Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
We made it through Obadiah, and some long lessons on the Edomites, and now we have arrived at Jonah, the most exciting of all the prophetic books. In preparation for our Jonah studies, I checked my large collection of children’s bibles at home to see which of the minor prophets made an appearance. As I suspected, Jonah is with rare exception the only minor prophet to appear in illustrated Bibles. In addition, Jonah is the only prophet to get his own musical production at the Sight & Sound theater. Jonah is the only Hebrew prophet to have a full-length Veggie Tale movie. For most Christian adults, Jonah is the prophet that we come to with the most familiarity, but much of that familiarity comes from hearing Jonah’s story as a child.
As part of the Bible Fiber reading challenge, I tried to read Jonah with fresh adult eyes. I had never read Jonah after doing deep studies in the other minor prophets who proceeded him, so it was interesting to get a feel for his place among the twelve. And Jonah is an awkward fit among the other prophets. The literary differences, in both format and message, between Jonah and the other prophets are striking. Jonah is technically not a prophetic book; in that it is not written as an oracle and never takes a first-person voice. It is a narrative book, written anonymously, telling a story in third person about Jonah. In fact, Jonah is the only prophetic book that takes a mocking tone toward the prophet-in-focus. Out of four chapters, only five words in Jonah can be classified as an oracle. We will get to that short oracle in chapter three.
Because of all the differences, many Bible scholars have deliberated about how to label Jonah. Is the book truly a historical narrative, like it is most often read? Or is it an allegory or even parable? I promise I am not dragging you through a heretical thought experiment, just a close look at how Jonah lines up with other Bible books.
Jonah is four chapters so this month we will read one chapter of Jonah each week.
In the first chapter, first two verses, Jonah begins in the traditional manner of a prophetic book: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’” Naming the prophet and his commission from Yahweh is what an ancient reader would have expected. From there, however, the book quickly diverges from a normal prophetic template. Jonah immediately fled “away from the presence of the Lord” (1:3).
Hosea was commissioned to marry an unfaithful wife, Joel was told to gather a post-apocalypse assembly, and Amos was told to leave his home in Judah to minister in Israel. In each instance, the prophets answered their difficult calls from the Lord. Jonah is the first and only prophet to completely resist God’s directive and to go very far in doing so.
To be fair to Jonah, no other prophet received a commission that required leaving the Holy Land. Even if the other prophets spent time delivering oracles against other nations, they got to do so within the comfort of their own communities. Jonah was tasked with giving his oracle directly to Nineveh, one of the most important cities in the Assyrian empire. Jonah was supposed to announce to the Ninevites that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had taken notice of Nineveh’s wickedness!
Hopefully, you have read or reread the first chapter of Jonah. In this first act, Jonah goes to Joppa and boards a boat to Tarshish, which most certainly was a pricey ticket. Opposing God’s will is rarely cheap. Tarshish may be referencing Spain or an area in Asia Minor. Either way, the point is that Jonah was heading in the opposite direction as Nineveh. Yahweh, the God of the earth and sky, sends a storm to shake Jonah out of his stubborn disobedience. The storm was so violent that even the experienced sailors were frightened. Tul is the Hebrew word for “hurl” and it is thrice repeated in this section with a climatic effect. The storm “hurls” the boat, forcing the sailors to “hurl” cargo into the sea, and lastly they are forced to “hurl” Jonah overboard.
The Phoenician crew was a cosmopolitan lot, as they each cried out to their own god (1:5). Such was the way in a polytheistic society. When one god failed to answer prayers, they cried out to the next. Still, at least the sailors rightly recognized that the storm was the result of a divine force, unlike Jonah who was sleeping through the storm in the hull of the boat. A note is struck here highlighting the alertness of the pagan sailors to God’s punishing hand as it is contrasted with Jonah’s spiritual stupor. The sailors commanded Jonah to “Get up! Go!” and to pray to his god. The Hebrew is the same as verse one when God commanded Jonah to “Get up! Go!” to Nineveh. No other book in the Hebrew bible has a confrontation like this between a Jew and a group of pagans who outshine the Jew in their sensitivity to the hand of Yahweh.
When the storm threatens to capsize the boat, the sailors desperately cast lots to determine which passenger is responsible for angering the god of the sea. The lots successfully single out the guilty: our anti-hero, Jonah. Only then does Jonah confess how he has angered the god of the Hebrews. Lot casting was common in the ancient Near East. Even though it seems like a practice that the Hebrew religion would forbid, there are several times in the Old Testament that it is used as a legitimate means of divine bidding. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” The Urim and Thummim stones were part of the vestments of the High Priest, but they were also used in deciphering God’s will (See Lev. 16:8, Num. 26:55, Josh. 18:10, 1 Sam. 14:41). Using the two-colored stones was their version of tossing a coin. All that to say, an ancient reader in Judah would not pass judgement on the sailors’ methods of truth-seeking.
Even after the lots point to Jonah, the sailors give Jonah a chance to speak for himself. They are fair-minded and not eager to find a scapegoat. They ask Jonah to declare his religion and nationality. Jonah understands that the storm is targeting him, and only his death will pacify Yahweh. Jonah replies, “I am a Hebrew.” He adds, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). The sailors were horrified, and they did not question the connection between Jonah’s rebellion and the source of the storm. All was immediately made clear to them.
The sailors are reluctant to throw Jonah over, but at this point Jonah seems to have a death wish. After trying and failing to navigate the ship to dry ground, they pray and ask God to not be found guilty in the death of an innocent man. The story shows that this was not pagans merely conducting a human sacrifice. They were genuinely seeking to appease the God of the Hebrews who Jonah had offended. It all seems to be so nobly handled on their part. Immediately after Jonah is thrown from the boat, the waters quieted. The text says, “Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (1:16).
Why does the first chapter of Jonah highlight the wisdom and spiritual discernment of these pagan sailors in comparison to a prophet of Yahweh? Normally, you expect the prophet to be the one to see God’s message clearly, but throughout the book, Jonah is the flawed character. Jonah’s defiance stands in contrast to the sailors’ earnest seeking of the one true God who controls the seas. In each scene in this moment of crisis, they act wisely, justly, and appropriately seek Yahweh. The effect is meant to be shocking, and to expose the self-righteousness of Jonah, one of the Israelite’s own. In Jonah 1:14, the sailors cry out to God using his covenantal name revealed only to the Hebrews: “Please, Yahweh, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, Yahweh, have done as it pleased you.” Apart from this verse, there are no other incidents in the Hebrew scripture of pagans calling out to God using His sacred name.
Jesus used a tactic like Jonah 1 in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The heroes of Jonah 1 and the Good Samaritan parable are the gentiles who are more sympathetic to the needs around them than the Hebrews. The Samaritan, the hated neighbor of first-century Judeans, saved a dying man on the road, after a Temple priest and Levite ignored the man’s suffering. The reader is forced to admire their natural enemies and observe as they outshine those in their community who they would have expected to act upright. The reader is meant to be humbled by the actions of these gentiles.
We have established that Jonah stands out among the minor prophets for its uniqueness. The plot twists, the satire, and the big picture spiritual lessons give the book an almost metaphorical feel. The narrative style of presentation makes Jonah seem out of place coming after prophetic oracles. Dramatic details in the story like a violent storm, fish swallowing, Nineveh’s conversion, and a magical tree seem like properties of a parable. However, all those things could also be historical miracles. The Bible is full of both types of teaching tools so it is hard to determine. Still, if Jonah is a parable, it is a parable void of a full explanation. When Jesus taught in parables, he explained the important morals and messages so that the audience understood his method. Jonah ends abruptly and inconclusively, without delivering any interpretation or explanation. For that reason, I don’t believe the whole book was written as a parable.
The other possibility is that Jonah is an allegory, a story that must be interpreted to reveal its moral message. Scholars who advocate for the allegorical nature of Jonah most often point to the meaning of the prophet’s name. Jonah, in Hebrew, means dove. In the allegorical interpretation, Jonah represents the nation of Judah and/or Israel. The boat ride to Tarshish symbolizes the rebellion of the nation. Jonah’s three days of repentance inside the belly of the fish is the period of exile. God’s command for the fish to spit Judah onto dry land is like God prompting the heart of Cyrus the Great to allow the Jews to return to the promised land. Judah will use those years in exile to repent of their past sins and to restore their relationship with Yahweh, just as Jonah did praying inside the belly of the fish. The problem is that allegories require every aspect in the book to have a symbolic equivalent. In Jonah, there is plenty that does not have an obvious symbolic parallel to Judah’s exile. Also, nothing in the book of Jonah explicitly states that the reader is interacting with an allegory.
The book of Jonah is the divinely inspired word of God, whether Jonah’s tale is historical or metaphorical. I mention the question of Jonah’s nature so that you can know the full range of Jonah scholarship and tradition, without dismissing it as liberal miracle-denying biblical criticism. Even Martin Luther denied the historical nature of Jonah, believing it was meant to be a parable.
Personally, I believe Jonah is a historical book, but not because of anything in the book itself that provides its nature. The most important confirmation that Jonah was a historical and not figurative person comes from 2 Kings 14:25: “according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.” We know from this verse that the prophet Jonah was from the Northern Kingdom and lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 BCE). Without the cross reference in 2 Kings, the book of Jonah possesses nothing internally that points to the date of its composition. And even though it seems like a dry reference to one of Jonah’s prophecies, I also believe the oracle Jonah spoke to King Jeroboam II fits what we already know about the prophet’s lack of a prophetic spine.
The verse says that Jonah used his prophetic authority to assure Jeroboam II that his borders would expand northward, a prophecy that surely delighted the ungodly king. Even then, Jonah seems to have been the kind of prophet that avoided speaking hard truth to power. The prophecy he gave Jeroboam II did indeed play out, but it was a nationalistic, ear-tickling prophecy to a king who did evil in the sight of the Lord. Remember that Amos also lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II, after the king was already successful in battle. Amos boldly visited the temple in Bethel and prophesied that Jeroboam would die by the sword and all of Israel would be exiled (Amos 7:11). Amos was likely killed because of his commitment to speak truth. What we see in 2 Kings fits the character of Jonah, a prophet that hardly commands our respect, but was indeed a historical person. Parables and allegories in the Bible use figurative people and not historical figures as a rule.
Most important of all, Jesus treated Jonah as a historical fact. When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, he pointed to the sign of Jonah: “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). The same episode is covered in Luke 11:29-32. We will unpack the sign of Jonah and Christology more in the coming weeks.
The first chapter of Jonah ends with his rescue: “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jon. 1:17). In my recall of Jonah and the Whale from children’s bibles, the big fish was God’s punishment for Jonah. But in a forthright reading, the fish was all part of God’s rescue plan for the wayward prophet. Without being swallowed by the fish, the prophet had about eighteen minutes until his death was sealed by drowning. Without the fish, Jonah would never have been given a second chance. That is the amazing grace of our saving God, even as it extends to a narrow-minded rebellious prophet like Jonah.
Please join me next week for Jonah and the second chapter, the prophet’s prayer. Email me or message me to share what God is showing you through the reading of the prophets. I hope Bible Fiber can help you with any 2022 resolutions to go deeper into God’s word.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. My only measure of success for Bible Fiber is if people, even a few, are reading parts of the Bible that they had previously neglected and seeing them with fresh eyes and hearing the scripture with new ears. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.