The Book of Jonah

On Repentance, Mission, and Compassion


Of the twelve minor prophets, the book that has been consistently pondered and examined with much fascination is the Book of Jonah. This is attributed to its mythical imagery, which illustrates the prophet’s journey to the land of Nineveh. Unlike the remainder of the minor prophets, whose content records sundry oracles, Jonah’s book rather is composed mostly of a “prose narrative about the prophet’s mission to Nineveh and its aftermath.”1 In view of this, what can then be said of the Book of Jonah and its prophetic nature and summons for the people of Israel? The entirety of the Jonah narrative is the oracle that is given to Israel by which the author wishes to convey repentance from sin, mission to the nations, and the gratuitous essence of God’s compassion. In this essay, to further treat its tripartite theme, we will analyze and consider the Book of Jonah’s historical context, literary milieu, and theological purpose and significance.

A Historical Overview

One of the most intriguing facets of studying the Book of Jonah is locating its historical setting. Though scholars do not often argue whether Jonah was a historical biblical figure, “scholars continue to debate the literary genre of the book and the related question of its historical character.”2 From the outset, the book’s protagonist is identified as Jonah ben Amittai (Jon 1:1), who is also alluded to in 2 Kings 14:25: “He 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 Amit′tai, the prophet, who was from Gath-he′pher.”3 This connection to the prophet of 2 Kings 14:25 links Jonah to the reign of King Jeroboam II, who exercised his rule from 786–746 B.C.4 One may further ask, why did the author associate the Jonah narrative with another known prophet if it indeed contained no historical value?

David W. Baker, in his work Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, suggests that “the style of introduction is similar to that found in other historical works,”5 such as the one found in 1 Kings 17:8–9. The introductory text of this passage is evocative of the previous introduction in Jonah: “Then the word of the Lord came to him, ‘Arise, go to Zar′ephath.’”6 This phrase, “the word of the Lord came,” used to commence Jonah’s mission, is found elsewhere in the Old Testament about eighty-five times (see 1 Sam 15:10; 2 Sam 7:4; 1 Kgs 6:11; Jer 1:4; Ezek 3:16; Hab 1:3; Zech 4:8).7 This kind of introduction, found in Jonah 1, suggests that the author intended to convey a historical figure or the subsequent writing as historical fact.8 In this way some Christian scholars have interpreted the Book of Jonah’s genre as didactic history,9 teaching a historical event in an enthralling and entertaining manner.

The historicity of the city of Nineveh is also helpful in discerning the historical value and context of the Book of Jonah. During the time of Jonah, Nineveh had been an “Assyrian royal residence since the time of Shalmaneser I (1273–1244).”10 Nineveh, being a dominant Neo-Assyrian city, was “closely associated with the empire’s military activity throughout the first millennium BC, and this meant that it surely conjured up very negative images in the minds of Israelites.”11 Furthermore, Assyrian military tactics had the reputation of using intimidation and brutality to enforce conquest and power:

I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me (and) draped their skins over the pile. . . . I slashed the flesh of the eunuchs (and) of the royal eunuchs who were guilty. I brought Ahi-yababa [the ruler of Suru] to Nineveh, flayed him, (and) draped his skin over the wall of Nineveh.12

In this way, the city of Nineveh drew forth feelings of distaste which affected the minds and memories of the Israelites. Moreover, Israel also had a “long inglorious history of making payments to Assyria as a result of her subordinate status.”13 By the conclusion of Jonah’s mission, there were a surfeit of reasons for Israel, and Jonah himself, to find abhorrence for the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

Lastly, let us turn toward the historical evidence of Nineveh given in the book itself. Bergsma and Pitre, in their work A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, devote an entire portion of their study to the “three day journey” of the city of Nineveh. Bergsma and Pitre attest that “Jonah 3:3 states literally, ‘Nineveh was an exceedingly great city to God; three days’ journey in breadth.’”14 One might then go to ask, what does this “three day’s journey” mean for the Jonah narrative? Various scholars have understood this phrase to mean that it invariably took three days to travel the city. If this were the case, it would have to be considered hyperbole. Though the historical Nineveh was not that large, “if it means three days were necessary for a messenger to travel through all the neighborhoods of the city, as Jonah would have done, the expression is historically plausible.”15

