"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)
2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)
There is no other character in all of the text of the Old Testament who could have lived a life more entertaining than Jonah. Getting swallowed by a giant “sea creature” is probably one of the oldest and quickest ways of becoming famous, or should we same infamous worldwide (Jonah 1:17). Join me as we dive into one of the most exciting stories of the Bible. This extensive work on the book of Jonah will begin by looking into the subgenre, along with the literary features/poetic devices that are found within the text, followed by examining the historical context of the book. We will also examine the prophetic elements of this text to determine if they apply to the prophet’s day, a future time, or both. Finally,we will learn the application of theological truths found within the text and how they apply to our church today.
The Subgenre and Literary Features of The Book of Jonah
According to Yvonne Sherwood, “The book of Jonah is one of the twelve so-called Minor Prophets.” The fact that it is considered a minor prophet does not give any revelation to the importance of the prophet, but rather the length of the book. Jonah is considered a minor book, mostly because of its short length of four chapters. The book of Jonah is certainly and overwhelmingly majority narrative, with a single Psalm (2:1-10). There are multiple literary features and elements within the book of Jonah. Among them Yvone Sherwood points out, “innter-biblical allusions and humor.” She also mentions some differences between the book of Jonah and other prophets by saying, “Unlike other clearly multi-layered prophetic books, Jonah seems to be a tightly crafted unity.”
There are also many others within the field of theology who seem to believe that some of these differences and exciting elements do not make positive contributions to the reputation of the book. Steven McKenzie mentions,“The characters in Jonah are also exaggerations, or better, stereotypes, that at least border on the rediculous.” McKenzie even goes as far as pointing out the flaws in how God is perceived my saying, “Yahweh is an onmipotent micromanager who controls not only the force of nature but also personally appoints and commands fish, insects, and plants. The God of Israel is also the God of the entire universe, the creator of sea and land.”
“God’s purposes througout the story are unfailingly redemptive and merciful.” While McKenzie redeems his point in the last part of the prior quote, it seems that he is pointing out God to be a micromanager in the story. However, strong personalities, plots, and plays on emoition are all qualities of a good narrative story.
The Historical Context of The Book of Jonah
Knowing that the book of Jonah is more narrative than any other sub-genre, we can now determine the historical context and elements of the book. Jonah is obviously set in the time of prophets of the Old Testament. Yvonne Sherwood points out,“Unlike most other prophetic books, the book floats free of any historical anchor or time signature.” This makes putting an exact date of authorship and the happening of its events very difficult. However, she states, “The vast majority of contemporary scholars favor dates between the sixth and third centuries B.C.E.” There are those scholars who believe this book lacks the evidence required to consider it having any kind of historical significance. Micheal Grisanti mentions, “Although these narratives give the impression that they speak of the past, many scholars regard them as ‘hisotricized fiction,’ viewing them as ‘stories rather than historically reliable accounts.” Even Steven McKenzie brings up this point when he says, “It is obvious from the foregoing examination of its content that the book of Jonah was not written as biography or history.” His main evidence seems to be as he states, “There are hsitorical inaccuracies, such as the title ‘king of Nineveh’ and the description of Neneveh’s size, not to mention the prominence of Nineveh in the eigth century.” He also seems to present the idea that this Jonah is not a depiction of the real prophet Jonah by saying, “Jonah is an unreal figure—a statrical imitation of a prophet rather than the historical prophet of the same name.” Micheal Grisanti continues this argument by saying, “The question is whether narratives with a didactic or propagandistic intent can also be viewed as hisotry writing.”
There are multiple errors in the belief that the Book of Jonah presents historical inaccuracies. One is the historical significance that the Jews themselves place on the Book of Jonah. The Jewish traditions are set in very concrete historical accuracies. Bernard Raskas helps point this out by mentioning, “The Book of Jonah, a seemingly fantastic tale of a reluctant prophet swallowed by a huge fish while fleeing from God, is read publicly once a year in the synagogue late in the afternoon on Yom Kippur.” If God’s chosen people have read this book every year for such an important event for them, why would they do this with a historically inaccurate book. We have to remember that most all the Jewish holidays and sacrements are based on the real events of God’s Word.
Jesus also mentions the Book of Jonah directly in Matthew 12:40, something that I doubt He would have ever done had there been any discrepancies historically with the book. Another argument against the false belief that the Book of Jonah is historically inaccurate is because many academia force their methods upon texts that are much older and more sacred. Micheal Grisanti says, “In the opinion of various scholars literary craft and an accurate historical representation are incompatible. This unfortunate conclusion arises, at least in part, from the association of biblical literature with modern literary theories. To secular literary theorists, literature is art, created for its own sake and not for any purpose external to itself.” He goes on to say later in the article that, “The literary craft of the Bible does not in itself argue against the truthfulness or historicity of the events and people it describes.” It is for this reason that the Book of Jonah has a historical context to not only Jonah’s day, but for everyone who reads this valuable story. It is truly a Book of God’s Word that transcends time.
