Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.
How sovereign is God? And how “free” is a person’s free will? What happens when God has expressed God’s sovereign will and humankind, or at least a person, has determined to oppose it?
Have you ever wondered about that?
What happens when God’s sovereign will, God’s plans and God’s purposes run up against the will of a man or a woman who will not cooperate? What does God do at that point? Does God give up? Change God’s mind? Or, does God accomplish God’s purposes some other way?
That is how the book of Jonah starts out: God commissioned Jonah and Jonah refused to heed God.
The name Jonah (Hebrew: Yonah) means “dove.” He was the son of Amittai, of the tribe of Zebulun, who all descended from the sixth and final son Leah had borne to Jacob.
In his final blessing and prophecy over his clan, Jacob had said of this son:
Zebulun shall settle at the shore of the sea;Jacob, in his deathbed prophecy, Genesis 49:13 (NRSV)
he shall be a haven for ships,
and his border shall be at Sidon.
Indeed, according to the records kept during Joshua’s time, the Zebulun’s portion included twelve towns and their satellite villages tucked between Naphtali’s and Asher’s territories, which incorporated both the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.
The boundary of its inheritance reached as far as Sarid;
then its boundary goes up westward, and on to Maralah, and touches Dabbesheth, then the wadi that is east of Jokneam;
from Sarid it goes in the other direction eastward toward the sunrise to the boundary of Chisloth-tabor;
from there it goes to Daberath, then up to Japhia;
from there it passes along on the east toward the sunrise to Gath-hepher, to Eth-kazin, and going on to Rimmon it bends toward Neah;
then on the north the boundary makes a turn to Hannathon, and it ends at the valley of Iphtah-el; and Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and BethlehemZebulun’s allotment, in Joshua 19:10-15 (NRSV)
No, not that Bethlehem, but another town in the region of Galilee also named “House of Bread.”
Jonah himself came from the city of Gath-Hepher.
Most likely a member of the school of prophets, Jonah was a contemporary of the elderly prophet Elisha and was probably trained by him towards the end of Elisha’s ministry.
Jonah has a single mention in Israel’s history, where he is depicted as being a prophet of God during the reign of King Jeroboam II (793 753 BC). Jonah had evidently accurately predicted the wide extent of King Jeroboam’s conquests and the expansion of Israel’s territory under his leadership. As a result of his very favorable prophecies, which were fulfilled in a relatively short time, Jonah must have enjoyed ample regard as a true prophet.
We might properly say Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel—preaching God’s word during the same general time as the prophets Amos and Joel—yet, what he wrote about had little to do with Israel or Judah. Instead, Jonah took up for the Assyrians, a very unexpected position to find in the Bible, certainly.
In fact, many scholars not only do not attribute this book to historical Jonah, but also doubt it was written anywhere near Jonah’s time. Instead, it is largely thought the poem found in chapter 2 is the insertion of an ancient composition added to a significantly more modern manuscript dating to the postexilic period of Israel’s history, only a few centuries before Jesus’ time.
Many therefore treat the book of Jonah as allegory, an attempt to process the nature of God, God’s purposes for the whole earth, God’s plan for God’s people, and to grapple with living in the promised land under foreign control.
If understood in this light, the book ascribed to Jonah was really an anonymous work seeking to display God as the sovereign who does control history, not just for the sake of those who are seen as the chosen people, but for all peoples. God is characterized both by justice and righteousness as well as mercy and compassion.
In the spirit of narrative and experiential criticism, I will be treating the book as it presents itself: Jonah’s story.
With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let’s begin our study of Jonah with this overview.
[Jonah in the Whale | Sargis Babayan / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]