Introduction to Jonah




The book of Jonah, the fifth of the Minor Prophets, is more like the stories of the prophets found in the Historical Books in both form and content. The book gives us a brief glimpse into the life of Jonah, the “wrong-way prophet,” who ran from God and was swallowed by a fish. Throughout the book, we see evidence of God’s grace and his love for all people.

Mosul, Iraq, the site across the Tigris from ancient Nineveh. In 1845 Sir Austen Henry Layard began to dig on the banks of the Tigris and made one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the modern era. Nineveh had been hidden from the world since 612 BC when it was leveled by a coalition of enemies.

Mosul, Iraq, the site across the Tigris from ancient Nineveh. In 1845 Sir Austen Henry Layard began to dig on the banks of the Tigris and made one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the modern era. Nineveh had been hidden from the world since 612 BC when it was leveled by a coalition of enemies.


AUTHOR: The book is an anonymous narrative about Jonah.

BACKGROUND: Jonah appears in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet from Gath-hepher in the territory of Zebulun in northern Israel. He was active around the first half of the eighth century BC. Jonah predicted the restoration of the northern kingdom’s boundaries. This occurred during the reign of Jeroboam II (ca 793-753 BC). This book about Jonah could have been composed at any time from the eighth century to the end of the OT period.

Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was a major city of the Assyrians, a cruel and warlike people who were longtime enemies of Israel. Assyrian artwork emphasizes war, including scenes of execution, impalement, flaying the skin off prisoners, and beheadings. This explains Jonah’s reluctance to preach to the infamous city of Nineveh.

The key debate about the book of Jonah is the question of its genre. Is Jonah history or parable? The parable view argues that Jonah is a fictional story or fable made up to convey a theological point about God’s attitude toward Gentiles. Proponents of the parable view argue that the ironic and fantastic events described by the book (e.g., Jonah living and praying in the stomach of a fish) are the author’s way of tipping the reader off that this is not literal history. There are also historical difficulties that the fictional view would resolve: the exaggerated size of Nineveh (3:3) and the lack of extrabiblical, Assyrian evidence to confirm that the city ever repented.

Five considerations suggest taking the book of Jonah as genuine history. First, Jonah was a real historical figure, said to be a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25. The book of Jonah portrays Jonah as a flawed character. Were the book of Jonah a piece of fiction, it would be guilty of slander, saying something derogatory and untrue about a real person who is elsewhere presented positively.

Second, Jonah is part of the collection of twelve Minor Prophets. All the other books of this collection convey prophecies by genuine, historical prophets. By placing Jonah in this collection, the compiler of the Minor Prophets signaled that he considered Jonah to be an historical account.

Third, the miracles in Jonah are not impossible for the God of the Bible. Presuming otherwise, some interpreters allow their antisupernaturalism to drive them to the parable view of Jonah.

Fourth, Jesus in Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32 spoke of Jonah being in the fish and preaching in Nineveh as if these were real events. In particular, Jesus’s statement that “the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching” (Mt 12:41; cp. Lk 11:32) makes little sense if the people of Nineveh never actually repented due to Jonah’s preaching. Unless one is willing to affirm that Jesus was wrong, it is best to say that the book of Jonah is historical.

Finally, the historical difficulties in Jonah can largely be resolved (see note at 3:1-3).


GOD’S POSITIVE ATTITUDE TOWARD GENTILES: In chap. 1, Gentile sailors learn to revere and worship Israel’s God. Their reluctance to throw Jonah overboard shows that they were concerned to follow God’s ethical demands by not taking innocent human life. In chap. 3, Nineveh’s repentance shows that Gentiles can be saved too. God is interested in all people, a concern that anticipates the missionary mandate of the NT.

GOD’S GRACE: God was “gracious and compassionate” (4:2) toward Nineveh, thus showing that the God of the OT is a God of grace.

GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY OVER NATURE: The book of Jonah portrays the sovereign power of God over the natural world. God can hurl a storm at people (1:4), raise up a plant miraculously as well as a worm to kill it (4:6-7), and use a great fish to swallow and save Jonah (1:17). All this shows God’s control over nature.

THE FUTILITY OF RUNNING FROM GOD: The trouble that Jonah got into when he tried to run from God’s calling is a warning to readers that running from God is futile and only invites unnecessary hardship.


