Book Of Jonah

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In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jonah is the fifth book in a series of books called the Minor Prophets (itself a subsection of the Nevi’im or 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 Book of Isaiah or Book of Lamentations, this book tells the story of an apparently inept prophet who becomes one of the most effective prophets in the entire Bible.

The character of the story is based on an obscure figure that lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah son of Amittai is only elsewhere mentioned at 2 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 BC) and based on oral traditions that had been passed down from the eighth century BC. (It should be noted that this view is problematic for various reasons, including the story’s setting in the north and not the southern part of Israel (i.e. Judah).) 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.


Outline of book

The Book of Jonah is primarily a story about the character of Yahweh. As such, it can be divided into four sections, roughly divided by each chapter:

  • (1) YHWH’s sovereignty,
  • (2) Yahweh’s deliverance,
  • (3) YHWH’s mercy, and
  • (4) Yahweh’s righteousness. It may also be outlined in the following manner:
  • YHWH’s first commission and Jonah’s rebellion
    • YHWH’s deliverance toward Jonah and Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving
  • YHWH’s second commission and Jonah’s obedience
    • YHWH’s deliverance toward Nineveh and Jonah’s complaint of ingratitude

In the first half of the book, YHWH’s deliverance is demonstrated through His sovereignty. In the second half, YHWH’s deliverance is demonstrated through His mercy. Finally, Yahweh declares His righteousness in choosing to force and choosing to relent.


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 BC and the religious and social issues of the late sixth to fourth centuries BC. 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 Yahweh’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 2 Kings 14:25 lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC) 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 BC.) Assyria often opposed Israel and eventually took the Israelites captive in 722-721 BC (see History of ancient Israel and Judah). The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen the 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 "Yahweh has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.

Jonah's passive character then is contrasted with the other main character: YHWH (lit. "I will be what I will be"). Yahweh's character is altogether active. While Jonah flees, YHWH pursues. While Jonah falls, Yahweh lifts up. The character of Yahweh in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony. In the first part of the book, Yahweh 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 Yahweh to change His mind.


The plot of the story is fairly direct, although the strong use of irony presents an unexpected turn of events. The story centers on the conflict between Jonah and YHWH. YHWH calls Jonah to proclaim judgement to Nineveh, yet Jonah resists and attempts to flee to Tarshish. From this point on, Jonah begins his descent from the Divine Will into the "belly of Sheol." Yet YHWH relentlessly pursues Jonah, even bringing a great storm upon Jonah so that he is forced into the sea. Finally, Jonah relents and obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh. Ironically, the relentless God demonstrated in the first 2 chapters, becomes the merciful God in the last two chapters (see 3:10). The author's use of irony is also demonstrated in that Jonah becomes the most effective of all prophets. While most of the prophets (i.e. those with great names) were relatively ineffective in turning people from their sins, Jonah turns 120,000 people to YHWH!

Interpretive history

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 Jews 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.

Targum Jonah

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. The book of Jonah not only posed problems for Jews because it tells of God changing His mind, it also demonstrates God’s favor to one of Israel’s gentile enemies.

Early Christian interpretation

New Testament

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 12:38-42} 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”. 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 AD, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:

"The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: “In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?” Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn." (Letter CII, Section 30)

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 (Matthew 12:39-40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.

Modern interpretation

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol (דג גדול), which literally means "great fish." The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as ketos megas (κητος μεγας). The word ketos alone means "huge fish," and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters. Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda in his Vulgate. However, he translated ketos as cetus in Matthew 12:40.

At some point, cetus became synonymous with whale (e.g. 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.


At this point in the story, the reader would expect Jonah to repent, yet Jonah does not repent. The prayer is not a psalm of lament; rather, it is a psalm of thanksgiving. The presence of the prayer, then, serves to interpret the swallowing of the fish to be YHWH's salvation. Yahweh 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 thanksgiving psalm instead of a lament 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 Yahweh's sovereignty and salvation.

This book professes to give an account of what actually took place in the experience of the prophet. Some critics have sought to interpret the book as a parable or allegory, and not as a history. They have done so for various reasons. Thus

(1) some reject it on the ground that the miraculous element enters so largely into it, and that it is not prophetical but narrative in its form;

(2) others, denying the possibility of miracles altogether, hold that therefore it cannot be true history.

