Book of Jonah Essay - Critical Essays

Book of Jonah


Book of Jonah

Hebrew book of the Old Testament, dated c. 350 b.c.-300 b.c.

One of the more popular narratives of the Bible, Jonah is included with the prophetic books of the Old Testament, although it is considerably different from them. A very short book, Jonah consists not of dire predictions, but of the tribulations of a prophet who resists his call from the Lord. The famous image of Jonah dwelling in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights has appealed to a vast reading public over the centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

The Book of Jonah opens with God ordering Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its citizens that their wickedness will soon cause Him to destroy their city. Jonah balks at the instruction because Nineveh was comprised of vicious enemies of Israel. Jonah flees Israel by ship, heading for Tarshish, on the western side of the Mediterranean Sea. God causes a great storm to strike the ship and its crew is deathly afraid. Jonah begs them to throw him overboard, explaining that it is he that God is after. The crew members are at first reluctant to toss Jonah into the sea and try to outmaneuver the storm, but they do not succeed, so they rid themselves of their passenger, and the sea at once grows calm. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and remains inside it for three days and three nights. The next chapter consists of Jonah's famous psalm, delivered to God from inside the belly of the fish. He repents, promises that he will do as he was told, and consequently is spit up on dry land. In the third chapter Jonah travels to Nineveh and warns its people that God will destroy them in forty days. Immediately the citizens believe him, begin a fast, and replace their clothes with sackcloth. The King officially proclaims a fast for everyone, orders man and beast to be covered in sackcloth, and urges everyone to pray and abandon their evil ways. God sees their change and does not destroy them. By the fourth chapter, Jonah is upset and angry that God has spared the city of Nineveh. He asks God to take his life, and God asks him to consider whether he has any right to be angry. Jonah retires to a shelter and God makes a vine grow to provide him with shade. But at dawn God causes a worm to chew the vine and make it wither, and causes a scorching wind to beset Jonah. Jonah again requests that he be allowed to die. God points out that Jonah was upset about a vine that grew in a day and died in a day, and which he did not cause to grow or tend to, and yet he is upset with the Lord for sparing the lives of a hundred and twenty thousand people and their cattle.

Major Themes

The main theme of the Book of Jonah is that God wants man to love his enemies. Mercy and pity are encouraged because, although God wants man to preach against evil, it should always be in the hope that the wrongdoers will repent. Its message also stresses the universality of God, that he is the God of all mankind.

Critical Reception

Scholars have long wrestled with the dating and authorship of Jonah. Although opinions differ widely, consensus places its composition sometime about 350 b.c.-300 b.c., and its authorship with someone other than Jonah, who lived in the eight century b.c. Much scholarly activity involves the exploration of its textual history and possible reasons for its inclusion in the Hebrew canon. Jack M. Sasson and David Marcus independently examine Jonah in terms of anti-prophetic satire; Jonah's message is otherwise not contested. Innumerable arguments have been made by Bible readers concerning the possibility of a whale swallowing a man. Critics have written about the proper translation of the work, whether the creature should be called a whale, a great fish, or a sea monster, and whether such an event could actually happen. There are also scholarly debates about whether the story should be taken literally or whether it is pure fantasy. Such differences of opinion help to make the Book of Jonah a favorite story of the Bible.

Principal Works

Jonah (translated by William Tyndale) 1531

The Anchor Bible Jonah (translated by Jack M. Sasson) 1990

Jonah & Lamentations (translated by Robert B. Salters) 1994


George Adam Smith (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: Smith, George Adam. “The Book of Jonah,” “The Great Refusal,” and “The Great Fish and What It Means—The Psalm.” In The Book of the Twelve Prophets, Vol. II, pp. 493-541. New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1898.

[In the following excerpt, Smith discusses the date of composition of Jonah, the nature of its narrative, and its intended purpose; he also provides an exposition of the book.]

The Book of Jonah is cast throughout in the form of narrative—the only one of our Twelve which is so. This fact, combined with the extraordinary events which the narrative relates, starts questions not raised by any of the rest. Besides treating, therefore, of the book's origin, unity, division and other commonplaces of introduction, we must further seek in this chapter reasons for the appearance of such a narrative among a collection of prophetic discourses. We have to ask whether the narrative be intended as one of fact; and if not, why the author was directed to the choice of such a form to enforce the truth committed to him.

