The story of Jonah has great theological import. It concerns a disobedient prophet who rejected his divine commission, was cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish, rescued in a marvelous manner, and returned to his starting point. Now he obeys and goes to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s ancient enemy. The Ninevites listen to his message of doom and repent immediately. All, from king to lowliest subject, humble themselves in sackcloth and ashes. Seeing their repentance, God does not carry out the punishment planned for them. At this, Jonah complains, angry because the Lord spares them. This fascinating story caricatures a narrow mentality which would see God’s interest extending only to Israel, whereas God is presented as concerned with and merciful to even the inhabitants of Nineveh (4:11), the capital of the Assyrian empire which brought the Northern Kingdom of Israel to an end and devastated Jerusalem in 701. The Lord is free to “repent” and change his mind. Jonah seems to realize this possibility and wants no part in it (4:2; cf. Ex 34:6). But the story also conveys something of the ineluctable character of the prophetic calling.
The book is replete with irony, wherein much of its humor lies. The name “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew, but Jonah’s character is anything but dove-like. Jonah is commanded to go east to Nineveh but flees toward the westernmost possible point (1:2–3), only to be swallowed by a great fish and dumped back at this starting point (2:1, 11). The sailors pray to their gods, but Jonah is asleep in the hold (1:5–6). The prophet’s preaching is a minimum message of destruction, while it is the king of Nineveh who calls for repentance and conversion (3:4–10); the instant conversion of the Ninevites is greeted by Jonah with anger and sulking (4:1). He reproaches the Lord in words that echo Israel’s traditional praise of his mercy (4:2; cf. Ex 34:6–7). Jonah is concerned about the loss of the gourd but not about the possible destruction of 120,000 Ninevites (4:10–11).
Unlike other prophetic books, this is not a collection of oracles but the story of a disobedient, narrow-minded prophet who is angry at the outcome of the sole message he delivers (3:4). It is difficult to date but almost certainly is postexilic and may reflect the somewhat narrow, nationalistic reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. As to genre, it has been classified in various ways, such as parable or satire. The “sign” of Jonah is interpreted in two ways in the New Testament: His experience of three days and nights in the fish is a “type” of the experience of the Son of Man (Mt 12:39–40), and the Ninevites’ reaction to the preaching of Jonah is contrasted with the failure of Jesus’ generation to obey the preaching of one who is “greater than Jonah” (Mt 12:41–42; Lk 11:29–32).
The Book of Jonah may be divided as follows:
Jonah’s Disobedience and Flight. 1The word of the LORD came to Jonah,a son of Amittai:* 2Set out for the great city* of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me.b 3But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish,* away from the LORD. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.
4c The LORD, however, hurled a great wind upon the sea, and the storm was so great that the ship was about to break up. 5Then the sailors were afraid and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep. 6The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps this god will be mindful of us so that we will not perish.”
7Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to discover on whose account this evil has come to us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.d 8They said to him, “Tell us why this evil has come to us! What is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” 9“I am a Hebrew,” he replied; “I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!”—They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them. 11They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may calm down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy. 12Jonah responded, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you. For I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.”
13Still the men rowed hard to return to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy. 14Then they cried to the LORD: “Please, O LORD, do not let us perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have accomplished what you desired.”* 15Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped raging. 16Seized with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
* [1:1] Jonah, son of Amittai: a prophet of this name lived at the time of Jeroboam II (786–746 B.C.).
* [1:2] Great city: exaggeration is characteristic of this book; the word “great” (Heb. gadol) occurs fourteen times.
* [1:3] Tarshish: identified by many with Tartessus, an ancient Phoenician colony in southwest Spain; precise identification with any particular Phoenician center in the western Mediterranean is uncertain. To the Israelites it stood for the far west.
* [1:14] Aware that this disaster is a divine punishment on Jonah, the sailors ask that in ridding themselves of him they not be charged with the crime of murder.
a. [1:1] 2 Kgs 14:25.
b. [1:2] Jon 3:3; 4:11.
c. [1:4–6] Mk 4:37–38.
d. [1:7] Jos 7:16–18; 1 Sm 14:40–42.
Jonah’s Prayer. 1But the LORD sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.a 2Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God, from the belly of the fish:
3* Out of my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me;
From the womb of Sheol* I cried for help,
and you heard my voice.b
4You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea,
and the flood enveloped me;
All your breakers and your billows
passed over me.c
5Then I said, “I am banished from your sight!
