THE BOOK OF JONAH 4

A study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Ruins of Nineveh today

Chapter 4

Jonah 4:1-5: Jonah’s Anger.

Why is Jonah so angry?
Is it because his prophetic message now seems incorrect?
Is it because the people of Nineveh have been spared?
Or is there a justification to Jonah’s complaint?

“And Jonah is angry! Without hesitation this time, he prays to Yahweh a complaint. Here at last is the stated reason for fleeing in the first place. It was not that he feared the Ninevites’ evil (or so he claims) but that he feared that Yahweh would not pay them the evil that was their due”. David Gunn.
“Jonah had a strongly-based covenant theology, to which was added the blinkers of too narrow an election theology. He knew that God loved Israel and extended his mercy to his chosen people; he felt, in the very marrow of his bones, that this special love of God to Israel should not be extended to gentiles, above all to evil gentiles such as the inhabitants of Nineveh… The wrath of Jonah is thus an all-too-common human phenomenon. Having tasted the divine love, he could not bear to think of it being extended to others”. Peter Craigie.
“Yet is Jonah’s frustration at God’s change of mind totally unwarranted? Yahweh may be a God of hesed (steadfast love), but Jonah may well ask, How long will it be before these repenting Ninevites forsake their true hesed (loyalty)? Are we really to believe that the overnight conversion of the whole of evil Nineveh – including the animals – is not a farce? Perhaps Jonah sees only ‘skin-deep’ repentance”. David Gunn.

Is Jonah to be condemned or understood?
Do Christians often think like Jonah?

Jonah 4:6-11: God’s Great Love.

Do you feel sympathy for Jonah?

“The lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah, and us, is that we view the world the wrong way round. We should be grateful and praise God for the good that happens, and simply accept the rest. Good things are not our right, they are a gift and should be treated as such… It is not very surprising that Jonah did not understand God’s parable of the bush that withered. He had sunk so far into himself that he could not begin to understand the point that God was trying to make. In fact, he shows quite clearly that he has learnt nothing at all from the experience”. Paula Gooder.
“By now, the caricature of Israel in the person of Jonah has become so grotesque that the story might seem to have gone too far. But such is not the case. In the final question (verse 11), towards which the whole book moves, the narrator’s purpose is driven home with considerable force. ‘Should I not pity Nineveh?’ In the tradition of the audience to whom the story was first told, everything suggested the answer ‘No!’ An evil gentile city should not experience the divine pity… It was a frightening thought, for if the Lord of Israel was also the God of Nineveh, wherein lay the special status of the chosen people?” Peter Craigie.
Jonah’s “newfound pity is misplaced. Yahweh presses the moral: if a single plant – God-given and truly ephemeral – is to be pitied in its withering, how much more a great city of 120,000 people (and their cattle) in its destruction? The addition of cattle underlines the point. If Jonah can pity one plant, can he not do the same for all those cattle, whatever his problem with the people?” David Gunn.

What in our lives today is like Jonah’s bush – not ours by right but nice to have?

Can we only fully grasp the message of the Book of Jonah if we eradicate the prophet Jonah from within each of us?

“The story reaches its end, yet it is a curiously unfinished end. Does Jonah understand and accept Yahweh’s disturbing action and unsettling hesed? Does Yahweh forgive Jonah for his ‘evil’? Does the city of Nineveh retain its newfound hesed to God?” David Gunn.

Do we understand and accept God’s disturbing action and unsettling loyal love in this book?

Should God’s love not extend to the millions of people in the world today? And even the animals?

Commentary By Rev Christopher

Jonah 4:1-5: Jonah’s Anger.

Why is Jonah so angry?
Is it because his prophetic message now seems incorrect?
Is it because the people of Nineveh have been spared?
Or is there a justification to Jonah’s complaint?

