Introduction from the NIV Study Bible | Go to Jonah
The book is named after its principal character, whose name means “dove”; see the simile used of Ephraim in Hos 7:11 to portray the northern kingdom as “easily deceived and senseless.” See also Ps 68:13; 74:19 and notes.
Though the book does not identify its author, tradition has ascribed it to the prophet himself, Jonah son of Amittai (1:1), from Gath Hepher (2Ki 14:25; see note there) in Zebulun (Jos 19:10,13). In view of its many similarities with the narratives about Elijah and Elisha, however, it may come from the same prophetic circles that originally composed the accounts about those prophets, perhaps in the eighth century b.c. (see Introduction to 1 Kings: Author, Sources and Date).
In the half-century during which the prophet Jonah ministered (800–750 b.c.), a significant event affected the northern kingdom of Israel: King Jeroboam II (793–753) restored her traditional borders, ending almost a century of sporadic seesaw conflict between Israel and Damascus.
Jeroboam, in God’s good providence (2Ki 14:26–27), capitalized on Assyria’s defeat of Damascus (in the latter half of the ninth century), which temporarily crushed that center of Aramean power. Prior to that time, not only had Israel been considerably reduced in size, but the king of Damascus had even been able to control internal affairs in the northern kingdom (2Ki 13:7). However, after the Assyrian campaign against Damascus in 797, Jehoash king of Israel had been able to recover the territory lost to the king of Damascus (2Ki 13:25). Internal troubles in Assyria subsequently allowed Jeroboam to complete the restoration of Israel’s northern borders. Nevertheless, Assyria remained the real threat from the north at this time.
The prophets of the Lord were speaking to Israel regarding these events. About 797 b.c. Elisha spoke to the king of Israel concerning future victories over Damascus (2Ki 13:14–19). A few years later Jonah prophesied the restoration that Jeroboam accomplished (2Ki 14:25). But soon after Israel had triumphed, she began to gloat over her newfound power. Because she was relieved of foreign pressures—relief that had come in accordance with encouraging words from Elisha and Jonah—she felt jealously complacent about her favored status with God (Am 6:1). She focused her religion on expectations of the “day of the Lord” (Am 5:18–20), when God’s darkness would engulf the other nations, leaving Israel to bask in his light.
It was in such a time that the Lord sent Amos and Hosea to announce to his people Israel that he would “spare them no longer” (Am 7:8; 8:2) but would send them into exile “beyond Damascus” (Am 5:27), i.e., to Assyria (Hos 9:3; 10:6; 11:5). During this time the Lord also sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of the imminent danger of divine judgment.
Since Jonah was a contemporary of Amos, see Introduction to Amos: Date and Historical Situation for additional details.
Date of Writing
For a number of reasons, including the preaching to Gentiles, the book is often assigned a postexilic date. At least, it is said, the book must have been written after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 b.c. But these considerations are not decisive. The similarity of this narrative to the Elijah-Elisha accounts has already been noted. One may also question whether mention of the repentance of Nineveh and the consequent averted destruction of the city would have had so much significance to the author after Nineveh’s overthrow. And to suppose that proclaiming God’s word to Gentiles had no relevance in the eighth century is to overlook the fact that already in the previous century Elijah and Elisha had extended their ministries to foreign lands (1Ki 17:7–24; 2Ki 8:7–15). Moreover, the prophet Amos (c. 760–750) set God’s redemptive work in behalf of Israel in the context of his dealings with the nations (Am 1:3—2:16; 9:7,12). Perhaps the third quarter of the eighth century is the most likely date for the book, after the public ministries of Amos and Hosea and before the fall of Samaria to Assyria in 722–721.
Many have questioned whether the book of Jonah is historical. The supposed legendary character of some of the events (e.g., the episode involving the great fish) has caused them to suggest alternatives to the traditional view that the book is historical, biographical narrative. Although their specific suggestions range from fictional short story to allegory to parable, they share the common assumption that the account sprang essentially from the author’s imagination, despite its serious and gracious message.
Such interpretations, often based in part on doubt about the miraculous as such, too quickly dismiss (1) the similarities between the narrative of Jonah and other parts of the OT and (2) the pervasive concern of the OT writers, especially the prophets, for history. They also fail to realize that OT narrators had a keen ear for recognizing how certain past events in Israel’s pilgrimage with God illumine (by way of analogy) later events. (For example, the events surrounding the birth of Moses illumine the exodus, those surrounding Samuel’s birth illumine the series of events narrated in the books of Samuel, and the ministries of Moses and Joshua illumine those of Elijah and Elisha.) Similarly, the prophets recognized that the future events they announced could be illumined by reference to analogous events of the past. Overlooking these features in OT narrative and prophecy, many have supposed that a story that too neatly fits the author’s purpose must therefore be fictional.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that Biblical narrators were more than historians. They interpretatively recounted the past with the unswerving purpose of bringing it to bear on the present and the future. In the portrayal of past events, they used their materials to achieve this purpose effectively. Nonetheless, the integrity with which they treated the past ought not to be questioned. The book of Jonah recounts real events in the life and ministry of the prophet himself.
Unlike most other prophetic parts of the OT, this book is a narrative account of a single prophetic mission. Its treatment of that mission is thus similar to the accounts of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha found in 1,2 Kings, and to certain narrative sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
As is often the case in Biblical narratives, the author has compressed much into a small space; 40 verses tell the entire story (eight additional verses of poetry are devoted to Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving). In its scope (a single extended episode), compactness, vividness and character delineation, it is much like the book of Ruth.
Also as in Ruth, the author uses structural symmetry effectively. The story is developed in two parallel cycles that call attention to a series of comparisons and contrasts (see Outline). The story’s climax is Jonah’s grand prayer of confession, “Salvation comes from the Lord”—the middle confession of three from his lips (1:9; 2:9; 4:2). The last sentence emphasizes that the Lord’s word is final and decisive, while Jonah is left sitting in the hot, open country outside Nineveh.
The author uses the art of representative roles in a straightforward manner. In this story of God’s loving concern for all people, Nineveh, the great menace to Israel, is representative of the Gentiles. Correspondingly, stubbornly reluctant Jonah represents Israel’s jealousy of her favored relationship with God and her unwillingness to share the Lord’s compassion with the nations.
The book depicts the larger scope of God’s purpose for Israel: that she might rediscover the truth of his concern for the whole creation and that she might better understand her own role in carrying out that concern.
- Jonah Flees His Mission (chs. 1–2)
- Jonah Reluctantly Fulfills His Mission (chs. 3–4)
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.