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Introduction to the Book of Jonah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Jonah the prophet

Jonah’s name name means 'dove'. He was the son of Amittai (1:1) and came from Gath-Hepher, a small town three miles north-east of Nazareth in the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kg 14:25). He was called by God to be a prophet to the city of Nineveh (1:2, 3:2), the capital of Assyria, which fell to Babylon in 612 BC. Jonah was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos.

The book of Jonah is not a true prophecy as in other books. It is more of a biography of what happened to Jonah when he was called to go to Nineveh. All the book except chapter two is a historical narrative. The account is similar to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, containing narrative with very few spoken words of the prophets. One Jewish tradition suggests that Jonah was one of Elisha's disciples. Another suggests that he was the widow's son who was raised from the dead by Elisha (2 Kg 4).

Authorship of the book

The author us unknown. The book is written in the third person about Jonah, so was probably not by Jonah himself. If Jonah did write the book, then the sailors must have told him what happened when he was asleep (1:5) and after he was thrown into the sea (1:16) as well as how long he was in the belly of the fish.

Historical background

According to the Book of Kings, King Jeroboam II of Israel, "restored the border of Israel from the entrance of 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" (2 Kg 14:25). King Jeroboam II ruled from 786 to 746 BC, and Jonah probably prophesied to Nineveh around 760 BC.

One of the difficult questions about the Book of Jonah, is when and why did Assyria repent of their sin, as this seems so uncharacteristic of Assyria, who were renowned as being a blood-thirsty enemy of Israel. There is no reference to any kind of national repentance in Assyrian history. However, there are three events which could have made Nineveh ready for Jonah's message. The first was that King Adad-Nirari (808 - 783 BC) made reforms toward the end of his reign. At this time, there was a reduction in Assyrian conquest and in consequence, an increase in Israel's territory. Nineveh was under threat from Urartu (around Mt. Ararat) in the north, who were rebelling against Assyrian rule in 770 BC. Perhaps the proclamation made by the king called the nation to repent of violence done to their enemies (Jonah 3:8), was followed by a reduction in their military activity. The second event was that before the time of Jonah, according to Assyrian records, there were two plagues in Assyria, in 775 BC, and in 759 BC. The third event was that the Assyrian chronicles refer to a unsettling in the empire caused by a total eclipse of the sun in 763 BC. It was regarded as a portent, a sign of celestial wrath, judgement and doom, and caused a civil war.

The Assyrian empire began to rise after the division of Judah and Israel. It gradually increased its influence over them, and then absorbed the northern kingdom, finally destroying it in 722 BC. Jonah was called to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, effectively prolonging the life of the hated enemy nation, which was already begun the process of taking over his own nation. This explains why Jonah fled and was so upset at God showing mercy on Nineveh. There is no record of him being afraid to go.

Assyrian legend of fish-man

Berosus, the Babylonian priest and historian (330-260 BC) recorded many of the myths and legends of the early Mesopotamians. He tells of the Assyrians' belief in a legendary fish-man who had appeared out of the sea many hundreds of years before Jonah's time:
"At Babylonia there was a people who lived in a lawless manner like the beasts of the field. In the first year there appeared, from that part of the Erythraean Sea (Persian Gulf) which borders Babylonia, and animal endowed with reason, by name Oannes (Greek for Assyrian Yanush), whose whole body was that of a fish; and under the fish's head he had another head, with feet also below similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish's tail. He voice too, and language were articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved to this day. This being was accustomed to pass the day among men, but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanise their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions." (Cory: Fragments from Berossus from Alexander Polyhistor).

This drawing is taken from an Assyrian wall relief in the British Museum.

Jonah's name, pronounced 'Yonah' in Hebrew, 'Yonas' in Greek, would sound very similar to Yanush, their legendary fountain of all knowledge, who they expected would return if they were to learn any essential new knowledge. When Jonah appeared fresh from his experience in the fish, it would have seemed to them that Yanush himself had returned to warn of coming judgement. Thus it was not surprising that the king and all his peoples repented so quickly. It is significant to note that God used a legend familar to the Assyrians to speak to them.

Theme of the book

It foreshadows the Gentile mission (as the book of Ruth), showing God's mercy and compassion extended even to the heathen nations, if they were willing to acknowledge him and repent. It also corrects Jewish exclusivity.

Structure of the book

The story of Jonah has five separate incidents:
1. God's commission to go to Nineveh (1:1-2)
2. Jonah's flight from God (1:3-17)
3. Jonah's prayer from the belly of the fish (2:1-10)
4. Commission renewed and obeyed (3:1-10)
5. Jonah's displeasure at Nineveh's repentance (4:1-11)

Fact or fiction?

Rationalist theologians tend to classify Jonah as a parable or as an allegory, so they can claim that the story is ficticious. However, there is consistent evidence from within the Bible and from Jewish writings that Jonah was a historical figure, who really did spent three days in the belly of a great fish. In the Book of Kings, Jonah was recorded a historical figure and a recognised prophet to Israel (2 Kg 14:25). Non canonical Jewish writers remembered Jonah as a historical figure, "And Jonah, wasting away in the belly of a huge, sea-born monster, you, Father, watched over and restored unharmed to his family." (3 Macc 6:8). In this passage, the author also refers to Daniel and the three men in the fiery furnace, as historical figures. The Book of Jonah reads like a historical narrative with no indication that it should be read in any other way. If it were to be a parable or an allegory, then it would be unique among the books of the OT.

The fact that the Book of Jonah was included in the collection of the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in the Hebrew Scriptures also shows that the truth of the story was accepted. The author of Ecclesiasticus indicated that there were twelve of these prophets, which would include Jonah, "May the bones of the twelve prophets send forth new life from where they lie, for they comforted the people of Jacob and delivered them with confident hope." (Sir 49:10).

Before the rise of modern biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, neither Jews or Christians ever regarded the book of Jonah as anything other than historical fact.

The Lord Jesus himself believed that the repentance of the city of Nineveh was an historic occurrence (Mt 12:41) and that Jonah's three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster were as real as the three days and three nights which he would spend in the tomb (Mt 12:40, 16:4, Lk 11:29-30). Jesus turned the story of Jonah into a Messianic prediction, and confirmed its historical reality.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.