God repents of the evil he was planning to do to Nineveh. David Gunn and Paula Gooder translate the Hebrew as continuing: “That was evil to Jonah, exceedingly evil!” Jonah goes on to pray that God will take his life because he sees no point in living. These words might echo the words of Elijah in 1 Kings but there is a lack of grandeur and more self-pity. This is, not least, because Elijah’s life was really threatened by Queen Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.

“And Jonah is angry! Without hesitation this time, he prays to Yahweh a complaint. Here at last is the stated reason for fleeing in the first place. It was not that he feared the Ninevites’ evil (or so he claims) but that he feared that Yahweh would not pay them the evil that was their due”. David Gunn.

Jonah cites what many of us find so attractive about God i.e. God’s hesed [loyalty, loving kindness]. Jonah uses words from Exodus chapter 34 again. For Jonah it is a serious problem that Yahweh is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Jonah uses the words as an indictment against God rather than a good thing! Moses, in contrast to Jonah, seizes on this characteristic of God to seek to spare the rebellious Israelites. Jonah has been much criticized here by commentators on two main fronts.

  1. For some, he is only interested in preserving his reputation as a prophet since according to Deuteronomy chapter 18, the criterion for a true prophecy is fulfilment.
  2. Others claim that Jonah exhibits a ‘narrow’ post-Exilic religion which denies that Gentiles (non-Jews) merit God’s gracious mercy. Jonah represents nationalism as opposed to God’s universalism.

Peter Craigie thinks the first accusation levelled against Jonah is improbable. There is more in the second accusation.

“Jonah had a strongly-based covenant theology, to which was added the blinkers of too narrow an election theology. He knew that God loved Israel and extended his mercy to his chosen people; he felt, in the very marrow of his bones, that this special love of God to Israel should not be extended to gentiles, above all to evil gentiles such as the inhabitants of Nineveh… The wrath of Jonah is thus an all-too-common human phenomenon. Having tasted the divine love, he could not bear to think of it being extended to others”. Peter Craigie.
“Yet is Jonah’s frustration at God’s change of mind totally unwarranted? Yahweh may be a God of hesed (steadfast love), but Jonah may well ask, How long will it be before these repenting Ninevites forsake their true hesed (loyalty)? Are we really to believe that the overnight conversion of the whole of evil Nineveh – including the animals – is not a farce? Perhaps Jonah sees only ‘skin-deep’ repentance”. David Gunn.

Is Jonah to be condemned or understood?

The Lord God responds with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah’s pique is rather like a teenager’s tantrum, according to Paula Gooder. He makes himself a booth so he can look over Nineveh. Perhaps, the Ninevites will soon revert to their true colours. Perhaps, God will then listen to Jonah’s arguments.

Do Christians often think like Jonah?

Jonah 4:6-11: God’s Great Love.

Do you feel sympathy for Jonah?

The booth probably did not give much shade. David Gunn suggests this was a substitute templePaula Gooder notes that the area around Nineveh was notoriously short of timber, so the booth was probably made out of bricks and earth – not a very cool shelter. Jonah would therefore have been very grateful for the shade of a bush and very sorry for himself when it died. Peter Craigie thinks the word probably refers to the quick growing castor-oil plant. But then again, no-one had told him to sit in the heat of the sun and watch. This was Jonah’s choice. The worm, Peter Craigie thinks, was wood-worm or vine-weevil or some such beetle. If that was not bad enough, the scirocco began to blow – the warm air from the mountains of Iran.

“The lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah, and us, is that we view the world the wrong way round. We should be grateful and praise God for the good that happens, and simply accept the rest. Good things are not our right, they are a gift and should be treated as such… It is not very surprising that Jonah did not understand God’s parable of the bush that withered. He had sunk so far into himself that he could not begin to understand the point that God was trying to make. In fact, he shows quite clearly that he has learnt nothing at all from the experience”. Paula Gooder.

Once again Jonah declares he would rather die. But the saving of thousands of Ninevites hardly compares to a bush that died. It is the immaturity of Jonah that really strikes us.

