Jonah – Fact or Fable?

by Anton Chan


Understanding the purpose and style of the book of Jonah.





The book of Jonah is a story of a reluctant prophet refusing to preach the grace and compassion of God to Israel’s most bitter enemy.

Jonah was given the mission by God to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to tell the people to stop sinning. Jonah, however, did not want to go. Instead, he hopped onto a ship that headed the opposite direction. God sent a great storm at sea that threatened to sink the ship. Jonah took the blame for the storm and urged the sailors to throw him overboard. They did as told and the storm stopped immediately.

A big fish assigned by God swallowed Jonah. He stayed in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights before God intervened and ordered the fish to spit him out on the seashore.

God then gave Jonah a chance to resume his task. This time, Jonah obeyed God’s order. He set straight off to Nineveh, arrived three days and proclaimed God’s message of God’s impending judgement. The people of Nineveh, led by their leader, repented. Seeing that the Assyrians had turned from their evil ways, God relented and spared them. Jonah was furious and he complained to God that this was exactly what he was afraid of. For the truth of the matter is that Jonah would have been happier to have the Assyrians wiped out completely.

The story ends with Jonah sulking over one dead vine while not wanting God to have compassion on all the 120,000 people of Nineveh.

This is, in brief, the story of Jonah – one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, even among those who are not familiar with the Bible. But sadly, it is also the most misunderstood because readers are often distracted by what they consider as the implausibility of the dramatic man-eating fish episode and historical discrepancies.

Hence the question is often asked: can the story be historically true? If not, how then should we view it?


HISTORICAL CRITICISM AND SETTING

Let us now examine the historicity of Jonah and socio-historical background of the story.


Who was Jonah?

Our first encounter with Jonah in the Bible is in 2 Kings 14:23-28. He was the son of Amittal from a little town in ancient Israel called Gath-Hepher. He was a prophet who served in the court of the Israelite King Jeroboam II (c. 786-746 BCE) during which time he successfully prophesied the restoration of Israel’s borders from Lebo-Hamath in modern day Syria stretching down to the sea of Arabah at the northern tip of the Red Sea.

When was the book written?

Since Jonah served during the reign of King Jerobaoam II, is among the Twelve Minor Prophets and was mentioned in the book Ecclesiasticus of the second century BC found in the Catholic Bible and the Orthodox Bible, the book of Jonah would likely be written between the eighth and the end of the third centuries.

However, in examining the text, some scholars think that the language used in Jonah is similar to that used in the books written after the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. For example, Jonah 3:10 is similar to Jeremiah 18:8 and Joel 2:13 was quoted in Jonah 4:2.

Moreover Aramaic words in the book of Jonah like ‘ship’ (1:5), ‘to think’ (1:6), ‘taste’ (3:7), ‘message’ (3;2) and ‘sultry’ (4:8), were not used during the eighth century.

The book of Jonah was therefore possibly written between 400 and 350 BC.

Historical Circumstances

Let us now take a look at the historical circumstances surrounding Israel in the eighth century.

The Assyrians of the eighth century were fearsome and evil. They were Israel’s most bitter enemy and were known to torture captives by ripping out their tongues and smashing them under statues. They used torture and mutilation as a political tactic to warn countries that rebelled against them.

Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria and home to 120,000 citizens. The city was located in what is now northern Iraq across the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul. The King of Nineveh was Adad-nirari III (810–783 BC) or Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC).

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “It is possible that some of the traditional materials taken over by the book were associated with Jonah at an early date, but the book in its present form reflects a much later composition. It was written after the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC), probably in the 5th or 4th century and certainly no later than the 3rd, since Jonah is listed among the Minor Prophets in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus.”

Based on the above discussion, while we have a historically true prophet that lived during the eight century, the date the book was written may suggest a later time period. It may be a story constructed by an anonymous writer with the purpose of teaching the Jews of the post-exile period.

LITERARY CONTENT AND CRITICISM

Improbability

Moreover, some have argued that it is improbable that a city of 120,000 people hostile to Israel and Israel's God would have been instantaneously and completely (without exception!) converted by one day of preaching. None of the other Israel prophets had achieved that. How was it possible that the beasts of Nineveh fasted, cried out mightily to God and turned from their wicked ways (3:8)? How can animals fast and respond to God?How can the king, people and animals understand Jonah’s preaching – and in what language? And who was the King of Nineveh that repented?

Exaggeration

Some argue that everything in the book was deliberately exaggerated. Various factors indicate this. Perhaps the most obvious was the repeated use of the Hebrew word 'great’. (It is used 14 times, being a third of all its occurrences in the Minor Prophets). Jonah is summoned to Nineveh, a great city (1:2; 3:2,3; 4:11); God sends a great wind (1:4), causing a great storm (1:4,13); the sailors have a great fear (1:13, 16); Jonah is rescued by a great fish (1:17); later he expresses great anger (4:1) and great joy (4:6).

