In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jonah is the fifth book in a series of books called the Minor Prophets. Unlike other prophetic books however, this book is not a record of a prophet’s words toward Israel. Instead of the poetry and prophetic prose of Isaiah or Lamentations, this book tells the story of a reluctant prophet who arguably becomes one of the most effective prophets in the entire Bible.
The character of the story is based on an obscure figure (Jonah) who lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE). In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah son of Amittai is only elsewhere mentioned at II Kings 14:25. (For more information about the character himself, see the article entitled Jonah.) The book itself was probably written in the post-exilic period (after 530 BCE) and based on oral traditions that had been passed down from the eighth century BCE. Jonah is considered a Minor Prophet because the book was originally written with the other, smaller prophetic books on a single scroll (also known as the Book of the Twelve).
As a part of the Hebrew Bible, the book is found in both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible. The story has an interesting interpretive history (see below) and has become a well-known story through popular children’s stories. In Judaism it is the Haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur due to its story of God's willingness to forgive those who repent.
Outline of book
The Book of Jonah is primarily a story about the character of God. As such, it can be divided into four sections,
roughly divided by each chapter: (1) God's sovereignty, (2) God’s deliverance, (3) God's mercy, and (4) God's
righteousness. It may also be outlined in the following manner:
- God's first commission and Jonah’s rebellion
- God's deliverance toward Jonah and Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving
- God's second commission and Jonah’s obedience
- God's deliverance toward Nineveh and Jonah’s complaint of ingratitude
In the first half of the book, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His sovereignty. In the second half, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His mercy. Finally, God declares His righteousness in choosing to force and choosing to repent.
As mentioned above, the book of Jonah is not written like the other books of the prophets. Jonah is almost entirely narrative with the exception of the psalm in chapter 2. The actual prophetic word against Nineveh is only given in passing through the narrative. As with any good story, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes. It also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.
The story of Jonah is set against the historical background of Ancient Israel in the eighth-7th centuries BCE and the religious and social issues of the late sixth to fourth centuries BCE. The views accurately coincide with the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah
(sometimes classified as Third Isaiah), where Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles. (These facts have led a number of scholars to believe that the book was actually written in this later period.)
The Jonah mentioned in II Kings 14:25 lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) and was from the city of Gath-hepher. This city, modern el-Meshed, located only several miles from Nazareth in what would have been known as Israel in the post-exilic period (as distinct from the southern kingdom, known as Judah) and Galilee around the time of Christ.
Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which fell to the Medes in 612 BC. The book itself calls Nineveh a “great city,” probably referring to its affluence, but perhaps to its size as well. (That the story assumes the city’s existence and deliverance from judgment may indeed reflect an older tradition dating back to the eighth-7th century BCE.) Assyria often opposed Israel and eventually took the Israelites captive in 722-721 BCE (see History of ancient Israel and Judah). The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen in the bitter prophecies of Nahum.
The story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah
, whose name literally means "dove," is introduced to the reader in the very first verse. The name is decisive. While most prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.
Jonah's passive character then is contrasted with the other main character: God (lit. "I will be what I will be"). God's character is altogether active. While Jonah flees, God pursues. While Jonah falls, God lifts up. The character of God in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony. In the first part of the book, God is depicted as relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.
The other characters of the story include the sailors in chapter 1 and the people of Nineveh in chapter 3. These characters are also contrasted to Jonah's passivity. While Jonah sleeps in the hull, the sailors pray and try to save the ship from the storm (2:4-6). While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change His mind.
The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God. God calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee. He goes to Joppa
and boards a ship bound for Tarshish
. God calls up a great storm at sea, and the ship's crew cast Jonah overboard in an attempt to appease God. A great sea creature (the Book of Jonah says it is a fish but the New Testament
reference in Matthew
and retellings for children conventionally assume it to be a whale) sent by God, swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. He says a prayer in which he repents for his disobedience and calls upon God for mercy. God speaks to the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land. After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, and they repent and God forgives them. Ironically, the relentless God demonstrated in the first chapter becomes the merciful God in the last two chapters (see 3:10). In a parallel turnabout, Jonah becomes one of the most effective of all prophets, turning the entire population of Nineveh (about 120,000 people) to God.
As with many canonical books, the Book of Jonah has had a long and varied interpretive history. This history spans from ancient rabbinic interpretations to "post modern" reader-response interpretations. The interpretative styles of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists have all been employed to understand the story of Jonah. This section will consider how these various groups have interpreted Jonah throughout time.
Early Jewish interpretation
The story of Jonah has numerous theological implications, and we have always recognized this. In their early translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish translators tended to remove anthropomorphic imagery in order to prevent the reader from misunderstanding the ancient texts. This tendency is evidenced in both the Aramaic translations (i.e. the Targum
) and the Greek translations (i.e. the Septuagint
). As far as Jonah is concerned, Targum Jonah offers a good example of this.
