Jonah, Theology of

Jonah, Theology of

Jonah is a book that probes the perplexing question of why God's mercy is sometimes dispensed to people who do not seem to deserve it. Nationalities seem to be subdued. Jonah is a Hebrew, not an Israelite ( 1:9 ). He ignores a series of questions seeking to ascertain his nationality ( 1:8-9 ). The racial origin of the sailors is not mentioned. Jonah's audience is called "the men of Nineveh, " not "Assyrians." There is no direct reference in the book to Israel's election or to their special salvation history.

Neither is there any mention of the historical sins of the Assyrian military machine that were so well known in the ancient Near East. The king of Nineveh is nameless, as is the captain of the ship. Identities or nationalities are not important. Rather, the stress is on the relationship of people to God. The Book of Jonah is not a story about Jew and Gentile but about how God relates to total repentance by those who are least expected to exhibit it.

God. God is in total control of the forces of nature but is not part of them. The sea is not a person but a part of creation. Yahweh can make it rage or be still ( Jonah 1:4 Jonah 1:13 Jonah 1:15 ).He can send the wind and cause a storm ( 1:4 ). He can remove the clouds and make the sun bear down with all its force ( 4:8 ). He can use the fierce desert wind to carry out his plan ( 4:8 ).

He can appoint huge denizens of the deep ( 2:1 ) or commission a tiny worm ( 4:7 )to do his will. If he wishes, he can make a special plant come up from the earth to fulfill his purpose ( 4:6 ).He can also control people—even those who have not previously known him. In 1:15 the sailors throw Jonah into the ocean, but in 2:4 the action is attributed to Yahweh. He is the God of heaven but also Creator of the sea and dry land ( 1:9 ).

The corollary of the doctrine of creation is that the Creator's prime desire is to preserve life and not to take it. He has pity on the teeming masses of people and animals who may be in danger of destruction because he is both their Creator and Sustainer ( 4:10-11 ).

There is no escaping this sovereign Creator. One cannot even go out on the sea to the farthest reaches of the earth where the Word of God has never been spoken ( 1:4 ; cf. Isa 66:19 ). Jonah cannot even hide in the lowest deck of the ship ( 1:5 ). Here the captain meets Jonah and unknowingly repeats some of the wording of Jonah's original commission ("Rise, call" Jonah 1:2 Jonah 1:6 ).

The sovereign Lord even controls the casting of the lots so that they identify Jonah as the source of the calamity ( 1:7-10 ). The sailors know that God is sovereign and that he does whatever he wants ( 1:14 ). He cannot be resisted even by the most stubborn individuals. His will cannot be countered by professional expertise or by the most intense will power ( Jonah 1:5 Jonah 1:13 ). He cannot be manipulated into action by incantation or ritual.

God is "gracious and compassionate, … slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" ( 4:2 ). He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to salvation. In Nineveh God saw their deeds not their nationality ( 4:10 ).

Humankind. All people are first and foremost the creatures of God. Israel has no corner on piety. Gentiles in life-threatening situations somehow instinctively act with the same fervent piety as the greatest of the Old Testament saints. When they experience salvation, they make vows and thank offerings. When faced with death, they may even outstrip any form of piety ever recorded. When they believe in God, the same vocabulary is used of them that is employed to describe the faith of the patriarch Abraham ( 3:5 ; cf. Gen 15:6 ). The message of the book is that God's choice transcends nationality or race. His people may be found in the least likely of places ( 3:4-5 ).

Religious people want to usurp God's sacred prerogative to choose those who are his. Jonah believes that those who worship idols automatically forfeit saving grace ( 2:9-10 ). He believes that because he performs certain rituals he is therefore entitled to it. He is of course unaware that the sailors, apparently under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have also offered sacrifices and made vows ( 1:16 ).

It seems to be human nature to attempt to achieve salvation by works. Sailors pray but also throw out cargo, cast lots, row, and interrogate ( 1:5-13 ). But in the end they learn that God is sovereign and people must be saved by simple submission to his will ( 1:15 ).

Ethics. The Gentiles in the Book of Jonah are not reproved in any way for their idolatry. The sin is identified as evil conduct and violence in their hands ( 3:8 ). According to Isaiah 59:6-8 this might include the shedding of innocent blood and various types of injustice. Whatever it would include the Ninevites already know what it is, and what the yare to do about it. They are given no instruction by the prophet about piety.

The sanctity of life is a central theme of the book. Even though the sailors know they must throw Jonah overboard, they are afraid of shedding innocent blood ( 1:14 ). In other lot-casting scenes that identify a person allegedly threatening the life of the community, the judge after ascertaining what was done seeks to pass the death sentence forthwith. But in Jonah one sees these "judges" doing everything they possibly can to avoid carrying out the death penalty. In the Book of Jonah not only is the taking of life a last resort, but every possible step must be taken to preserve life.

Jonah's anger and displeasure at the sparing of the great city ( 4:1-2 ) are described with the same vocabulary used to portray Cain's murderous wrath ( Ge 4:5-6 ). Like Cain Jonah is questioned about his attitude ( Jonah 4:3 Jonah 4:9 ; Gen 4:6 ). Like Cain Jonah leaves the presence of God ( 1:3 ; Gen 4:16 ). They both go to the east and build something ( 4:5 ; Gen 4:16-17 ).Jonah is extremely happy as he watches to see what will happen in Nineveh ( 4:6 ). In using the language and style in which Cain is pictured the author clearly labels Jonah's callous attitude about human life as murderous.

Salvation. Salvation is Yahweh's exclusive possession ( 2:10 ). God is sovereign and can have mercy on whomsoever he chooses ( Exod 33:19 ; Rom 9:15 ). Other prophets were confronted with death for deviating from details of their calling ( Num 22:33 ; 1 Kings 13:24 ).Jonah refuses the entire commission, afterwards rebukes God ( 1:3 ; 4:2-3 ), and almost dares God to kill him. Yet he escapes unscathed at the end of the book.

God seems ever willing to accept sincere repentance even if it comes from people who have had a death pronouncement spoken over them ( 3:4-10 ). Thus the book might be thought of as a midrash on Jeremiah 18:7-10. These verses lay down the general rule that any nation under the ban that repents will find life. The Book of Jonah is a specific, concrete example of that ruling.

At the beginning of the book Jonah appears as the opposite. Here we have an accredited prophet who has been the servant of the Lord. He brings himself to the gates of death by his disobedience. His defection shows how easy it is to become alienated from God. In 1:3five short actions follow each other in rapid sequence. Everything seems to go like clockwork to get the prophet started toward the city of Tarsus.

While life still remains, it is never too late to pray for salvation. As Jonah is at the point of losing consciousness, he remembers, and his prayer leads to his deliverance ( Jonah 2:1 Jonah 2:6 Jonah 2:8 ).Jonah and the Ninevites appear as paradigms illustrating the least likely candidates for salvation.

One who is truly penitent must, like the king of Nineveh, remove all symbols of personal sovereignty and abdicate the throne to acknowledge the total lordship of God ( 3:6 ). Interestingly, salvation by faith is not emphasized. In 3:10 God sees the deeds of the Ninevites that are an outgrowth of their belief in God ( 3:5 ).

Paul Ferguson

See also Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. L. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah; J. Bewer, Jonah; E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible; T. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah; A. Lacocque and P. Lacocque, The Jonah Complex; J. Magonet, Form and Meaning; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah; H. W. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Jonah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.