This story is set in the 8th century B.C.E. but was probably written down much later. The Jewish Canon places Jonah as a minor prophet (and there is one mention of a prophet of that name, with consistent details, in 2 Kings 14:25) but unusually it describes what he did in more detail than what he said. Christians see the book as:
However the Jewish theologian Kaufman says that it shows the Ninevites (and by implication all non-Jews) as second-class people, lumped together with cattle in the final verses. Jews are called to worship the one true God, but the Ninevites may continue with their polytheism and idols, "not knowing their right hand from their left", provided they do not get too immoral.
There are two fairly separate stories: the ship and fish, and the city. The book addresses fourteen fundamental questions, making it sit naturally with the Wisdom literature, but the writing style is simplistic, almost child like, in its frequent use of the simple adjective "big" (e.g. the city, the fish). We might ask why the animals had to fast as well as the people—did they have to repent too?
It is unfortunate that it is not possible to determine the chronological relationship between Jonah and Nahum's prophecy, which is a diatribe against Nineveh.
Nineveh was utterly destroyed in 612 BCE.
Jonah heard God's voice (so Jesus described him as a prophet in Luke 11:29), but after he disobeyed he did not hear God's word again until he repented following God's gracious rescue by means of the fish. His disobedience was costly:
See also Appendix 4 Anecdotes: Jonah.
See 2 Kings 14:25 for more information.
Nineveh was a large and ancient city (Genesis 10:11), the capital of an independent state which apparently had no relationship with God. They were traditional enemies of Israel, so Jonah would rather see them punished than repent and be forgiven. But God loves the inhabitants of great cities, and wanted Jonah to understand this.
Jonah did not disbelieve God, rather he had his own agenda and so disobeyed. He said later that he always knew God's word would come true, but he wanted to see God's judgement fall on the Ninevites. He was in a "catch–22" situation: if he obeyed and they repented then they would be blessed which he dreaded; if he disobeyed then God's judgement would fall on him as well. He could not win. Going in the opposite direction to that indicated by God is a common reaction of people avoiding God's call. Moving away seems very attractive when God is pressing us to make unselfish changes.
Jonah's idea that he would be free from the Lord's command in Tarshish is consistent with the pre-exilic idea that God was only in charge of Israel (Psalm 137:4) but it is possible that he thought that placing himself further from Nineveh he would make it more likely that God would find it more convenient to send someone else.
Presumably God intended to bring Jonah into obedience through the storm; we should not think of God having something like a toddler's tantrum.
Jonah's disobedience was costly and dangerous not only to him but also to those around him—innocent bystanders. Jesus also slept through a storm (Luke 8:23); perhaps the spiritual storms were more demanding than the physical ones.
Jesus also calmed a storm (Luke 8:24) showing he has the power of God.
It has been suggested that the "fish" was a whale shark. These fish gulp water in such large volumes (to extract the plankton) that divers have to be careful to avoid being swallowed if one is nearby. In Luke 11:30 Jesus compares his three days in the tomb with Jonah's experience.
It seems likely that Jonah's situation called to mind a psalm that was particularly relevant.
God's call doesn't go away if we disobey it.
God uses rebellious ungrateful merciless selfish so-and-so's. Jonah found that Prophecy has to be taken one step at a time, first going to the right place, and then getting the message to be preached.
How easy it is for us to assume no-one will listen. But when God says speak, the time might just be right!
The inclusion of animals throughout is interesting. Some Christians say this shows that the Gospel is for all flesh, not just Jews. But Swete says the Gentiles are little better than animals.
God repented: see Appendix 2 "Repent". The fulfillment of true prophecy depends on the hearers' response. It is not tomorrow's newspaper printed today.
It is easy for us to be like Jonah, knowing God's nature but not sharing his compassion. He finally faced up to the reason why he did not want to go to Nineveh. See Jeremiah 28:9 for a succinct statement of it. He knew that the Ninevites would repent, and that God would not carry out his threats, so his prophecy of doom would not come true.
It is said that the plant was actually a castor oil plant. God uses small things to teach us big lessons, which is why spiritual reflection is a useful discipline.
cf. Isaiah 55:10–11.
© David Billin 2002–2021