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Jonah 3:1-10

Jonah 3:1-10
Background to the Book of Jonah
Jonah is the fifth book in the block of books at the end of the Old Testament called the 'Twelve Minor Prophets'. It is different in a number of ways from the other books in this section in that it is mainly about a prophet, rather than a focus on prophetic oracles, and would easily fit into the literature of 1 Kings. However, it was situated here and considered part of the canon in 200 BCE with a reference by Sirach to confirm its place. A number of the minor prophets appear to be arranged by chronological order and some word linkages, for example, Joel, Amos and Obadiah all speak of the Day of the Lord ( Limburg:20-21). Jonah is named in 2 Kgs 14:23-27 as present in the reign of Jeroboam 11 which fits in the same period as Amos and Hosea. This confirms for some the historicity of the Book of Jonah, (Stuart:440-442), while others are prepared to accept that there was a figure of Jonah which was the basis for this narrative. The reference to Jonah in 2 Kings suggest we are to read it with this context in mind, however, its final composition was probably much later. Besides the references and knowledge of earlier material (Elisha in 1 Kgs 19:4, Jer 18:7-8), there are a number of words which appear to be from post-exilic times with a smattering of connections to Aramaic texts (Limburg: 29). While there may be material from different places and times used in its composition we are meant to read it as a unity now with its profound theological messages.

The form of the material has as many suggestions as there are stars in the sky (hyperbole) - Trible lists twenty suggestions ranging from allegory to didactic story to satire (Trible: 466-467). In fact no one particular genre describes the whole book, but the final composer has used a number of well known genres which he has adapted for his own theological purpose. The use of questions - eight in the first chapter - are the means to involve the hearer/reader and indeed the book ends with three questions. This concentrated use of questions which are used a lot in the wisdom literature to teach, suggests to Limburg that Jonah has the same didactic purpose (Limburg: 26). The use of imagery is vivid throughout including the use of the "great fish" in Jon 1:17, which even a conservative scholar such as Allen says, " The fish stands for the amazing grace of Yahweh, which came down to where he was and lifted him to new life." (Allen: 213).

Jonah encompasses a number of theological emphases. God is in control of creation and uses that power to both teach and rescue Jonah. When a prophetic calls comes to a person (Jon1:1) it involves a commission which cannot be avoided. Moses and Jeremiah tried to escape the responsibility, but failed. God hears the pleas of Jonah even when he has been disobedient and rescues him. Foreigners can cry to God as did the sailors, and a foreign nation such as Ninevah can repent and avoid punishment. This is one of the rare stories that talks about an Israelite actually prophesying in a foreign country rather than from within Israel/Judah (Amos. Isaiah. Jeremiah). The universality of God is present in this book. God can choose to change an action which has already been decreed as in Amos 7, but here it is in relation to a foreign nation. Overall it is diminishing to try and set one purpose only for this book because it contains a number theological issues and lends itself to many hermeneutical possibilities. This story has inspired many artists to depict it. Marc Chagall has done six sketches and numerous stained glass windows appear in large cathedrals across Europe, for example, Cologne Cathedral in Germany and in Gouda in the Netherlands (Limburg: 74).

