Historical Background:

Jonah is another biblical text that is notoriously hard to land on a date. Thankfully, I am not looking for a hard origin point for these texts but the most likely composition era when the text would move into the space of inspired literature used for identity formation among the people of God. Jonah is a short narrative that seeks to emphasize a particular theological understanding of God as unbiasedly gracious and merciful to all nations and then, naturally, the expectation on his people on account of this revelation. It is unclear if this story ever historically occurred or if it is more of a parable for teaching. The story is set in the time when the Assyrian empire would have been the great fear of Jerusalem. But Jonah’s prayer in chapter two seems to be a beautiful mashup of numerous Psalms, Lamentations, and possibly some of prophets just before the destruction of Jerusalem. This would place the composition of Jonah’s prayer in or after the Exile at the earliest. The content of resentment and anger represented in Jonah seems to be focused on God’s mercy which has saved the enemies of Israel from the utter destruction God spoke of through the prophets. Such resentment would make sense in the time after the Exile when the Jews continue struggling towards being blessed by God in the land once again. Because of Jonah’s use of other Israelite and Jewish literature and the intense resentment represented in the Jews, I could easily see Jonah’s story finally compiled somewhere in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE.

Literary Synopsis:

Jonah is short narrative with a simple goal; to reveal that God is gracious and merciful to the nations if they repent just like God’s people. This places the whole story of Jonah in the same prophetic tradition as Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Isaiah who all see the salvation of the nations as an important event in the history of God’s work in creation. What is added in the story of Jonah is a rebuke against Israel, through the representation of a prophet, for viewing God’s grace and mercy as evil on account of their hatred for the nations.

At the beginning of the story God calls Jonah to go to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to proclaim a message against the city. Jonah instead runs in the opposite direction. The depiction of Jonah seems to paint him in the light of being a coward, ruled by fear and so driven to rebellion against God. This would be understandable even to an audience centuries after the terrible reign of Assyria. The Assyrian empire was renowned for their tortures and executions. No man would willing go and offend the people of Nineveh without also knowing they would likely meet a most horrific and painful death.

But as Jonah flees Jerusalem to escape his calling God, as Creator, uses the powers of creation to threaten him with destruction by a great storm on the sea. The sailors eventually find out that Jonah is to blame for the storm, since they assume some god is wreaking havoc on their voyage, and try to figure out some way to get rid of Jonah without killing him by tossing him into the ocean. When it becomes clear they will not be able to get out of the storm without “sacrificing” Jonah to the sea, they pray for God’s mercy for killing a man and toss him over the edge of the boat. The storm ceases, and the sailors sacrifice to God in praise.

God sends a large fish to swallow up Jonah, and while many get hung up here, the story focuses on the response of Jonah in this situation. A long and beautiful prayer is recorded that speaks of how God alone is the Savior who can save his people from Death. This prayer seems to be a beautiful mosaic of texts pulled mainly from the Psalms, but there are also snippets of Lamentations and allusions to other prophets. Jonah seems to fully represent the Jews’ tradition of repentance in their suffering of the Exile, learning to fully trust that the Creator God has chosen them and therefore will be their salvation.

Once Jonah has embodied the repentance of Israel’s tradition God saves Jonah from the fish, and once again calls him to obey by going to Nineveh. Jonah obeys, carrying a message of judgment into the city of Nineveh, trusting that God could provide him salvation in this terrible city in the same way he provided salvation from the great fish. But the response of Nineveh is not anger or self-justification in the face of God’s judgment, rather the King of the Assyrians declares that his entire city must enact repentance towards God for their evil. As Nineveh learns to repent and obey, God relents of the judgment he was about to bring against the city.

Here is where the story takes a sudden twist. Jonah becomes extremely angry. He views the way God has treated Nineveh, with grace and mercy, as a great evil, an injustice! Jonah then confesses to the audience that he did not flee the calling of God back in Jerusalem because he was scared to die at the hands of the Assyrians. Instead, he fled because knew how good, merciful, and kind their God of would be to Nineveh if they repented, and he did not want to give them the opportunity to repent. In the same way that he represented Israel when he embodied the people’s tradition of repentance, Jonah now seems to represent the collective resentment that the Jews in the Return, or during 2nd Temple Judaism, felt towards God for not seeming to fulfill his former prophecies of utterly destroying their enemy nations.

God’s response to Jonah is a simple question, “Is it any good for you to be angry?” Jonah ignores God and simply desires to die rather than live in a world where God is merciful to Israel’s enemy nations. God creates a plant to care for Jonah, but then takes it away, sparking the prophet’s anger once again. God rebukes Jonah for his anger. He must learn that God, as Creator of nations and peoples, desires all of them to repent and learn to obey his teaching for how to live in his creation. Anger does no good for Israel. Anger of past sufferings, anger over their perceptions of injustice, anger rooted in their expectations about what God should do on behalf of his people. Anger does no good.

The story of Jonah emphasizes a similar teaching as Job: the people of God must learn to obey God even if their hearts pull them towards believing that God himself is wrong for what he is doing in his own creation. While Job was addressing resentment against God for suffering even in the midst of living the righteous life, Jonah is addressing the resentment against God for not utterly destroying enemy nations with vengeance. Jonah reiterates the prophetic tradition in Israel that if the God of Israel is truly the Creator god then he is dedicated not only to Israel’s good but to the good of his whole creation, including other nations and peoples. If the nations follow in the footsteps of Israel, learning repentance from judgment, then they too will find blessing and life through obeying the message and teachings of the Creator. Israel must learn to worship God for his mercy and goodness, not simply for his power to overcome and destroy their enemies.

Observations:

  1. The first thing that surprised me was when I noticed the striking similarity between Jonah’s story about the storm and the Gospels account of Jesus calming the storm.[1] Jonah is sleeping, a great storm suddenly appears, there is a fear that those in the boat will perish, they wake up the prophet, the prophet acts or tells them what to do, the storm is calmed, and those on the boat respond by worshipping God.
  2. While there is always a chance that Jonah could be a historical account, this narrative about a prophet lacks all the indicators of a historical narrative. It gives no temporal locations like the naming of kings in Jerusalem, or Samaria, or even the name of the king of Nineveh. There is very little which would indicate a historical event in the narrative, but it could be that this story is a faint memory of a prophet who was called to Nineveh and struggled to obey. This compilation would then be the “fleshing out” of that faint memory to both make sense of the memory and teach the Jews of the early 2nd Temple period.

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

 


[1] Jonah 1:4-16; Mt. 8:23-27; Mk. 4:35-41; Lk. 8:22-25

Posted by Justin Gill

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