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An Introduction to the Book of Jonah

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A. The Identity of a Prophet:

1. Prophets were known by several terms--both Greek and Hebrew:

a. The Greek term that our English term comes from is profhvth1 (prophetes) meaning one who proclaims and interprets divine revelation.2 It is descriptive of one who speaks forth God’s word.3

b. The Hebrew terms used for a prophet are primarily ayb!n*4 (nabi) which is probably descriptive of “one called” to speak for God5, and ha#r)h* 6 (hroeh, English “seer”) which was what prophets used to be called in Israel before Samuel (1 Sam. 9:9) because they saw visions

c. Other terms for a prophet included, “man of God,” “watchman,” “messenger of YHWH”, and “man of the Spirit”7.

2. Prophets had characteristics which were similar and distinct of their contemporaries of the Ancient Near East:

a. Similar Characteristics with the ANE8:

1) Some times they were identified with ecstatic experiences (1 Sam. 10:11--although this may be sarcastic)

2) Prophets spoke to Kings to encourage them or with criticism

3) Prophets spoke concerning military matters or building projects

4) Prophets received their messages through dreams, visions, trances, or ways that were not stated

b. Dissimilar Characteristics with the ANE9:

1) Biblical prophets were certain of their individual calls from YHWH (cf. Isa. 6; Jer. 1; Ezk. 1; Jonah 1, et cetera)

2) Biblical prophets were holy men who were “moved by the Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21)

3) Biblical prophets were usually identified with self-control when under revelation10

4) Biblical prophets were usually accused of antiritualism rather than with concerns of ritualism

5) Biblical prophets were concerned with far reaching messages of exile and destruction

6) Biblical prophets often spoke to the people as well as the kings

7) Biblical prophets (especially the classical prophets [see below] spoke upon the basis of the Mosaic Covenant11 (by which God chose a people to reveal himself and to carry out his plan in history)

8) Biblical prophets included an eschatological aspect to their messages whereby their totally sovereign God would unveil portions of His final stage of history12

B. Classification of the Prophets13: The prophets may be identified within three basic categories--(1) pre-monarchy14, (2) pre-classical15, (3) classical16--as the following chart unfolds:17









Nation guidance, Maintenance of justice, Spiritual overseer





King and court

Military advice, Pronouncement of rebuke or blessing










Mouthpiece-social/spiritual commentator


Rebuke concerning current condition of society; leads to warnings of captivity, destruction, exile, and promise of eventual restoration, Call for justice and repentance

Writing Prophets

Best example: Jeremiah

C. The Message of the Prophet:

1. Most of the classical prophetic writings were a historic collection of sermons during turbulent times in Israel’s history with a message to the problems of the nation19

2. The historic messages were collected and arranged in book form thereby being intended for later generations of Israel and of those until God’s purposes in history are accomplished20

3. The following graph portrays four basic categories of prophetic oracles:21







Statement of the offense

Focus primarily on idolatry, ritualism, and social justice

Focus on not giving proper honor to the Lord


Punishment to be carried out

Primarily political and projected for near future

Interprets recent or current crises as punishment


Expected response

Very little offered; generally return to God by ending wicked conduct

Slightly more offered; more specifically addressed to particular situation


Affirmation of future hope or deliverance

Presented and understood as coming after an intervening period of judgment

Presented and understood as spanning a protracted time period

Religious: now

Socioeconomic: Potential

Political: Eventual

4. Messages Concerning the Future:

a. Prophecy certainly was a message to a historical people

b. Prophecy was also a message to a historical people in view of God’s ongoing redemptive purpose; therefore, it unveiled God’s sovereign plan and intentions

c. In what is usually called “predictive prophecy” the “predictive” element was attached to the present situation.

d. While the human author most probably understood the historical message which he was giving, only the Divine Author could fully know the final referent if the message spoke of the future. Nevertheless, the final referent would not (and could not) contradict the historical message of the human author.22

e. Since Jesus Christ is the center of God’s salvation history, all prophecy somehow relates to Him.

II. AUTHOR: May have been Jonah ( hnwy ), or someone who knew him and later wrote down the events (one of the sons of the prophets)

A. External Evidence is very slight and late for Jonah:

The Twelve Prophets were known as a unit by the third century B.C. (Ecclus. 49:10), and second century B.C. (Tobit 14:4,18; Ben Sirach 49:10)

B. Internal Evidence:

1. The name of the main character is Jonah (1:1)

2. There was a Jonah, son of Amittai, who lived during the eighth century B.C. in the northern Kingdom23 under the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 793-753 B.C.; 2 Ki. 14:25)

3. Jeroboam increased Israel’s borders in accordance with Jonah’s prophecy (2 Ki. 14:25)

4. While the author could have been someone who obtained the information about the event (e.g., from the “sons of the prophets” [2 Ki. 2:3]), it is not at all impossible that it was written by Jonah himself after he learned the lesson of the book on his way back to Israel.