In Jonah 1:6, the Masoretic Text
(MT) reads, "...perhaps God will pay heed to us...." This phrase, however, is problematic. Are God's actions dictated by our desires, or our requests? But God, Jews believed, was unchangeable. How could a mere human direct the divine will? So, Targum Jonah translates this passage as: "...perhaps there will be mercy from the Lord upon us...." The captain's proposal was now no longer an attempt to change the divine will; rather, it was an attempt to appeal to divine mercy. Furthermore, in Jonah 3:9, the MT reads, "Who knows, God may turn and relent [lit. repent]?" Yet Targum Jonah translates this as, "Whoever knows that there are sins on his conscience let him repent of them and we will be pitied before the Lord." God does not change His mind; rather God simply fulfills his promise: when His people repent, He will pity them and forgive them.
Dead Sea Scrolls
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls
(DSS), the book was only found in half of the ten Minor Prophets manuscripts and is not even mentioned among the non-biblical manuscripts (Abegg 443). If scholarly consensus is correct in its assessment that the DSS were the product of the Essenes
, this would be no surprise.
Early Christian interpretation
The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew
(see and 16:1-4) and the Gospel of Luke
(see Luke 11:29-32). Both Matthew and Luke record a tradition of Jesus’ interpretation of the story of Jonah (notably, Matthew includes two very similar traditions in chapters 12 and 16). As with most Old Testament interpretations found in the New Testament, Jesus’ interpretation is primarily “typological” (see Typology (theology)
). Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus. Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the ground. Here, Jesus plays on the imagery of Sheol
found in Jonah’s prayer. While Jonah metaphorically declared, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” Jesus will literally be in the belly of Sheol. Finally, Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh. Jesus fulfills his role as a type of Jonah, however his generation fails to fulfill its role as a type of Nineveh. Nineveh repented but his generation, which has seen and heard one even greater than Jonah, fails to repent. Through his typological interpretation of the story of Jonah, Jesus has weighed his generation and found it wanting.
Augustine of Hippo
Contrary to popular belief, the debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah is not
a modern one. Without a doubt, naturalism
and the philosophy of David Hume
have impacted modern interpretations of the miraculous story; yet the credibility of a human being surviving in the belly of a great fish has long been questioned. In c. 409 CE, Augustine of Hippo
wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:
Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, despite his apologetic, Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for Christ. For example, he writes: "As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world." Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matt. 12:39,40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.
In the Qur'an
, Jonah is called Yunus
(see also Biblical narratives and the Qur'an
In Jonah (1:17 in English translation), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol
(דג גדול), which literally means "great fish." The LXX
translates this phrase into Greek as ketos megas
(κητος μεγας). The term ketos
alone means "huge fish," and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters. (See http://www.theoi.com/Ther/Ketea.html for more information regarding Greek mythology and the Ketos
.) Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda
in his Latin Vulgate
. However, he translated ketos
At some point, cetus became synonymous with whale (c.f. cetyl alcohol, which is alcohol derived from whales). In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe," and he translated the word ketos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in as "whale." Tyndale's translation was, of course, later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611. Since, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale.
The throats of many large whales (as well as that of a large whale shark specimen, which could be found in the Mediterranean) can accommodate passage of an adult human. There are some 19th century accounts of whalers being swallowed by sperm whales and living to tell about it, but these stories remain unverified.
In the line 3:1, the book refers to the fish as Dag Gadol, meaning "great fish", in the masculine. However, in the 3:2, it says "ha'daga" meaning female fish (the ha at the beginning means the). Given the rest of these selected verses "And the lord provided a great fish (dag gadol) for Jonah, and it swallowed him, and Jonah sat in the belly of the fish (still male) for three days and nights.) Then, from the belly of the (female) fish, Jonah began to pray." It has been interpreted that this means Jonah was comfortable in the roomy male fish, so he didn't pray. However, then, God transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which Jonah was uncomfortable, so he prayed.
Historical and literary criticism
Some biblical scholars believe Jonah's prayer (2:2-9) to be a later addition to the story (see source criticism
for more information on how such conclusions are drawn). Despite questions of its source, the prayer carries out an important function in the narrative as a whole.
The prayer is a psalm of thanksgiving. The presence of the prayer serves to interpret the swallowing of the fish to be God's salvation. God has lifted Jonah out of Sheol and set him on the path to carry out His will. The story of descent (from Israel, to Tarshish, to the sea, to under the sea) becomes the story of ascent (from the belly of the fish, to land, to the city of Nineveh).
Thus, the use of a psalm creates an important theological point. In the popular understanding of Jonah, the fish is interpreted to be the low point of the story. Yet even the fish is an instrument of God's sovereignty and salvation.