The book of Jonah is the fifth book in the Christian canons and the Jewish Tanakh. It is one of 'Trei Asar' (The Twelve) prophets in the tanakh, and in Christian tradition as 'oi dodeka prophetai' or 'ton dodekapropheton' , Greek for "The twelve prophets." It is an important book to both religious traditions (Christianity and Jewish) because of its message of doom upon Israel's long-time enemy - Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh. However, despite the book's small size, scholars continue to dispute its content and date of composition. Some have encountered major themes in the book that does not relate to Jonah's 8th century BCE context but beyond his time. Others have pointed out the different types of Hebrew and argue that the book has been edited by generations after Jonah. This article provides a brief discussion on these issues and where the book of Jonah now stands in modern scholarly discussion.
The Name Jonah
The superscription of the book provides the prophet’s full name, Jonah son of Amittai, who is the main protagonist in the narrative. The name Jonah is derived from the Hebrew word ‘yonah’ meaning “dove.” Although ‘yonah’ is generally defined as “dove,” its actual meaning remains uncertain based on its usage in other biblical books and other textual sources (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls). Many commentators tend to treat “dove” as a symbol of Israel whose task was to convey the divine message to the Ninevites. Jonah’s father ‘amittay’ in Hebrew means “my truth,” which also led many to conjecture that Jonah’s mission was to speak the “truth” of YHWH to the Ninevites. This conclusion is based on the failure to distinguish the functionality between prose and poetry. In the book of Jonah, it is mostly composed in prose with only a small portion in poetry (2:2-9). In prose, not everything should be interpreted symbolically; some materials are to be taken literally – names of people for example.
To numerous scholars, poetic elements are more original than prosaic materials in prophetic literature, which is simply based on the notion that the early Israelites were an illiterate community. Literacy was an uncommon practice in an agrarian setting. In this case, poetry would be the preference of preservation within this kind of community. This chauvinistic view of ancient Israel must be reconsidered because of the two crucial discovered inscriptional data: Gezer Calendar (discovered 1908 CE – translated by R. A. S. Macalister) and a pottery shard (discovered 2008 CE – deciphered by Gershon Galil), which support literary activities in ancient Israel before the time of the prophet Jonah.
Despite the absence of a specific identification of which tradition it refers to, the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q541) hint at an additional possibility that “dove,” conveys a sorrowful message. This expression is also employed in Isaiah 38:14 – “Like a swallow or a crane I clamor, I moan like a dove.” As stated earlier, the chauvinistic view of ancient Israel being illiterate must be abandoned. Therefore, when dealing with prose, not all names, and places must be interpreted and understood symbolically. For modern readers, when encountering confliction in evidence, one’s interpretation of the book of Jonah must not be extracted exclusively from the symbolic meanings of ‘yonah’ and ‘amittay’, but on meticulous synchronic and diachronic analyses.
Ironically, the book of Jonah is filled with irony, parody and exaggeration that are often overlooked by many interpreters. One other obvious hyperbolic element in the book is the repentance of animals together with the Ninevites, which influenced a number of scholars to challenge the historical level of the book. One other example is Jonah walking around the city of Nineveh in just three days, which is another figurative speech that is often taken literally. For some of these reasons, the book of Jonah has often been treated either as a didactic or a theological piece. An example is reflected in both Jewish and Christian traditions. In the pre-modern Jewish tradition, parts of the story of Jonah do contain historical elements, although it is more probable that its construction was designed to reveal the importance of repentance and the fate of non-Jews. In the Christian tradition, the prophet Jonah symbolizes resurrection from death after three days and nights in the fish’s belly, which is also reflected in the death and resurrection of Jesus in some of the synoptic gospels. Apparently, the story of Jonah is an important literature to both religious traditions.
For reasons stated above, the book of Jonah contains elements that reveal a dual setting: ‘Sitz im Leben’ (Setting in Life) and a ‘Sitz im Literatur’ (Setting of its writing). From the small portion referencing the prophet Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 who prophesied the expansion of King Jeroboam II’s kingdom, readers are left with the literary features of the book to determine its message and date of composition. Even more, 2 Kings 14:25 leaves the question open whether Jonah lived before or during Jeroboam II (787-748 BCE). Thus, dating the composition of the book remains disputed.