5. The thoughts of Jonah are recorded in some depth in the second chapter of Jonah.24 This might be more difficult for a later author to retrieve, unless he had spoken to Jonah

III. DATE: During the pre-exilic period and perhaps during the Life time of Jonah (first half of the eighth century B.C.)

A. The date needs to fall between the reign of Jerobaom II (793-753 B.C.) to the fall of Ninevah (612 B.C.)25

B. Jonah may well have fit into the time period of the preclassical prophets26, but he was transitional towards the classical period27.

C. In accordance with the above dates, Jonah lived just after the time of Elisha.

D. Three prophets seemed to minister during the same time: Jonah, Amos, and Hosea

E. Isaiah followed this immediate period

F. Although some have dated the book late because of Aramaisms and expressions unfamiliar to Classical Hebrew, they are inconclusive and do not prove a post-exilic date28

G. Although some date the book after the exile as a response to the ultra-nationalistic spirit of Ezra and Nehemiah, this universalistic emphasis also occurred during the eighth century in Isaiah 2:2ff29


A. Israel appears to be outwardly at its zenith of power. Jeroboam II had a successful reign (2Ki.14:25-28 cf. Amos 6:14)

B. Many of the evil characters described in Amos 1--2 might better be translated in the present tense of activities then being done30 and thus describe Jeroboam II’s rule as painfully disruptive as His lines were breached and the enemies pressed into the territory. Israel was to fight a defensive war against the armies of Syria and Ammon. Both were true.

C. Three periods of Israel from Jehu (841-414):

1. 839-806 -- Engaged in the East and rent by civil dissensions. Couldn’t put pressure on Syria, suffered 30 years of humiliation during Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash31

2. 806-782 -- Assyria’s king Adad-Nirari III is ruler, and ruled over surrounding states and especially Syria; therefore, Israel was protected and able to restore some of its borders under Johoash and Jeroboam II. Syria was unable to fight on two borders.32 Israel and Judah restored their borders to almost all of those of David and Solomon (cf. 2 Ki. 14:25 for the prophecy by Jonah)

3. 782-745 -- the times of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea: Assyria was under duress from the northern kingdom of Urartu which pushed Assyria down from the north, northwest, and north-east (pp. Cohen, 157-158). Syria was freed up to deal with Israel and entered into drawn-out battles to regain Gilead, and Bashan33

4. By the end of the century the Assyrian Empire would be the strongest military force ever known in the world overtaking and deporting the northern kingdom; but Israel did not know this at the time of Jonah34

D. The people became arrogant during the northern nation’s period of prosperity resulting in injustice, greed, neglect of the poor, persecution of the poor, and formalistic religion35

V. HISTORICITY: Jonah is a genre (form) of literature which is most probably historical:

A. Jonah is not an allegorical description of Israel’s experience with Babylon for the following reasons:36

1. Although Jonah may mean “dove” it is not a standard nor common identification

2. Although the fish could be representative of the Babylon captivity, Babylon is never mentioned, and Babylon took Judah, not Israel. Also the fish is a means of deliverance not punishment

3. Although Jonah could be about a missionary mandate to the Gentile world, Jonah never mentions the distinctions of Judaism, Torah, nor monotheism. Also, the Exile was not for missionary failure, but for inner offenses against the covenant.

4. Allegories in the OT have unmistakable indications of their allegorical nature (Eccl. 12:3ff; Jer. 25:15ff; Ezk. 19:2ff; 24:3ff; 27:3ff; Zech. 11:4ff),37 of which Jonah has none

B. Jonah was probably not a parable for the following reasons:

1. Not only parables have moral or didactic goals. Historical narratives can also have this goal (cf. Kings; Ruth)

2. The work is not placed in a setting that affirms that it is a story, or untrue:

a. It is placed canonically among the prophets and not the poetic books

b. It is not introduced as a generic account (e.g., “A certain man ...”)

c. It is true that there is no direct time frame given in the book, but this is an argument from silence

3. Compared to other OT parables (Judges 9:8ff; 2 Sam. 12:1; 14:6; 1 Ki. 20:39ff; 2 Ki. 14:9) Jonah is much more lengthy and complex. Also, the moral point of the parable is never made abundantly clear since not explanation is presented38

