Understanding Jonah (Part 1)

Jonah has been the theme of Vacation Bible Schools for decades. The book has been the basis for coloring books, picture books, and children’s movies. Yet this story is not just a fun story about a big fish, it’s a meaningful parable that teaches a powerful lesson about the character of God. It is also the first in a series of minor prophets I want to talk about this year. The minor prophets have a lot to teach us about the character of God. They show us God’s sovereignty, mercy, justice, and love. So, let us take some time to break into the book and hear the message of Jonah fresh again.

The setup for Jonah is complicated. For starters, it is likely that the book of Jonah was written in the post-exilic period of the southern Kingdom. This would set the date after 538 BC. Jonah’s story lacks a lot of details the audience might need if they did not already know who Jonah was from 2 Kings. The Books of Kings were written sometime between 560 B.C. and 538 BC, just prior to the southern kingdom’s release from exile. On top of this, Jonah shares a mimetic relationship with Elijah; both share an event where they enter the wilderness bemoaning life.[1] The author may have been trying to draw a connection between the prophet Elijah and Jonah. Furthermore, according to Dr. Kevin Youngblood there is some linguistic evidence to support that the writing is post-exilic. The book of Jonah contains “spelling practices adopted in later biblical and postbiblical texts.”[2] All of this is to say that the story of Jonah was likely put into writing for the post-exilic Southern Kingdom as opposed to Jonah’s homeland, the pre-exilic Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC).

Dating the story late, and placing it with the Southern Kingdom, makes more sense when you realize that God sends Jonah to Nineveh. Nineveh did not become the capital of Assyria until the reign of Sennacherib between 705-681 BC.[3]  Nineveh became a great city after the life of Jonah. For the Southern Kingdom, however, the city of Nineveh would have remained in their collective memory. Another thing that situates the story for the Southern Kingdom is that Jonah travels to the port of Joppa. Joppa was a Southern Kingdom port. It’s odd that a Northern prophet would not take a closer port, but the southern port of Joppa would be familiar to the Southern Kingdom. It also shows Jonah’s desire to move down and away from God’s presence.

Since the story is likely written to the Southern Kingdom, the message Jonah offers must have been powerful for a people leaving exile. One might expect retribution from God against the enemies of God’s chosen people.  The story of Jonah however is not about God’s retribution, but about God’s mercy, and Jonah does not want to participate. For the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the Assyrians were about the most brutal warring nations in the world. What they did to their enemies was so horrific, they hardly compare to another nation on earth. To the Ancient tribes of Israel, the Assyrians would be like how we speak about the Nazis today. Their violence would carry on in the memories of future generations. In fact, Nineveh is so bad that we have another book in the Bible that mentions them, called Nahum. What floats to the surface of all this is that question of how God can be both just and merciful? How can God show mercy to such a violent and evil nation?

Check back for more posts about Jonah, I will be posting part 2 in the coming weeks.

[1] Kevin Youngblood, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, Jonah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 34.

[2] Ibid, 34.

[3] Cary, Phillip. Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 35). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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