Jonah and his story is referred to by our Lord (Matthew 12:39, Matthew 12:40; Luke 11:29), a fact to which the greatest weight must be attached. It is impossible to interpret this reference on any other theory. This one argument is of sufficient importance to settle the whole question. No theories devised for the purpose of getting rid of difficulties can stand against such a proof that the book is a veritable history.

There is every reason to believe that this book was written by Jonah himself. It gives an account of

(1) his divine commission to go to Nineveh, his disobedience, and the punishment following (Jonah 1:1-17);

(2) his prayer and miraculous deliverance (Jonah 1:17-2:10);

(3) the second commission given to him, and his prompt obedience in delivering the message from God, and its results in the repentance of the Ninevites, and God's long-sparing mercy toward them (Jonah 3:1-10);

(4) Jonah's displeasure at God's merciful decision, and the rebuke tendered to the impatient prophet (Jonah 4:1-11). Nineveh was spared after Jonah's mission for more than a century. The history of Jonah may well be regarded “as a part of that great onward movement which was before the Law and under the Law; which gained strength and volume as the fulness of the times drew near.” Perowne's Jonah.

This little roll of four short chapters has given rise to almost as much discussion and difference of opinion as the first four chapters of Genesis. It would be presumptuous to think that one could, in a brief article, speak the final word on the questions in debate.

I. Contents of the Book.

The story is too well known to need retelling. Moreover, it would be difficult to give the events in fewer words than the author employs in his classic narrative. One event grows out of another, so that the interest of the reader never flags.

1. Jonah Disobedient, Jonah 1:1-3 :

When the call came to Jonah to preach in Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction, hoping thus to escape from his unpleasant task. He was afraid that the merciful God would forgive the oppressing heathen city, if it should repent at his preaching. Jonah was a narrow-minded patriot, who feared that Assyria would one day swallow up his own little nation; and so he wished to do nothing that might lead to the preservation of wicked Nineveh. Jonah was willing to prophesy to Israel; he at first flatly refused to become a foreign missionary.

2. Jonah Punished, Jonah 1:4-16 :

The vessel in which the prophet had taken passage was arrested by a great storm. The heathen sailors inferred that some god must be angry with some person on board, and cast lots to discover the culprit. When the lot fell upon Jonah, he made a complete confession, and bravely suggested that they cast him overboard. The heathen mariners rowed desperately to get back to land, but made no progress against the storm. They then prayed Yahweh not to bring innocent blood upon them, and cast Jonah into the sea. As the storm promptly subsided, the heathen sailors offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows. In this part of the story the mariners give an example of the capacity of the Gentiles to perform noble deeds and to offer acceptable worship to Yahweh.

3. Jonah Miraculously Preserved, Jonah 1:17 Through 2:10:

YHWH prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah and to bear him in his body for three days and nights. Surprised to find himself alive and conscious in the body of the fish, the prophet prayed to his God. Already by faith he speaks of his danger as a past experience. The God who had saved him from drowning in the depths of the sea will yet permit him once more to worship with loud thanksgiving. At the command of Yahweh the fish vomits out Jonah upon the dry land. The almost inevitable grotesqueness of this part of the story is one of the strongest arguments against the view that the Book of Jon is literal history and not a work of the imagination.

4. Jonah's Ministry in Nineveh, Jonah 3:1-4 :

Upon the renewal of the command to go to Nineveh, Jonah obeyed, and marching through the streets of the great city, he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” His message was so brief that he may well have spoken it in good Assyrian. If the story of his deliverance from the sea preceded him, or was made known through the prophet himself, the effect of the prophetic message was thereby greatly heightened.

5. The Ninevites Repent, Jonah 3:5-10 :

The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, the entire city uniting in fasting and prayer. So great was the anxiety of the people that even the lower animals were clothed in sackcloth. The men of Nineveh turned from deeds of violence (“their evil way”) to seek the forgiveness of an angry God. Yahweh decided to spare the city.

