Perhaps the best known book among The Twelve is the story of Jonah. It is the most unique of The Twelve (and of the whole of Scripture). It is also perhaps the most difficult book of The Twelve to understand. The main problem for interpreting this short book is understanding what its genre is.
Jonah was a prophet who lived during the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom. We read about him in 2 Kings.
Given the placement of the ‘book’ among The Book of the Twelve and the historical crossreference with the prophet in the other +1 Prophetic book of Kings, maybe we are simply to understand it as a special form of prophetic narrative. Others argue that it is a parable. But in any case, the “prophecy” that it contains is only part of one verse out of its four short chapters. The ESV translates the prophecy this way: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4b). The problem is that this line can be translated in a couple different ways.
We could understand by this verse that within forty days the city will be destroyed or that within forty days the city will be turned upside down in the sense of repentance. Thus the book of Jonah may be relating to us that Jonah did not want to be a false prophet. Jonah did not want to go and declare that something would happen, then God relent and it not happen, and then the prophet be considered a false prophet. So the prophecy had to be worded in such a way that it would be fulfilled with either result. But even so, many prophecies of Scripture allow for the possibility of repentance heading off the judgment announced.
The book also fits with the trajectory of Scripture in an international direction. Jonah, as a prophet from Israel, is a representative of Israel. And he is to take this message of judgment leading to repentance to the Gentiles. Thus the book serves as a rebuke to the nation of Israel because they do not have the same compassion that God does for the Gentiles. And yet the book ends, curiously, with, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11). The text insults these Gentiles as being like cattle.
And so already you can see that though the book is short it is not as easy to understand as a quick first reading might suggest.
And yet the typological message is pretty obvious. Jesus picked up on this and called it the sign of Jonah (Matt 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29-30). The best we get as to what the sign means is Luke 11:30 “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the son of Man be to this generation.” Jonah was a sign because he went through a death and resurrection after three days and nights in the belly of a great fish.
Note the text never calls the animal a “whale” like in modern kids stories! The VeggieTales extra features for the movie says that the people of Nineveh worshiped a god pictured in idolatry as a fish. Thus one thing the sign of Jonah taught the people of Nineveh is that Jonah’s God is more powerful than Nineveh’s god. This explains too why they were so quick to repent at hearing the prophecy of judgment. By the way, I am not endorsing the VeggieTales moralistic understanding of the story even though they do not cut off telling it where most kids books would.
The book is not teaching a moral so much as it is giving us a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. I remember a professor at WTS who did much evangelism of Muslims and the common objection Muslims gave to the sign of Jonah was that Jonah did not die but was saved in the belly of the great fish. Yet the professor would simply point out the line of the poetic prayer, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place where the dead go. The story is telling us that Jonah had died and then experienced resurrection.
But I have been assuming you know the story. Here is a synopsis with some highlights:
Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it but Jonah rose to flee from the presence of YHWH to Tarshish. To do so he had to board a boat on the sea – given the Hebrew view of the sea this is a bold move by Jonah. YHWH “hurled a great wind upon the sea” that threatened to break up the ship and the crew were afraid and prayed to their gods but Jonah was fast asleep in the cargo hold.
The crew cast lots to see who had brought the storm upon themselves and discovered that it was Jonah. And Jonah explained what he was doing and they asked him what they should do that the sea might quiet down. He told them to throw him in, but the crew tried hard to get back to the land instead, then they cried out, “O YHWH, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O YHWH, have done as it pleased you.” And they threw him in the sea and the sea stopped its raging. So the men “feared YHWH exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to YHWH and made vows.”
One poetic note: when Jonah explained to the sailors who he was and what he was doing he said, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear YHWH, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The sea and the dry land form a merism for all of creation. Normally we would use the merism of the heavens and the earth and say that God created the heavens and the earth (meaning everything). But because Jonah is on the sea, the more appropriate merism representing all of creation is the sea and the dry land.
Meanwhile YHWH appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah and he was in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights. In the belly of that fish Jonah offered up a poetic prayer of thanksgiving. It is a psalm of thanksgiving that he had been rescued from death. Of course the watery grave, the watery equivalent of Sheol, is “the deep” mentioned in Jonah 2:3. But for whatever reason Jonah was so certain that he was going to be saved that he prayed in thanks as if it had already happened. Simply the appointment of a fish to swallow him saved him from the watery grave. And YHWH spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah up on the dry land.
And Jonah received a second commissioning from YHWH to go to Nineveh. Jonah began saying his line and the people, of all social classes (“from the greatest of them to the least of them”) “believed God” and called for a fast and put on sackcloth. And word of this reached the “king of Nineveh.” This is a strange title since Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, we would expect it to say the “king of Assyria.” In any case, the “king” simply upon hearing this secondhand issued a decree proclaiming a fast and sackcloth wearing and repentance. And when God saw this He “relented” of the disaster He said He would do.
But this was “exceedingly evil to Jonah and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). And we discover the reason that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh with this message. He says, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” And Jonah asked for YHWH to take his life. At the end of the story YHWH God appointed a “plant” to come up over Jonah and give him shade but then God appointed a worm to attack the plant and appointed a scorching east wind and the sun to make Jonah faint. And Jonah again said he wanted to die.
The Hebrew word for the plant is qiqayon. What is that? You might ask. That is precisely what the people of Israel reading the story were supposed to ask, “manna” (what is it?). And this was in turn to remind them of the manna that they were given to eat in the wilderness.
The structure of the fourth chapter is making a comparison between the fate of the city of Nineveh and the plant. Both times Jonah says, “it is better for me to die than to live.” And both times YHWH says, “Do you do well to be angry?” God makes the point at the end, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah is a complex character. Here is a man who prays saying, “Salvation belongs to YHWH.” And yet is angry when salvation comes to the Gentiles. And the book, though short, is a complex book. Twice Jonah is commissioned with the same task. Twice we see Gentiles responding to the God of the Scriptures – the sailors and the people of Nineveh.
It has been observed, and is worth noting here, that The Book of the Twelve has the grace-formula of Exodus 36:4 at key intervals. The formula appears in full in Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2. Pieces of the formula appear in Micah 7:18-20, Nahum 1:3a, and Malachi 1:9a. My point for observing this is that it is a unifying theme for the collection of The Twelve. This +1 Book of the Twelve is teaching that the people need to repent for the day of YHWH is near. The Twelve is teaching that YHWH is a God of judgment and mercy who will forgive those who call upon His name whether Jewish or Gentile.
And while Jonah is a type for Jesus he is also a foil to Jesus. Both were in a boat and asleep when a great storm arose. Both experienced death and resurrection. But Jonah was fleeing his duty and only reluctantly fulfilled it and full of anger and depression he wanted to die after doing it. Jesus willingly went to the cross and died for our sins. Jonah is a type in spite of himself. Jonah is much more like Israel than the true Israel who is Jesus.