Jonah trusts in good order and he has pity on the plant that had given him shade. His response to the death of the bush is undercutting his position and God asks Jonah a tricky question.

“By now, the caricature of Israel in the person of Jonah has become so grotesque that the story might seem to have gone too far. But such is not the case. In the final question (verse 11), towards which the whole book moves, the narrator’s purpose is driven home with considerable force. ‘Should I not pity Nineveh?’ In the tradition of the audience to whom the story was first told, everything suggested the answer ‘No!’ An evil gentile city should not experience the divine pity… It was a frightening thought, for if the Lord of Israel was also the God of Nineveh, wherein lay the special status of the chosen people?” Peter Craigie.
Jonah’s “newfound pity is misplaced. Yahweh presses the moral: if a single plant – God-given and truly ephemeral – is to be pitied in its withering, how much more a great city of 120,000 people (and their cattle) in its destruction? The addition of cattle underlines the point. If Jonah can pity one plant, can he not do the same for all those cattle, whatever his problem with the people?” David Gunn.

What in our lives today is like Jonah’s bush – not ours by right but nice to have?

Can we only fully grasp the message of the Book of Jonah if we eradicate the prophet Jonah from within each of us?

“The story reaches its end, yet it is a curiously unfinished end. Does Jonah understand and accept Yahweh’s disturbing action and unsettling hesed? Does Yahweh forgive Jonah for his ‘evil’? Does the city of Nineveh retain its newfound hesed to God?” David Gunn.

Do we understand and accept God’s disturbing action and unsettling loyal love in this book?

Should God’s love not extend to the millions of people in the world today? And even the animals?

THE BOOK OF JONAH 3

A Study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

The walls of Nineveh today

CHAPTER 3

Jonah 3:1-4: Jonah Prophesies in Nineveh.

How do you think Jonah felt proclaiming his message in Nineveh?
James Limburg believes there are two vital questions:
• What will happen to a prophet who disobeys a command from the Lord? and
• What will happen to the wicked city of Nineveh?
The first is resolved here. God manoeuvres Jonah so that he is in a position to have a second chance. Jonah is spewed out by the fish on land and straightaway Jonah is called again by God to go to Nineveh. This time the prophet obeys and his life begins again. It was a long and arduous journey across the desert to get to this city. What is described is “greater Nineveh” with its suburbs. Nineveh was far bigger than the neighbouring city of Mosul of today. Other commentators believe there is an element of exaggeration here. A day’s journey into Nineveh, Jonah begins proclaiming his message. He was, no doubt, frightened and feeling foolish. His message was: “Forty day’s more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was not likely to be a popular message! David Gunn wonders whether this was God’s message or whether Jonah had over-interpreted. The original message did not specify ‘forty days’. Or was this part of the second instalment promised by God in verse 2?

“Jonah disobeyed God, and when he did, his whole relationship with God fell apart to the extent that he could not pray even when his ship was in the middle of a storm. When Jonah mended his relationship, his only option was to obey God. Closeness to God and doing what he says go hand in hand; if we reject one, we lose another”. Paula Gooder.

Was Jonah worthy of the privilege of doing God’s work?
Are we worthy of the privilege of doing God’s work?

“The call of God is simultaneously a sign of mercy, in that he is willing to employ the unworthy, and also a sign of greater purpose, his concern for those nameless masses whose drab and daily existence has not yet been illuminated by the divine light”. Peter Craigie

Jonah 3:5-9: Nineveh’s Response.

What do you think about the response of the ordinary people?
What do you think about the response of the king?

The second of James Limburg’s questions begins to be answered here. A pious Jewish listener or reader of this book may well have been very surprised about the developments in this section. He may have been quite content that God condemns the alien Ninevites. Jonah’s message is that Nineveh will be ‘overthrown’. That reminds us of Genesis chapter 19 when God overthrew the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he rained brimstone and fire upon them. The prophet Nahum also condemns Nineveh as “the bloody city, all full of lies and booty” and announced its fall in chilling terms (chapter 3). Surely, no one would feel sorry when Nineveh met its end.

