Date: Eighth Century B.C.
The prophet Jonah is known primarily for his extraordinary encounter with the “big fish.” Born in a small town in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (782-753 B.C.), Jonah’s mission was to preach repentance to one of Israel’s dreaded enemies, Assyria, in its capital city, Nineveh.
When God commanded Jonah to leave his native city in Israel to go to Nineveh and preach, Jonah was furious. Why should God care about those pagans? So Jonah deliberately took a ship headed in the opposite direction. A great storm arose and Jonah accepted responsibility for the danger, requesting that he be thrown overboard. A great fish swallowed him and after three days he was disgorged onto the land. Chastened, Jonah then went to Nineveh to preach. When the people of Nineveh repented, Jonah was resentful. He sulked outside the city. God then taught him a lesson, using a plant. The point was, if Jonah could have pity on a bit of vegetation, couldn’t God have pity on an entire city full of people?
Most of the discussion that surrounds the Book of Jonah concerns whether or not these events could actually have happened. Some argue that it reads like an extended parable, and hence was not meant to be taken literally. Others believe that it is better to let the account speak for itself. The book looks like history, with the prophet being named and the events of his life being rather carefully described. That it took a miracle for Jonah to survive his long stay inside the fish is not denied. If God could create a world, fish, and Jonah, he certainly could handle a matter like that (1:17).
Other arguments used against the book, such as the size of the city or the unlikelihood of the city repenting, are more apparent than real. All in all, it is best to take the book as a startling but true account of God’s offer of repentance to the Assyrian nation at Nineveh.
Theological Themes in the Book of Jonah
The purpose of the Book of Jonah is plainly stated: “Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city?” (4:11). The compassion of God for all people, even Israel’s enemies, is at the heart of the book.
Outline for the Book of Jonah
- Jonah’s refusal to follow God’s command Jonah 1:1-17
- Jonah’s repentance Jonah 2:1-3:10
- Jonah’s remorse at the city’s acceptance of God Jonah 4:1-10
- The pity of God for Nineveh Jonah 4:11