Context of Jon 3:1-10
Jon 3 is part of a tightly constructed literary narrative, using a variety of literary devices to make the theological points - miraculous stories, psalm, lots of dialogue which move the story along (Jon1: 6-14). Phyllis Trible sets out the Book of Jonah in two symmetrical scenes: Jon 1:1 - 2:10 = Narrative of flight, strife and return: Jon 3:1- 4:11 = Narrative of mission, repentance and dissent (Trible:475, 491). The lectionary reading comes at the beginning of the second scene in which Yahweh speaks a second time to Jonah repeating the command given in Jon 1:2 to go to Ninevah. The first scene sets up the action in which Jonah tries to flee from doing the commands of God. He takes a ship to Tarshish, but God creates a great storm which terrify the sailors who blame Jonah for the it after they find out from him that he is disobedient to God's commands. It is interesting that while Jonah attempts to flee from Yahweh, he quite readily takes responsibility for the storm and indeed, suggests that he be thrown overboard. At this point we have the appearance of the great fish which swallows Jonah and three days later spits him out. Most of Jon 2 is a pray/psalm to Yahweh acknowledging that God has responded to Jonah's plight and promising that he will give thanks on deliverance. Jonah goes to Ninevah and delivers the message of warning which the Ninevites heed and repent. In response, God also repents which causes Jonah to become very angry. Jon 4 is the story of Jonah's sulk and God's lesson told in a similar manner to the way Nathan confronts David (2 Sam 12), in which the person has to acknowledge they are in the wrong (Luke 7:39-43).
Insights/Message of Jon 3:1-10
Literary: These verses are divided as follows: 3:1-3a = God's command from Jon 1:2a repeated, 3:3b-10 = Ninevah's' repentance. The inclusio, 'the word of the Lord' in vv.1 and 3 emphasize Jonah's obedience as he sets out to Ninevah to give the message which God will relate to him, (Jon 3:4). Jonah has received a second chance and intends to be obedient. The city of Ninevah is mentioned seven times in chapter 3. One wonders why Yahweh is so concerned about the city which is not Israelite and yet is the focus of the book. The size of the city is described by the narrator in two ways using particular Hebrew constructions: "a great city even in God's sight" and it takes three days to walk across. Wolff and others suggest that Ninevah was a significant city during the height of the Assyrian expansion in the 8th BCE, but was not in existence at the time when the book of Jonah was composed (Wolff: 148). It represents great cities which are portrayed as places of evil. The message delivered is very brief with no reason provided for the coming destruction, but the people of Ninevah are given 40 days leeway. Both 'to overthrow' and forty years have great significance in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown because of their depravity and those hearing this story would immediately make the relevant association. The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness and Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. Again one has to wonder why Jonah was believed when he was delivering a message from Yahweh and not the local gods, to the point that there was instant contrition by the people. We note the lack of prophetic messenger speech, 'Thus says the Lord', which could reduce the impact of the speech. However, this was not the case.

We do not return to Jonah as the subject until chapter four, but concentrate on the city of Ninevah. What we have in Jon 3:6-9 is a vivid description of the extent of the repentance from someone as high as the King to the lowest beast. Everyone is expected to repent in the hope which is expressed in v.9, 'God may yet repent'. There is a very clever play on the words to turn, return and therefore repent. In v.8 the king calls on everyone including the beasts 'to turn' (Heb. sub). In vv.9-10 there are two Hebrew roots used to indicate turn (Heb. sub) and 'repent' about the evil (Heb. naham). Some of the English translations blur this play on words.

Message: God perseveres to work through Jonah to offer salvation to this heathen city. Interestingly, there appears no reason why the Ninevites deserve the opportunity to turn to God. Indeed, Jonah is very angry that they heard God through his message and responded. We know in the final chapter of the book how God teaches Jonah that if Yahweh chooses to have compassion, human beings, have no right to be displeased. I wonder how many of us, if we are honest believe that we have the right to say who will receive or not receive God's love and compassion. It is a salutary message to us that we are to be faithful in proclaiming God's love - that is our commission - not decide who will be the recipients, that is God's task alone. The evil of the Ninevites did not bring punishment which they deserved and we struggle with the concept that "good people" can suffer while "bad people" appear to get away with it. In the case of the Ninevites there must have been a willingness to accept that they deserved punishment for the evil ways (Wolff: 156). If this awareness is not present they would have failed to be so thorough in their self - humiliation. Apparently, since 200 CE, on Yom Kipper (Day of Atonement), the Jews read the story of Jonah as an example of true repentance (Limburg: 87). Indeed, Jesus used the Ninevites to show that they repented without a sign (Mth 12:41; Lk 11:32) as does the Koran hold the Ninevites up as a true example of repentance (Limburg: note 149, p.88). In the Old Testament there are a number of instances in which the mind of God changes from one action to another: Moses prays for Israelites in Exod 32:12-14 that God will not punish them and Amos 7:3 ff.. Because of our doctrine of an immutable God, Christians have difficulty coping with God who can choose to change from one declared action to another.
Resources/Worship for Jon 3:1-10
Worship: Jon 3 needs to be told in the context of the whole book. We could have assumed in the past that people would know the story, at least about the 'great fish' bit, but this is not the case any longer.


Allen, Leslie C. The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.

Fretheim, Terence E. The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977.

Limburg, James. Jonah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.

Sasson, Jack M. Jonah. AB 24B. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Stuart, D. Hosea - Jonah. WBC 31. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.

Trible, Ph yllis. “The Book of Jonah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol VI1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1996.

Wolff, H. W. Obadiah and Jonah. Translated by M. Kohl. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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