“Who cares for the city in the story to this point? Certainly not Jonah, the insider, representing the people of God. The answer is that God does – and God has gone to great efforts to see that a prophet is sent to the people of the city”. James Limburg.

The pious Jew then would be surprised that the Ninevites actually listen to Jonah and respond appropriately as does their mighty king. Indeed, the Ninevites, like the sailors, are portrayed in a very positive light. The people believed in the message of God, announced a fast, humbled themselves, and did something to clean up the terrorism and violence in their city (James Limburg). This was not just the reaction of a few but of everyone including the animals. Even the king takes note and his rhetorical question “Who knows?” suggests that he does not presume what God will do. The king is humble before God and concerned for his people. The storyteller delights in telling us this comic twist in the tale.

“The important feature here is that the people of Nineveh did what the people of Israel, particularly Jonah, could never do. They saw the error of their ways, repented and escaped God’s wrath”. Paula Gooder.

If the so-called evil people of Nineveh can repent, why can’t we?
What does the Church really think about the Calcuttas, Karachis and Sao Paolos of our own day?

Jonah 3:10: God’s Response.

Are we more like Jonah, more concerned about ourselves, than being ambassadors for Christ?
God is impressed and God repented of the evil he had intended for Nineveh.

“So God had indeed intended judgement against the city, although it is still unclear whether Jonah was told this explicitly”. David Gunn.

The narrator is quoting from the story of the golden calf in Exodus chapter 32. In that story the unrepentant Israelites are spared when Moses intercedes for them. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is also relevant. Then Abraham played the role of intercessor between God and the cities. In contrast to Moses and Abraham, Jonah is not an intercessor but a judge pronouncing sentence. And it is the actions of the people of Nineveh which cause God to change his mind not Jonah.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise… How does that relate to the way God acts here?

Questions

Jonah 3:1-4: Jonah Prophesies in Nineveh.

How do you think Jonah felt proclaiming his message in Nineveh?

“Jonah disobeyed God, and when he did, his whole relationship with God fell apart to the extent that he could not pray even when his ship was in the middle of a storm. When Jonah mended his relationship, his only option was to obey God. Closeness to God and doing what he says go hand in hand; if we reject one, we lose another”. Paula Gooder.

Was Jonah worthy of the privilege of doing God’s work?
Are we worthy of the privilege of doing God’s work?

“The call of God is simultaneously a sign of mercy, in that he is willing to employ the unworthy, and also a sign of greater purpose, his concern for those nameless masses whose drab and daily existence has not yet been illuminated by the divine light”. Peter Craigie.

Jonah 3:5-9: Nineveh’s Response.

What do you think about the response of the ordinary people?
What do you think about the response of the king?

“Who cares for the city in the story to this point? Certainly not Jonah, the insider, representing the people of God. The answer is that God does – and God has gone to great efforts to see that a prophet is sent to the people of the city”. James Limburg.
“The important feature here is that the people of Nineveh did what the people of Israel, particularly Jonah, could never do. They saw the error of their ways, repented and escaped God’s wrath”. Paula Gooder.

If the so-called evil people of Nineveh can repent, why can’t we?
What does the Church really think about the Calcuttas, Karachis and Sao Paolos of our own day?

Jonah 3:10: God’s Response.

Are we more like Jonah, more concerned about ourselves, than being ambassadors for Christ?

“So God had indeed intended judgement against the city, although it is still unclear whether Jonah was told this explicitly”. David Gunn.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise… How does that relate to the way God acts here?

THE BOOK OF JONAH 2

A Study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

CHAPTERS 1 and 2

Jonah 1:11-16: Man Overboard!