Briefly, 2 Kings 14:25 places Jonah to the eighth-century BCE before or during the reign of King Jeroboam II, while the literary and linguistic features of the book call for a late composition. The book is written in two forms: prose and poetry, which also signals for a composited work. It is also composed of two types of Hebrew: classical biblical Hebrew and late biblical Hebrew. The classical biblical Hebrew is dated to the First Temple period, whereas the late biblical Hebrew dates to the Second Temple period. Furthermore, some scholars have also discovered Persian loan words in the book, whereby opting for post-exilic construction. The reference to Nineveh is one other element that encourages a later date of composition since Nineveh was later designated as the Assyrian capital by King Sennacherib c. 705 BCE. However, the ‘Sitz im Leben’ of early eighth-century in the book also gives the possibility of an earlier construction by the employment of classical biblical Hebrew in the book.
2 Kings 14:25 indicates that Jonah is from Gath-Hepher - a small border town in ancient Israel (Galilee). Jonah was a well-known prophet during the reign of the Israelite King Jeroboam ben Joash of the northern kingdom of Israel (c. 786-746 BCE). According to the small reference in 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah prophesied King Jeroboam’s great success in restoring Israel’s borders from Lebo-Hamath (in modern Syria) down to the Sea of Arabah, which is at the northern tip of the 'Yam Suph' (Red Sea in the Septuagint and English versions). After Jonah received his call from God to journey to Nineveh (Chapter 1), the prophet fled down to the port of Yaffo (Joppa), which is situated at the southern boundaries of modern Tel Aviv. The actual location of Tarshish is also debated. Some have pointed to a place in Lebanon; others have argued for a location in Spain; and others have pointed out the correspondence of the name Tarshish to the Greek term tarsos, “oar.”
After Jonah refused to obey God’s call to go to Nineveh, God hurled a great wind upon the sea, which resulted in Jonah being thrown into the deep waters and was swallowed by a dag, “fish” and was in the belly, ‘meeh’ in Hebrew (literally – intestines) for three days and three nights. Following Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s meeh for divine intervention (Chapter 2), God then spoke to the fish, “and it (the fish) spewed out Jonah upon dry land.”
Jonah was called again (Chapter 3) and finally obeyed God’s command and went to preach repentance to the Ninevites. As a result, the King ordered repentance from his people, including their animals, and God was refrained from unleashing his wrath upon them. In the final chapter (Chapter 4) of the book, Nineveh is spared and Jonah is still depicted as dissatisfied with God’s decision to save the Ninevites. The book ends with a rhetorical question, which easily leads scholars to suggest that the book is designed to teach a theological message.
Based on the historical and linguistic issues, the book of Jonah reflects four major themes:
- Atonement versus Repentance
- Universalism versus Particularism
- Prophecy: Realization versus Compliance
- Compassion: Justice versus Mercy.
Such themes should be treated as critical foundational elements in determining a more probable context(s) of the book. It is probable that the message of Jonah is compatible to three different contexts: pre-exilic (eighth-century BCE); exilic (sixth-century BCE); and the post-exilic (539 BCE and after). In doing so, it is critical to construct a proper interpretation based on text and context. With the employment of both classical and late biblical Hebrew in the book, its construction probably began in the eighth-century BCE and was later re-applied to the exilic audience in Babylon and the post-exilic community in Jerusalem.
Since both Israel and Judah came under Assyrian hegemony in the ninth-century until Assyrian demise c. 612 BCE; under the Babylonians in the sixth-century; and the Persians in the late sixth-century to the fourth-century BCE, the composition of the book of Jonah reflects three functionalities. First, as a theodicy literature in the pre-exilic context (8th century BCE) to challenge YHWH’S fidelity; a didactic literature in the exilic period as a call for repentance from the exiled community; and as a resistant literature to counter the religious policy of Ezra and Nehemiah in the post-exilic (5th century BCE) concerning their intermarriage policy.
A THEODICY LITERATURE IN THE EIGHTH-CENTURY CONTEXT
With the employment of classical biblical Hebrew in the book of Jonah, it signals for an eighth-century composition. The period aligns with the Neo-Assyrian era (9th century to late seventh-century BCE), in which Israel and Judah were already subjugated under the Assyrian thumb. Retaliation to Assyrian hegemony during this period was never the best alternative, which they eventually did and consequently brought annihilation upon themselves. During the Neo-Assyrian period, Assyria was considered the ‘lion’ of the ancient Near East. Fortunately, at the outset of King Jeroboam II’s reign when the prophet Jonah was active, the Assyrian empire for a brief time experienced internal issues that enabled King Jeroboam to re-establish its economic stability and kingdom expansion. As Assyrian vassalages, Israel and Judah were also required to pay taxes to their overlord.
