This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship. Last year, we looked at the fascinating letter of James in the New Testament.
This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:
- week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
- week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
- week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)
Inevitably, it is hard completely to separate out all these different aspects but at least it gives us a starting point!
(n.b. There are lots of excellent commentaries out there about Jonah – a few recommended ones are listed below – so this is not intended to be an exhaustive introduction to every aspect of the book’s contents and history.)
In the Jewish scriptures, Jonah is one of the ‘Minor Prophets’. This is not indicative of the book’s importance rather the fact that it is one of much shorter books of prophecy in the Bible, compared to, say, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Theses twelve short prophetic books are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and contains material written from 8th C BCE to c. 450 BCE. Whether or not Jonah should truly be treated as a book of prophecy is open to debate, since he barely produces a single sentence (Jonah 3:4) of what most people would consider true prophecy! In many respects, it reads much more like the life of the prophet Elijah, which we find in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
The question of when Jonah was written is also controversial. The short biographical information we gain in Jonah 1:1, tells us that this prophet Jonah was the same one we encounter in 2 Kings 14:23-27: “Jonah son of Amittai”. He was active during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel, whom we can date accurately to around 786-746 BCE. Despite the bad press he receives in 2 Kings, he seems to have been quite a successful monarch, re-establishing Israel’s borders and security at a time when the major Asian superpower, Assyria, was experiencing a period of internal unrest.
However, most scholars would argue that the text we have in our Bibles was actually written down (or at least re-edited) later than this – certainly after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon (c. 539 BCE). They believe this for several reasons. Jonah is written in Hebrew, but just as English has changed over the years, so did ancient Hebrew, and the language here is much like later Hebrew. It contains Aramaic expressions, reflecting the popular language of the Middle East that many people actually spoke day to day (and in which Jesus and his contemporaries would later converse). The text makes mistakes about certain things that we would expect a person writing in the 8th Century BCE to have got right, notably that Nineveh was not a capital city at this time. It also seems to have been written from much more of a (southern) Judean perspective, rather than a (northern) Israeli one: for example, we would not have expected Jonah to have travelled south to have boarded a ship at Joppa, if he were travelling from Israel (1:3). Finally, the text makes a number of allusions to other Old Testament texts, especially Genesis 1-11, Exodus and the stories about Elijah, that we do not think reached their final form until later.
Taking all this into account, it seems sensible to suggest that the book we possess today may well have had its origins (perhaps an oral tradition) in the time of King Jeroboam II but that it was not finally written down until much later. This actually makes the text more interesting, arguably, as it means it should very much be read as a ‘dialogue’ with other books in our Old Testament that its final author / editor already knew about. Inspired by God, he perhaps wished to challenge some of his contemporaries’ perceptions of, and prejudices about, a number of things, not least the nature of God and the divine relationship between God, Israel and the other nations of the earth. We shall explore more of this as we go along.
The text: Jonah 1-2
As we read the text of the first half of Jonah, there is so much to explore and so much to interest the reader, that it is hard to know where to begin! Here are a few of the major points that we might wish to note:
- irony in the text. Sadly, there can be a tendency to read the Bible in a rather ‘po-faced’ manner, thinking that it is never acceptable to smile or even raise an eyebrow at the text. This is completely wrong. There is a lot to laugh at in our Bible, not least in the Old Testament, where its writers wanted us to catch their deeper meanings. The text of Jonah is often deeply ironic and full of pathos, not least its opening sentences. We are used to hearing the “word of the Lord” come to other great prophets, like Samuel, Isaiah and Elijah (1 Kings 17), all of whom promptly obey. Instead, Jonah promptly heads off in the other direction! Throughout the book, look out for places where the author wants us to roll our eyebrows in exasperation at this poor prophetic role model!
- a unique mission. Jonah is the only prophet in the entire Old Testament sent to a gentile town, city or nation. No other prophet is called upon to travel voluntarily across borders to proclaim God’s Word. No wonder perhaps then that he seems so unwilling to go. Elsewhere in the Bible, though, we read the solemn responsibility that prophets were given by God, and the consequences of not warning those in peril:
But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:6-8)
- Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish. The map opposite indicates the approximate locations of these places. Nineveh was one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world, and part of numerous empires. Joppa was an important port on the coast. We are not exactly sure where Tarshish was but it may have been in southern Spain (2 Chron. 9:21). In the Bible, it often symbolised somewhere impossibly far away – the way that ‘Timbuktu’ or ‘Outer Mongolia’ sometimes functions in British speech or literature.