Is Jonah courageous? Or is he fatalistic?
What do you think of the sailors?

At last, the indifferent Jonah shows compassion and courage. He tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. From shirking responsibility, Jonah accepts it. In so doing, he moves from disobedience to God to obedience and trust in God. Surely, this is a more positive episode in Jonah’s career contra James Crenshaw’s exceedingly black view of his personality.
The sailors are good men and do not want to throw Jonah overboard. It is a positive view of, perhaps rough and ready, gentiles and outsiders. James Limburg argues that they are portrayed as humane, pious, practical and open to theological growth. They try to row against the storm. Perhaps they are concerned that if they sacrifice Jonah, his God will be even more furious. But eventually, they do throw Jonah into the sea. It was a last resort. As they do so, they pray for forgiveness. Immediately, the sea calmed. The sailors feared “the Lord”, that is Jonah’s God, and they offer him a sacrifice and made vows. So Peter Craigie comments that they too are converted as they turn to the Living God.

“Inadvertently, the reluctant prophet has helped ‘convert’ these strangers to the worship of his own god. As we shall see, this turn of events foreshadows what is to come in chapter 3”. David Gunn.

Nevertheless, the sailors are outsiders and Jonah is the religious insider. Jesus talked about outsiders (The Good Samaritan) and he conversed with outsiders.
Who are insiders and who are outsiders?
Do we really care for those outside our faith?

“The story could have ended here. Its point could have been: Do not disobey God. Remember what happened to Jonah who did!” James Limburg.

Jonah 1:17: Swallowed by a Fish.

What do you think about this episode?
Some commentators pass over this without comment. Is that right?

Again, the Lord (Yahweh) intervenes as he did calling Jonah and in stirring up the storm. He appoints a great fish to swallow up Jonah. This is a further descent even from the ship! It is Paula Gooder who considers this, what the ordinary man or woman knows about Jonah, in more detail. This stresses that Jonah’s God is not only the God in charge of storms but of all the creatures on the earth and in the sea. The sailors probably believed in the Canaanite gods such as El who was the creator of the earth and of humankind, Baal was a fertility god and controlled the weather, Shaphash controlled the sun and so on. But Jonah’s God controlled all things. The big fish may also be important here.

“Numerous religions recount a battle between one of the gods and a serpent. In Canaanite religion, this serpent was called Leviathan and it symbolized the chaotic waters of the deep. It is quite possible that God’s command to a fish, a creature of the deep, to save Jonah is another reference to his absolute power in the world. Jonah’s God has no need to battle with other creatures for supremacy because he is, above all things, supreme. He calls and they answer. Again we have the great contrast with Jonah: even the sea creatures respond to God, but Jonah runs away”. Pauline Gooder.

The fish swallows Jonah and keeps him alive for three days and nights. Jesus refers to this as a paradigm for his death and resurrection. Indeed, it is probably a reference to death.

“In various traditions, the journey from earth to Sheol (death) was thought to take three days. The use of the phrase here serves to emphasize that the fish rescued Jonah from the gates of Sheol and brought him back to the land of the living”. Paula Gooder.

Jonah has been running away from God, from his land, from his family and from working and praying with the sailors. Is he brought back to his senses now?

Jonah 2:1-10: Jonah’s Prayer to God.

“On hearing Jonah’s facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up!” [James Crenshaw] Is this fair comment?
Or is Jonah’s prayer genuine even if it is a little limited?

The sailors have been praying but it is only now that Jonah turns to God and prays. Jonah’s prayer is very similar to some of the psalms in the Psalter. We know Jesus often referred to the psalms which were often like the hymns of our day. We often categorize the Psalms and this can be taken too far as many psalms do not fit easily into one category. However, one such type is the individual psalm of thanksgiving. Jonah’s prayer is like one of these. James Limburg compares it with Psalm 30. Paula Gooder compares it to Psalms 34 and 118. She thinks Jonah may be quoting a pre-existing prayer. The references to Sheol and the temple as well as thanksgiving for deliverance are typical of many psalms. We should use the psalms more frequently ourselves. David Gunn and Peter Craigie note how the psalm has been modified to fit Jonah’s condition.