The appearance of a narrative among the Twelve Prophets is not, in itself, so exceptional as it seems to be. Parts of the Books of Amos and Hosea treat of the personal experience of their authors. The same is true of the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in which the prophet's call and his attitude to it are regarded as elements of his message to men. No: the peculiarity of the Book of Jonah is not the presence of narrative, but the apparent absence of all prophetic discourse.1

Yet even this might be explained by reference to the first part of the prophetic canon—Joshua to Second Kings.2 These Former Prophets, as they are called, are wholly narrative—narrative in the prophetic spirit and written to enforce a moral. Many of them begin as the Book of Jonah does:3 they contain stories, for instance, of Elijah and Elisha, who flourished immediately before Jonah and like him were sent with commissions to foreign lands. It might therefore be argued that the Book of Jonah, though narrative, is as much a prophetic book as they are, and that the only reason why it has found a place, not with these histories, but among the Later Prophets, is the exceedingly late date of its composition.4

This is a plausible, but not the real, answer to our question. Suppose we were to find the latter by discovering that the Book of Jonah, though in narrative form, is not real history at all, nor pretends to be; but, from beginning to end, is as much a prophetic sermon as any of the other Twelve Books, yet cast in the form of parable or allegory? This would certainly explain the adoption of the book among the Twelve; nor would its allegorical character appear without precedent to those (and they are among the most conservative of critics) who maintain (as the present writer does not) the allegorical character of the story of Hosea's wife.5

It is, however, when we pass from the form to the substance of the book that we perceive the full justification of its reception among the prophets. The truth which we find in the Book of Jonah is as full and fresh a revelation of God's will as prophecy anywhere achieves. That God has granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto life6 is nowhere else in the Old Testament so vividly illustrated. It lifts the teaching of the Book of Jonah to equal rank with the second part of Isaiah, and nearest of all our Twelve to the New Testament. The very form in which this truth is insinuated into the prophet's reluctant mind, by contrasting God's pity for the dim population of Niniveh with Jonah's own pity for his perished gourd, suggests the methods of our Lord's teaching, and invests the book with the morning air of that high day which shines upon the most evangelic of His parables.

One other remark is necessary. In our effort to appreciate this lofty gospel we labour under a disadvantage. That is our sense of humour—our modern sense of humour. Some of the figures in which our author conveys his truth cannot but appear to us grotesque. How many have missed the sublime spirit of the book in amusement or offence at its curious details! Even in circles in which the acceptance of its literal interpretation has been demanded as a condition of belief in its inspiration, the story has too often served as a subject for humorous remarks. This is almost inevitable if we take it as history. But we shall find that one advantage of the theory, which treats the book as parable, is that the features, which appear so grotesque to many, are traced to the popular poetry of the writer's own time and shown to be natural. When we prove this, we shall be able to treat the scenery of the book as we do that of some early Christian fresco, in which, however rude it be or untrue to nature, we discover an earnestness and a success in expressing the moral essence of a situation that are not always present in works of art more skilful or more correct.


Jonah ben-Amittai, from Gath-hepher7 in Galilee, came forward in the beginning of the reign of Jeroboam II. to announce that the king would regain the lost territories of Israel from the Pass of Hamath to the Dead Sea.8 He flourished, therefore, about 780, and had this book been by himself we should have had to place it first of all the Twelve, and nearly a generation before that of Amos. But the book neither claims to be by Jonah, nor gives any proof of coming from an eye-witness of the adventures which it describes,9 nor even from a contemporary of the prophet. On the contrary, one verse implies that when it was written Niniveh had ceased to be a great city.10 Now Niniveh fell, and was practically destroyed, in 606 b.c.11 In all ancient history there was no collapse of an imperial city more sudden or so complete.12 We must therefore date the Book of Jonah some time after 606, when Niniveh's greatness had become what it was to the Greek writers, a matter of tradition.

A late date is also proved by the language of the book. This not only contains Aramaic elements which have been cited to support the argument for a northern origin in the time of Jonah himself, but a number of words and grammatical constructions which we find in the Old Testament, some of them in the later and some only in the very latest writings. Scarcely less decisive are a number of apparent quotations and echoes of passages in the Old Testament, mostly later than the date of the historical Jonah, and some of them even later than the Exile.13 If it could be proved that the Book of Jonah quotes from Joel, that would indeed set it down to a very late date—probably about 300 b.c.., the period of the composition of Ezra-Nehemiah, with the language of which its own shows most affinity.14 This would leave time for its reception into the Canon of the Prophets, which was closed by 200 b.c.15 Had the book been later it would undoubtedly have fallen, like Daniel, within the Hagiographa.


