Book of Jonah Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.