for the universality of God’s love—would fit well into the historical era when the Assyrians were a feared and despised enemy. Contrariwise, when Assyria had been vanquished the book would not carry as much weight to its own generation. In attempting to interpret its message, one can understand it perfectly by positing an 8th-cent. real life situation as the background.


In modern times Eissfeldt has viewed Jonah as being composed of two legends. The first (chs. 1-3) tells of Jonah’s disobedience. The second (ch. 4) tells of Jonah’s controversy with God. (Incidentally, Eissfeldt rejects the book’s historicity because of the great fish.) More radical critics see three or more sources used in the composition of the book. This is a minority opinion not generally shared, even by those who reject the book’s historicity.


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. Josh 19:13), in the territory of Zebulun, about five m. N of Nazareth (cf. 2 Kings 14:25). According to legend (historically unacceptable) he was the son of the widow of Zarephath, and was the youth whom Elisha sent to anoint Jehu to be the king of Israel.

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 (1:1) is parallel to that used in Hosea, Joel, Micah, and Zephaniah, and close to that used in other prophetic books of whose authorship there is little or no debate. (2) The book refers to the prophet Jonah in the third person. Again, the introductory formula shows this to be common practice that can be seen in works attributed to Moses, Xenophon, and Julius Caesar. (3) The book is later than the 8th cent., therefore it cannot be by Jonah ben Amittai. The date of the book is discussed below. If objections to an early date are overcome, then there seems little reason to deny the authorship of the book to the prophet whose name it bears.


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 Ecclesiasticus 49:10 (RSV) refers to “twelve minor prophets” and Tobit 14:4, 8 refers to Jonah. Most critical scholars would date the book between 500 and 300 b.c. J. Bewer (ICC, p. 403) suggests a date in the Hel. period (300-200 b.c.), perhaps because he posits Joppa as the locale of the Perseus-Andromeda legend and sees reflections of that legend in Jonah. The most frequently accepted late date is c. 450 b.c. (cf. Driver, Introduction to Literature of the OT, p. 322) although Oesterley and Robinson opt for a date c. 350 b.c. (Introduction, p. 374).

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 Book of Jonah. One suggestion has been that it was written as an apologetic. It explains that prophecy of doom is conditional (cf. Jer 18:7f.). This view was advocated by Riehm. Others think the book is didactic. It was written to teach that God’s forgiveness is available to all upon the basis of individual fear of Yahweh and repentance. God’s mercy is not limited to Israel. Others view the book as a parable whose purpose is to drive home to Israel her sin in her national failure to fulfill God’s mission among the nations. Related to this view is the idea that the book is basically a missionary tractate, designed to break down Heb. particularism and exclusiveness (cf. 3:10; 4:11), of which Jonah himself is an example. His spirit is akin to that of Nahum who expects God to destroy Nineveh in the 7th cent. A serious objection to this view is that it leaves unexplained Jonah’s message of judgment. Five brief words in Heb. (“Yet forty days and Nineveh is overthrown,” Jonah 3:4), call for unrelieved doom—not the offering of God’s grace to the Ninevites. E. J. Young (Introduction to Literature of the OT, p. 280) denies this universalistic purpose and stresses instead the element of predictive history in the book. This view of its purpose deprives the book of meaning for its first readers. As in many literary works, so in Jonah, the purpose may be manifold, not limited to a single idea.


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 4:5 is misplaced and belongs after 3:4.

Special problems.

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.

Literary form.

Various students have classified Jonah in widely different literary genres. Traditionally, it has been listed as history (except ch. 2). In the 19th cent. the tendency arose to view the book as allegory, parable, or pure legend. It is evident that the book does not follow the pattern of the other prophetic books which are collections of oracles. Rather, it is a story about a prophet, similar to the Elijah cycles in 1 Kings. There are partial parallels to personal history being embedded in prophecy in the experiences recorded by the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.

