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Old Testament | Jonah | Summary

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Summary

  • Yahweh commands Jonah to prophesy in Nineveh, but Jonah promptly heads in the exact opposite direction on a ship.
  • When the ship is caught in a terrible storm, Jonah confesses that he is fleeing from the command of his god, then is thrown overboard and swallowed by a large fish. He remains alive inside its stomach for three days before being returned to land and finally reaching Nineveh.
  • In response to Jonah's prophecy, the people and livestock of Nineveh observe a fast in sackcloth and ashes, and Yahweh decides not to punish the repentant city.
  • Jonah is furious, but Yahweh challenges him: "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (4:10).

Analysis

Jonah is truly unique among the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. It is not a book of prophetic messages, but a folktale featuring a prophet. It is apparent that the tale is meant to be instructive, but the precise moral of the story goes unstated and remains open to interpretation.

The initial tension in the Jonah story comes from the fact that any mention of the Neo-Assyrian city of Nineveh would invoke feelings of dread and animosity for its ancient audience. Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and exiled its people, and attempted to do the same to Judah in 701 BCE. With this history in view, no ancient Israelite would have envied Jonah's assignment. The sudden repentance of the Ninevites and Yahweh's willingness to relent from punishing them must have been a shocking plot twist for ancient readers.

Vexed at Yahweh's leniency, Jonah references descriptions of Yahweh's character found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: "You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (compare Exodus 34:6–7, Psalms 86:15, 103:8, 145:8). Although these gracious qualities have frequently saved Israel from Yahweh's wrath, Jonah presents the discomforting scenario of seeing this same mercy applied to one of Israel's paradigmatic enemies. This universalistic perspective is often interpreted as a corrective to extreme ethnocentrism present in the time Jonah was written. Another way of interpreting the text is to focus on the vocation of the prophet. Jonah may simply be guilty of being too self-absorbed, worrying more about the embarrassing outcome of his message of imminent doom for Nineveh not coming to pass (the sign of a false prophet in Deuteronomy 18:22) than about the greater good of Yahweh's concern for all people. Ultimately, the readers of Jonah are left to wrestle with questions about the prophet's vocation and the breadth of Yahweh's mercy.

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