Book of Jonah

Book of Jonah

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jonah is the fifth book in a series of books called the Minor Prophets. Unlike other prophetic books however, this book is not a record of a prophet’s words toward Israel. Instead of the poetry and prophetic prose of Isaiah or Lamentations, this book tells the story of a reluctant prophet who arguably becomes one of the most effective prophets in the entire Bible.

The character of the story is based on an obscure figure (Jonah) who lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE). In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah son of Amittai is only elsewhere mentioned at II Kings 14:25. (For more information about the character himself, see the article entitled Jonah.) The book itself was probably written in the post-exilic period (after 530 BCE) and based on oral traditions that had been passed down from the eighth century BCE. Jonah is considered a Minor Prophet because the book was originally written with the other, smaller prophetic books on a single scroll (also known as the Book of the Twelve).

As a part of the Hebrew Bible, the book is found in both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible. The story has an interesting interpretive history (see below) and has become a well-known story through popular children’s stories. In Judaism it is the Haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur due to its story of God's willingness to forgive those who repent.

Outline of book

The Book of Jonah is primarily a story about the character of God. As such, it can be divided into four sections,roughly divided by each chapter: (1) God's sovereignty, (2) God’s deliverance, (3) God's mercy, and (4) God'srighteousness. It may also be outlined in the following manner:

* God's first commission and Jonah’s rebellion
** God's deliverance toward Jonah and Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving
* God's second commission and Jonah’s obedience
** God's deliverance toward Nineveh and Jonah’s complaint of ingratitude

In the first half of the book, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His sovereignty. In the second half, God's deliverance is demonstrated through His mercy. Finally, God declares His righteousness in choosing to force and choosing to repent.


As mentioned above, the book of Jonah is not written like the other books of the prophets. Jonah is almost entirely narrative with the exception of the psalm in chapter 2. The actual prophetic word against Nineveh is only given in passing through the narrative. As with any good story, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes. It also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.


The story of Jonah is set against the historical background of Ancient Israel in the eighth-7th centuries BCE and the religious and social issues of the late sixth to fourth centuries BCE. The views accurately coincide with the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah (sometimes classified as Third Isaiah), where Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles. (These facts have led a number of scholars to believe that the book was actually written in this later period.)

The Jonah mentioned in II Kings 14:25 lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) and was from the city of Gath-hepher. This city, modern el-Meshed, located only several miles from Nazareth in what would have been known as Israel in the post-exilic period (as distinct from the southern kingdom, known as Judah) and Galilee around the time of Christ.

Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which fell to the Medes in 612 BC. The book itself calls Nineveh a “great city,” probably referring to its affluence, but perhaps to its size as well. (That the story assumes the city’s existence and deliverance from judgment may indeed reflect an older tradition dating back to the eighth-7th century BCE.) Assyria often opposed Israel and eventually took the Israelites captive in 722-721 BCE (see History of ancient Israel and Judah). The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen in the bitter prophecies of Nahum.


The story of Jonah is a drama between a passive man and an active God. Jonah, whose name literally means "dove," is introduced to the reader in the very first verse. The name is decisive. While most prophets had heroic names (e.g., Isaiah means "God has saved"), Jonah's name carries with it an element of passivity.

Jonah's passive character then is contrasted with the other main character: God (lit. "I will be what I will be"). God's 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). While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change His mind.


The plot centers on a conflict between Jonah and God. God calls Jonah to proclaim judgment to Nineveh, 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, and the ship's crew cast Jonah overboard in an attempt to appease God. A great sea creature (the Book of Jonah says it is a fish but the New Testament reference in Matthew

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, despite his apologetic, Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for 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 sepulchre, 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." Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matt. 12:39,40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.

Islamic interpretation

In the Qur'an, Jonah is called Yunus (see also Biblical narratives and the Qur'an).

Modern interpretation

In Jonah as "whale." Tyndale's translation was, of course, later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611. Since, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale.

The throats of many large whales (as well as that of a large whale shark specimen, which could be found in the Mediterranean) can accommodate passage of an adult human. There are some 19th century accounts of whalers being swallowed by sperm whales and living to tell about it, but these stories remain unverified.

In the line 3:1, the book refers to the fish as Dag Gadol, meaning "great fish", in the masculine. However, in the 3:2, it says "ha'daga" meaning female fish (the ha at the beginning means the). Given the rest of these selected verses "And the lord provided a great fish (dag gadol) for Jonah, and it swallowed him, and Jonah sat in the belly of the fish (still male) for three days and nights.) Then, from the belly of the (female) fish, Jonah began to pray." It has been interpreted that this means Jonah was comfortable in the roomy male fish, so he didn't pray. However, then, God transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which Jonah was uncomfortable, so he prayed.

Historical and literary criticism

Some biblical scholars believe Jonah's prayer (2:2-9) to be a later addition to the story (see source criticism for more information on how such conclusions are drawn). Despite questions of its source, the prayer carries out an important function in the narrative as a whole.

The prayer is a psalm of thanksgiving. The presence of the prayer serves to interpret the swallowing of the fish to be God's salvation. God has lifted Jonah out of Sheol and set him on the path to carry out His will. The story of descent (from Israel, to Tarshish, to the sea, to under the sea) becomes the story of ascent (from the belly of the fish, to land, to the city of Nineveh).

Thus, the use of a psalm creates an important theological point. In the popular understanding of Jonah, the fish is interpreted to be the low point of the story. Yet even the fish is an instrument of God's sovereignty and salvation.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Book of Jonah — noun a book in the Old Testament that tells the story of Jonah and the whale • Syn: ↑Jonah • Instance Hypernyms: ↑book • Part Holonyms: ↑Prophets, ↑Nebiim, ↑Old Testament …   Useful english dictionary

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  • Jonah — Jonahesque, adj. /joh neuh/, n. 1. a Minor Prophet who, for his impiety, was thrown overboard from his ship and swallowed by a large fish, remaining in its belly for three days before being cast up onto the shore unharmed. 2. a book of the Bible… …   Universalium

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