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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers

9: Jonah

After all the oracles of the major and minor prophets it is a relief to come to the relatively simply and straightforward story of Jonah.  While the book of Jonah is placed with the minor prophets in both the Tanak and the Old Testament, unlike the other books of the prophets it is entirely narrative.  It is more like a short story by a skilled story teller, similar to the novel-like books of Ruth and Esther.  

Jonah the son of Amittai also appears in 2 Kings 14:25 as an otherwise obscure prophet in eighth century BCE Israel.  The story of the reluctant prophet Jonah in the book bearing his name is set sometime before the 616 fall of Nineveh.  While the story may reflect an older tradition involving the prophet Jonah, linguistic and other considerations suggest that it was written sometime in the fifth or fourth century BCE .

Virtually everyone, even if they have very little familiarity with the Bible, has heard of “Jonah and the whale.”  My favorite version of the story is Herman Melville’s re-telling of it in Moby Dick as the sermon Ismael hears before setting out on his fateful voyage with Captain Ahab.  But the whale actually has a minor role in the Biblical book where it is not even identified as a whale but a “great fish . . . appointed by  the Lord to swallow up Jonah” (1:17 order of the text rearranged).

The narrative consists of three sections.  In the first part of the book the “word of the Lord” came to Jonah instructing him to go to Nineveh, a large idolatrous Assyrian city, “and cry against it” (1:2).  But instead Jonah boarded a ship bound for what is now Spain, about as far distant from Nineveh as was possible.  God “hurled a great wind upon the sea . . . so that the ship threatened to break up.”  The terrified mariners prayed to their gods and threw cargo out in hopes of surviving the storm.  But the storm only grew more intense.  Jonah meanwhile was fast asleep below decks, unaware of any danger.

The captain awakened Jonah and implored him to also pray to his God.  The crew cast lots to reveal “on whose account this evil has come upon us.”  The lot fell on Jonah who confessed that he was “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” and told them to throw him into the sea.  The mariners were reluctant to do so and tried their best to save the ship with Jonah aboard but the storm continued to threaten their lives.  Asking God’s forgiveness for what they did, they tossed Jonah overboard and the storm ceased.  Whereupon “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”  In trying to run away from his divinely assigned task, Jonah inadvertently caused others to revere God (1:4-16).

So Jonah was swallowed by the “great fish” in whose belly he spent three days and nights.  In the Gospel of Matthew 12: 40 Jesus cites this as the length of time he would be in “the heart of the earth.” Although the gospels seem to indicate that the time between Jesus death and resurrection was less than forty eight hours, “three days and three nights” became fixed in Christian tradition as the time of Jesus’ entombment.   Matthew refers to the “fish” as a “whale.”  Regardless of the animal’s species, survival of any living thing within its digestive system for that long a period of time seems highly improbable.  But the Bible is not concerned with realistic depiction, especially when divine intervention in the course of earthly events is involved.  It is the narrative’s spiritual points that are important.  

While inside the fish Jonah offered up a psalm-like prayer of thanksgiving for his deliverance (2:1-9) which would more logically fit after rather than before the verse in which “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on dry land” (2:10).  It may be that Jonah’s prayer originated as a separate psalm which was inserted into the narrative in a somewhat awkward place.  Perhaps verse 2:10 was displaced from before to after the psalm sometime in the course of copying the book.

In the last episode of Jonah the prophet is again called to go to Nineveh to proclaim its destruction in forty days.  It may be that this was originally a different version of Jonah’s call which was incorporated into the book with the first story.  Most unexpectedly the people of Nineveh, including the king, heed Jonah’s message and repent.  God in turn “repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it” (3:10).

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry” (4:1).  Apparently extremely embarrassed that his prophecy had not been fulfilled, Jonah begged God to take his life.  Then he went outside the city and watched to see what would happen.  God sent a plant to grow up to provide shade for Jonah, and then the following night “appointed a worm which attacked the plant.”  The next day a “sultry east wind” and the sun beating down on him combined to make Jonah miserable.  The unhappy prophet went into another angry self-pitying snit in which he again begged God to take his life.  God, somewhat confusingly, confronted Jonah by asking why he pities the dead plant more than the people of Nineveh who have been saved by God’s pity for them.  The story ends without a response from Jonah.

Except for the book of Jonah, there is no historical or biblical record indicating that Nineveh forsook its Assyrian gods to worship Yahve.  There wouldn’t have been a king in Nineveh which was not the capital of Assyria.  But again Jonah is not concerned with historical accuracy.  It is a story about obedience to divine command.  It also represents God as a universal deity.  

There is noticeable tension in the Bible, especially apparent in the post-exilic period, between particularism in which the covenant with God is limited to the descendants of Jacob and universalism which represents God as accepting of anyone, Jew or not, who, like the crew of the ship and people of Nineveh, “fears him.”  The choice for God is an individual rather than national decision.  The book of Jonah represents a rebuke of particularism as represented in Jonah’s reaction to the salvation of Nineveh.  The anonymous writer joins several of the prophets in declaring that the blessings of the covenant are available to all.  This notion would be more fully developed in Christianity as it expanded beyond its Judaic origins to become a universal religion.

© 2021 James Moyers