Jonah, Book of

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Books of the

Hebrew Bible

Jonah confronts the king of Nineveh.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jonah is the fifth in a series of books known as the Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Unlike other prophetic books, the Book of Jonah is not primarily a record of a prophet’s words. In fact, Jonah makes only one brief prophecy in the entire book. Instead, the book tells the story of the reluctant prophet who resists God's call, but finally brings a message of doom to the great enemy city of Nineveh, and ends up pouting in the desert because God shows mercy when the city repents.

The story is based on an obscure historical figure who probably lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.E.). In the Old Testament, Jonah, son of Amittai is only elsewhere mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Because of its universalistic message of God's compassion for Israel's enemies, the general view of modern scholarship is that the Book of Jonah was written in the post-exilic period (after 530 B.C.E.).

It is one of the best known biblical stories because of the dramatic tale of Jonah's being swallowed by a "whale" when he sought to avoid his prophetic call. Its message of God's compassion for the people of Nineveh anticipates the teachings of Jesus to "love ones enemies" and shows that even a prophet sometimes fails to see his own prophecy from God's perspective.

Contents

Narrative

Summary

"Jonah Cast Forth by the Whale."

The Book of Jonah is almost entirely narrative with the exception of a hymn supposedly composed by the prophet while in the belly of a great fish. The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God and conveys a message of salvation not only for the chosen people of Israel but also Israel's enemies. God calls Jonah to preach against Nineveh, the greatest city of the mighty Assyrian empire, but Jonah resists and attempts to flee. He goes to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish. God calls up a great storm at sea. The crew casts lots to determine who is responsible for their bad fortune, and Jonah is identified as the man. He admits that the storm has been caused because of God's anger at him and volunteers to be thrown overboard in order that the seas will be calmed. After trying unsuccessfully to row to shore, his shipmates beg God not to hold Jonah's death against them and then cast him into the sea. A huge fish, also sent by God, swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. There, Jonah composes a remarkable hymn of praise for God's mercy:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From the depths of the Sheol I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

Moved by Jonah's prayer, God commands the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land. After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh. His words are simple: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." Surprisingly the people of this Gentile city repent. Its king immediately humbles himself and repents, issuing the following decree:

Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. (Jonah 3:7-9)

God indeed turns aside from his anger, proving that not only the Israelites, but Gentiles too, can count on his compassion if they turn from evil. Jonah, however, is not happy. Rather than recognizing his unprecedented success in bringing an enemy city to repentance before the God of Israel, he pouts, petulantly complaining to God:

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (4:2-3)
Jonah observes the fate of Nineveh.

The story ends on an ironic, even humorous note, as Jonah retires to the desert to observe what would happen to the city. God causes a miraculous plant to grow up in a day in order to shade Jonah from the blistering heat, but then sends a worm the next morning to devour the plant. Jonah again complains, saying: "It would be better for me to die than to live."

God then shows Jonah that the plant was really only a way of teaching Jonah a lesson. He speaks to his reluctant and uncomprehending prophet a final time, saying:

You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (4:10-11)

Literary analysis

The story of Jonah can be seen as drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah's name literally means "dove," while most prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"). God, the book's other main character, is altogether active. While Jonah flees, God pursues. While Jonah falls, God lifts up. The character of God in the story is progressively revealed through the use of irony. In the first part of the book, God is depicted as relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.

The other characters of the story include the sailors in chapter 1 and the people of Nineveh in chapter 3. These characters are also contrasted to Jonah's passivity. While Jonah sleeps in the hull, the sailors pray and try to save the ship from the storm (2:4-6). Later, after Jonah has delivered his message in Nineveh, the king acts decisively, while Jonah retires to the desert to watch. While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change His mind. Jonah even objects to God's showing mercy to the Ninevites, seeming to prefer that God would fulfill his promise to destroy the city. While Jonah broods and watches, God again acts, causing a plant to grow up to shade Jonah one day, and causing it to wither the next. Finding his life unbearable, Jonah wants simply to lay down an die, but God teaches him that active mercy is better than passive death. The ultimate lesson of the book is thus that life and love—even love of one's enemies—triumph over abdication and death.

Controversy

The Book of Jonah's attitude of mercy toward Israel's enemies was a controversial one, contrasting sharply with earlier books of the Hebrew Bible as well as later ones such as the Book of Esther and the apocryphal Book of Judith, which emphasize themes of triumph and vindication at the expense of the Gentiles.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book was only found in half of the ten Minor Prophets manuscripts. Others of the scrolls show that the Qumran sect held to a strict attitude of animosity toward the Gentile world of its era, foreseeing an impending battle in which the Gentile rulers of Israel and their Jewish collaborators would be completely vanquished. Thus, it is not surprising that the Book of Jonah would not be completely accepted among Qumran's residents, often thought to be Essenes.

