Read the Passage: Jonah 1
Authorship and Date – While the prophet Jonah, whose name means “dove,” is explicitly mentioned 18 times in the book that bears his name, the authorship of this book is technically anonymous. However, we can be sure that Jonah is both the principle character and the author of this book, for Jesus claimed it to be so (cf. Matt. 12:39–41; 16:4). Furthermore, it is interesting that Jonah is the only prophet to whom Jesus compares himself. Apart from Jesus’ references to Jonah in the Gospels, Jonah is only mentioned elsewhere in the Bible at 2 Kings 14:25, where it is recorded that “Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet . . . was from Gath-hepher.” The town of Gath-hepher, which was located in the territory of Zebulun, was ~2 miles north of Nazareth, near the region that would later become known as Galilee. This means that the Pharisees were mistaken in claiming that no prophet ever came from Galilee (cf. John 7:52). This error may stem from the fact that the Pharisees overlooked this book, for Jonah’s ministry was to a pagan city. Jonah prophecied to the northern tribes of Israel in ~760 BC and ministered during the rule of Jeroboam II.
Purpose and Theme – Living in northern Israel in the 8th century BC, Jonah’s ministry followed that of the prophet Elisha and he was a contemporary (or near contemporary) of the prophets Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. During the time of Jonah’s ministry, Israel enjoyed a season of peace and material prosperity; yet the nation was spiritually bankrupt. Given these dynamics, it is surprising that God sent Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Jonah’s message to the Assyrians was simple: Repent! However, this book is more about God’s sovereign work in the life of Jonah than about Jonah’s message to Nineveh. It may be that Jonah’s reluctant, yet effective, ministry among the Assyrians was designed by God to shame Israel for their own lack of repentance. Note that Nineveh was founded by Nimrod, Noah’s great-grandson (cf. Gen. 10:6–12). The revival of Nineveh (cf. Jonah 3) was short-lived as the Assyrians ransacked Israel in 722 BC and deport its inhabitants. Later, Nineveh would be destroyed in 612 BC (as prophesied by Nahum). Major themes in the book of Jonah are: God’s mercy to the Gentiles and God’s sovereignty over all things.
Structure and Outline – Since Jonah is a chronological, historical narrative, an outline of the 48 verses of this book is fairly simple. A thematic outline of the book of Jonah is as follows;
- Rejecting God’s Will (Jonah 1)
- Accepting God’s Will (Jonah 2)
- Fulfilling God’s Will (Jonah 3)
- Questioning God’s Will (Jonah 4)
Jonah’s Disobedience (1:1–3)
In the opening verses of this book we meet Jonah and learn of God’s directive to the prophet to travel to Nineveh and to prophesy against it. While other prophets spoke and wrote about pagan nations, Jonah is the only prophet in the Old Testament who was actually sent to a foreign nation. Nineveh, which was one of the royal cities of the Assyrian empire, was located ~500 miles northeast of Israel. In response to God’s directive, we read that Jonah fled to Tarshish. This is the only instance of a prophet refusing God’s call in Scripture. Tarshish was likely located in modern-day Spain, which was across the then-known world from Nineveh. Jonah departed Israel from Joppa, which is where Peter would later receive a vision (cf. Acts 10). Note that an unverifiable but ancient Jewish tradition holds that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath whom Elijah raised from the dead (cf. 1 Kings 17:8–24).
Jonah’s Flight (1:4–9)
Given Jonah’s rejection of God’s charge, as might be expected, the Lord pursued Jonah, sending “out a great wind on the sea” (Jon. 1:4). That the mariners, who were professional sailors, were very afraid of this wind, shows that this event was not an ordinary storm, but was divine in origin. Curiously, though, Jonah “was fast asleep” (Jon. 1:5). It is unclear whether Jonah’s rest was the result of tiredness from his travels, over-confidence in his ability to evade God, resignation to God’s sovereign will, or for some other reason. Surely, though, Jonah’s sleep reveals his disregard for those who were being effected by his sin. The dangerous storm moved the captain to wake Jonah that he might pray for deliverance. Jonah was providentially identified as the cause of the storm via the casting of lots. Note Jonah had apparently earlier told the crew that he was fleeing from God (cf. Jon. 1:10).
Jonah’s Pride (1:10–17)
It is probable that the mariners from Joppa were Phoenicians, which means they would have worshiped Baal, the sky god, as well as perhaps Dagan, the fish god. When Jonah identified his God as “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jon. 1:9), the sailors were greatly afraid. It is surprising that when the mariners asked Jonah what to do next, his answer was “throw me into the sea” (Jon. 1:12). Apparently, Jonah preferred death by drowning over preaching the gospel to the Ninevites and risking their conversion. Of course, just because Jonah was willing to give his life to save the sailors did not make his intended self-sacrifice meritorious (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3). Ironically, the pagan sailors initially resisted Jonah’s request, showing their concern for one man was greater that Jonah’s concern for the inhabitants of the entire city of Nineveh. Surprisingly, once in the water, Jonah is swallowed by a fish.
- What do you know about the book of Jonah? What doctrines and events come to mind when you think of this Old Testament book?
- Since God told Jonah his visit was on account of the wickedness of Nineveh, why did Jonah flee? Is it possible to reject and/or to avoid the will of God?
- Why did God honor the pagan sailors’ practice of casting lots to identify Jonah as the cause of the storm? Were God’s people permitted to cast lots?
- What does God’s preparing of the fish in order to swallow Jonah teach us about God’s providence? Is God’s providence avoidable?
- When Jonah was cast into the ocean and the storm ceased, what effect do you suppose this had upon the pagan sailors?