“Yet the sense of familiarity is only superficial, for Jonah’s prayer is distinctive, its words indicating powerfully the watery abyss into which he sank. And it is not only a prayer of thanksgiving, but also a prayer for deliverance: Jonah has been rescued from drowning, but he is still in deep water! There is nevertheless a ring of expectation and hope in his words: having so narrowly escaped a watery grave, he now clings to a hope for complete rescue”. Peter Craigie.

This prayer comes at the very depths of Jonah’s pursuit of disobedience. It is peril that prompts the prayer. It contains both pathos and humour. In verse 8, the word translated “loyalty” is that marvellous word “hesed” which we found in the Book of Ruth. It is hard to translate but it encompasses all the covenant love that God possesses for his people.
Is this a form of baptism for Jonah? Is it a time for repentance?
Who is the focus of the prayer? Is it God or is it Jonah?
Would you quote or adapt scripture, hymns or songs, if you had to pray in a crisis?

Questions:

Jonah 1:11-16: Man Overboard!

Is Jonah courageous? Or is he fatalistic?
What do you think of the sailors?

“Inadvertently, the reluctant prophet has helped ‘convert’ these strangers to the worship of his own god. As we shall see, this turn of events foreshadows what is to come in chapter 3”. David Gunn.

Who are insiders and who are outsiders?
Do we really care for those outside our faith?

“The story could have ended here. Its point could have been: Do not disobey God. Remember what happened to Jonah who did!” James Limburg.

Jonah 1:17: Swallowed by a Fish.

What do you think about this episode?
Some commentators pass over this without comment. Is that right?

“Numerous religions recount a battle between one of the gods and a serpent. In Canaanite religion, this serpent was called Leviathan and it symbolized the chaotic waters of the deep. It is quite possible that God’s command to a fish, a creature of the deep, to save Jonah is another reference to his absolute power in the world. Jonah’s God has no need to battle with other creatures for supremacy because he is, above all things, supreme. He calls and they answer. Again we have the great contrast with Jonah: even the sea creatures respond to God, but Jonah runs away”. Pauline Gooder.
“In various traditions, the journey from earth to Sheol (death) was thought to take three days. The use of the phrase here serves to emphasize that the fish rescued Jonah from the gates of Sheol and brought him back to the land of the living”. Paula Gooder.

Jonah has been running away from God, from his land, from his family and from working and praying with the sailors. Is he brought back to his senses now?

Jonah 2:1-10: Jonah’s Prayer to God.

“On hearing Jonah’s facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up!” [James Crenshaw] Is this fair comment?
Or is Jonah’s prayer genuine even if it is a little limited?

“Yet the sense of familiarity is only superficial, for Jonah’s prayer is distinctive, its words indicating powerfully the watery abyss into which he sank. And it is not only a prayer of thanksgiving, but also a prayer for deliverance: Jonah has been rescued from drowning, but he is still in deep water! There is nevertheless a ring of expectation and hope in his words: having so narrowly escaped a watery grave, he now clings to a hope for complete rescue”. Peter Craigie.

Is this a form of baptism for Jonah? Is it a time for repentance?
Who is the focus of the prayer? Is it God or is it Jonah?
Would you quote or adapt scripture, hymns or songs, if you had to pray in a crisis?

Commentary by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Week 2

What sort of literature is the book of Jonah and when was it written?

As we have seen, Paula Gooder thinks it is a narrative like the book of Ruth. James Limburg also thinks it is a narrative or story. Peter Craigie thinks it is a parable. Just as the ‘The Good Samaritan’ ends with a question so does the Book of Jonah inviting the reader to reflect on its meaning. The first two verses are rather what we would expect from a prophetic book but, as Peter Craigie argues, after that everything is the opposite of what we might expect in a prophetic narrative. The story is unusual and comical in places.

