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Old Testament: Jonah

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Jonah, Coptic

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.

So What?

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

I. Jonah Rebels and Flees (1:1-2:17)

Jonah is called by God to preach to Nineveh, but instead flees in the opposite direction. God sends a storm to stop Jonah and a big fish to save Jonah when Jonah is thrown into the ocean.

II. Jonah's Song (2:1-10)

In the belly of the fish, Jonah sings a song of thanksgiving.

III. Jonah in Nineveh (3:1-10)

Jonah is delivered to Nineveh, where he preaches a short sermon and the entire wicked city repents. God does not destroy the city.

IV. Jonah's Lesson (4:1-11)

Jonah is angry that God spared the city, so he asks to die. God tries to teach Jonah that God loves all creatures--even sinners.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The story is set at the height of the power of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. "Jonah son of Amittai" is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, a prophet of the northern kingdom Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. Assuming both Jonahs are the same man, the story then takes place sometime between 785-740 B.C.E. The story deals with Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The cruelty of the Assyrians and especially of Nineveh was legendary, as the prophetic speech against it in Nahum 3 indicates. About the time when the story is set, the Assyrian Empire began to be more of a threat to Israel. Assyria brought its army and tyranny to the region. On several occasions Israel had to submit to Assyria, and in 722, Assyria overthrew Israel and dispersed its people.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Historical Questions. One of the most debated issues about Jonah has to do with whether the story is meant as history or as a parable (such as Jesus' parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15). As one wit commented, a man surviving in a whale is the most believeable part of Jonah. Much more problematic is the idea that Nineveh ever repented. The story is a parable that is intended to teach the reader about what it means to worship a merciful God.

The Fish/Whale. When people learn this story, they usually are taught that Jonah was in the belly of the whale. The Hebrew of the book of Jonah actually says he was in the belly of a "big fish." The ancient people would not have known of the modern distinction between a fish and an aquatic mammal.

Relationship between God's People and the Nations. One important issue that the story of Jonah raises is how God's people should regard the nations (those who were from a people other than the Hebrew people). At the time when Jonah was probably written (after the exile), there was strong pressure within the Judean population for the people to live separately from other nations. At that time, some within God's people sent their foreign wives away. Jonah is a story that emphasizes that God loves even Nineveh, the wicked foreign city.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

  • God's mercy. The major theme of the book is God's mercy. Jonah is sent to preach to the wicked city Nineveh, but flees in the opposite direction because he knows that the Lord is "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent in punishing" (4:2). Jonah needs to learn that God's mercy and love are not just for the chosen people but for all sinners, even those whom Jonah has reason to hate.
  • Following God. There is a gap between what Jonah "knows" and what Jonah "lives"--a gap between his head and his heart. Jonah knows that God created both the sea and the dry land, as he tells the sailors during the storm (1:9). Yet, Jonah tries to flee from God by going to sea. Jonah knows that God is merciful and gracious, and yet Jonah does not see that this is a good thing. Jonah loves the plant that God causes to grow, yet does not understand that God loves all God's creatures, even Nineveh.
  • God's Creation. In Jonah, God is active and present in creation. God appoints a storm, a big fish, a plant, a worm, and the wind to do God's will. And God expresses concern even for the animals of Nineveh, who join the human residents of Nineveh in repenting! God is not merely the lord of human life, but of all life.
  • God's Justice. Another theme in Jonah has to do with God's justice. The book was likely written after the exile, which many in Israel believed was caused because Israel sinned against God. If that was so, then the question might have been asked, "What about other nations such as Nineveh, whose sins are worse than our own?" The story answers this question by pointing to the fact that God desires to be merciful and calls us to repent of evil.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament