Jonah, the Book of

This little roll of four short chapters has given rise to almost as much discussion and difference of opinion as the first four chapters of Genesis. It would be presumptuous to think that one could, in a brief article, speak the final word on the questions in debate.

I. Contents of the Book.

The story is too well known to need retelling. Moreover, it would be difficult to give the events in fewer words than the author employs in his classic narrative. One event grows out of another, so that the interest of the reader never flags.

1. Jonah Disobedient, Jonah 1:1-3:

When the call came to Jonah to preach in Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction, hoping thus to escape from his unpleasant task. He was afraid that the merciful God would forgive the oppressing heathen city, if it should repent at his preaching. Jonah was a narrow-minded patriot, who feared that Assyria would one day swallow up his own little nation; and so he wished to do nothing that might lead to the preservation of wicked Nineveh. Jonah was willing to prophesy to Israel; he at first flatly refused to become a foreign missionary.

2. Jonah Punished, Jonah 1:4-16:

The vessel in which the prophet had taken passage was arrested by a great storm. The heathen sailors inferred that some god must be angry with some person on board, and cast lots to discover the culprit. When the lot fell upon Jonah, he made a complete confession, and bravely suggested that they cast him overboard. The heathen mariners rowed desperately to get back to land, but made no progress against the storm. They then prayed Yahweh not to bring innocent blood upon them, and cast Jonah into the sea. As the storm promptly subsided, the heathen sailors offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows. In this part of the story the mariners give an example of the capacity of the Gentiles to perform noble deeds and to offer acceptable worship to Yahweh.

3. Jonah Miraculously Preserved, Jon 1:17 through Jon 2:10:

Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah and to bear him in his body for three days and nights. Surprised to find himself alive and conscious in the body of the fish, the prophet prayed to his God. Already by faith he speaks of his danger as a past experience. The God who had saved him from drowning in the depths of the sea will yet permit him once more to worship with loud thanksgiving. At the command of Yahweh the fish vomits out Jonah upon the dry land. The almost inevitable grotesqueness of this part of the story is one of the strongest arguments against the view that the Book of Jon is literal history and not a work of the imagination.

4. Jonah's Ministry in Nineveh, Jonah 3:1-4:

Upon the renewal of the command to go to Nineveh, Jonah obeyed, and marching through the streets of the great city, he cried, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" His message was so brief that he may well have spoken it in good Assyrian. If the story of his deliverance from the sea preceded him, or was made known through the prophet himself, the effect of the prophetic message was thereby greatly heightened.

5. The Ninevites Repent, Jonah 3:5-10:

The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, the entire city uniting in fasting and prayer. So great was the anxiety of the people that even the lower animals were clothed in sackcloth. The men of Nineveh turned from deeds of violence ("their evil way") to seek the forgiveness of an angry God. Yahweh decided to spare the city.

6. A Narrow Prophet versus the Merciful God, Jon 4:1-11:

Jonah breaks out into loud and bitter complaint when he learns that Nineveh is to be spared. He decides to encamp near the city to see what will become of it. He hopes it may yet be overthrown. Through a gourd vine Yahweh teaches the prophet a great lesson. If such a mean and perishable plant could come to have real value in the eyes of the sullen prophet, what estimate ought to be put on the lives of the thousands of innocent children and helpless cattle in the great city of Nineveh? These were dearer to the God of heaven than Jonah's protecting vine could possibly be to him.

II. The Aim of the Book.

The main purpose of the writer was to enlarge the sympathies of Israel and lead the chosen people to undertake the great missionary task of proclaiming the truth to the heathen world. Other lessons may be learned from the subordinate parts of the narrative, but this is the central truth of the Book of Jonah. Kent well expresses the author's main message: "In his wonderful picture of God's love for all mankind, and of the Divine readiness to pardon and to save even the ignorant heathen, if they but repent according to their light, he has anticipated the teaching of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and laid the foundation for some of the broadest faith and the noblest missionary activity of the present generation" (Sermons, Epistles, etc., 420).

III. Is the Book History?

1. What Did our Lord Teach?:

Most of the early interpreters so understood it, and some excellent scholars still hold this view. If Jesus thought of the story as history and so taught, that fact alone would settle the question for the devout believer. On two, possibly three, different occasions He referred to Jonah (Mt 12:38-41; 16:4; Lu 11:29-32). It is significant that Jesus brought the two great miracles of the Book of Jon into relation with Himself and His preaching. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the body of the fish, so should the Son of Man be three days in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, while the contemporaries of Jesus for the most part rejected His message. It is the fashion now among advanced critics to treat Mt 12:40 as an addition to the words of Jesus, though there is no manuscript evidence in favor of regarding the verse as an interpolation. G.A. Smith, among recent scholars, holds the view that Jesus did not mean to teach the historicity of Jonah's experience in the fish.

"Christ is using an illustration: it matters not whether that illustration be drawn from the realms of fact or of poetry" (BTP, II, 508). In a footnote Dr. Smith says: "Suppose we tell slothful people that theirs will be the fate of the man who buried his talent, is this to commit us to the belief that the personages of Christ's parables actually existed? Or take the homiletic use of Shakespeare's dramas--`as Macbeth did,' or `as Hamlet said.' Does it commit us to the historical reality of Macbeth or Hamlet? Any preacher among us would resent being bound by such an inference. And if we resent this for ourselves, how chary we should be about seeking to bind our Lord by it."

Notwithstanding Principal Smith's skillful presentation of his case, we still think that our Lord regarded the miracles of the fish and the repentance of the Ninevites as actual events. Orelli puts the matter judiciously: "It is not, indeed, proved with conclusive necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah's abode in the fish's belly must also be just as historical. On this point also the saying, `A greater than Jonah is here,' holds good. But, on the other hand, how arbitrary it is to assert, with Reuss, that Jesus regarded Jonah's history as a parable! On the contrary, Jesus saw in it a sign, a powerful evidence of the same Divine power which showed itself also in His dying in order to live again and triumph in the world. Whoever, therefore, feels the religious greatness of the book, and accepts as authoritative the attitude taken to its historical import by the Son of God Himself, will be led to accept a great act of the God who brings down to Hades and brings up again, as an actual experience of Jonah in his flight from his Lord" (The Twelve Minor Prophets, 172, 3).

2. Modern Critical Views:

Most modern critical scholars since Kleinert (1868) and Bloch (1875) have regarded the Book of Jonah as a work of the imagination. Some prefer to call it an allegory, others a parable, others a prose poem, others a didactic story, others a midrash, others a symbolical book. Keil, Pusey, Delitzsch, Orelli, J. Kennedy and others have contended for the historical character of the narrative. A few treat it as a legend containing a kernel of fact. Cheyne and a few other scholars assert that in the symbolic narrative are imbedded mythical clements. The trend of critical opinion, even in evangelical circles, has of late been toward the symbolical interpretation. Radical critics boldly set aside the teaching of Jesus as erroneous, while the more evangelical take refuge either in the doctrine of the Kenosis (Php 2:5-8), or in the principle of accommodation. The last explanation might commend itself to the devout student, namely, that Jesus did not think it worth while to correct the views of his contemporaries, had our Lord not spoken more than once of the sign of Jonah, and in such detail as to indicate His acceptance of the entire narrative with its two great miracles.

IV. Authorship and Date.

The old view that Jonah was the author is still held by some scholars, though most moderns place the book in the late exilic or post-exilic times. A few Aramaic words occur in the Hebrew text. The question in debate is whether the language of Israel in the days of Jeroboam II had taken over words from the Aramaic. There had certainly been a century of close political and commercial contact between Israel and the Arameans of Damascus, so that it would not be surprising to meet with Aramaic words in a prophet of Samaria. Hosea, in the generation following Jonah, betrays little evidence of Aramaic influence in his style and vocabulary. Of course, the personal equation is a factor that ought not to be overlooked. If the author was a Judean, we should probably have to think of the post-exilic period, when Aramaic began to displace Hebrew as the vernacular of the Jews. The Book of Jonah is anonymous, and we really do not know who the author was or when he lived. The view that Jonah wrote the story of his own disobedience and his debate with the merciful God has not been made wholly untenable.

V. The Unity of the Book.

Nachtigal (1799) contended that there were three different authors of widely different periods. Kleinert (1868) held that two parallel narratives had been woven together in Jon 3:1-10 and Jon 4:1-11. Kaufmann Kohler (1879) contended that there were a considerable number of glosses and interpolations besides some transpositions of material. W. Bohme, in 1887, advanced the most radical theory of the composition of the roll. He partitioned the story among two authors, and two redactors or supplementers. A few additional glosses were charged to later hands. Even radical critics treat Bohme's theory as one of the curiosities of criticism. Winckler (AOF, II, 260 ff) tried to improve the story by a few transpositions. Hans Schmidt (1905) subjects the roll of Jonah to a searching criticism, and concludes that a good many changes have been made from religious motives. Budde follows Winckler and Schmidt both in transposing and in omitting some material. Sievers (1905) and Erbt (1907) tried to make of the Book of Jon a poem; but they do not agree as to the meter. Sievers regards the roll as a unit, while Erbt contends for two main sources besides the prayer in Jon 2:1-10. Bewer, in ICC (1912), is far more conservative in both textual and literary criticism, recognizing but few glosses in our present text and arguing for the unity of the story apart from the insertion of the psalm in Jon 2:1-10. Nearly all recent critics assign Jonah's prayer to a writer other than the author of the narrative about Jonah, but opinions vary widely as to the manner in which the psalm found its way into the Book of Jon. Bewer holds that it was probably put on the margin by a reader and afterward crept into the text, the copyist inserting it after Jon 2:2, though it would more naturally follow Jon 2:10. Bewer remarks: "The literary connections with various post-exilic psalms argue for a post-exilic date of the psalm. But how early or how late in the post-exilic period it belongs we cannot tell. The Hebrew is pure and no Aramaic influence is apparent." It is evident, then, that the presence or absence of Aramaic influence does not alone settle the question of the date of the document. Geography and the personal equation may be more important than the question of date. Bewer recognizes the fact that the psalm in Jon is not a mere cento of quotations from the Psalms. "The phrases it has in common with other psalms," writes Professor Bewer, "were the common property of the religious language of the author's day" (p. 24). Those who still believe that David wrote many of the psalms find no difficulty in believing that a prophet of 780 BC could have drawn upon his knowledge of the Psalter in a prayer of thanksgiving to Yahweh.


Among commentaries covering the twelve Minor Prophets, see especially Pusey (1861), Keil (English translation, 1880), von Orelli (English translation, 1893), Wellhausen (1898), G.A. Smith (1898). Among special commentaries on Jonah, consult Kleinert, in Lange (English translation, 1875); Perowne, in Cambridge Bible (1897); Bewer in ICC (1912). See also C. H. H. Wright, Biblical Essays (1886); H. C. Trumbull, "Jonah in Nineveh," JBL, XI (1892); J. Kennedy, Book of Jon (1895); Konig in HDB; Cheyne in EB. For more elaborate bibliography see Bewer inICC , 25-27.

John Richard Sampey

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