Despite the historical conceivability of Jonah taking a three-day missionary journey around Nineveh, the repentance and conversion of Nineveh recorded in Jonah 3:5–9 “is not recorded in external historical records.”16 In light of this, many scholars have interpreted that the Book of Jonah, though possibly portraying a historical figure as its central character, was not written as a historical account. Overall, regarding the genre and historical setting of the Book of Jonah, the major consensus among scholars is that it will likely continue to be argued and that the essential meaning of the narrative is not lost due to this. Jack Sasson, as referred to by Bergsma and Pitre, asserts, “Whether Jonah is history or fiction . . . is likely to be debated as long as Jonah is read.”17 Ultimately, there is much historical and biblical evidence to deduce the historicity of the prophet and person of Jonah, and, though it may not be written as a historical account, the Book of Jonah surely reveals the sitz im leben of the culture, beliefs, and concerns of the Israelite people at this time.

Literary Analysis: Mission and Omnipresence

An overview of the Book of Jonah leads one to determine two prominent sections, namely, “Jonah’s abortive voyage to Tarshish (Jon 1–2) and Jonah’s journey to Nineveh.”18 Hastily avoiding his commission from the Lord God, Jonah, in the first section, devises a journey to Tarshish. Due to Jonah shirking his divine mission, God sends forth a storm to hinder Jonah’s flight. By the end of this passage, the pagan sailors, by the casting of lots, determine that the prophet is the cause of the storm. In process of this realization, the sailors acknowledge the God of the Israelites as “the true ‘God of heaven’ and offer sacrifice and make vows to him.”19 What, then, is significant about this portion of the narrative, which leads to the conversion of gentile mariners?

Understandably, Jonah desired to abscond his mission to the Assyrian city of Nineveh due to the repentance and conversion that would follow. Notably, Timmer asserts that this portion of the narrative presents a “surprising and almost comical picture of [Jonah’s] attempt to flee from Yahweh’s word and presence.”20 Keenly discovered is the repetition of the phrase “from the presence of Yahweh,” which is noted in both Jonah 1:3 and Jonah 1:10.21 Significantly, the only outside text in which this phrase is used is located in Psalm 139:7, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”22 Furthermore, “a psalm celebrating divine omnipresence . . . is rare enough that we only have the immediate context to help us understand it here.”23

One may then infer that in verse 9, as Jonah is explaining his flight from “the God of the heavens who made sea and the dry land,” the sailors interpret that Jonah’s God is “bound neither to land or sea.”24 Witnessing the omnipotence and omnipresence of Yahweh, the sailors converted and offered worship to God: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”25 Ultimately, this passage in Jonah reveals two messages to the reader. First, “the fact that Jonah’s flight is understood in terms of omnipresence in 1:10 suggests that the same is true of it in 1:3, and this makes Jonah’s flight not just sinful, but inevitably unsuccessful.”26 In other words, fleeing from God is necessarily futile, as He is at all times with his people, and all of creation for that matter. Jonah, then, could not escape his prophetic mission to the Ninevites. Second, “Jonah’s anti-missionary activity has ironically resulted in the conversion of non-Israelites.” That is, even though Jonah did not want to prophesy repentance and conversion to the gentiles of Nineveh, the Lord was not hindered in using Jonah as his prophetic instrument.

Theological Purpose and Significance:
Repentance, Mission, and Compassion

Repentance

A wide consensus reveals that a majority of scholars regard repentance to be a prominent theme in the Book of Jonah. This is further accentuated when examining Jewish liturgical tradition, as “Jonah, together with the final three verses of Micah, form part of the ritual on the Day of Atonement when Jews in repentance confess their sins to God.”27 One purpose that the author focuses on the theme of repentance in Jonah is to incite the Jewish people to repentance themselves. In other words, “If pagan sailors and wicked Ninevites could respond with repentance to prophetic preaching, Jewish-hearers ought to do likewise.”28 Another interpretation of the theme of repentance is that “the Book of Jonah was intended to show the possibility of human repentance leading to a subsequent change in plans.”29 Interestingly, there is a change in both parties involved; “both man and God may experience a similar change of heart.”30

Nineveh, in this way, is Israel. The prophet comes to relay conversion of heart and, in acquiescence to the divine message, God’s wrath relents and repentance is countered with mercy. This conveys to the people of Israel that it is possible to turn back to Yahweh if they but heed the word of God via prophetic heralds. Nineveh, on the other hand, is also Jonah. Jonah, though fleeing from the divine mission and harboring revulsion in his heart, finds reconciliation with God. This is primarily attested to by the todah psalm in Jonah 2:5–7, in which Jonah praises God for saving him from the depths. In sum, the key theme of repentance refers to the restoration of the people of God and the individual reader.

