The Jonah Fable

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of January 31. Enjoy!

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For the modern critical scholar, both the book and the person of Jonah are difficult to date, relate, and investigate for a variety of reasons. The contents of the book of Jonah do not exactly lend historical credence to its narrative elements, perhaps leading to a suggestion that the text was intended solely as moral literature. A clue useful in pinning down the prophet is offered outside of the book bearing his name, as Old Testament readers also find Jonah delivering a message of expansion from Yahweh to King Jeroboam, son of Joash. Speaking of King Jeroboam II, the 2 Kings texts reads, “He restored the border of Israel from Lebohamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of [Yahweh], the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kgs 14:25 NRSV). So how does an easily forgettable character, known only for prophesying to an unfavorable king of Israel, end up famous for a strange amphibious encounter to possibly being mentioned within Jesus’ ministry for his σημεῖον, or sign (Mt 16:4)? In his examination of the Jonah narrative’s insight into Old Testament Israel’s conception of mission, Daniel C. Timmer wonders aloud if the surviving literature is “as much a rogue as its main character, playing havoc with the theological expectations of the canonical reader.”[1] As this reflection paper explores, very little of the “rogue” Jonah narrative follows a “normal” or “expected” path.

Jonah and the "Great Fish"
Here’s a rendering of what probably didn’t ever happen.

Careful readers are immediately confronted with the amount of liberties taken within the text, from the points at which it simply lacks specificity to instances of abject hyperbole. For example, J. Gordon McConville writes that Jonah’s depiction of Nineveh’s size hardly matches current archaeological observations, and, moreover, that the literature is unlikely to reflect the actual system of government within the city.[2] So while the original author of Jonah would have undoubtedly known about Nineveh, a sense of distance from the city—both in proximity and theology—accompanies the text. Meanwhile, a number of other details range from improbable to outrageous, including Jonah’s manic depressive behavior, the suggestion of knee-jerk city-wide repentance, to even pondering the anatomical features and requirements of a fish great enough to swallow a man. Finally, one has to wonder at the gullibility of the Ninevites. In his supposed travels through the town’s streets, Jonah was hardly specific about the prophecy he received or even the one from whom it had been received, and yet the inhabitants of Nineveh either follow the king’s lead in mourning and fasting or beat him entirely to the punch. The king’s speech suggests that Jonah may have even obscured the name of Yahweh as he prophesied, as the generic ‘elohim is used: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind” (Jon 3:9 NRSV).

Perhaps the most significant unexpected element of the narrative is the repentance of Nineveh, which was acceptable to Yahweh and qualified Jonah as “the most successful evangelist in history,” per Victor H. Matthews.[3] Given that the historicity of the Jonah story is deeply in question, the temporal salvation of Nineveh would have been a lesson to the author’s first audience, and it may have been as shocking as the Beatitudes or the parable of the Good Samaritan were to those gathered around Jesus. As Matthews and McConville document, Jonah reads as a coming out party for universalism, or the availability of Yahweh to people groups beyond Israel, though it should stand equally as a caution against both evading the call of God and expecting certain outcomes from one’s ministry. Despite the problems that pervade Jonah, the inherent theological lessons are not diminished by the possibility of pure literary origin.


[1] Daniel C. Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 160.

[2] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 186.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 165.

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One thought on “The Jonah Fable

  1. Check out this fulfillment of Bible prophecy now going to the world at http://minigoodtale.wordpress.com It is truth and no heresy.
    Satan has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9 until the heel of time Gen 3:15 when the woman of Rev 12:5, 13 delivers the true word to the world John 1:1. Now we can know our true God if we will hear it Acts 3:22-23. Check it out…

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