6. A Narrow Prophet Versus the Merciful God, Jonah 4:1-11 :

Jonah breaks out into loud and bitter complaint when he learns that Nineveh is to be spared. He decides to encamp near the city to see what will become of it. He hopes it may yet be overthrown. Through a gourd vine Yahweh teaches the prophet a great lesson. If such a mean and perishable plant could come to have real value in the eyes of the sullen prophet, what estimate ought to be put on the lives of the thousands of innocent children and helpless cattle in the great city of Nineveh? These were dearer to the God of heaven than Jonah's protecting vine could possibly be to him.

II. The Aim of the Book.

The main purpose of the writer was to enlarge the sympathies of Israel and lead the chosen people to undertake the great missionary task of proclaiming the truth to the heathen world. Other lessons may be learned from the subordinate parts of the narrative, but this is the central truth of the Book of Jonah. Kent well expresses the author's main message: “In his wonderful picture of God's love for all mankind, and of the Divine readiness to pardon and to save even the ignorant heathen, if they but repent according to their light, he has anticipated the teaching of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and laid the foundation for some of the broadest faith and the noblest missionary activity of the present generation” (Sermons, Epistles, etc., 420).

III. Is the Book History?

1. What Did Our Lord Teach?:

Most of the early interpreters so understood it, and some excellent scholars still hold this view. If Jesus thought of the story as history and so taught, that fact alone would settle the question for the devout believer. On two, possibly three, different occasions He referred to Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-32). It is significant that Jesus brought the two great miracles of the Book of Jon into relation with Himself and His preaching. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the body of the fish, so should the Son of Man be three days in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, while the contemporaries of Jesus for the most part rejected His message. It is the fashion now among advanced critics to treat Matthew 12:40 as an addition to the words of Jesus, though there is no manuscript evidence in favor of regarding the verse as an interpolation. G.A. Smith, among recent scholars, holds the view that Jesus did not mean to teach the historicity of Jonah's experience in the fish.

“Christ is using an illustration: it matters not whether that illustration be drawn from the realms of fact or of poetry” (BTP, II, 508). In a footnote Dr. Smith says: “Suppose we tell slothful people that theirs will be the fate of the man who buried his talent, is this to commit us to the belief that the personages of Christ's parables actually existed? Or take the homiletic use of Shakespeare's dramas - 'as Macbeth did,' or 'as Hamlet said.' Does it commit us to the historical reality of Macbeth or Hamlet? Any preacher among us would resent being bound by such an inference. And if we resent this for ourselves, how chary we should be about seeking to bind our Lord by it.”

Notwithstanding Principal Smith's skillful presentation of his case, we still think that our Lord regarded the miracles of the fish and the repentance of the Ninevites as actual events. Orelli puts the matter judiciously: “It is not, indeed, proved with conclusive necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah's abode in the fish's belly must also be just as historical. On this point also the saying, 'A greater than Jonah is here,' holds good. But, on the other hand, how arbitrary it is to assert, with Reuss, that Jesus regarded Jonah's history as a parable! On the contrary, Jesus saw in it a sign, a powerful evidence of the same Divine power which showed itself also in His dying in order to live again and triumph in the world. Whoever, therefore, feels the religious greatness of the book, and accepts as authoritative the attitude taken to its historical import by the Son of God Himself, will be led to accept a great act of the God who brings down to Hades and brings up again, as an actual experience of Jonah in his flight from his Lord” (The Twelve Minor Prophets, 172, 3).

2. Modern Critical Views:

Most modern critical scholars since Kleinert (1868) and Bloch (1875) have regarded the Book of Jonah as a work of the imagination. Some prefer to call it an allegory, others a parable, others a prose poem, others a didactic story, others a midrash, others a symbolical book. Keil, Pusey, Delitzsch, Orelli, J. Kennedy and others have contended for the historical character of the narrative. A few treat it as a legend containing a kernel of fact. Cheyne and a few other scholars assert that in the symbolic narrative are imbedded mythical clements. The trend of critical opinion, even in evangelical circles, has of late been toward the symbolical interpretation. Radical critics boldly set aside the teaching of Jesus as erroneous, while the more evangelical take refuge either in the doctrine of the Kenosis (Philippians 2:5-8), or in the principle of accommodation. The last explanation might commend itself to the devout student, namely, that Jesus did not think it worth while to correct the views of his contemporaries, had our Lord not spoken more than once of the sign of Jonah, and in such detail as to indicate His acceptance of the entire narrative with its two great miracles.