The book of Jonah shows God’s gracious concern for the whole world, his power over nature, and the futility of running from him. In addition, it foreshadows Jesus’s burial and resurrection. Matthew 12:38-45 and Luke 11:24-32 compare the ministry of Jesus with that of Jonah, Jesus being the greater. Both texts see Jonah’s great fish as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s burial in the tomb, making Jonah a “type” of Christ. If Jonah actually died in the fish (see note at Jnh 2:1-2), then his resuscitation further parallels the resurrection of Jesus.


The book of Jonah exhibits a high degree of Hebrew literary excellence. Its style is rich and varied. It is considered by many as a masterpiece of rhetoric. There is symmetry and balance in the book, and it can be divided into two sections of two chapters each. Because poetry is more prominent than prose in this historical narrative, the poetic form of 2:2-9 marks it as the peak of the first discourse. The peak in the second discourse is marked by the dialogue between Jonah and God. The Lord and Jonah are indicated as the two main characters of the story by being the only ones who are named; the other characters are anonymous.

Phenomena of nature also serve in each half as props: wind, storm, sea, dry land, and fish in the first half; herd and flock, plant, worm, sun, and wind in the second half. When placed side by side, chaps. 1 and 3 and chaps. 2 and 4 can be seen as parallel. Finally, both chaps. 1 and 3 begin with Jonah receiving a word from the Lord consisting of a call to go to Nineveh.


I.Jonah’s Flight from God (1:1-17).

A. The Lord calls; Jonah rebels (1:1-3).

B.The Lord sends a storm (1:4-6).

C.The sailors intervene (1:7-16).

D.The Lord sends a big fish (1:17).

II.Jonah’s Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Fish (2:1-10).

A.Jonah prays (2:1-9).

B.The Lord delivers Jonah (2:10).

III.Jonah’s Preaching in Nineveh (3:1-10).

A.Jonah obeys the call (3:1-4).

B.King and Ninevites repent (3:5-9).

C.The Lord withholds judgment (3:10).

IV.Jonah’s Anger at God’s Mercy (4:1-11).

A.The Lord displeases Jonah (4:1-5).

B.Jonah displeases the Lord (4:6-10).

C.The Lord shows great pity (4:11).

5000-1000 BC

Earliest settlement of Nineveh 5000

Three major Assyrian cities, Nineveh, Asshur, and Calah, engage in vigorous trading as far as Cappadocia. 1900

An expanding Assyria wars with Babylon’s King Hammurabi shortly before breaking up into smaller city-states. 1700

Adad-nirari establishes the first Assyrian Empire. 1307

Tiglath-pileser I is monarch of the second Assyrian Empire. 1115-1077

At Tiglath-pileser’s death the empire falls into a 166-year decline. 1077-911

1000-850 BC

Neo-Assyrian Empire established by Ashur-dan II, lays the foundation for a unified rule in the ancient Near East from Egypt to the Caspian Sea. 934

Adad-nirari II (911-891) and his grandson, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) lead a resurgent Assyria.

Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (859-824), fights a coalition of 12 kings including Ben-Hadad of Aram-Damascus and Ahab of Israel at Qarqar in north Syria. 853

850-750 BC

Shalmaneser defeats Hazael of Damascus and receives tribute from Israel’s King Jehu. (841) This scene is carved in relief on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, unearthed at Nimrud, Iraq, in AD 1846.

With the death of Shalmaneser III, Assyrian expansion is held in check. 824-745

Jonah prophesies that the Lord will restore the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah.

Jeroboam II strengthens Israel. 793-753

God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance.

During its time of weakness, Assyria experiences two severe plagues (765 and 759) and a total eclipse (763).

750-700 BC

Tiglath-pileser III checks the aggression of the Kingdom of Urartu on Assyria’s north and leads an expansion of Assyria, conquering Babylon and greatly reducing Israel’s territory. 745-727

Assyria’s Shalmaneser V besieges Samaria. 725-722

Samaria falls to Assyria’s Sargon II; nearly 28,000 Israelites are sent into exile, and Gentiles from Assyrian-controlled territories are resettled into what was the northern kingdom. 722