The first thing you will notice about Jonah is that he isn’t the quintessential prophet. He doesn’t follow God’s every command. He is quite the opposite. In the first chapter, God calls to him, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2). As suggested in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), “Jonah himself is never called a prophet” (p. 1321), God nevertheless calls him to service. However, Jonah flees and takes board a ship. Jonah wants to get away “from the presence of the Lord” (1:3). This is atypical prophet behavior. He doesn’t want to do the work set before him.
Jonah is an anti-prophet, yet the term “Jonah” or “Yonah” in Hebrew means “dove” (Strong’s 03124). It is “a gentle term of endearment…to be weak, gentle, and thus it would properly be, feeble and gentle bird” (Strong’s 03124). Jonah is weak and feeble compared to the other prophets because he fears prophesying. However, his attitude toward God’s request of prophesying makes “endearment” an ironic term when thinking of the meaning of his name.
The book is set up in four sections or stories, which are appropriately set off as chapters: Jonah flees from God on a ship (Ch. 1), inside the belly of the fish (Ch. 2), prophesying at Nineveh (Ch. 3), and Jonah and the bush (Ch. 4). In each of these accounts, Jonah does something that is opposite of what you would expect. There is also humor at each turn of events. The humor is shown as Jonah’s reluctance to follow God’s command. Hayyim Angel, Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City who teaches Tanakh at Yeshiva University, pronounces, “Like the Book of Job, the Book of Jonah appears to have a self-contained messages that transcends it historical context” because neither Israel nor its king is mentioned (Angel 3). Jonah’s reluctance also shows God’s patience and forgiveness with him.
The book is quite different from the other prophetic books in the Book of Twelve. Jonah is a narrative as opposed to the poetical style of the other books. It “is also uncharacteristic” because of “its use of humor to make its points” (NOAB 1321). The use of humor makes Jonah’s convictions even clearer — he doesn’t want to go on God’s mission. God tells Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it” (1:2). However, Jonah flees and boards a ship of pagans. When God brought a storm upon the ship and the other men prayed to their gods, Jonah “was fast asleep” (1:5). He didn’t cry out to his God on the ship as the others asked him to do. He seemed more or less indifferent. After taking Jonah’s advice to throw him overboard, “the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (2:16). This verse shows Jonah as the anti-hero, a person that Robert L. Kinast, a pastoral theologian, believes “succeed in spite of themselves” (Kinast 19).
Jonah was thrown overboard, but God “provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). Even though he had turned his back on God and fled, he was given a chance to live. This marks the book’s recurrent, underlying theme — God’s forgiveness and patience with humankind is great. By saving Jonah, God was showing him mercy.
The passage of Jonah and the fish is one of the more well-known passages in the Bible and most, when asked about the prophet Jonah, “will refer to three days spent in the belly of a whale” (Kinast 19). More importantly, Jesus cites it in Matthew. When asked by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign, he replies, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
Dr. Dominic Rudman believes the comparison doesn’t lie solely in the three days both spent dead or on the verge of death in Jonah’s case. “The people of Israel…conceived of the created world as an island surrounded by the waters of chaos, the Great Deep. In Israel, chaos represented a force radically opposed to God’s creative power” (Rudman 326). The waters of chaos entrapped Jonah, which gives the appearance that God had let him go outside of creation or taken away the essence of creation itself. “Since one of the defining aspects of creation was the presence of life, death was sometimes understood as chaotic in nature. The process of death was in fact seen as a reversal of creation” (Rudman 326). Going into the depths of the waters was as going into the depths of Sheol. Alternately, as Jesus died, “the essence of that person, meanwhile, took up residence in Sheol” (Rudman 326). “The Deep and Sheol could therefore be seen by Israelite writers as comparable in the sense that both were places of chaos” (Rudman 326-327). Although one could argue he is stretching the comparison, there is an obvious correlation between the death of Jesus and Jonah’s time inside the belly of the fish. It would be impractical to disregard the two without giving some credibility to the parallel.
Inside the fish, Jonah gives thanks to God “rather than the expression of penitence and cry for aid one might expect” (NOAB Ps 2.1-10). He says to God, “You brought up my life from the Pit” (3:6). Ironically, he is thanking God for this life-saving event of being stuck in the fish’s belly instead of asking for removal. This shows the tone of the book perfectly. Jonah does the opposite of what one might expect a prophet to do. He doesn’t want to carry out prophetic missions. He wants to carry on his life without that work or else he’d rather just lie to the side. “Some conclude that Jonah must have repented, since God ordered the fish to spew Jonah out, and Jonah subsequently went to Nineveh. However, there is no indication of repentance in Jonah’s prayer.” (Angel 6). Angel concludes that it is precisely because he didn’t repent that he was sent to Nineveh.
Jonah didn’t run into the city, calling for repentance of the people, which suggests he still didn’t want to go on this mission. Jonah “cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (3:4). The people immediately turned to God for repentance, and the king proclaimed, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:8). “The king of Nineveh even said what one might have expected Jonah to say” (Angel 7). Angel draws a parallel between the ship’s captain in 3:6 and the king of Nineveh who both “sounded like a prophet while Jonah rebelled against God” (Angel 7).
Jonah clearly didn’t think the people of Nineveh would repent because, as seen in chapter 4, he grew angry. Most prophets would rejoice that their words had turned a wicked city and its people to God. He even goes as far as asking God to “take my life from me” (4:3). A humorous aspect of this passage occurs after God gives Jonah a bush for shade. The next day, God sends a worm upon the bush and it withers and dies. Jonah becomes angry that the bush dies. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” God asks of Jonah, but Jonah does not reply (4:11). As suggested in NOAB, “God uses classic rhetoric, linking a minor idea, concern (or ‘pity’) for a plant, to a major one, concern for the helplessly ignorant inhabitants of Nineveh” (Ps 4.10-11). The passage is humorous because Jonah is so concerned with the life of the bush. Since his prophesy didn’t come true, Jonah is angry and embarrassed, and “unlike the Lord, Jonah is more concerned for his own credibility than for the lives of thousands of foreigners” (NOAB Ps 4.1-4).
As a religious book, Jonah’s message is clearly one of repentance and forgiveness no matter how much one’s faithfulness has drifted. However, as a student of literature, you should note how Jonah’s journey was constructed; the parallels between each story, or each chapter; and the underlying humor of Jonah’s refusal to carry out the mission appointed to him. These things come together to make an interesting and compelling narrative.
Angel, Hayyim. “Jonah’s Conflict with God’s Mercy Toward Even the Most Unworthy of Pagans.” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 2006, Vol. 34 Issue 1, pp. 3-11.
Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, pp. 1321-1324. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kinast, Robert L. “Jonah: The Minister’s Anti-Hero.” Clergy Journal, Apr. 2004, Vol. 80 Issue 6, pp. 19-20.
NOAB. See Coogan.
Rudman, Dominic. “The Sign of Jonah.” Expository Times, Jul. 2004, Vol. 115 Issue 10, pp. 325-328.
Strong’s. “Lexicon Results for Yonah (Strong’s 03214).” Blue Letter Bible, http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/words.pl?strongs=03124.