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.

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