C. Jonah was most probably a historical work:

1. At times, an unwillingness to accept the possibility of miraculous occurrences (the fish, the plant) may be central to denying historicity, at other times it is a matter of literary genre39

2. The details of the book appear to be historical data:

a. Jonah was a historical person (see above)

b. Ninevah was a historical city (see above)

c. The details of buying a ticket, boarding the ship, the destination of the ship, the port of the ship all appear to be historical

d. The account of the storm, the sailors’ reactions, their pagan practices, cries to YHWH, and sacrifices all appear to be historical

3. The Book of Jonah is introduced just as other prophecies are: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah ...” (Jonah 1:1)

4. The New Testament concurs with a historical approach (Matt. 12:39-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32)

a. Jonah is assumed to have truly been in the belly of a great fish for three days

b. Jonah is assumed to have been a genuine sign to the people of Ninevah

c. The people of Ninevah are assumed to have repented, and to be among those who will judge Jesus’ generation in the future

d. The people of Ninevah are included among another historical figure-- the Queen of the South


A. To emphasize the changes brought about by classical prophecy in terms of the value of repentance. It could even turn back the pronouncement of a prophet (even for a Gentile nation, not to mention Israel)40

B. To emphasize YHWH’s concern for all mankind--even the wicked--and not just for Israel

C. To teach that Salvation is from YHWH

D. To teach about the nature of YHWH as a covenant God who is committed to his people--even individuals who are in rebellion.

E. To emphasize the need to submit to the Lord’s command or else leave him no choice but to drag us along as he works his sovereign plan

F. To emphasize that the Lord is at times working beyond our own theological understandings, and thus is not bound to them.

G. To teach against the arrogance of “spiritual pride.”

H. To teach that the Lord may be compassionate to those who show small steps of repentance in the right direction without defiling his righteousness which demands judgment for evil.41


The Book has two parallel halves: chapters 1&2 and 3&4

A. Each has a call from God and a response from Jonah (1:1-3/3:1-3)

B. Jonah encounters pagans who are forced to consider the influence of his God (1:4-11/3:4-10)

C. Jonah is forced into a confrontation with God because of his attitudes (1:12-17/4:1-9)

D. Each section is ended by God’s compassionate deliverance (2:1-9/4:10-12)



God demonstrates His compassion for both the sailors and Jonah by delivering them both

God demonstrates his compassion for both Ninevah and Jonah by delivering them both43

1 BAGD, s.v. profhvth, p. 723.

2 Ibid.

3 Hill and Walton seem to be correct in distinguishing the biblical concept of forthtelling from the common concept that a prophet foretells the future since a prophet only speaks God's plans and intentions, and since God's plans are not predictions so much as pre-stated certainties from the sovereign of all causation (A Survey of the Old Testament, pp. 314-315.

4 BDB, s.v. ayb!n* , p. 661.

5 La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, p. 298-299; R. K. Harrison, Introduction, pp. 741-742. See also Exodus 4:15ff; 7:1).

6 1 Samuel 9:9; Isa. 30:10; BDB, s.v. ha#r) , p. 909 meaning one who sees (perhaps a vision) from har

7 La Sor, Old, p. 298.

8 Prophets were known in the Mari tablets of the eighteenth century B.C. and in the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the days of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal (681-633 B.C.) See Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 309-310.

9 Much of this information comes from Hill and Walton Survey, p. 311.

10 La Sor, Old, p. 300; See R. K. Harrison's extended discussion and bibliography, Introduction, pp. 752-754

11 The judgments were restatements of the covenant curses (Lev. 26; Deut. 27-28); YHWH would determine the time of the judgments as the Judge, and the judgments would be executed by foreign nations. Only through a New Covenant (Deut. 30; Jer. 31) could the nation be restored after they fell under judgment (Elliott E. Johnson, Elements of Recognition, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 53).

12 Some central passages which speak to this theme are found in the words of the prophet Isaiah (41:21-24; 43:10-13; 44:6-11; 45:20-21; 48:3-7.

Post-exilic prophets had the days when YHWH would complete his program (latter days, or those days) as a central focus (La Sor et al, Old, p. 304.

The Day of the LORD (Day of YHWH) would be the time when YHWH would consummate his judgment and blessing.

13 La Sor et al offers a complete list with central passages, Old, pp. 301-303.

14 These are Deborah, Samuel (although Samuel is transitional as the last of the judges and the first of the monarchical [pre-classical] prophets).

They were called prophets because: (1) they were chosen in order to received revelation, (2) Moses is the prototype of a prophet [Deut. 18:18; 34:10], (3) Samuel marked a time when prophecy resumed [1 Sam. 3:7-9]. See La Sor et al, Old, pp. 300-301.

15 These are scattered throughout the historical books including oracles by Nathan, Elijah, Elisha.

16 These are most commonly identified with the writing prophets from the eighth through fourth century B.C. primarily including those who wrote books (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Obed, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

17 Hill and Walton, A Survey, p. 311.

18 Jonah is unique because it does not contain a collection of prophetic oracles to the nation, but is narrative about the prophet.

19 Elliot E. Johnson, Principle of Recognition, Class notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 52.

20 Ibid.

21 Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 313-315.

22 The Divine Author would use the human author to communicate His message often with a reference beyond the conscious awareness of the human author.

This might be illustrated as follows: If I say to my daughter, I don't love kisses from anyone as much as from you, there would be limits to my statement (e.g., it does not include my wife). Yet, If someone brings a child to me and says, Did you mean more than Alice?, I would say, Yes, even though I did not have Alice in mind when I made that statement, Alice does fit with what I have said. I am speaking as the human author here. But if my sayings were inspired, God would say, Yes, and Alice is specifically whom I had in mind!

Since the message is the Divine Author's message, there are at times references beyond (but not in conflict) with the human author's awareness.

23 Jonah lived in Gath-hepher near Nazareth (cf. Jn. 7:52)

24 Note the use of the first person throughout this chapter.

25 The latter date is based upon interpretations of Jonah 3:3 which argue that Ninevah was no longer in existence due to the verb was.

However, was need not imply that the described condition no longer existed (cf. 1 Ki. 10:6; Isa. 49:5c; Jer. 14:4a) [see Walton, Jonah, p. 66-67]. The narrative was written in the past tense, therefore, a present tense verb would appear incongruous.

Some also argue that Jonah's use of the title, King of Ninevah (3:3) is unrealistic because it is not used elsewhere in Mesopotamic or biblical records. But this is an argument from silence which does not prove a late date. Also it could be a genuine, though unattested title of the king of Assyria, or be referring to a rule of the city who was not the king of Assyria. This latter explanation was not uncommon (see the king of Edom [2 Kgs. 3:9,12], the king of Damascus [2 Chron. 24:23], and Ahab as the king of Samaria [1 Kgs. 21:1]).

26 Earlier messages focused upon judgment for evil, intercession (see Ex. 32:11ff; Num. 14:13ff; Deut. 9:26ff), and commitment (2 Ki. 18:21,37).

Samuel did ask the people to repent (1 Sam. 7:3), but he was transitionary as a judge, prophet and priest, and not strictly a prophet (see above; also Walton, Jonah, pp. 70-71).

Jonah did speak to the King like the preclassical prophets (2 Ki. 14:25, but within fifty years of the former statement the writer of 2 Kings recorded: The LORD had warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and every seer saying, 'Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments, my statues according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to your through My servants the prophets' (2 Ki. 17:13) Therefore, Jonah may have been transitionary to the classical age (see the chart above; see also Walton, Jonah, pp. 70-72).

27 The transition may well explain some of Jonah's resistance to proclaim YHWH's message of repentance. He wanted Ninevah to be judged like Sodom was (see Hill, Jonah, p. 72).

28 R. K. Harrison, Introduction, p. 917.

29 Ibid., p. 917. Also, Elijah and Elisha had missions to Sidon and Syria (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:9ff; 2 Kgs. 5:1ff).

30 Simon Cohen, The Political Background of the Words of Amos, HUCA, pp. 155-156.

31 Ibid., p. 147.

32 Ibid., p. 157.

33 Ibid., p. 168.

34 Hill and Walton, Survey, p. 384.

35 La Sor, Old, p. 161.

36 Hill, Jonah, pp. 75-76.

37 See a fuller discussion in R. K. Harrison, Introduction, pp. 911-912.

38 R. K. Harrison, Introduction, p. 913.

39 Hill and Walton, Survey, p. 383.

40 HIll, Jonah, p. 73.

41 Hill and Walton have an excellent discussion on this function of the book (Survey, pp. 385-387).

42 Adapted from Hill and Walton, Survey, pp. 387-388.

43 The fact that Jonah is not ultimately delivered (in that the plant is struck down) may be a hint at the later judgment which Ninevah would receive.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines