The Assyrians, the scourge of Israel, were the strongest power of the day. It would not be long before they would decimate and then destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel. How could YHWH want such people to repent and be saved? Such is the mentality of the prophet Jonah.
Jonah is the thirty-second book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible it is part of the Nevi’im, the Prophets; in the Greek Septuagint Jonah is the sixth of the Duodecim (Latinized; Dodeka in Greek), “the Twelve.” In Hebrew Jonah’s name is the same word as for “dove,” generally a sign of peace (e.g. Genesis 8:8-11, but also Hosea 11:11 in terms of Assyria). Jonah son of Amittai came from Gath-hepher, on the border of Zebulun near Nazareth (Joshua 19:13), and prophesied of Jeroboam’s (II) restoration of the borders of Israel to their former state (2 Kings 14:25; ca. 786-746 BCE). While Obadiah and Nahum prophesy against other nations, Jonah alone among the Twelve actually goes to the nation and preaches to them without respect to Israel; while we primarily hear the voice of the other eleven prophets, Jonah’s story is being told by an inspired narrator of whom we know nothing. The book of Jonah tells how YHWH summoned Jonah to preach to Nineveh in Assyria so as to demonstrate YHWH’s concern for people of all the nations.
The book of Jonah begins with the story of God’s first call and Jonah’s rejection of that call (Jonah 1:1-17). YHWH’s word came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh and cry against it (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah attempted to flee, embarking on a boat heading to Tarshish away from YHWH (possibly Tartessus in Spain; Jonah 1:3). While the boat was at sea YHWH stirred up a large storm; each person cried out to their god; Jonah was asleep; the crew woke him; they cast lots and learned Jonah was the cause of the storm (Jonah 1:4-7). Jonah explained how he served YHWH the God of heaven; the crew was afraid; Jonah offered to be cast overboard; the crew resists but ultimately does so, praying to YHWH for mercy; when Jonah goes overboard the storm stops; the crew offered sacrifice to YHWH (Jonah 1:8-16). A large fish swallowed Jonah and he was in its belly three days and nights (Jonah 1:17).
Jonah prayed while in the belly of the fish, poetically narrating his descent into the waters, his helplessness, and YHWH’s deliverance (Jonah 2:1-9). The fish vomited Jonah up onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).
YHWH again called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and this time he obeys (Jonah 3:1-3). He cried out that Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days; the people of Nineveh believed in God and fasted, even the king in Nineveh, who decreed fasting, sackcloth, and prayers for relief (Jonah 3:4-9). God saw and relented of the calamity which He was going to bring upon Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).
Jonah, however, is none too pleased; in anger he prays to YHWH, indicating he had spoken of this when first summoned, knowing that YHWH was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and had fled to Tarshish because he knew YHWH would relent; he wanted to die (Jonah 4:1-3). YHWH asks if he does well to be angry (Jonah 4:4). Jonah then sat outside of the city in a booth to see what would become of Nineveh: it got hot, and YHWH prepared a plant for him to give him shade, and it pleased him (Jonah 4:5-6). The next day the plant withered, and a very hot east wind arose, and Jonah asked to die on account of the heat; God asked if he does well to be angry about the plant; Jonah believed so, even to the point of death (Jonah 4:7-9). YHWH provides the lesson: Jonah showed concern for the plant for which he had done nothing to make or nourish and lived but a day, so why should YHWH have no concern for more than 120,000 Ninevites who do not know their right hand from their left and who have many cattle (Jonah 4:10-11)?
Most people remember Jonah’s story on account of the big fish; it may have been a whale, since Israelites tended to categorize creatures by environment or function as opposed to our categorization system (cf. Leviticus 11:13-19), or it could have been a sea creature no longer in existence. Jonah’s three days and nights in the fish prefigure Jesus’ time in death before His resurrection (the “sign of Jonah,” Matthew 12:38-41, 16:4, Luke 11:29-32). Nevertheless, the book of Jonah is less about the big fish or even Nineveh and more about YHWH and Israel. YHWH loves Israel, abounds in covenant loyalty, and is gracious and merciful; He is able to show the same love and loyalty to foreign nations, even foreign nations whom He will use to judge His people. Nineveh will have its day of destruction as Nahum makes clear (Nahum 1:1-3:19), but it would not be in the day of Jonah, because they had repented.
We do well to learn the message of Jonah: God is love, and does not want anyone to be condemned but all to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 4:8). Let us proclaim the Gospel to all the creation so all may praise God the Father in the name of Jesus the Son (Mark 16:15, Romans 1:16)!
Ethan R. Longhenry