IV. Authorship and Date.

The old view that Jonah was the author is still held by some scholars, though most moderns place the book in the late exilic or post-exilic times. A few Aramaic words occur in the Hebrew text. The question in debate is whether the language of Israel in the days of Jeroboam II had taken over words from the Aramaic. There had certainly been a century of close political and commercial contact between Israel and the Arameans of Damascus, so that it would not be surprising to meet with Aramaic words in a prophet of Samaria. Hosea, in the generation following Jonah, betrays little evidence of Aramaic influence in his style and vocabulary. Of course, the personal equation is a factor that ought not to be overlooked. If the author was a Judean, we should probably have to think of the post-exilic period, when Aramaic began to displace Hebrew as the vernacular of the Jews. The Book of Jonah is anonymous, and we really do not know who the author was or when he lived. The view that Jonah wrote the story of his own disobedience and his debate with the merciful God has not been made wholly untenable.

V. The Unity of the Book.

Nachtigal (1799) contended that there were three different authors of widely different periods. Kleinert (1868) held that two parallel narratives had been woven together in Jonah 3:1-10 and Jonah 4:1-11. Kaufmann Kohler (1879) contended that there were a considerable number of glosses and interpolations besides some transpositions of material. W. Bohme, in 1887, advanced the most radical theory of the composition of the roll. He partitioned the story among two authors, and two redactors or supplementers. A few additional glosses were charged to later hands. Even radical critics treat Bohme's theory as one of the curiosities of criticism. Winckler (AOF, II, 260 ff) tried to improve the story by a few transpositions. Hans Schmidt (1905) subjects the roll of Jonah to a searching criticism, and concludes that a good many changes have been made from religious motives. Budde follows Winckler and Schmidt both in transposing and in omitting some material. Sievers (1905) and Erbt (1907) tried to make of the Book of Jon a poem; but they do not agree as to the meter. Sievers regards the roll as a unit, while Erbt contends for two main sources besides the prayer in Jonah 2:1-10. Bewer, in ICC (1912), is far more conservative in both textual and literary criticism, recognizing but few glosses in our present text and arguing for the unity of the story apart from the insertion of the psalm in Jonah 2:1-10. Nearly all recent critics assign Jonah's prayer to a writer other than the author of the narrative about Jonah, but opinions vary widely as to the manner in which the psalm found its way into the Book of Jonah. Bewer holds that it was probably put on the margin by a reader and afterward crept into the text, the copyist inserting it after Jonah 2:2, though it would more naturally follow Jonah 2:10. Bewer remarks: “The literary connections with various post-exilic psalms argue for a post-exilic date of the psalm. But how early or how late in the post-exilic period it belongs we cannot tell. The Hebrew is pure and no Aramaic influence is apparent.” It is evident, then, that the presence or absence of Aramaic influence does not alone settle the question of the date of the document. Geography and the personal equation may be more important than the question of date. Bewer recognizes the fact that the psalm in Jonah is not a mere cento of quotations from the Psalms. “The phrases it has in common with other psalms,” writes Professor Bewer, “were the common property of the religious language of the author's day” (p. 24). Those who still believe that David wrote many of the psalms find no difficulty in believing that a prophet of 780 BC could have drawn upon his knowledge of the Psalter in a prayer of thanksgiving to Yahweh.


Among commentaries covering the twelve Minor Prophets, see especially Pusey (1861), Keil (English translation, 1880), von Orelli (English translation, 1893), Wellhausen (1898), G.A. Smith (1898). Among special commentaries on Jonah, consult Kleinert, in Lange (English translation, 1875); Perowne, in Cambridge Bible (1897); Bewer in ICC (1912). See also C. H. H. Wright, Biblical Essays (1886); H. C. Trumbull, “Jonah in Nineveh,” JBL, XI (1892); J. Kennedy, Book of Jon (1895); Konig in HDB; Cheyne in EB. For more elaborate bibliography see Bewer in ICC, 25-27.

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