The Book of Jonah is the fifth of the Twelve Minor Prophets included in the Hebrew Bible. Although a small book, only four chapters, its influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has gone way beyond its size. The prophet Jonah is best known for being swallowed by a big fish or whale. Jonah was a troubled reluctant prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. Interesting enough, this story of Jonah is also in the Islamic Quran in a slightly different version. Yet at the same time, this Hebrew Book of Jonah is read in its entirety every year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Jonah was the son of Amittai as in 2 Kings, chapter 14, a prophet from Gath-hepher, a few miles north of Nazareth, around the time of King Jeroboam II (783–743 BCE). According to one tradition, Jonah was the boy brought back to life by Elijah the prophet. Although the background of this book would suggest the 8th century BCE, it was probably written after the exile, between the late 5th to early 4th century BCE. This oral story has had a long interpretive history, becoming well-known through popular children’s stories.
Unlike the other prophetic books, the Book of Jonah is almost entirely narrative, with the exception of the canticle in chapter 2. The actual prophetic words against Nineveh are set within this narrative. As with any good narrative, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes with a lot of irony. Nineveh, where Jonah preached, was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire that was defeated in 612 BCE. Assyria had taken the northern kingdom of the Israelites captive in 722 BCE.
This story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God, Yahweh. Jonah’s passivity was contrasted with the power of Yahweh. While Jonah flees, Yahweh pursues him. While Jonah falls, Yahweh lifts him up. In the first part of this book, Yahweh was relentless and wrathful, while in the second part of the book, he was loving and merciful.
The other characters of the story include the sailors and the people of Nineveh, who also contrast with Jonah’s passivity. While Jonah slept in the hull of the ship, the sailors prayed and tried to save the ship from the storm. While Jonah slowly finally acted on Yahweh’s mission, the people of Nineveh actively petitioned God to change his mind.
The main plot centered on this conflict between Jonah and Yahweh. Jonah was one of the few prophets who did not try to complete his mission. Yahweh called Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, but Jonah resisted and tried to run away. He went to the port city of Joppa and took a ship headed for Tarshish. Yahweh then sent a great storm at sea. The sailors on the ship prayed, while Jonah was sleeping. Jonah won the lottery as the cause of the storm, so the other sailors interrogated Jonah who responded. What were they going to do? Jonah admitted that he was the problem. The sailors then prayed to Yahweh. They decided, and Jonah concurred, that they should throw Jonah overboard to appease God. Thus, the conversion of the sailors to Yahweh took place as the sea became calm.
Meanwhile, a great big fish swallowed Jonah and saved him from the raging waters. Yahweh had sent a great sea creature to swallow Jonah to save him from the roaring seas. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed during his near-death experience. He worshipped the true God, so that Yahweh saved Jonah from the sea and the big fish. During three days and three nights, Jonah was in the fish’s belly. Jonah then prayed and repented for his disobedience. He thanked Yahweh for his mercy. Then Yahweh told the fish to vomit out Jonah safely on dry land. The early Christians saw these three days and nights like a foreshadowing of the time of Jesus of Nazareth in the tomb, before his resurrection.
After his rescue, Jonah reluctantly obeyed the call to prophesy against Nineveh. He fulfilled his mission, after a second calling from Yahweh, when he went to Nineveh. There he proclaimed the end of Nineveh. However, the people of Nineveh had a positive response to Jonah. The king proclaimed a fast for repentance. Thus, God saved Nineveh since the people of Nineveh actually repented. Yahweh then forgive them. This made Jonah furious. He was so mad at Yahweh, that he wanted to die. He justified his actions in a prayer to Yahweh. Yahweh responded to him as he sat outside the city under a shade bush that Yahweh gave him. Initially grateful, Jonah’s anger returned the next day, when God sent a worm to eat the plant, withering it. Thus, he once again uttered his death wish.
The story of Jonah has numerous theological implications. The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the gospel stories of Matthew and Luke. There has always been a debate over the miracle of Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Perhaps, there is a parallel with the story of the Greek god Jason. Biblical scholars have speculated that Jonah may have been in part the inspiration behind the figure of Oannes in late Babylonian mythology or vice versa.
Ironically, the angry Yahweh in the first chapter turned out to be merciful in the last two chapters. Despite not wanting to go to Nineveh, Jonah became one of the most effective prophets of Yahweh.