Mission

It is also noted that, “For Augustine, Luther, and many modern writers, the narrative emphasizes the missionary concern of God, whose love and mercy was not limited to the Jews.”31 It is, then, by way of Jonah’s ministry to the Ninevites, that “God not only rebukes those who would confine his saving grace to the Jewish people, but he also forcefully demonstrates his real interest in the salvation of ignorant, sinful pagans.”32 What is inferred here is that God’s mission to Jonah, to preach repentance to Nineveh, is extended to the whole of the chosen nation of Israel. Israel’s mission is to be a light to the nations, directing others to encounter Yahweh. Furthermore, the missionary function of the Book of Jonah reveals God’s missionary action in the world; the drawing in of all peoples and nations to His divine love and presence.

Compassion

The final aspect of the tripartite theme of Jonah, compassion, reveals a theodicy within this prophetic narrative. John Walton suggests that “the primary emphasis of the narrator is on the character of God.”33 It is due to God’s compassion that Nineveh is ultimately forgiven, and it is graciousness that leads to His compassion. In this way, Walton asserts, “Nineveh was not spared because of her repentance, but because of the freely offered gift of God’s grace.”34 Further application may also be given to this theme of unmerited compassion. Israel, reflecting upon the compassion bestowed upon Nineveh interprets, “If God’s grace can be stimulated by wretched Nineveh’s uninformed, minute steps in the right direction, how much more will that grace be stimulated by the informed repentance of Israel, his chosen people?”35 Thence, one concludes that the author of Jonah wishes to convey a God whose mercy is driven by compassion, regardless of nation or association.

Conclusion

Continuously considered and inspected with much interest, among the twelve minor prophets, is the Book of Jonah. This is accredited to its peculiar imagery which depicts the prophet’s voyage to the city of Nineveh. Though distinct in literary style among the prophetic writings, the Book of Jonah can be interpreted as the oracle that is given to Israel by which the author wishes to convey repentance from sin, mission to the nations, and the gratuitous essence of God’s compassion. Ultimately, through the Jonah narrative, Israel’s eyes are opened to repentance from their sins, Yahweh’s mission to the gentile nations, and that the Lord God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.”36

  1. John Sietze Bergsma and Brant James Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 919.
  2. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 920.
  3. James Limburg, Jonah (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 28.
  4. Limburg, Jonah, 28.
  5. David W. Baker, T. Desmond Alexander, and Bruce K. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, vol. XXVI (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), 82.
  6. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 82.
  7. Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), 60.
  8. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 60.
  9. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 60.
  10. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 63.
  11. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 63.
  12. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 64.
  13. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 65.
  14. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 920.
  15. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 920.
  16. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 920.
  17. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 921.
  18. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 921.
  19. Bergsma and Pitre, Catholic Introduction, 921.
  20. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  21. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  22. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  23. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  24. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  25. Jonah 1:16 (RSV).
  26. Timmer, Gracious and Compassionate God, 67.
  27. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 89.
  28. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 89.
  29. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 89.
  30. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 89.
  31. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 91.
  32. Baker et al., Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 93.
  33. John H. Walton, “The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5–7 and the Purpose of the Book of Jonah,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 2 (1992): 47–57. search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001492062&site=eds-live, 55.
  34. Walton, “Object Lesson of Jonah,” 55.
  35. Walton, “Object Lesson of Jonah,” 55–56.
  36. Jonah 4:2 (RSV).
Matthew Gonzalez About Matthew Gonzalez

Matthew Gonzalez is a seminarian at Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange, New Jersey. He holds a BA in Catholic Theology from Seton Hall University and is currently pursuing an MDiv and an MA in Systematic Theology.