How will I again look upon your holy temple?”d
6The waters surged around me up to my neck;
the deep enveloped me;
seaweed wrapped around my head.e
7I went down to the roots of the mountains;
to the land whose bars closed behind me forever,
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O LORD, my God.f
8When I became faint,
I remembered the LORD;
My prayer came to you
in your holy temple.g
9Those who worship worthless idols
abandon their hope for mercy.h
10But I, with thankful voice,
will sacrifice to you;
What I have vowed I will pay:
deliverance is from the LORD.i
11Then the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land.
* [2:3–10] These verses, which may have originally been an independent composition, are a typical example of a song of thanksgiving, a common psalm genre (e.g., Ps 116; Is 38:9–20). Such a song is relevant here, since Jonah has not drowned, and the imagery of vv. 4, 6 is appropriate.
* [2:3] Sheol: Cf. note on Ps 6:6.
a. [2:1] Mt 12:40; 16:4; Lk 11:30; 1 Cor 15:4.
b. [2:3] Ps 18:7; 120:1.
c. [2:4] Ps 42:8.
d. [2:5] Ps 31:23; Is 38:11.
e. [2:6] Ps 18:5; 69:2.
f. [2:7] Ps 16:10; 30:4.
g. [2:8] Ps 5:8; 18:7; 88:3.
h. [2:9] Ps 31:7.
i. [2:10] Ps 50:14.
Jonah’s Obedience and the Ninevites’ Repentance. 1The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you. 3So Jonah set out for Nineveh, in accord with the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an awesomely great city; it took three days to walk through it. 4Jonah began his journey through the city, and when he had gone only a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” 5the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small,* put on sackcloth.a
6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh:* “By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. 8Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands. 9* Who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish.”b 10When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
* [3:5] Great and small: the contrast can refer to distinctions of social class (prominent citizens and the poor).
* [3:7–8] Fasting and wearing sackcloth are signs of human repentance; here they are legislated even for the animals—a humorous touch, perhaps anticipating 4:11.
* [3:9–10] Scripture frequently presents the Lord as repenting (or, changing his mind) of the evil that he threatens; e.g., Gn 6:6–7; Jer 18:8.
a. [3:5] Mt 12:41; Lk 11:32.
b. [3:9] Jl 2:14.
Jonah’s Anger and God’s Reproof. 1But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.* 2He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment.* a 3So now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”b 4But the LORD asked, “Are you right to be angry?”*
5Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited* under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. 6Then the LORD God provided a gourd plant.* And when it grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was greatly delighted with the plant. 7But the next morning at dawn God provided a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8And when the sun arose, God provided a scorching east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then he wished for death, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant?” Jonah answered, “I have a right to be angry—angry enough to die.” 10Then the LORD said, “You are concerned* over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. 11And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?”*
* [4:1] He became angry: because of his narrow vindictiveness, Jonah did not wish the Lord to forgive the Ninevites.
* [4:2] Punishment: lit., “evil”; see 1:2, 7, 8; 3:8, 10; 4:1.
* [4:4] The Lord’s question is as unexpected as it is pithy. It is also a mysterious reply to Jonah’s wish to die; perhaps it serves to invite Jonah to think over his situation. However, it goes unanswered, and the request and reply will be repeated in vv. 8–9.
* [4:5] Waited: Jonah still hopes his threat of doom will be fulfilled.
* [4:6] Gourd plant: the Hebrew word, qiqayon, means here a wide-leafed plant of the cucumber or castor-bean variety.
* [4:10] Concerned: the meaning of the Hebrew verb suggests “pity, care for,” and this appears in the Lord’s attitude to Nineveh in v. 11. Jonah has shown only a selfish concern over the plant in contrast to the Lord’s true “concern” for his creatures.
* [4:11] A selfish Jonah bemoans his personal loss of a gourd plant for shade without any concern over the threat of loss of life to the Ninevites through the destruction of their city. If a solicitous God provided the plant for a prophet without the latter’s effort or merit, how much more is God disposed to show love and mercy toward all people, Jew and Gentile, when they repent of their sins and implore divine pardon. God’s care goes beyond human beings to all creation, as in Job 38.
a. [4:2] Ex 34:6–7; Ps 86:5; Jl 2:13.
b. [4:3] 1 Kgs 19:4.