Tag Archives: Major Prophets

Jonah, a Whale of a Tale of Covenant Israel

Jonah is one of the best loved stories in the entire Bible. The key word that previous sentence is “stories.” It does not say that Jonah is one of the best loved prophets, but one of the best loved stories. That is because Jonah is rarely thought of as a prophet, though he was. In fact, he was one of the twelve Minor Prophets. Yet as Douglas Stuart pointed out, “In the case of Jonah, only five Hebrew words that he preached to the people of Assyria are preserved, those that are translated as, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jon 3:4).[1] When Big Idea made their first feature film, they did not go with Amos or Micah or even Malachi. Their first feature film was Jonah, having asparaguses (or are they green onions?) singing about how God is the God of second chances.[2] No video of a little girl telling the story of Hosea went viral; no, it was the story of Jonah.[3]

Jonah, unlike the rest of the Minor Prophets (or even the Major Prophets, with the exception of Daniel) has a way of capturing the attention of the reader. “[O]f the prophetic books, none other is so dominantly biographical and so minimally reflective of a prophet’s preached words.”[4] In other words, Jonah is a story about the prophet himself. Unlike the other prophets, Jonah does not sound “preachy” or “prophetic,” instead it is a narrative of history; it is a story. Feinberg comments,

Some question has arisen concerning the book because it does contain history and narrative to the practical exclusion of prophecy or prediction. There is an absence of the usual prophetic discourse. But there are those who realize that the book is among the prophets, not because of the historical events it records, but because the transactions in it are prophecies themselves.[5]

Whereas Isaiah would give a direct prophecy about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7, 53) or Micah would tell of his birthplace (Mic 5:2), Jonah displays it with his own life. Thus one can read that in the midst of the sea, salvation was found when Jonah was swallowed by a fish. “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights,” (Jon 1:17, ESV). Salvation in the belly of the fish is likened to the salvation that would be found in the belly of the earth. “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,” (Matthew 12:40, ESV). Though Jonah never explicitly stated this fact would occur, in God’s providence one could say it was indeed a prophecy.

Ezekiel gives vivid descriptions of the cherubim as God’s chariot (Ezek 1:1), he is simply describing it so that one can imagine it. He describes its look, how it moves, and its purpose. One can envision such a thing in the minds eye, and some have even put it onto canvas. Jonah however is still different than this. His story is being told as a way of capturing the imagination, not only for information’s sake, but for life-change and understanding. “Jonah is not a sentimental story, nor is it a humorous one. It is told without embellishment but with an emphasis on engaging the imagination. When a hearer or reader can visualize a scene at each point, the impact of a story is always strong.”[6] Hosea comes the closest of the Minor Prophets (or even the Latter Prophets, which does not include Daniel) to do this kind of impact for the modern-day reader, yet only in the first few chapters of his book and even then it was riddled with a direct prophetic message. Surely the prophecies of Jeremiah had a strong impact on the hearers in his day. Nahum’s prophecies against Nineveh a century later would evoke great emotion among the Jews of his day. Yet Jonah’s story and prophecy goes the distance unlike any other book because it doesn’t feel like one is being preached to, even though he is. Though similar to the art of telling a parable, Jonah is not a parable.

Parables are brief (not four chapters long), normally containing a single scene or two, make comparison to people or things outside the story who are the real focus, and end with a punch line that draws the hearer up short as it teaches a lesson, the reader hopefully seeing a personally relevant truth in the story. And parables have anonymous figures as their characters. The book of Jonah manifests some of these characteristics but manifests none of them exactly.[7]

On top of Jonah’s narrative, what makes Jonah so interesting and compelling is that whether the reader realizes it or not, Jonah retells the story of Israel with some twists. Like Moses, Jonah is sent to far away land to speak with the leader of the land and his subjects. Like Moses, Jonah is resistant to go. This was not just the leader of any land, but a leader of a land and people who terrorized, subjugated, and harmed the people of God. Yet unlike Moses, Jonah was not going to tell the King of Nineveh (Assyria) to let the Hebrews go. Instead, he went to tell him of their own impending doom, what Moses eventually spoke in his own right to Pharaoh. The story deviates when the King of Nineveh calls for fasting, repentance, and the wearing of sackcloth (Jon 3:7-9). Pharaoh did nothing of the sort, leading one to understand God’s truth to Moses and Paul’s explanation to the Romans. “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. . .So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills,” (Romans 9:15, 18, ESV). Pharaoh’s heart was hardened whereas the King of Nineveh’s heart was broken.

There was a forty-day period of trial, repentance, or one could say cleansing. Like the Israelites who spent forty years in the wilderness, wandering until the last of the disobedient generation died, thus going through trials, repentance, and a cleansing, so the people of Nineveh were given the same opportunity. “Forty is the number employed in Scripture in relation to testing,”[8] as Feinberg rightly pointed out. Thus Nineveh came out having passed the test, cleansing themselves (as humanly possible) of their sin. They believed God and God spared their lives, infuriating Jonah in the process. “I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” (Jon 4:2c, ESV). How would he know that except that it was revealed to Moses in Exodus 34 and so repeated throughout Israel’s history?

What Jonah had missed was that his story, intertwined with Nineveh’s story, was Israel’s story. God called Jonah and Israel. Jonah was to represent God to the pagan nation just as Israel to those surrounding her. Jonah flees from God going “down” further and further and refusing to heed his calling (down to Joppa, down into the boat, down into the sea). Israel had done the same centuries before. Yet in Jonah’s rebellion, he was saved from an unlikely source, just as Israel had been time and time again. The very grace and mercy of God that caused him to be slow of anger and relenting from disaster against Nineveh had been the same grace and mercy shown to Israel for centuries. Could Jonah and the Israelites see beyond Nineveh to their own hearts? Could they see that God would be willing to forgive and relent disaster if they would only turn? They could not see it. They could not see that God was a God of the covenant made on Mt. Sinai. They could not see that they were headed straight into judgment. They could not see their need to repent and return to the covenant that God had graciously made with them. It is almost poetic that the story of Jonah ends the way it does. One is left wondering about Jonah’s future, even as one wondered what would happen to Israel.

[1] Douglas Stuart, “Jonah, the Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 456.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeOnADmkD74 (as of 4/3/19)

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4VrujheblY (as of 4/3/19)

[4] Stuart, “Jonah” DOT, 457.

[5] Charles Lee Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), 133-134.

[6] Stuart, “Jonah,” DOT, 459.

[7] Ibid., 458.

[8] Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, 145.