Paula Gooder notes that suggestions for dating the book have ranged between 750 and 250 BCE! The description of Nineveh seems huge as if it is rather lost in history. The Assyrian Empire was to be subsumed into the Babylonian one and that in turn was to be subsumed by the Persian Empire. This and the vocabulary suggest a post-Exilic date according to James Limburg (i.e. after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians).

Here is a list of suggestions of dating from various recent scholars:

Peter CraigieSixth to Fourth Century BCE.
James LimburgFifth Century BCE.
Terence Fretheim475-470 BCE.
Leslie AllenFourth or Fifth Century BCE.
Hans WolffFourth Century BCE.

What is the Message of the Book of Jonah?

It is important to realize that the message of the Book of Jonah is quite different from the message of the fallible prophet Jonah. The writer of the Book is criticising prophets like Jonah. James Crenshaw writes: “Although the portrait of Israelite prophecy is troubling, the radical self-criticism goes a long way toward redeeming the profession”.

According to Peter Craigie, the central message is the nature of God and above all the nature of God’s mercy toward all mankind. A minor theme is the question of obedience and disobedience. The prophets of Israel were largely nationalistic. God was the Lord of Israel, his chosen people. The Book of Jonah makes clear that God was also profoundly concerned with the behaviour and lot of all mankind. It shows a concern for Gentiles and is a way in to prophecy for the Gentile reader.

James Crenshaw, similarly, believes the issue is the nature of Jonah’s God.

  1. Is divine mercy a more powerful attribute than justice?
  2. Can the deity actually repent?
  3. Does God’s preference to grant life rather than death extend beyond Israel’s borders?

The return after the Exile, under the Persians, is charted in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and they pursued a narrow policy of Jews first and condemned inter-marriage for instance. A very different atmosphere breathes through the Books of Ruth and Jonah.

The Book of Jonah could have been written to encourage repentance on Israel’s part rather like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The great prophets had predicted the destruction of foreign nations but this had not happened. Were the prophets false? No because the Assyrians gained time by repenting.

THE BOOK OF JONAH 1

A study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Jonah goes overboard

Week 1

The Twelve Prophets and Jonah.
Amongst the Scroll of The Twelve Prophets, Jonah is an oddity as Peter Craigie and Paula Gooder argue. The other eleven books contain small elements of biography and history but are essentially prophetic books. But Jonah contains a story and the actual prophetic content is very small.

“The book of Jonah is much closer in style to Ruth, the other famous short narrative book of the Old Testament, than it is to the prophetic books.” [Paula Gooder].

However, there are similarities, as James Crenshaw notes, with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.

Jonah son of Amittai.
There is a reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet of salvation during the expansionist era of Jeroboam II. He was a northern prophet from the Galilee area quite near to Nazareth. Jeroboam’s reign was from about 793-753 or 786-745 BCE.
James Crenshaw argues that the choice of this prophet as the target of didactic satire is doubly appropriate:
1. He proclaimed nationalistic oracles
2. His name means “dove [of faithfulness or truthfulness]”.
Paula Gooder describes Jonah as not a very attractive character. He was stubborn, inflexible, and arrogant. He only did God’s will when he couldn’t avoid it. He was also down to earth, fallible and bad tempered. James Crenshaw goes so far as to call Jonah an antihero! He lists Jonah’s main failings. He thinks Jonah’s version of prophecy is also extremely flawed:
1. He manipulates the facts when answering the sailors.
2. When he prays, he exalts his ego and accuses God.
3. He is spiteful hoping the sailors’ repentance will be short-lived.
4. He eagerly awaits the destruction of Nineveh.
5. He resents the sparing of the repentant Ninevites.
6. He is unrepentant until the end.
7. His main concern was his reputation for accuracy of prediction.
8. He wants to restrict divine compassion to Israel.
This is a devastating mockery of Israelite piety as exemplified by this dubious prophet. On hearing Jonah’s facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up!