Nor does this book, written so many centuries after Jonah had passed away, claim to be real history. On the contrary, it offers to us all the marks of the parable or allegory. We have, first of all, the residence of Jonah for the conventional period of three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, a story not only very extraordinary in itself and sufficient to provoke the suspicion of allegory (we need not stop to argue this), but apparently woven, as we shall see,16 from the materials of a myth well known to the Hebrews. We have also the very general account of Niniveh's conversion, in which there is not even the attempt to describe any precise event. The absence of precise data is indeed conspicuous throughout the book. “The author neglects a multitude of things, which he would have been obliged to mention had history been his principal aim. He says nothing of the sins of which Niniveh was guilty,17 nor of the journey of the prophet to Niniveh, nor does he mention the place where he was cast out upon the land, nor the name of the Assyrian king. In any case, if the narrative were intended to be historical, it would be incomplete by the frequent fact, that circumstances which are necessary for the connection of events are mentioned later than they happened, and only where attention has to be directed to them as having already happened.”18 We find, too, a number of trifling discrepancies, from which some critics19 have attempted to prove the presence of more than one story in the composition of the book, but which are simply due to the license a writer allows himself when he is telling a tale and not writing a history. Above all, there is the abrupt close to the story at the very moment at which its moral is obvious.20 All these things are symptoms of the parable—so obvious and so natural, that we really sin against the intention of the author, and the purpose of the Spirit which inspired him, when we wilfully interpret the book as real history.21


The general purpose of this parable is very clear. It is not, as some have maintained,22 to explain why the judgments of God and the predictions of His prophets were not always fulfilled—though this also becomes clear by the way. The purpose of the parable, and it is patent from first to last, is to illustrate the mission of prophecy to the Gentiles, God's care for them, and their susceptibility to His word. More correctly, it is to enforce all this truth upon a prejudiced and thrice-reluctant mind.23

Whose was this reluctant mind? In Israel after the Exile there were many different feelings with regard to the future and the great obstacle which heathendom interposed between Israel and the future. There was the feeling of outraged justice, with the intense conviction that Jehovah's kingdom could not be established save by the overthrow of the cruel kingdoms of this world. We have seen that conviction expressed in the Book of Obadiah. But the nation, which read and cherished the visions of the Great Seer of the Exile,24 could not help producing among her sons men with hopes about the heathen of a very different kind—men who felt that Israel's mission to the world was not one of war, but of service in those high truths of God and of His Grace which had been committed to herself. Between the two parties it is certain there was much polemic, and we find this still bitter in the time of our Lord. And some critics think that while Esther, Obadiah and other writings of the centuries after the Return represent the one side of this polemic, which demanded the overthrow of the heathen, the Book of Jonah represents the other side, and in the vexed and reluctant prophet pictures such Jews as were willing to proclaim the destruction of the enemies of Israel, and yet like Jonah were not without the lurking fear that God would disappoint their predictions and in His patience leave the heathen room for repentance.25 Their dogmatism could not resist the impression of how long God had actually spared the oppressors of His people, and the author of the Book of Jonah cunningly sought these joints in their armour to insinuate the points of his doctrine of God's real will for nations beyond the covenant. This is ingenious and plausible. But in spite of the cleverness with which it has been argued that the details of the story of Jonah are adapted to the temper of the Jewish party who desired only vengeance on the heathen, it is not at all necessary to suppose that the book was the produce of mere polemic. The book is too simple and too grand for that. And therefore those appear more right who conceive that the writer had in view, not a Jewish party, but Israel as a whole in their national reluctance to fulfil their Divine mission to the world.26 Of them God had already said: Who is blind but My servant, or deaf as My messenger whom I have sent? … Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers? Did not Jehovah, He against whom we have sinned?—for they would not walk in His ways, neither were they obedient to His law.27 Of such a people Jonah is the type. Like them he flees from the duty God has laid upon him. Like them he is, beyond his own land, cast for a set period into a living death, and like them rescued again only to exhibit once more upon his return an ill-will to believe that God had any fate for the heathen except destruction. According to this theory, then, Jonah's disappearance in the sea and the great fish, and his subsequent ejection upon dry land, symbolise the Exile of Israel and their restoration to Palestine.

