The book of Jonah (Jonah 1)

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The book of Jonah is among the most controversial in the Old Testament, interpreted by various scholars as either history or fiction. If the story is factual, then Jonah either wrote it himself or was the author’s primary source. Almost everything in the book stems from the direct experiences of the prophet, and even details outside of his personal knowledge (e.g. the sailors making a sacrifice to the Lord at Jonah 1:16 and the ritual lamentation of the king of Nineveh at 3:6) could have been surmised or learned by him at a later time. If the story is a fictionalized account, the authorship is unknown.

The matter of the date of the book of Jonah is closely related to the question of whether the work is historic or fictional. The events of the book of Jonah, if historical probably took place around 785-770 B.C. If this is the case, the work was almost certainly written during the eighth century B.C. If it is merely a story, it could have been at any time after the eighth century B.C., although scholars who believe this story to be fiction concur that the work is probably postexilic, written at the time when Nineveh was only a distant memory.

See The historicity of the book of Jonah under Jonah 3.

Assuming that Jonah’s story is a factual account, the book was addressed to the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign of Jeroboam II (739-753 B.C.), a time of great territorial and commercial expansion.

Nineveh’s historical situation during this period may explain their readiness of the king and his people to accept Jonah’s message. Assyrian power was at a particularly low point during the reign of Assur-dan III (773-756 B.C.) Assyria had suffered military reverses, diplomatic setbacks, famine and domestic uprising. In addition, an eclipse had taken place on June 15, 763 B.C., and this could have been regarded as a terrible omen (there had also been an eclipse in 784 B.C.). With all of this going on, it is not surprising that the Ninevites would have been especially jittery and ready to pay attention to a foreign prophet who suddenly appeared in their city.

As you read, be attuned to the prophet’s negative attitude as he nevertheless follows through – after a major act of rebellion and a dramatic turnabout – with his God-given message. Notice, for instance, his pronouncement to God that he was “angry enough to die” when the vine withered and his shade was gone (4:9). What do these details say about God’s willingness and ability to use human beings, whatever their limitations or petty complaints?

How does the books’s abrupt ending (an unanswered, rhetorical question of God) leave you feeling? Do you sense a need for closure of the human story, or is the divine “last word” sufficient from your perspective?

Did you know that the sailors understood Jonah’s description of God as being characteristic of the highest deity, for in the religions of the ancient Near East the supreme god was usually the master of the seas(1:9)? Did you know that the Hebrew for “great fish” and the Greek for “huge fish” in Matthew 12:40 are both general terms for a large sea creature, not necessarily (but possibly ) a whale (Jonah 1:17)? Did you know that the Assyrians, instead of numbering their years, named them after certain rulers and powerful men (3:4)?


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