The Prophetic Elements of The Book of Jonah
The prophetic elements of the Book of Jonah are partly summarized by Yvonne Sherwood when she mentions, “The book of Jonah is a misfit among the prophetical books. The only oracle is ‘Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown’ (3:4, author’s translations throughout)—a terse five words in Hebrew.” This is only assuming that there are only prophetic applications to the day that Jonah lived, however if this were the case it would be true. Fortunately, however; Jonah has some implied prophetic elements. Jesus himself mentions the similarities between Jonah’s three day stay when he says in Matthew 12:40 (NIV), “in the belly of the huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Steven McKenzie seems to believe that, “Jonah is full of contradictions.” However, many of God’s people here on the Earth have a life full of contradictions. God loves to proove us wrong by having us do things that we said we would never do. I can attest to this myself as I told my wife when we met that, “I would never be that little church boy she wanted in a boyfriend.” A few years later I was not only back in college, but in Seminary training how to become a pastor to those other little “church boys.” This was a contradiction, but we all have them. The individuals who were characters of the Book of Jonah are people, so they were no different.
The Theological Truths and Their Application To The Church Today
There are severl strong theological truths and leadership tips for today’s church that we can get from such an awesome story as Jonah’s. Among them, were one of the few points that I agree with Yvonne Shewood on and that was when she mentions,“From king to beasts, the Ninevites put on sackcloth and fast. Since they repent of their evil, God repents from the evil that he said that he would do to them (3:10).” There are six truths that Bernard Raskas believes the book of Jonah teaches. They are: “you can’t run away from God, you can’t run away from responsibility, you must be willling to do teshuvah (work on relationships) if you want to find life meaningful and worthwhile, there is only one God and one humanity, there is always hope, and it is never too late to change.”
I have tried many of these mistakes myself that Jonah tried, and I can attest to the fact that they are indeed hard lessons to be learned. Bernard Raskas expands on this idea when he states, “God then instructs Jonah: If Jonah could have compassion for a simple plant, doesn’t he understand the compassion God must feel toward a city of 120,000 men, women, children, as well as innocent animals? God teaches Jonah (and us) that the God of the Jews is the God of the entire world. The enemy is human.” As Rob Barret points out, the point that I see many fail to recognize (even speakers) is, “In the structurally parallel encouters with the sailors and the Ninevites, the strikingly consistent contrast with Jonah is that the other human characters are immediately consumed with fear of the dangerous implications of resisting YHWH’s will and power while Jonah consistently exhibits no concern and stubbornly twists his neck away from the direction of YHWH’s leading.” The fear of the Lord is something that seems to be lost in our faith today. People shake their fists at God and have gained the notion that they can walk with God without fearing Him, however our Scripture states in Psalms 112:1, “Praise the LORD! How blessed is the man who fears the LORD, Who greatly delights in His commandments.” This Scripture along with many others helps to point out how important it is for us to properly respect and reverance our God and Creator of the universe.
The Book of Jonah has proven itself to be a great resource for both Jew and Christian for many years and will continue to until the Day of the Lord. The question is, do we see the value it provides us? If we properly study and apply the subgenre, the literary features/poetic devices, the historical context, its prophetic elements, and the truths which are found within the text; we can then see that value. It is for this reason that I consider the Book of Jonah to be an essential part of growth in our faith. Let us have compassion for others, like God had on Ninevah.
Barrett, Rob. "Meaning More than They Say: The Conflict between YHWH and Jonah." Journal for the study of the Old Testament. 20, no. 2 (June 2011): 155-69.
Elwell, Walter, A. Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.
Goodrick, Edward W. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999.
Grand Canyon University. “Old Testament Exegesis: Exegeting the Prophets.” Lecture 4, Biblical Hermeneutics, Grand Canyon University, 2016.
Grisanti, Michael A. "Old Testament poetry as a vehicle for historiography." Bibliotheca Sacra 161, no. 642 (April 2004): 163-178. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 15, 2017).
McKenzie, Steven L. . " Jonah and Genre." In How to Read the Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/article/book/obso-9780195161496/obso-9780195161496-div1-2 (accessed 04-Jul-2017).
Raskas, Bernard. 1992. "What Made Jonah Run?: Six lessons for Yom Kippur."Baltimore Jewish Times, Oct 02, 8. https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/docview/222844353?accountid=7374.
Sherwood, Yvonne ed. Jonah. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible: Oxford Biblical Studies Online, accessed July 2nd, 2017. http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/article/opr/t280/e103
 Yvonne Sherwood ed. "Jonah." The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible: Oxford Biblical Studies Online, accessed July 1st, 2017, http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/article/opr/t280/e103
 Yvonne Sherwood ed. "Jonah."
 Steven L, McKenzie, "Jonah and Genre: How to Read the Bible.” Oxford Biblical Studies Online, accessed July 3rd, 2017, http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/article/book/obso-9780195161496/obso-9780195161496-div1-2
 Steven L, McKenzie, "Jonah and Genre: How to Read the Bible.”
 Michael A. Grisanti, “Old Testament poetry as a vehicle for historiography,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161, no. 642 (April 2004): 164, accessed June 15, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
 Michael A. Grisanti, “Old Testament poetry as a vehicle for historiography.” 165.
 Raskas, Bernard. "What made Jonah Run?: Six Lessons for Yom Kippur." Baltimore Jewish Times, Oct 02, 1992. 8, https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/docview/222844353?accountid=7374.
 Ibid. 166.
 Ibid. 168.
 Bernard Raskas. "What made Jonah Run?: Six Lessons for Yom Kippur."
 Rob Barret. "Meaning More than They Say: The Conflict between YHWH and Jonah." Journal for the study of the Old Testament. 20, no. 2 (June 2011): 155-69.