Jonah's biography

Beside the information given in the Book of Jonah itself, there is only one other biographical reference to Jonah in the Bible. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah had prophesied that "the boundaries of Israel (would stretch) from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the plain" (that is the Dead Sea). The passage rather grudgingly admits that this prophecy was fulfilled by Jeroboam II, one of Israel's "evil" kings. This would date Jonah's ministry either to that of Jeroboam or earlier. Some commentators see him as the last of the northern prophets who started with Elijah. The next prophet, Amos, marks the first of the literary prophets active in the north, and he, possibly like Jonah, lived during Jeroboam's time.

Jonah in the desert.

Rabbinical tradition usually considers Jonah to have been of the tribe of Asher, although some claim he was of Zebulum. One tradition holds that Jonah's mother was the "woman of Zarephath" that offered hospitality to Elijah and that Jonah was her son, whom Elijah revived (Pirke R. El. 33). Another legend says that it was Jonah whom the prophet Elisha dispatched to anoint the usurper Jehu as Israel's future king. The reason Jonah tried to avoid prophesying in Nineveh is that he had gained a reputation for his words always coming true, and he feared he would be considered a false prophet when Nineveh repented. The monstrous fish that swallowed Jonah was none other than the legendary Leviathan (Pirke R. El. 10).

The little-known apocryphal Lives of the Prophets, a second century work, identifies Jonah as coming from the district of Kariathmos near the Greek sea-side city of Azotus. After his ministry in Nineveh, Jonah reportedly traveled with his mother to another Gentile land known as Sour. He is quoted as lamenting, "I spoke falsely in prophesying against the great city of Nineveh," apparently because his prediction of its destruction did not come to pass. Later, Jonah went into the land of Judah. When his mother died along the way, he buried her near Deborah’s Oak, named for the nurse of the matriarch Rebekah, in Bethel (Gen. 38:5). Jonah's own grave is reported as being in the cave of a man called Kenaz, identified as a judge, possibly a reference to Kenaz the father or ancestor of the judge Othniel. This source also preserves an interesting purported prophecy of Jonah:

He gave a portent concerning Jerusalem and the whole land, that whenever they should see a stone crying out piteously, the end was at hand. And whenever they should see all the gentiles in Jerusalem, the entire city would be razed to the ground.

Christian interpretation

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in Matthew (12:38-42 and 16:1-4) and Luke 11:29-32). In these passages, Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus. Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh, saying that no sign will be given except "the sign of Jonah." Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the tomb.

Contrary to popular belief, the debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah and the "whale" is not a modern one. In c. 409 C.E., Augustine of Hippo quoted Porphyry, the noted opponent of Christianity, as arguing:

What are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?” (Letter CII, Section 30).

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, Augustine actually sees the primary meaning of the story of Jonah as an allegory of Christ. For example, he writes:

As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulcher, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world.

Modern interpretation

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Doré.

In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe," but he translated the word ketos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in Matthew 12:40 as "whale." Tyndale's translation was later incorporated into the King James Version of 1611. Since then, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale. The throats of many large whales can indeed accommodate passage of an adult human. There are some nineteenth–century accounts of whalers being swallowed by sperm whales and living to tell about it, but these stories remain unverified.

Many biblical scholars believe Jonah's prayer (2:2-9), occupying almost one quarter of the entire book, to be a later addition (see source criticism). At this point in the story, the reader would expect Jonah to repent. However, the prayer is not a psalm of lament; rather, it is a psalm of thanksgiving. The prayer serves to portray the fish as part of God's salvation. The the storm and the fish, God has removed Jonah from his self-destructive path of flight from his prophetic mission and has set him on the path to carry out God's will.

The story of Jonah is set against the historical background of ancient Israel in the eighth century B.C.E. and the religious and social issues of the late sixth to fourth centuries B.C.E. The Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 lived during or shortly before the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.E.) and was from the city of Gath-hepher. This city, modern el-Meshed, is located only several miles from Nazareth in what would have been known as the Kingdom of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which conquered Israel in 722 B.C.E. The book itself calls Nineveh a “great city,” probably referring both to its affluence and its size.

However, modern scholarship questions that the book could have been written in the eighth century B.C.E., when the idea of a prophet bringing God' mercy to the chief city of Israel's greatest enemy was out of the question. On the other hand, the attitude of the book coincides with the latter chapters of the Book of Isaiah (sometimes classified as Third Isaiah and thought to originate with the fifth century B.C.E.), in which Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles. These facts have led many scholars to believe that the book was actually written in this later period.

Bibliography

  • Abegg, Martin, Jr., et al. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. ASIN: B000OEODA0
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. ISBN 0664256392
  • Gowan, Donald. Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel. Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. ISBN 0664256899
  • Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001. ISBN 0060936991
  • Machinist, Peter. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. ISBN 158983027X.
  • Podhoretz, Norman. The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0743219279
  • Sasson, Jack M. Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary and Interpretations. 1995. ISBN 9780385510059

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