- ups and downs. This can be hard for us to see in some modern versions of the Bible, but Kevin Youngblood’s excellent, more literal, translation of the Hebrew text allows us to see the number of ‘ups and downs’ in these chapters and their importance:
- “Up! Go to Nineveh…” (1:1)
- “He descended to Joppa.” (1:3)
- “he descended into it” (1:3)
- “he had descended into the bowels of the ship” (1:5)
- “Up! Cry out to your god!” (1:6)
- “You had cast me down to the deep” (2:4)
- “the deep had enveloped me” (2:6)
‘Up’ is symbolic of God, and following God’s purposes. ‘Down’ is a rejection of God and his mission. Jonah’s disobedience leads him further and further down, and away from his maker. This will become synonymous with ‘Sheol’ – the land of the dead – in the psalm that Jonah prays in chapter 2.
- faithful gentiles. In this opening chapter, and throughout the book, we come across gentiles who seem to know and fear the Lord more than a faithful prophet like Jonah! The helmsman’s words in 1:6 seem deliberately to echo those of God in 1:1. The mariners even do their best to save Jonah from the disaster that he has brought about (1:13-14).
- casting lots. The Old Testament is full of prohibitions against sorcery of all sorts but intriguingly lot casting was one of very few acceptable forms of divination in ancient Israel (Prov. 16:33).
- one god or many? The discussion on board ship during the storm accurately reflects something of what we know about ancient belief systems. It was usual for people – especially a multi-national ship’s crew – to each have their own gods, and at a time of disaster to try to find out the most powerful one who needed to be placated or worshipped. Note how Jonah has to be very specific about the exact god whom he is worshipping to identify him properly: in Hebrew, he uses the divine name revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) – YHWH (often written Yahweh, or in English ‘Jehovah’).
- digging in. In the Hebrew text, the author does not use the usual word ‘to row’ in 1:13. Instead, a better translation is that the sailors “dug in”. Again, the implication being that they were digging their way to Sheol! (Amos 9:2)
- crying out. Note that in 1:14 it is still the gentile sailors who are doing all the praying. Jonah has not spoken to God once so far, it seems!
- a fish not a whale! While we often talk about ‘Jonah and the whale’, please note that it’s actually a fish that swallows him whole (2:1).
- three days and nights. The time of ‘three days and nights’ is a significant one in the Old Testament, as the time it was traditionally thought it took for a soul to descend to Sheol (Hosea 6:1-2). It would of course assume an even more important resonance after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
- a strange psalm. In 2:3, Jonah begins to pray a psalm. This is like many of the psalms that we encounter elsewhere in the Old Testament, in structure and form. It seems quite an odd break from the narrative in some respects and some commentators have wondered if it was a later addition. There is no real evidence for this, however. It also seems odd that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, rather than one of lament or a plea for forgiveness, but it clearly is meant to reflect Jonah’s relief at not drowning.
- Sheol. From the Hebrew ‘to extinguish’ / ‘to have misfortune’, Sheol is often synonymous with death itself in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 2:6,9). It is a place of shadows and gloomy half existence in the depths of the earth (Job 11:8). Only much later in the post-Exilic and inter-testamental period would Sheol really come to mean something akin to later understandings of ‘hell’.
- deeps and mountains. Much of Jonah’s prayer reflects ancient Israeli understandings of cosmology and the natural world: subterranean mountains, rivers flowing under the sea, etc. What is important for us to understand is that Jonah recognises how far he had gone from God: if God dwells in the Temple on the mountain of Zion, then his disobedience took him to the very depths of the sea, metaphorically.
- more irony. Note the irony of 2:9-10, where Jonah boasts of his superiority over idol worshippers. Idol worshippers like the sailors from chapter one, no doubt, who prayed to God long before the prophet did! One is reminded somewhat of the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14).
- the final insult. As a final symbol of Jonah’s humiliation, we are told that the fish vomited him back onto dry land (see Jeremiah 48:26).
Personally, I believe that the Bible is worth studying for its own sake and I love the treasures you can unearth by digging a little deeper into the text. It’s important to recognise, though, that all of our knowledge needs to be applied to make it worthwhile. We will be able to do this more thoroughly when we have finished studying the text, as many of the book’s most important themes only really emerge when we can consider the story as a whole. It might be worth reflecting on some of the following questions now, though:
- Who comes out well of the opening chapters of Jonah? What may this teach us about those who believe they have a particular status or special knowledge in God’s creation?
- What does this story teach us about God’s mission for us, as individuals and as a church?
- If we feel separated, or distant, from God, is it entirely God’s fault?
- Do we sometimes need to journey to ‘rock bottom’ to find ourselves?
We will continue to reflect on many of these questions in the coming weeks.
I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:
- Youngblood, Kevin J., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Jonah. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2013.
The following are also available:
- Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
- Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
- Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
- Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).