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The Book of Jonah (Hebrew: Sefer Yonah) is a book in the Hebrew Bible. It tells the story of an Hebrew prophet named Jonah ben Amittai who is sent by God to prophesy the destruction of Ninevehmarker but tries to escape the divine mission. Set in the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE), it was probably written in the post-exilic period (after 530 BCE). The story has an interesting interpretive history (see below) and has become well-known 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, even His compassion. 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's righteousness. 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.

Narrative

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 narrative, the story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes. It also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.

Setting

The story of Jonah is set against the background of Ancient Israel in the 8th-7th centuries BCE but deals with the religious and social issues of the late 6th-4th centuries BCE, coinciding with the views of latter chapters of the book of Isaiah (Third Isaiah), where Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles.

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 Nazarethmarker in what would have been known as Israelmarker in the post-exilic period (as distinct from the southern kingdom, known as Judah) and Galilee around the time of Christ.

Ninevehmarker was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, which fell to the Medes in 612 BCE. 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 Judahmarker). The Assyrian oppression against the Israelites can be seen in the bitter prophecies of Nahum.

Characters

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 (1:4-6). While Jonah passively finds himself forced to act under the Divine Will, the people of Nineveh actively petition God to change His mind.

Plot

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 Joppamarker 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 and retellings for children conventionally assume it to be a whale) sent by God, swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. He says a prayer in which he repents for his disobedience and calls upon God for mercy. God speaks to the fish, which vomits out Jonah safely on dry land. After his rescue, Jonah obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, and they repent and God forgives them. Ironically, the relentless God demonstrated in the first chapter becomes the merciful God in the last two chapters (see 3:10). In a parallel turnabout, Jonah becomes one of the most effective of all prophets, turning the entire population of Nineveh (about 120,000 people) to God.

Interpretive history



As with many canonical books, the Book of Jonah has had a long and varied interpretive history This history spans from ancient rabbinic interpretations to "post modern" reader-response interpretations. The interpretative styles of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists have all been employed to understand the Book of Jonah.

Early Jewish interpretation

The story of Jonah has numerous theological implications, and this has long been recognized. In early translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish translators tended to remove anthropomorphic imagery in order to prevent the reader from misunderstanding the ancient texts. This tendency is evidenced in both the Aramaic translations (i.e. the Targum) and the Greek translations (i.e. the Septuagint). As far as the Book of Jonah is concerned, Targum Jonah offers a good example of this.

Targum Jonah

In Jonah 1:6, the Masoretic Text (MT) reads, "...perhaps God will pay heed to us...." Targum Jonah translates this passage as: "...perhaps there will be mercy from the Lord upon us...." The captain's proposal is no longer an attempt to change the divine will; it is an attempt to appeal to divine mercy. Furthermore, in Jonah 3:9, the MT reads, "Who knows, God may turn and relent [lit. repent]?" Targum Jonah translates this as, "Whoever knows that there are sins on his conscience let him repent of them and we will be pitied before the Lord." God does not change His mind; He shows pity.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragments of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), most of which followed the Masoretic Text closely and with Mur XII reproducing a large portion of the text . As for the non-canonical writings, the majority of references to biblical texts were made by argumentum ad verecundiam. The Book of Jonah appears to have served less purpose in the Qumran community than other texts, as the writings make no references to it.

Early Christian interpretation

New Testament

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew (see and 16:1-4) and the Gospel of Luke (see Luke 11:29-32). Both Matthew and Luke record a tradition of Jesus’ interpretation of the story of Jonah (notably, Matthew includes two very similar traditions in chapters 12 and 16). As with most Old Testament interpretations found in the New Testament, Jesus’ interpretation is primarily “typological” (see Typology ). Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus. Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the ground. Here, Jesus plays on the imagery of Sheol found in Jonah’s prayer. While Jonah metaphorically declared, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” Jesus will literally be in the belly of Sheol. And Finally, Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh. Jesus fulfills his role as a type of Jonah, however his generation fails to fulfill its role as a type of Nineveh. Nineveh repented but his generation, which has seen and heard one even greater than Jonah, fails to repent. Through his typological interpretation of the story of Jonah, Jesus has weighed his generation and found it wanting.

Augustine of Hippo

The debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah is not simply a modern one. The credibility of a human being surviving in the belly of a great fish has long been questioned. In c. 409 CE, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:

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 (1:17 in English translation), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol (Hebrew: דג גדול), which translated literally means "great fish." The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as ketos megas (Greek: κητος μεγας). The term ketos alone means "huge fish," and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters. Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda in his Latin Vulgate. However, he translated ketos as cetus in .

At some point, cetus became synonymous with whale (c.f. cetyl alcohol, which is alcohol derived from whales). In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe," and he translated the word ketos (Greek) or cetus (Latin) in 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.

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 ( ) 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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