In proof of this view it has been pointed out that, while the prophets frequently represent the heathen tyrants of Israel as the sea or the sea-monster, one of them has actually described the nation's exile as its swallowing by a monster, whom God forces at last to disgorge his living prey.28 The full illustration of this will be given in Chapter XXXVI. on “The Great Fish and What it Means.” Here it is only necessary to mention that the metaphor was borrowed, not, as has been alleged by many, from some Greek, or other foreign, myth, which, like that of Perseus and Andromeda, had its scene in the neighbourhood of Joppa, but from a Semitic mythology which was well known to the Hebrews, and the materials of which were employed very frequently by other prophets and poets of the Old Testament.29

Why, of all prophets, Jonah should have been selected as the type of Israel, is a question hard but perhaps not impossible to answer. In history Jonah appears only as concerned with Israel's reconquest of her lands from the heathen. Did the author of the book say: I will take such a man, one to whom tradition attributes no outlook beyond Israel's own territories, for none could be so typical of Israel, narrow, selfish and with no love for the world beyond herself? Or did the author know some story about a journey of Jonah to Niniveh, or at least some discourse by Jonah against the great city? Elijah went to Sarepta, Elisha took God's word to Damascus: may there not have been, though we are ignorant of it, some connection between Niniveh and the labours of Elisha's successor? Thirty years after Jonah appeared, Amos proclaimed the judgment of Jehovah upon foreign nations, with the destruction of their capitals; about the year 755 he clearly enforced, as equal with Israel's own, the moral responsibility of the heathen to the God of righteousness. May not Jonah, almost the contemporary of Amos, have denounced Niniveh in the same way? Would not some tradition of this serve as the nucleus of history, round which our author built his allegory? It is possible that Jonah proclaimed doom upon Niniveh; yet those who are familiar with the prophesying of Amos, Hosea, and, in his younger days, Isaiah, will deem it hardly probable. For why do all these prophets exhibit such reserve in even naming Assyria, if Israel had already through Jonah entered into such articulate relations with Niniveh? We must, therefore, admit our ignorance of the reasons which led our author to choose Jonah as a type of Israel. We can only conjecture that it may have been because Jonah was a prophet, whom history identified only with Israel's narrower interests. If, during subsequent centuries, a tradition had risen of Jonah's journey to Niniveh or of his discourse against her, such a tradition has probability against it.

A more definite origin for the book than any yet given has been suggested by Professor Budde.30 The Second Book of Chronicles refers to a Midrash of the Book of the Kings31 for further particulars concerning King Joash. A Midrash32 was the expansion, for doctrinal or homiletic purposes, of a passage of Scripture, and very frequently took the form, so dear to Orientals, of parable or invented story about the subject of the text. We have examples of Midrashim among the Apocrypha, in the Books of Tobit and Susannah and in the Prayer of Manasseh, the same as is probably referred to by the Chronicler.33 That the Chronicler himself used the Midrash of the Book of the Kings as material for his own book is obvious from the form of the latter and its adaptation of the historical narratives of the Book of Kings.34 The Book of Daniel may also be reckoned among the Midrashim, and Budde now proposes to add to their number the Book of Jonah. It may be doubted whether this distinguished critic is right in supposing that the book formed the Midrash to 2 Kings xiv. 25 ff. (the author being desirous to add to the expression there of Jehovah's pity upon Israel some expression of His pity upon the heathen), or that it was extracted just as it stands, in proof of which Budde points to its abrupt beginning and end. We have seen another reason for the latter;35 and it is very improbable that the Midrashim, so largely the basis of the Books of Chronicles, shared that spirit of universalism which inspires the Book of Jonah.36 But we may well believe that it was in some Midrash of the Book of Kings that the author of the Book of Jonah found the basis of the latter part of his immortal work, which too clearly reflects the fortunes and conduct of all Israel to have been wholly drawn from a Midrash upon the story of the individual prophet Jonah.


We have seen, then, that the Book of Jonah is not actual history, but the enforcement of a profound religious truth nearer to the level of the New Testament than anything else in the Old, and cast in the form of Christ's own parables. The full proof of this can be made clear only by the detailed exposition of the book. There is, however, one other question, which is relevant to the argument. Christ Himself has employed the story of Jonah. Does His use of it involve His authority for the opinion that it is a story of real facts?

Two passages of the Gospels contain the words of our Lord upon Jonah: Matt. xii. 39, 41, and Luke xi. 29, 30.37A generation, wicked and adulterous, seeketh a sign, and sign shall not be given it, save the sign of the prophet Jonah. … The men of Niniveh shall stand up in the Judgment with this generation, and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here. This generation is an evil generation: it seeketh a sign; and sign shall not be given it, except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninivites, so also shall the Son of Man be to this generation.

These words, of course, are compatible with the opinion that the Book of Jonah is a record of real fact. The only question is, are they also compatible with the opinion that the Book of Jonah is a parable? Many say No; and they allege that those of us who hold this opinion are denying, or at least ignoring, the testimony of our Lord; or that we are taking away the whole force of the parallel which He drew. This is a question of interpretation, not of faith. We do not believe that our Lord had any thought of confirming or not confirming the historic character of the story. His purpose was purely one of exhortation, and we feel the grounds of that exhortation to be just as strong, when we have proven the Book of Jonah to be a parable. Christ is using an illustration: it surely matters not whether that illustration be drawn from the realms of fact or of poetry. Again and again in their discourses to the people do men use illustrations and enforcements drawn from traditions of the past. Do we, even when the historical value of these traditions is very ambiguous, give a single thought to the question of their historical character? We never think of it. It is enough for us that the tradition is popularly accepted and familiar. And we cannot deny to our Lord that which we claim for ourselves.38 Even conservative writers admit this. In his recent Introduction to Jonah Orelli says expressly: “It is not, indeed, proved with conclusive necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah's abode in the fish's belly must also be just as historical.”39

Upon the general question of our Lord's authority in matters of criticism, His own words with regard to personal questions may be appositely quoted: Man, who made Me a judge or divider over you? I am come not to judge … but to save. Such matters our Lord surely leaves to ourselves, and we have to decide them by our reason, our common-sense and our loyalty to truth—of all of which He Himself is the creator, and of which we shall have to render to Him an account at the last. Let us remember this, and we shall use them with equal liberty and reverence. Bringing every thought into subjection to Christ is surely just using our knowledge, our reason, and every other intellectual gift which He has given us, with the accuracy and the courage of His own Spirit.


The next question is that of the Unity of the Book. Several attempts have been made to prove from discrepancies, some real and some alleged, that the book is a compilation of stories from several different hands. But these essays are too artificial to have obtained any adherence from critics; and the few real discrepancies of narrative from which they start are due, as we have seen, rather to the license of a writer of parable than to any difference of authorship.40

In the question of the Unity of the Book, the Prayer or Psalm in chap. ii. offers a problem of its own, consisting as it does almost entirely of passages parallel to others in the Psalter. Besides a number of religious phrases, which are too general for us to say that one prayer has borrowed them from another,41 there are several unmistakeable repetitions of the Psalms.42

And yet the Psalm of Jonah has strong features, which, so far as we know, are original to it. The horror of the great deep has nowhere in the Old Testament been described with such power or with such conciseness. So far, then, the Psalm is not a mere string of quotations, but a living unity. Did the author of the book himself insert it where it stands? Against this it has been urged that the Psalm is not the prayer of a man inside a fish, but of one who on dry land celebrates a deliverance from drowning, and that if the author of the narrative himself had inserted it, he would rather have done so after ver. 11, which records the prophet's escape from the fish.43 And a usual theory of the origin of the Psalm is that a later editor, having found the Psalm ready-made and in a collection where it was perhaps attributed to Jonah,44 inserted it after ver. 2, which records that Jonah did pray from the belly of the fish, and inserted it there the more readily, because it seemed right for a book which had found its place among the Twelve Prophets to contribute, as all the others did, some actual discourse of the prophet whose name it bore.45 This, however, is not probable. Whether the original author found the Psalm ready to his hand or made it, there is a great deal to be said for the opinion of the earlier critics,46 that he himself inserted it, and just where it now stands. For, from the standpoint of the writer, Jonah was already saved, when he was taken up by the fish—saved from the deep into which he had been cast by the sailors, and the dangers of which the Psalm so vividly describes. However impossible it be for us to conceive of the compilation of a Psalm (even though full of quotations) by a man in Jonah's position,47 it was consistent with the standpoint of a writer who had just affirmed that the fish was expressly appointed by Jehovah, in order to save his penitent servant from the sea. To argue that the Psalm is an intrusion is therefore not only unnecessary, but it betrays failure to appreciate the standpoint of the writer. Given the fish and the Divine purpose of the fish, the Psalm is intelligible and appears at its proper place. It were more reasonable indeed to argue that the fish itself is an insertion. Besides, as we shall see, the spirit of the Psalm is national; in conformity with the truth underlying the book, it is a Psalm of Israel as a whole.

If this be correct, we have the Book of Jonah as it came from the hands of its author. The text is in wonderfully good condition, due to the ease of the narrative and its late date. The Greek version exhibits the usual proportion of clerical errors and mistranslations, omissions and amplifications, with some variant readings and other changes that will be noted in the verses themselves.



We have now laid clear the lines upon which the Book of Jonah was composed. Its purpose is to illustrate God's grace to the heathen in face of His people's refusal to fulfil their mission to them. The author was led to achieve this purpose by a parable, through which the prophet Jonah moves as the symbol of his recusant, exiled, redeemed and still hardened people. It is the Drama of Israel's career, as the Servant of God, in the most pathetic moments of that career. A nation is stumbling on the highest road nation was ever called to tread.

Who is blind but My servant,
Or deaf as My messenger whom I have sent?

He that would read this Drama aright must remember what lies behind the Great Refusal which forms its tragedy. The cause of Israel's recusancy was not only wilfulness or cowardly sloth, but the horror of a whole world given over to idolatry, the paralysing sense of its irresistible force, of its cruel persecutions endured for centuries, and of the long famine of Heaven's justice. These it was which had filled Israel's eyes too full of fever to see her duty. Only when we feel, as the writer himself felt, all this tragic background to his story are we able to appreciate the exquisite gleams which he flashes across it: the generous magnanimity of the heathen sailors, the repentance of the heathen city, and, lighting from above, God's pity upon the dumb heathen multitudes.

The parable or drama divides itself into three parts: The Prophet's Flight and Turning (chap. i.); The Great Fish and What it Means (chap. ii.); and The Repentance of the City (chaps. iii. and iv.).

The chief figure of the story is Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher in Galilee, a prophet identified with that turn in Israel's fortunes, by which she began to defeat her Syrian oppressors, and win back from them her own territories—a prophet, therefore, of revenge, and from the most bitter of the heathen wars. And the word of Jehovah came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying, Up, go to Niniveh, the Great City, and cry out against her, for her evil is come up before Me. But he arose to flee. It was not the length of the road, nor the danger of declaring Niniveh's sin to her face, which turned him, but the instinct that God intended by him something else than Niniveh's destruction; and this instinct sprang from his knowledge of God Himself. Ah now, Jehovah, was not my word, while I was yet upon mine own soil, at the time I made ready to flee to Tarshish, this—that I knew that Thou art a God gracious and tender and long-suffering, plenteous in love and relenting of evil?48 Jonah interpreted the Word which came to him by the Character which he knew to be behind the Word. This is a significant hint upon the method of revelation.

It would be rash to say that, in imputing even to the historical Jonah the fear of God's grace upon the heathen, our author were guilty of an anachronism.49 We have to do, however, with a greater than Jonah—the nation herself. Though perhaps Israel little reflected upon it, the instinct can never have been far away that some day the grace of Jehovah might reach the heathen too. Such an instinct, of course, must have been almost stifled by hatred born of heathen oppression, as well as by the intellectual scorn which Israel came to feel for heathen idolatries. But we may believe that it haunted even those dark periods in which revenge upon the Gentiles seemed most just, and their destruction the only means of establishing God's kingdom in the world. We know that it moved uneasily even beneath the rigour of Jewish legalism. For its secret was that faith in the essential grace of God, which Israel gained very early and never lost, and which was the spring of every new conviction and every reform in her wonderful development. With a subtle appreciation of all this, our author imputes the instinct to Jonah from the outset. Jonah's fear, that after all the heathen may be spared, reflects the restless apprehension even of the most exclusive of his people—an apprehension which by the time our book was written seemed to be still more justified by God's long delay of doom upon the tyrants whom He had promised to overthrow.

But to the natural man in Israel the possibility of the heathen's repentance was still so abhorrent, that he turned his back upon it. Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the face of Jehovah. In spite of recent arguments to the contrary, the most probable location of Tarshish is the generally accepted one, that it was a Phœnician colony at the other end of the Mediterranean. In any case it was far from the Holy Land; and by going there the prophet would put the sea between himself and his God. To the Hebrew imagination there could not be a flight more remote. Israel was essentially an inland people. They had come up out of the desert, and they had practically never yet touched the Mediterranean. They lived within sight of it, but from ten to twenty miles of foreign soil intervened between their mountains and its stormy coast. The Jews had no traffic upon the sea, nor (but for one sublime instance50 to the contrary) had their poets ever employed it except as a symbol of arrogance and restless rebellion against the will of God.51 It was all this popular feeling of the distance and strangeness of the sea which made our author choose it as the scene of the prophet's flight from the face of Israel's God. Jonah had to pass, too, through a foreign land to get to the coast: upon the sea he would only be among heathen. This was to be part of his conversion. He went down to Yapho, and found a ship going to Tarshish, and paid the fare thereof, and embarked on her to get away with her crew52to Tarshish—away from the face of Jehovah.

The scenes which follow are very vivid: the sudden wind sweeping down from the very hills on which Jonah believed he had left his God; the tempest; the behaviour of the ship, so alive with effort that the story attributes to her the feelings of a living thing—she thought she must be broken; the despair of the mariners, driven from the unity of their common task to the hopeless diversity of their idolatry—they cried every man unto his own god; the jettisoning of the tackle of the ship to lighten her (as we should say, they let the masts go by the board); the worn-out prophet in the hull of the ship, sleeping like a stowaway; the group gathered on the heaving deck to cast the lot; the passenger's confession, and the new fear which fell upon the sailors from it; the reverence with which these rude men ask the advice of him, in whose guilt they feel not the offence to themselves, but the sacredness to God; the awakening of the prophet's better self by their generous deference to him; how he counsels to them his own sacrifice; their reluctance to yield to this, and their return to the oars with increased perseverance for his sake. But neither their generosity nor their efforts avail. The prophet again offers himself, and as their sacrifice he is thrown into the sea.

And Jehovah cast a wind53on the sea, and there was a great tempest,54and the ship threatened55to break up. And the sailors were afraid, and cried every man unto his own god; and they cast the tackle of the ship into the sea, to lighten it from upon them. But Jonah had gone down to the bottom of the ship and lay fast asleep. And the captain of the ship56came to him, and said to him, What art thou doing asleep? Up, call on thy God; peradventure the God will be gracious to us, that we perish not. And they said every man to his neighbour, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose sake is this evil come upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. And they said to him, Tell us now,57what is thy business, and whence comest thou? what is thy land, and from what people art thou? And he said to them, A Hebrew am I, and a worshipper of the God of Heaven,58who made the sea and the dry land. And the men feared greatly, and said to him, What is this thou hast done? (for they knew he was fleeing from the face of Jehovah, because he had told them). And they said to him, What are we to do to thee that the sea cease raging against us? For the sea was surging higher and higher. And he said, Take me and throw me into the sea; so shall the sea cease raging against you: for I am sure that it is on my account that this great tempest is risen upon you. And the men laboured59with the oars to bring the ship to land, and they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. So they called on Jehovah and said, Jehovah, let us not perish, we pray Thee, for the life of this man, neither bring innocent blood upon us: for Thou art Jehovah, Thou doest as Thou pleasest. Then they took up Jonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea stilled from its raging. But the men were in great awe of Jehovah, and sacrificed to Him and vowed vows.

How very real it is and how very noble! We see the storm, and then we forget the storm in the joy of that generous contest between heathen and Hebrew. But the glory of the passage is the change in Jonah himself. It has been called his...

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Hans Walter Wolff (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Wolff, Hans Walter. “Introduction.” In Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary, translated by Margaret Kohl, pp. 75-93. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, first published in German in 1977, Wolff examines Jonah's place in the Hebrew canon and considers problems involving textual history and the difficulty of assigning the book to a particular genre.]


At the beginning of the second century b.c., the book of Sirach refers to Isaiah (48:22), Jeremiah (49:6f.), Ezekiel (49:8), and Job (49:9), and then goes on to mention the twelve prophets (“May the bones of...

(The entire section is 8151 words.)

Joseph Blenkinsopp (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “Prophets and Prophecy in the Second Commonwealth.” In A History of Prophecy in Israel, pp. 25-73. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Blenkinsopp explains Jonah's reluctance to be a prophet and contends that the message of the book is that God's ultimate will is to save mankind.]

Jonah is fifth in the Dodekapropheton, between Obadiah and Micah. This position is one of several indications of editorial concern for chronological sequence, since a prophet named Jonah ben-Amittai was active during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 b.c.e.). The context (II Kings 14:25) informs us that he...

(The entire section is 3206 words.)

Jack M. Sasson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Sasson, Jack M. “Narrative Art and Literary Typology in Jonah.” In “Jonah”: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation, pp. 328-51. New York: Anchor Bible Vol. 24B, Doubleday, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Sasson examines the characteristics of the narrator of the Book of Jonah, explores whether the work is a satire (and, if so, a deliberate satire), and contends that Jonah plays the roles of both comic dupe and comic hero.]

In inspecting Jonah's narrative art, I find it economical to concentrate on diverse literary categories advanced by commentators when they treat the book beyond history. I divide my...

(The entire section is 11973 words.)

Frank Zimmermann (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Zimmermann, Frank. “Problems and Solutions in the Book of Jonah.Judaism 40, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 580-89.

[In the following essay, Zimmermann contends that some textual problems of the Book of Jonah are the result of a compiler's not having adequately combined two very different traditions.]

The Book of Jonah has been a battleground among scholars for centuries. It bristles with literary difficulties and weird improbabilities. For the most part, investigators have traditionally been satisfied, as with so many other Biblical books, to uncover the correct interpretation of the texts, as well as to deal with certain theological problems, as...

(The entire section is 4638 words.)

James Limburg (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Limburg, James. “Introduction.” In Jonah: A Commentary, pp. 19-36. New York: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Limburg discusses Jonah's themes and its place among other books of the Bible, also considering some problems of its genre and date of composition.]


It is not immediately apparent that the story of Jonah should be grouped with the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Jonah is never called “prophet” in the book that bears his name. Since the Jonah material is a story about a prophet rather than a collection of prophetic sayings, it could...

(The entire section is 8795 words.)

Paul Kahn (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kahn, Paul. “An Analysis of the Book of Jonah.Judaism 43, no. 1 (Winter 1994): 87-100.

[In the following essay, Kahn examines Jonah's structure, symbolism, and imagery.]

The Book of Jonah is unique in both form and content. It is one of the smallest books of the Prophets, and it conveys its message through the medium of a story. Rarely does it fail to captivate its reader, while at the same time it poses a variety of striking questions of theme and narrative. Indeed, to the thoughtful reader, the Book of Jonah is one of the most enigmatic writings of the Prophets. Jonah is a rebellious prophet. Why? In view of his...

(The entire section is 6501 words.)

Gildas Hamel (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hamel, Gildas. “Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean Context.” Judaism 44, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 341-59.

[In the following essay, Hamel describes how motifs found in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts also function in Jonah.]

Naturally, the Book of Jonah must be read, first and last, within its Hebrew context. Indeed, the text reverberates, especially to Hebrew ears, with clear echoes of biblical passages that come from the Noah story, from Jeremiah, Joel, and other prophets.1 In numerous studies, commentators have pointed out these intertextual links, while disagreeing on the exact nature of their...

(The entire section is 8995 words.)

David Marcus (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Marcus, David. “The Book of Jonah,” and “Implications of a Satirical Reading of Jonah.” In From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible, pp. 93-159. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Marcus lays out a case for Jonah as an anti-prophetic satire, and then advances several different possibilities concerning its main message.]

The familiar story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, who refuses to carry out God's mission and who is swallowed by a big fish, is perhaps the most well known of all the stories in our corpus. But the book in which this story is embedded is curious for at least five reasons....

(The entire section is 26935 words.)

Further Reading


Barré, Michael L. “Jonah 2, 9 and the Structure of Jonah's Prayer.” Biblica 72, no. 2 (1991): 237-48.

Posits a new interpretation of verse 9, linking it to verse 8, which leads to a different understanding of the structure of the poem as a whole.

Bolin, Thomas M. Freedom beyond Forgiveness: The “Book of Jonah” Re-Examined. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1997, 217p.

Offers textual and grammatical analysis.

Christensen, Duane L. “The Song of Jonah: A Metrical Analysis.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104, no. 2 (June 1985): 217-31.


(The entire section is 347 words.)