God calls Jonah to be a prophet to the wicked city Nineveh, but Jonah rebels and flees across the sea in the opposite direction. When God sends a storm to stop Jonah, the prophet is thrown overboard. God sends a fish to rescue Jonah, and in the fish's belly Jonah sings a song of thanks. The fish spits Jonah up on the shore near Nineveh and God calls Jonah a second time. Jonah goes to Nineveh, preaches a short sermon, and the whole city repents. Afterward, Jonah admits to God that the reason he had fled in the first place was that he had known that God would be merciful to the city--and Jonah had wanted the city destroyed. God is not happy that Jonah is so selfish, so God uses a plant to try to teach Jonah that God loves all creatures.
The book of Jonah ends with a question. God asks Jonah, "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?" Jonah does not answer. The question is left for the reader to answer. Should God be concerned even about such sinners as those who live in Nineveh? And if God is, shouldn't we also be concerned?
Where Do I Find It?
Jonah is the fifth of the so-called "minor prophets," the twelve shorter prophetic books that make up the final portion of the Old Testament.
Who Wrote It?
The author of the book of Jonah is anonymous. We know nothing of the author other than what we can intuit from the book. Some people think that Jonah wrote this book, but unlike other prophetic books, the book of Jonah is entirely a story about Jonah and does not contain collections of messages spoken by the prophet. This makes it unlikely that Jonah was the author.
When Was It Written?
The date when Jonah was written is uncertain. Because of certain features of the language of the book and because of its theological themes, many scholars conclude that the book was written sometime between 500-400 B.C.E., after the Babylonian exile. At that time, there was great tension between Jews and Gentiles in Judah and that is a major theme of the book.
What's It About?
Jonah is about a prophet who rebels against God and flees from God's command. But God redirects the fleeing prophet, who ends up preaching a message that brings the wicked city of Nineveh to repent.
How Do I Read It?
Jonah is a story. When a person reads a story, he or she pays attention to things such as plot and characters. In terms of Jonah's plot, one basic issue is, "What will God do with a prophet who disobeys God's command?" A second central issue is, "On whom will God have mercy--just the Israelites, or also Nineveh and other places and people of great evil?" There are two central characters: Jonah and God. The basic issue with God is the question of whether God will have mercy on rebellious and wicked people--such as those who live in Nineveh or a prophet who rebels. The basic question with Jonah is whether he can learn to accommodate his own sense of right and wrong to the realities of God's mercy.
AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament