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Prophet Jonah

Updated on January 5, 2011

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet and leading character of the book of the same name, The name Jonah (dove) occurs only at two points in the Old Testament. In II Kings 14:25 mention is made of a prophet, Jonah, the son of Amittai, of Gath-hepher, who had predicted the deliverance of Israel from the domination of Syria and the extension of her borders in the regions east of Jordan. Gath-hepher lies about three miles northeast of Nazareth. The prediction was fulfilled in the reign of Jeroboam II (he reigned from 785-744 B.C.). Therefore no more exact date can be assigned Jonah than some time early in the 8th century BC.

The second occurrence of the name is in the Book of Jonah. Here also he is called the son of Amittai (1:1), of Gath-hepher. But the book does not furnish further biographical materials concerning him. Rather it is a parabolic story, written in post-exilic times, which merely makes use of the name of the earlier prophet in the manner of many Hebrew writings of the time.

The Book of Jonah

The fifth among the books of the minor prophets, the Book of Jonah stands by itself because of its radically different character from all the other prophetic books.

Where they contain invariably the messages or sermons of the prophets, this book is a story about a prophet and records only eight words of the, prophet's preaching (3:4): "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Also upon examination it proves to be a very curious story.

The prophet runs away from his task, but is stopped by a divinely sent storm. He is swallowed by a great fish, but is vomited forth alive upon the shore. He cries his message in the streets of heathen Nineveh and the entire city: king, nobles, citizens, and even the cattle- dons sackcloth as a sign of repentance. A remarkable gourd grows up in a day to shelter the prophet from the hot sun. It is not difficult to recognize that the book is intended as something other than history. This is reinforced by the fact that Nineveh is depicted as being of a vast extent, many times greater than it actually was, and that the king of Assyria is called the king of Nineveh.

The book fits best into the category of parable, and this explains also its inclusion in the books of the prophets. The parable was a cunning weapon by which the prophet caught his hearers off guard and brought them under divine judgment.

Nathan before David (II Samuel 12: 1-14) presents an objective case for judgment and only when it is too late to draw back does David realize that he has condemned himself. Jesus makes use of this same form of the parable (Luke 7:41-43; 10:25-37) in order to pierce the callousness of opinionated religious men. Read as a parable of this kind, the Book of Jonah not only makes sense but also some of what seem its most absurd features are recognized as strokes of genius in the prophetic narrator.

The setting of the book is the post-exilic Jewish community. A nation that had suffered intensely at the hands of other nations longed for a time when the tables would be turned. There was little inclination to take up the task envisaged by the second Isaiah (Isaiah 42: 1, 6) of carrying God's life-transforming truth to the ends of the earth. First there must be vengeance and Israel's enemies must be destroyed. The problem of the writer of the Book of Jonah was how to overcome this spirit of vengefulness and to reawaken the nation to its missionary task. His method was to incarnate in the figure of a prophet the spirit which he deplored. Jonah is therefore the nation in disguise.

The refusal of Jonah to undertake a mission to Nineveh would capture at once the sympathy of a people who desired only the destruction of their enemies. But they also would approve his generosity in offering to give up his life that the Gentile sailors in the ship with him might be saved from the murderous storm. Jonah's inconsistency was their inconsistency. An individual Israelite was willing to have mercy upon Gentiles, but he was unwilling that God should have mercy upon them!

Chapters 3 and 4 repeat the same theme. The prophet, having been rescued from the sea by a great fish, goes grudgingly to Nineveh and, when his preaching produces universal repentance there, he is heartbroken. There is a touch of humor here, as elsewhere, in which the writer ridicules the spirit of his fellow countrymen-a prophet of God weeping because men have repented and turned to God! The final thrust is when Jonah laments the death of the plant which had given him shade, but has no pity for the nelpless men,. women, and children of Nineveh. Jonah may pity the inanimate gourd, but God must not pity these creatures of flesh and blood!

The story of the fish and the psalm of chapter 2 merely form an interlude. It is possible that the swallowing of Jonah by the fish is meant to suggest the exile. A similar figure occurs in Jeremiah 51 : 34, 44, where Babylon like a sea dragon swallows Israel and then after a time spews her forth again. The psalm which Jonah is supposed to pray in the belly of the fish does not fit the situation exactly. It is the prayer of a man who likens his plight to one who has been cast into the depths of the sea far from God and near to the abode of the dead. It interrupts the parable and leaves no gap when it is removed.

The closest that we can fix the date of the book is somewhere between 400 and 200 B.C.


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