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. Jer 51:34, 44); the three days is the captivity; the gourd is Zerubbabel (cf. Bentzen, Introduction OT, II, p. 146). Archer criticizes this approach (SOTI, p. 297) asking “What does Nineveh represent? What does the fish represent? Why should three days equal seventy years? What does the repentance of the Ninevites represent?” Allegory, by definition, is supposed to be worked out in all details. It seems evident that Jonah does not fit the definition.

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 2 Samuel 12:1-4; Isaiah 5; Luke 10:25-37 as similar parabolic lit. This approach interprets the book as parabolic of how God will yet act in history (cf. Matthew 24:32f.). One approaches the view that Jonah is predictive history.

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 ch. 2, the book is concerned exclusively with events that happened in the life of Jonah. Although there is some indication of the general tenor of the theology of the writer in the book, the only point of the story driven home is that suggested in 4:10f. Since the historicity of the book has been the subject of extensive debate it deserves separate treatment.


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” (3:6), and the use of the past tense, “Nineveh was a great city” (3:36). (Archer, SOTI, p. 298 would tr. the verb “had become.”) Other arguments against the historicity of Jonah have included, (1) the enormous size of Nineveh. However, the text simply says Jonah took three days preaching on street corners, not that the city required three days walking to traverse it. The city prob. had a population of about 600,000 plus its suburbs. The administrative district covered a much greater area. (2) The sudden repentance is non-historical. As indicated above there were at least two incidents in the 8th cent. that would provide a suitable background for wholesale repentance. Modern missionaries to Moslem peoples have experienced similar phenomena. Nor should any limit be put upon the working of God’s Spirit. (3) The great fish has been the prime target of arguments against the historicity of the book. Accepting the supernatural—“the Lord appointed a great fish” (1:17)—removes this difficulty. Some have attempted to make the story more credible by references to modern seamen who have been rescued after spending hours in the stomachs of denizens of the oceans (e.g., cf. Princeton Theol. Review, Oct., 1927).

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; Tobit 14:4, 8; Jos. Antiq. IX, x. 2 [208ff.]). These scholars also point out that Christ regarded the book as historical (cf. Matt 12:39f. with 16:4ff; Luke 11:29). In the first passage from Matthew, there is no MS evidence of interpolation in the text as some have claimed. A careful comparison of John 3:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 would indicate that the formula Christ used in referring to Jonah (“as...so”) was used in referring to historical events.

Content and outline.

The chapter divisions of the Eng. VSS of Jonah follow the natural thought of the book. Chapter 1 tells of Jonah’s call to go to Nineveh and declare the city’s doom, how Jonah disobeyed and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish (or “a refinery ship”). A violent storm arose at sea. It abated only after the sailors threw Jonah overboard, having cast lots to determine the culprit. Jonah was then swallowed by a great fish and remained in its belly three days and three nights. Chapter 2 gives a psalm of deliverance uttered by the prophet within the belly of the fish, and concludes with his being deposited once more on dry land. Chapter 3 tells how Jonah was re-commissioned to proclaim Nineveh’s doom, went to the city, and preached in it for three days. The result was a wholesale repentance of the city, king and commoner alike, so that even the beasts were clad in garments signifying repentance. Chapter 4 tells how Jonah was angry because God “changed his mind” about destroying Nineveh because it had repented, how a gourd (prob. a ricinus—castor bean plant) was prepared to shelter Jonah from the intense near eastern sun, and how the worm was sent to destroy the plant so that Jonah might be taught the lesson of God’s love for a city—even as Jonah mourned over the withering of the gourd.

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. John 3:17). (2) Jonah was disobedient, Christ was perfectly obedient. (3) Both are involved in a storm at sea. (4) Jonah sacrificed himself, so did Christ (but Jonah was not blameless). (5) The great fish was a figure of death: Christ suffered a literal death and burial. (6) The cry from the fish’s belly is parallel to Christ’s “My God, my God, why...?” (7) The deliverance from the fish’s belly is paralleled by Christ’s Resurrection on the third day. (8) Jonah’s mission to Nineveh after his metaphoric death and resurrection is typical of Christ’s successful post-resurrection preaching.

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 (Rom 11:12, 15).

The Book of Jonah 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 (Zech 8:7-23).



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.