Nineveh and Assyria.
Assyria was the great power of the eighth century BCE and threat to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel’s capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in about 722 BCE and there was a policy of integration and marriage between races throughout the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was an important Assyrian city and from 704 BCE the capital. (Judah survived until they fell to the Babylonians).

Questions.

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.
“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.
“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.
“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.
“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?

Commentary by Reverend Christopher Cooke

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

The Book of Jonah begins in a conventional fashion for a prophetic work. It is God who speaks first. James Limburg points out that in this short book, “Lord” (translating Yahweh) appears 25 times, “God” 13 times and “Lord God” once for a total of 39 times.

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.

As Paula Gooder notes the Hebrew actually says: “Get up, go to Nineveh”. This is very similar to God’s command to Elijah to get up and go to Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:9. The previous book in the Twelve Prophets is Obadiah. At the beginning of that book, Obadiah is commanded to go and prophesy to nearby Edom. Jonah is commanded to go to far away Nineveh in what is now Iraq. The Assyrians were also the enemy who threatened invasion of Jonah’s homeland (and the readers would know successfully invaded and incorporated the land and people into the Empire through inter-marriage and integration). Yet this is where God commands Jonah to go! And Jonah is to go there because of the evil found in Nineveh. Jonah is not sent to make converts but to warn the people of Nineveh of the coming judgement.

“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.

Moses, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah all show reluctance to obey the divine call because they think they do not have the qualities needed. Jonah just runs away. I suppose he does “get up” but he sets out in the opposite direction and takes ship on the Mediterranean and sails away heading west. (Tarshish means ‘sea’ and a lot of Mediterranean ports were called Tarshish). Jonah really does not like the sound of going to Nineveh (and who could blame him) but he does not stay at home. Perhaps, Jonah is too afraid to take a hostile message to a feared nation. He decides to put as much distance between him and Nineveh as possible. In doing so, Jonah is also fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Does he think that God is anchored in Israel and that he can escape him?

Those who first read or heard this Book would have been reassured by the opening but then unsettled, like Jonah, by the call to go to Nineveh. Then this is followed by Jonah’s disobedience.

“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.

Paula Gooder notes that this master storyteller captures the panic of the storm and possible shipwreck in three short verses. The gentile sailors typify the human condition as a whole. They are doing everything they can to save the ship but they are also praying to their own gods – probably Canaanite and Phoenician ones. They are realistic, pious and peaceful men. Their religion calls from them a healthy balance between action and prayer. Through all this Jonah is sleeping. Trying to escape from God, he can only rely on himself. He is exhausted and, possibly, depressed. He is oblivious to the world around him. The captain is a good man and he wakes Jonah up. We might have expected him to have demanded that Jonah help save the ship, but he wants Jonah to pray to his God!

“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.

It transpires later that Jonah realizes that he is the reason for the storm but he is reluctant to admit this and does not cry out to God as instructed. He seems to have turned his back on God. Jonah is a prophet and professional of the faith but the inadequacy of Jonah’s faith is shown up by the amateur non-believers. The sailors cast lots and the lots fell on Jonah. In response to urgent questions, Jonah admits his faith in verse 9. It seems to have been drawn out of him. “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” [NRSV]. The RSV translates “and I fear the Lord…” We know that “fear” was used in the sense of “worship” but the sailors take him literally and they become even more afraid. They have extracted from Jonah that he was fleeing from his God. There is also an irony here in that Jonah claims the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” but he is trying to escape from him by going to sea. However, in making his declaration, Jonah who refused to be a prophet to the gentiles of Nineveh is compelled to become a prophet to the gentile sailors! But James Limburg asks whether he is talking about God while he is not prepared to talk to God.

“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?