This ongoing frustration in Israel is also reflected in the prophet Jonah’s refusal to bring YHWH’S plan of forgiveness to Nineveh because they will eventually repent. The refusal here not only depicts Jonah resisting forgiveness of their enemy, but also raises a question on YHWH’S fidelity and righteousness concerning their established covenant. By concluding the narrative with a set of rhetorical questions (4:9-11), it suggests in part that despite Israel’s attempts to uphold their part of the covenant, God changes his mind. A critical question to Jonah’s eighth-century audience would then be: can God keep his promises?
A DIDACTIC LITERATURE IN THE EXILIC CONTEXT
For a community exiled to a foreign land with high-hopes for divine intervention and restoration back to their homeland, repentance is key. If the Ninevites were pardoned from the wrath of YHWH because of their repentance, the exiled community must do likewise. Within this exilic-context, the character of Jonah resisting YHWH’S plan to forgive the Ninevites would only delay YHWH’S salvation plan for his people. Since forgiveness is a major theme in the book of Jonah, repentance signals their complete submission to YHWH’S extended compassion over all of his creation, including Nineveh. Limiting YHWH’S compassion within an Israelite boundary would only disrupt God’s universal control, which is a major theology in prophetic literature.
From the exilic-context of the book of Jonah, there were undoubtedly theodicy issues raised amongst the exiled community in Babylon challenging YHWH’S fidelity in keeping them safe from external threats. Obviously, pride is another issue reflected through Jonah’s refusal to fulfill his duties as a prophet of YHWH. Overall, if the exiled-community would only repent of their mistakes, YHWH would immediately intervene just as he had done to Nineveh following their repentance. Thus, Nineveh’s immediate repentance functions as the main didactical element designed to convince the exiled community to repent of their infidelity.
A RESISTANT LITERATURE TO EZRA & NEHEMIAH’S RELIGIOUS POLICY
Readers should consider the construction of the final form of the book of Jonah during the post-exilic era in Jerusalem c. 5th century BCE based on the employment of the late biblical Hebrew in the book. For this reason, many scholars are convinced that in the aftermath of Judah’s restoration back into Jerusalem following the edict issued by King Cyrus of Persia c. 539 BCE of their release, there occurred intermarriage issues between Judeans and non-Jews in Jerusalem. One major example concerning this issue is reflected in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah who were also returnees from the Babylonian exile that helped re-establish the political and religious life in Jerusalem.
For example, one of Ezra’s attempts was to re-establish pure Yahwism in Jerusalem as a way to prevent additional destruction upon Jerusalem by their enemies. As a result, Ezra and Nehemiah raise concerns concerning marriage relationships with non-Jews simply to faithfully reestablish their covenantal relationship with their God, YHWH. As generally misunderstood by numerous interpreters’, the call for exclusion of foreign wives in Ezra and Nehemiah were only limited on those who refuse to recant their foreign practices except those non-Jews who have agreed to the procedure of conversion. In the aftermath of the Babylonian experience, the need to re-establish their religious life and commitment to YHWH was necessary.
In this post-exilic context, the book of Jonah could be treated as a resistance literature against this religious policy inaugurated by Ezra and Nehemiah that foreign people are also part of YHWH’S creation. Therefore, Judah must purge their traditional beliefs concerning intermarriage relation with foreigners and to adopt a more inclusive ideology. A more inclusive ideology constitutes a more effective theology. If YHWH’s compassion was extended on non-Jews, it must also be reflected through Jerusalem.
With only four chapters in the book of Jonah, its message was undoubtedly an important piece throughout the biblical period based on its re-usage by the Israelite communities in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic Jerusalem. Given the numerous major themes in the book and evidence of classical and late biblical Hebrew, the eighth-century message of Jonah took up a life of its own after the prophet’s lifetime by later tradents. The book of Jonah, therefore, was originally a theodicy literature in the eighth-century that was later readapted into a didactical literature in the sixth-century and finally into a resistant literature to counter the religious policy of Ezra and Nehemiah c. the fourth-century BCE.