Jonah is a very short and yet very stylized story. The text naturally divides into four short chapters. The fourth one even refers to words that are chronologically set in the first one: “O YHWH, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 4:2). That Jonah said anything in Israel when told to go to Nineveh is news to the reader. Jonah 1 had begun, “Now the word of YHWH came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3a). Jonah 1 had not told us about his verbal protest–only his actions in fleeing.
The other basic indication of the structure and style of the story is the noticeable recapitulation of Jonah 1:1 at Jonah 3:1. For the phrase highlighting the repetition of the Lord’s word to Jonah replaces the family lineage information of Jonah 1:1 so that “the word of YHWH came to Jonah the son of Amittai” becomes “the word of YHWH came to Jonah the second time.”
Furthermore notice the following interesting parallels between the ways that chapters 1 and 2 end. In Jonah 1 we read concerning the captain and crew of the ship: “then the men feared YHWH exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to YHWH and made vows” (Jonah 1:16), which information is followed by the coda: “And YHWH appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17 in English, Jonah 2:1 in Hebrew). So also Jonah mentions a sacrifice to YHWH and vows made: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to YHWH!” (Jonah 2:9), which is followed by the coda: “And YHWH spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).
Chapter 3, where we see the people of Nineveh also respond in worship ends with the following coda: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). Chapter 2 began, “Then Jonah prayed to YHWH his God from the belly of the fish, saying,” (Jonah 2:1) and then chapter 4, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to YHWH and said” (Jonah 4:1-2a). In chapter 2 Jonah had been dead and he asked for his life, but then in chapter 4 he asks YHWH to take his life.
Apart from the prologue and the coda in chapter 2 that chapter is a carefully constructed poem. It uses poetic language to explain that he is dead – poetic references to the place where the dead go including, “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2), “the land whose bars closed upon me forever” and “the pit” (Jonah 2:6). Thus the chapter tells us of Jonah’s death and resurrection. We are even told about Jonah, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered YHWH” (Jonah 2:7a). The language reminds me of the resurrection climax to the flood story with Noah – “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1). Thus we can say that Jonah remembered YHWH and then YHWH remembered Jonah. It also is no accident that the coda emphasizes that Jonah was vomited out upon “the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). This is an allusion to Genesis 1 for from the chaos of the seas then dry land appeared. Jonah was overwhelmed in the waters of chaos and then the Lord spoke (!) to the fish and it vomited him out upon the dry land. Jonah then is a new creation – again, resurrection type language.
The short story is very selective in its telling, as if the evidence of this observed in the opening of our post is not enough. Luke 11:30 says, “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jewish tradition before Jesus and the interpretation of Jesus Himself affirms that the people of Nineveh knew what had happened to Jonah in being swallowed up by the great fish. Otherwise it makes no sense to say that Jonah was a prophetic sign to the people of Nineveh. Yet these four short chapters in Jonah never tell us that the people of Nineveh had this information. Nevertheless, this interpretation explains for us then why the people of Nineveh had a reasonable hope that they might too be given a second chance since Jonah had a second chance. But regardless of what might have prepared the people of Nineveh to receive this message of judgment from the true and living God, God gave them faith and repentance to rebuke Israel. The purpose of the book of Jonah is the same purpose that Jesus has for mentioning the story – to rebuke Israel for not believing the Lord and turning to Him. In other words, when we read Jonah we have to remember that the book was written for Israel.
The last observation that I want to make at the moment is how the book begins and ends using lessons from creation – a feature especially of wisdom works in Scripture. The lesson in the first chapter uses the sea and in the fourth chapter a plant. Of course, this also recalls for us the pattern of this book – sea, dry land, new people and cattle and vegetation.
See anything else? If you haven’t already read it, see my earlier post on Jonah.