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Introduction to the Book of Jonah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Jonah the prophet

Jonah’s name name means 'dove'. He was the son of Amittai (1:1) and came from Gath-Hepher, a small town three miles north-east of Nazareth in the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kg 14:25). He was called by God to be a prophet to the city of Nineveh (1:2, 3:2), the capital of Assyria, which fell to Babylon in 612 BC. Jonah was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos.

The book of Jonah is not a true prophecy as in other books. It is more of a biography of what happened to Jonah when he was called to go to Nineveh. All the book except chapter two is a historical narrative. The account is similar to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, containing narrative with very few spoken words of the prophets. One Jewish tradition suggests that Jonah was one of Elisha's disciples. Another suggests that he was the widow's son who was raised from the dead by Elisha (2 Kg 4).

Authorship of the book

The author us unknown. The book is written in the third person about Jonah, so was probably not by Jonah himself. If Jonah did write the book, then the sailors must have told him what happened when he was asleep (1:5) and after he was thrown into the sea (1:16) as well as how long he was in the belly of the fish.

Historical background

According to the Book of Kings, King Jeroboam II of Israel, "restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Hepher" (2 Kg 14:25). King Jeroboam II ruled from 786 to 746 BC, and Jonah probably prophesied to Nineveh around 760 BC.

One of the difficult questions about the Book of Jonah, is when and why did Assyria repent of their sin, as this seems so uncharacteristic of Assyria, who were renowned as being a blood-thirsty enemy of Israel. There is no reference to any kind of national repentance in Assyrian history. However, there are three events which could have made Nineveh ready for Jonah's message. The first was that King Adad-Nirari (808 - 783 BC) made reforms toward the end of his reign. At this time, there was a reduction in Assyrian conquest and in consequence, an increase in Israel's territory. Nineveh was under threat from Urartu (around Mt. Ararat) in the north, who were rebelling against Assyrian rule in 770 BC. Perhaps the proclamation made by the king called the nation to repent of violence done to their enemies (Jonah 3:8), was followed by a reduction in their military activity. The second event was that before the time of Jonah, according to Assyrian records, there were two plagues in Assyria, in 775 BC, and in 759 BC. The third event was that the Assyrian chronicles refer to a unsettling in the empire caused by a total eclipse of the sun in 763 BC. It was regarded as a portent, a sign of celestial wrath, judgement and doom, and caused a civil war.

The Assyrian empire began to rise after the division of Judah and Israel. It gradually increased its influence over them, and then absorbed the northern kingdom, finally destroying it in 722 BC. Jonah was called to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, effectively prolonging the life of the hated enemy nation, which was already begun the process of taking over his own nation. This explains why Jonah fled and was so upset at God showing mercy on Nineveh. There is no record of him being afraid to go.

Assyrian legend of fish-man

Berosus, the Babylonian priest and historian (330-260 BC) recorded many of the myths and legends of the early Mesopotamians. He tells of the Assyrians' belief in a legendary fish-man who had appeared out of the sea many hundreds of years before Jonah's time:
"At Babylonia there was a people who lived in a lawless manner like the beasts of the field. In the first year there appeared, from that part of the Erythraean Sea (Persian Gulf) which borders Babylonia, and animal endowed with reason, by name Oannes (Greek for Assyrian Yanush), whose whole body was that of a fish; and under the fish's head he had another head, with feet also below similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish's tail. He voice too, and language were articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved to this day. This being was accustomed to pass the day among men, but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanise their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions." (Cory: Fragments from Berossus from Alexander Polyhistor).

This drawing is taken from an Assyrian wall relief in the British Museum.

Jonah's name, pronounced 'Yonah' in Hebrew, 'Yonas' in Greek, would sound very similar to Yanush, their legendary fountain of all knowledge, who they expected would return if they were to learn any essential new knowledge. When Jonah appeared fresh from his experience in the fish, it would have seemed to them that Yanush himself had returned to warn of coming judgement. Thus it was not surprising that the king and all his peoples repented so quickly. It is significant to note that God used a legend familar to the Assyrians to speak to them.

Theme of the book

It foreshadows the Gentile mission (as the book of Ruth), showing God's mercy and compassion extended even to the heathen nations, if they were willing to acknowledge him and repent. It also corrects Jewish exclusivity.

Structure of the book

The story of Jonah has five separate incidents:
1. God's commission to go to Nineveh (1:1-2)
2. Jonah's flight from God (1:3-17)
3. Jonah's prayer from the belly of the fish (2:1-10)
4. Commission renewed and obeyed (3:1-10)
5. Jonah's displeasure at Nineveh's repentance (4:1-11)

Fact or fiction?

Rationalist theologians tend to classify Jonah as a parable or as an allegory, so they can claim that the story is ficticious. However, there is consistent evidence from within the Bible and from Jewish writings that Jonah was a historical figure, who really did spent three days in the belly of a great fish. In the Book of Kings, Jonah was recorded a historical figure and a recognised prophet to Israel (2 Kg 14:25). Non canonical Jewish writers remembered Jonah as a historical figure, "And Jonah, wasting away in the belly of a huge, sea-born monster, you, Father, watched over and restored unharmed to his family." (3 Macc 6:8). In this passage, the author also refers to Daniel and the three men in the fiery furnace, as historical figures. The Book of Jonah reads like a historical narrative with no indication that it should be read in any other way. If it were to be a parable or an allegory, then it would be unique among the books of the OT.

The fact that the Book of Jonah was included in the collection of the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in the Hebrew Scriptures also shows that the truth of the story was accepted. The author of Ecclesiasticus indicated that there were twelve of these prophets, which would include Jonah, "May the bones of the twelve prophets send forth new life from where they lie, for they comforted the people of Jacob and delivered them with confident hope." (Sir 49:10).

Before the rise of modern biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, neither Jews or Christians ever regarded the book of Jonah as anything other than historical fact.

The Lord Jesus himself believed that the repentance of the city of Nineveh was an historic occurrence (Mt 12:41) and that Jonah's three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster were as real as the three days and three nights which he would spend in the tomb (Mt 12:40, 16:4, Lk 11:29-30). Jesus turned the story of Jonah into a Messianic prediction, and confirmed its historical reality.