How to Read Jonah Theologically
Why should Christians read the book of Jonah theologically? The short answer is that it was written to convey a theological message, and its historical and literary features serve that purpose. But how can that be demonstrated, and how can Christians read Jonah theologically? In this article we will explore some of the ways that Jonah uses the events of the wayward prophet’s life to teach important theological truths and how those truths fit in the web of Scripture’s overall message. Moving through the book chapter by chapter will help us follow the narrative’s development, which regularly surprises and occasionally even shocks the reader.
Chapter 1: Jonah flees from YHWH, the sailors turn to YHWH
The book begins with a known prophet, Jonah son of Amittai (cf. 2 Kgs 14:25), receiving an unprecedented commission to go to Nineveh and speak against it. As common as it was for Israelite prophets to speak against foreign nations (e.g., Amos 1:3-2:3), this is the only instance in the OT of an Israelite prophet leaving Israel and presenting his message directly to the nation concerned. God’s message “against” Nineveh is a response to its “evil,” a very credible accusation in light of the violent, rapacious reputation that the Assyrian empire had developed in the century prior to Jonah’s ministry. Seeking to extend the dominion of the national god Assur and to obtain additional manpower and natural resources, Assyria regularly used extreme violence against all who opposed its expansion. This gave it a reputation as both indomitable and violent, and made the decision to become its vassal or to avoid rebellion a very attractive option compared to resistance.
Why then does Jonah not go to Nineveh, especially since YHWH’s statements and actions against foreign nations demonstrate his sovereign rule over them? The full answer to this question is presented only in chapter 4, but already in chapter 1 the reader knows that Jonah’s rejection of this commission is both without precedent and sinful. The statement that Jonah hoped “to flee . . . from the presence of YHWH” (1:3) is another indication that the theology of the prophet himself is deeply flawed. Despite knowing intellectually that YHWH created “both sea and dry land” (1:9), Jonah’s actions reveal that he believes that God can be evaded (contrast also Ps 139:7-12). Jonah is thus a case study in knowing truth but acting contrary to it—and that, while being a prophet!
The non-Israelites sailors reveal an equally surprising reality: those who know nothing of God can be rapidly and profoundly transformed by his truth. The men take Jonah’s claim that YHWH is the Creator of all things (1:10) with utmost seriousness. They are clearly terrified to find that they are indirectly involved in disobedience against a God whose power and dominion are unlimited, quite unlike the gods they worshipped, each of which exercised limited control over a limited sphere such as the sea or the weather. Jonah’s request to be thrown overboard is a final, desperate attempt to avoid traveling to Nineveh, and the sailors make every effort to treat human life with such disdain (1:13). The non-Israelites sailors reveal an equally surprising reality: those who know nothing of God can be rapidly and profoundly transformed by his truth. Click To Tweet
Unable to save themselves or Jonah, they entrust themselves to YHWH’s justice and mercy (1:14) in a prayer that the author models on Psalms 115 and 135 and that is a classic confession of YHWH’s unique deity and sovereignty. The description of their conversion to faith in YHWH is completed by the statement that they “feared YHWH greatly, offered a sacrifice to YHWH, and vowed vows” (1:16), all actions that typify a genuine relationship with the God of Israel (1 Sam 1:21; Ps 50:14; 66:13; 116:14, 17, 18; Isa 19:21). The sailors are thus a foil for Jonah: they gain only minimal knowledge of Israel’s God (contrast Jonah’s extensive knowledge, evident in his allusions to the Psalms in chapter 2), but their response to that truth is nothing short of repentance leading to conversion.
Chapter 2: Jonah’s psalm
The prayer of Jonah in chapter 2 is another invitation to consider the unexpected. Jonah’s attempt at assisted suicide (had he recognized his sin in chapter 1, repentance, not suicide, was the appropriate response) prepares us to read this prayer as an attempt at self-justification mixed with doubtful affirmations of piety. Rather than accepting responsibility for his predicament, Jonah alleges that God “threw him into the deep” (2:3) and that he was “driven away from your sight” (2:4). No less surprisingly, the prayer is saturated with language used by faithful Israelites who are unjustly oppressed (2:3 // Ps 42:7; 2:4 // Ps 31:7, etc.), and the disobedient prophets puts himself in the same category. He even emphasizes his piety by putting his call for help first (2:2) and by focusing disproportionately on his resolute focus on YHWH while in danger (2:2, 4, 7) and stating that he remembered YHWH and not vice versa (2:7). His closing critique of those who worship what is not God (2:8) most likely has the sailors in view and so is quite ironic, since the reader (but not Jonah) knows that they now worship YHWH!
Chapter 3: Nineveh’s response to God’s message and God’s mercy to Nineveh
The events of chapter 2 and Jonah’s attitude in chapter 4 suggest that after being saved from drowning, he simply realized that disobedience was futile, and so trudged off to Assyria at the beginning of chapter 3—not even death could free him from his mission! In any case, he makes his way to Nineveh, a site whose religious importance dated back millennia and whose prominence would soon make it the last capital city of the empire. The case of the Ninevites parallels in many ways that of the sailors in chapter 1. Despite being presented with only the barest description of God (the quotation of Jonah in 3:4 is probably only a summary of his message, although the name YHWH is curiously absent from 3:4-10), the general population and their ruler “believe in God” (3:5a) and make serious work of repentance (3:5b, 6-8) without presuming upon God’s mercy (3:9). While the author does not present Nineveh’s repentance as entailing a rejection of other gods (cf. 1:16), God recognizes it as genuine and mercifully rescinds the judgment he had threatened (3:10).
Chapter 4: Jonah’s rejection of God’s mercy, God’s rebuke to Jonah
This brings us to the book’s high point, which is also Jonah’s low point. The prophet again seeks death, this time for the horrific reason that he cannot bear to see God’s mercy shown to the Ninevites (4:2a). His theological analysis of the situation is correct, but it has no effect on his heart: YHWH is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Exod 34:6-7). The classic description of God’s character that Jonah knows to be only too true is drawn from the description of Israel’s large-scale apostasy immediately after giving their consent to the terms of the Sinai covenant in Exodus 24:1-8. There, Israel forgot YHWH, had Aaron make “gods” in his place, and prepared to continue on their way without YHWH or Moses (32:1-5). YHWH threatened to destroy Israel because of this egregious sin, but this was narrowly averted by Moses’ appeal to God’s reputation among the nations and his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham (32:11-14), reasons that are inseparable from his “gracious and compassionate” character (34:6-7; cf. 33:19). The object lessons that follow this inner-biblical allusion in Jonah 4 demonstrate God’s propriety in showing Nineveh the same grace and compassion that he showed Israel, for by definition such mercy cannot be merited.
Responding to the message of the book of Jonah
The book of Jonah thus invites the reader to recognize that he or she does not and cannot merit God’s grace, that God is nonetheless ready to welcome repentant sinners (chs. 1, 3), and that the only way to live a life pleasing to him is by growing in conformity to his character, especially in regards to his plan to bring blessing to all nations by blessing his people (Gen 12:1-3). A life of fidelity to God in our words and actions (1 Peter 3-4), even amid persecution, is therefore inseparable from the church’s commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). The faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel will make the church follow in the footsteps of the ultimate Prophet, the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 13:47), in whose person God’s gracious and compassionate character is fully revealed (Heb 1:3a).