Another is the recurring use of Rā’â which means “wickedness” (1:2); “calamity” (1:7; 4:2); “trouble” (1:8); “destruction” (3:10); “displeased” (4:1) and “discomfort” (4:6).

Dependence on other works

The destruction of Nineveh (3:4) is similar to destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:25, 29). In Jonah (4:4,8), Jonah is portrayed as a parody of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4. Jonah (3:9; 4:2) also includes quotations from the post-exile book of Joel (2:13; 14). Finally, Jonah (3:9,10) is dependent on Jeremiah (18:7,8,11) in theme and terminology.

Jonah’s prayers of thanksgiving in Chapter 2 are all quoted from Psalms. For example Jonah 2:2a from Psalm 3:4 and Psalm 120:1, while Jonah 2:2b is from Psalm 18:4-5 and Psalm 30:3.

Symmetrical structure

Another generic signal which suggests that the book of Jonah is an imaginative product is, according to Terence Fretheim in his book, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary, its symmetrical structure. He writes:

“The carefully worked out structures in the book suggest a non-historical intention on the author's part. Such a concern for structure and symmetry is not as characteristic of straightforward historical writing and is more suggestive of an imaginative product”.

The ESV Study Bible comments that the book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece. The author employs structure, humour, hyperbole, irony, double entendre, and literary devises to communicate his message with great rhetorical power. In the seven episodes in Jonah, Chapters 1 and 2 were parallel to Chapters 3 and 4 with the climax found in Chapter (4:5-11) – Jonah’s lesson about God’s compassion.

Literary Perspective

As a historical account, the book of Jonah seems a bit strange. But it does make sense if you look at it from a literary perspective.

If we take Jonah’s tale as a story written to accomplish a specific narrative intention, we can see that the characters in the story, and the twists in the plot, all work to create a theme expressing the idea that God’s dealings with Israel (personified by Jonah) and the surrounding nations (exemplified by Nineveh) were complex, and not necessarily to Israel’s liking.

As history, it seems convoluted and unnatural, but as a fable it works well, especially if the target audience were Jewish exiles in Babylon and elsewhere.

THE SIGN OF JONAH

Some may argue that Jesus’ quoting Jonah in Matthew 12:39-40 is evidence that the book of Jonah is historically true.

“For as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster three days and three nights

so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Matthew 12:40

The sign of Jonah mentioned at Matthew 12:40 refers to Jesus’ death for three days and three nights. The repentance of Ninevites quoted from Jonah was used to criticize the Israelites in Jesus’ day.

In Matthew 16:4 and Luke 11:29, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders as a wicked generation. If they did not believe the sign of Jonah as a sign from heaven about him, it would not be any good to show them further signs.

Leslie C Allen, commented in his work, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah:

“Essentially Jesus referred to Jonah and the fish as a means of communicating the significance of his own mission. His fundamental concern was not to expound the Book of Jonah but to reveal truth concerning himself in terms his Jewish audience acknowledged and could understand. A greater phenomenon than that of Jonah was here. Prophet par excellence, he has conquered death in a reality that transcended the symbolic shadow of Jonah survival.”

THE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK OF JONAH

Clearly, the purpose of the book is meant to teach readers about the compassion of God. No matter how evil the city of Nineveh was, God relented when its people repented. It is also intended to put this amazing story in the mind of the post-exile Israelite about Israel’s mission to the gentiles. Thus said the Lord: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD, Repent and live.” Ezekiel 18:32.

CONCLUSION

Though the title of the book is in the name of the protagonist, Jonah, some still think that we do not know who the author is. As to the dating of the book, it is generally agreed to be written in the post-exile period. The literary style, literary narrative and literary genre, together with its content, seem to suggest that the intent of the book was to communicate spiritual truth rather than to narrate a historical account.

The argument is that a story’s truthfulness is not solely dependent upon whether its events actually happened. Truth can be delivered through many different genres: parables, plays, poems, narratives, didactic forms, Gospels. Jesus himself taught many spiritual truth using parables.

On the issue of the historicity of the book of Jonah, the debate among scholars will continue. But I feel what is of far greater importance is the God-intended message in the book. The author has shown mastery in the way he crafted the story. It is a fable that is richly woven with many layers of meanings. On the surface it has a playful tone which is why it is so enduring to children. But at the deeper level, it contains a very serious message which comes out clearly and conclusively at the end of the book in 4:11, “Should not I pity Nineveh…?”

The intent of the author may not be to present a historical account but to present a spiritual truth – that the God of Israel, who is also our God, is a compassionate and merciful Creator. His love extends beyond Israel to every person and nation so long as they repent of their sins and acknowledge His commands.

Hence Jonah proclaims (Jonah 4:2) and we too can proclaim with him: “for I (we) knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

Jonah’s story is a great assurance to us during this time of the Covid pandemic: our God’s abounding love will extend to all in every corner of the earth. By His grace He will be especially close to those who are suffering alone. And may we be used by the Holy Spirit to be the channels of His love.


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