Home » Ponderings of the Bible » An Introduction to the Book of Jonah:

An Introduction to the Book of Jonah:


“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,” – Jonah 1.1

Among the Minor Prophets:

The Book of Jonah is fond among the Minor Prophets portion of the Old Testament.  Which in itself is of interest after all as Magonet puts it “Is the book in the “right” place in the Bible[1]?”  This work is certainly different from the various other works which are in the prophetic section, its chiefly more a story then a prophecy.  In many ways it follows the narratives of the Prophets of Kings more so then it follows the words of the other prophets[2].  Yet its placement has been found as listed among the Minor Prophets even in ancient scrolls, fifth in place in a Scroll found in Wadi Muraba’at[3] and sixth in the LXX[4].

The order of Jonah in both of these ancient collection has been suggested to be for chronological reasons.  Namely that Jonah is prior to Obadiah because Obadiah’s ministry took place prior to his.  Some have suggested that Obadiah is to be equated with an official of Ahab (1 Kings 18.3[5]) or that Jonah (who is assumed to be the same Jonah as 2 Kings 14.25[6], and hence a later date) begins to be the prophets who speak to the nations[7].  Moreover the prophets after Jonah are (usually Micah, always Nahum) are traditionally thought to have had their career after that of Jonah’s and when Assyria had returned back to its sins[8].

Even if one wonders about the placement of Jonah, it was evidently regarded as prophetic, even though it may seem so different compared to the others[9].


It is a work which for the most part was considered historical until the modern writers and the increasing popularity of historical criticism.  (These scholar’s being critical of the supernatural elements within the story and moreover that they could not find a time when Nineveh worship Israel’s God).  This in turned began others to begin to prove its historicalness of it all, and in part Jesus’ references (Matthew 12.38-41[10]; Luke 11.29-32[11]) to Jonah have led to support of its true character.  But because of the question of Jonah’s historicalness have lead to scholars now more so then before in trying to figure out the genre of the book[12].

When looking at the work in the whole we do have to note that it is a work which has in it more than one style, it begins as narrative and moves to psalm before prose (different in style then before)[13].  This has lead of course to some thinking that the work was nothing but a composite of different works (similar to the Pentateuch), yet that has yet to proving and so the single author is held still[14].  Yet even if one takes this single narrator, the question then does arise is this narrator Jonah?  This in itself seems unlikely.   For example in the work, Jonah does not make use of personal pronouns, nowhere in the work does it make a claim to have been written by him, or even would Jonah had written a work which was so critical of himself[15]?  This is not to say that Jonah was not historical, nor for that matter that Jonah had no part in relating some of the events which appear in the work.

Concerning then the genre of the work then differing suggestions have come up from all sorts of ranges.  Some have suggested satire or irony, other as a Mashal or Midrash[16], it does reflect the narrative portions of other prophets in the historical works more so then the historical works themselves[17].  McGowan puts it as “Jonah is neither a mere popular legend nor a simple historical account; rather it is the work of a highly instructed Israelite[18].”  The main problem however that arises in a discussion concerning the genre of the book is that seems as if the various writers cannot think (in the case of Jonah) that a work can be historical and relate things in a certain literary form[19].

Concerning Jonah’s Historicalness:

It would seem that most scholars nowadays would consider the book of Jonah to be anything but historical.  For example Trible called it “clearly non-historical” or as Brewer once said “Surely this is not the record of actual historical events nor was it ever intended as such.  It is a sin against the author to treat as literal prose what he intended as poetry[20].”  But one has to wonder then, if this were the case then why was it that before the nineteenth century did everyone assumed the almost every scholars and readers consider the book historical[21]?  One does have to admit that there are certain things which seem too fantastic to be real (but then again why couldn’t God’s intervene in such a way to break the norm?).

Firstly let us note that if one looks at what ancient writers wrote concerning the book, we note that from Josephus (Ant. 9.12.2) to the Church fathers we see that took Jonah not as fiction, but indeed as fact[22].  Also as already noted above the way in which Jesus spoke of noted indicated the factual history of it and many have thus begun there.  Secondly one has to realize that as Jonah’s story begin it is placed within a historical setting, and though there may not be as many facts as we would hope for (i.e. When Jonah was when Yahweh first spoke to him, or where the Fish threw Jonah up at) it doesn’t show the work as more fiction, it just shows that the writer only mentioned that which was needed for his primary purpose was not in those details, but the message of Jonah[23].

Thirdly one cannot deny that the book is filled with the impossible, but in a sense so too is the body filled with the impossible, from the plagues on Egypt, to the miracles of Elisha and Elijah not to mention the miracles in the New Testament of Jesus and his Apostles.  Thus if one allows for those miracles there should be nothing stopping that for Jonah.  (Although for those who do easily deny miracles then this conversation is moot point).  Thus I would say if one sees Jonah as a historical tale, then it is one that depended upon faith.

As for other things, one has to note the term of “King of Nineveh,” the great repentance of the city, among other things.  Some object to the Book of Jonah calling the King that of Ninevah instead of the more accurate King of Assyria.  The easiest explanation is that the writer chose to say King of Nineveh since that is the primary city in story the writer choose that instead of Assyria, and other places in the Old Testament show that they would refer to the King by a Capital or Chief city than his country (for example 1 Kings 21.1[24])[25].  As for the lack of repentance in extrabiblcal documents one has to note that we do not have a great deal of those documents to check this moreover, writers of that time were bias and so it would seem unlikely that would refer to a short lived time of “repentance[26].” (And it evidence within the bible that this repentance was short lived indeed for Assyria was once again its polytheistic self shortly later).

(For a fuller discussion on this see Jonah commentary on WBC).

The Prophet Himself:

The book of Jonah unlike the majority of the other prophetic literature does not give any indication which King was upon the throne during the time of writing, and it has been suggested that the purpose of this was so that the readers would automatically connect this Jonah with the same one found in 2 Kings 14.25[27].  When we meet Jonah in the 2 Kings account we see that he was within the territory of Zebulun and his city probably quite close to that Nazareth[28].  We see that the King at that time was Jeroboam II (about 793-753) and Jonah had actually given him a good message in that he would expand the territory of Israel (interesting itself as Jeroboam was still who did not walk in the ways of Yahweh and would cause his people to sin)[29].

We know nothing of Jonah outside of the facts of his book, except that which is self evident, Jonah was as Stuart puts “an ardent nationalist, pro-Israel and anti-foreign; at least, anti-Assyrian[30].”  Moreover Jonah’s message in 2 Kings was one in which its results were seen, however Jonah’s message in the book after his name was one that failed so to speak.  Thus most see the Book of Jonah as taking place after this event (as 2 Kings doesn’t seem him as a false prophet), while others as Simon note see the book as “a sort of consecration story, in which his mission to Nineveh prepares him for his second mission—bringing good tidings to those who have not and will not repent[31].”

End Notes

[1] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992). 3:936.

[2] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1995). 204.

[3] This scrolls follows our known MT text’s order, and division of Jonah as pointed out by Sasson

[4] Uriel Simon, Jonah, JPS Bible commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999). xiv.

[5]And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly,

[6]He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.

[7] Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation With Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008). 14.

[8]Simon xiv

[9]Sasson 15

[10]Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here

[11] When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, v“This generation is an evil generation.  It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.  For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.  The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

[12]Freedman 3:940.

[13] Sasson16.

[14] Stuart 431

[15]Page 206.

[16] “a mashal (a term used of proverbial and parabolic materials) or a midrash (a category of Rabbinic exegesis that also includes short parables)”

[17] Freedman 3:940.

[18] Jean C. McGowan JBC 634

[19]Page 210.

[20] Trible, Studies in the Book of Jonah, 176 and Julius A. Bewer, “Jonah,” The International Critical Commentary, page 4

[21] Page 217.

[22] Page 217

[23] Page 217

[24] Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in qJezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria.

[25] Stuart 441.

[26] Page 262.

[27]Freedman 3:940.

[28] Stuart 431

[29] Simon xxxvi.

[30] Stuart 431

[31]Simon xxxvi.


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