THE BOOK OF JONAH
Chapters 1-4
The Mission of the Prophet Jonah to Nineveh

Merciful Lord,
You never call us to a mission without giving us what we need to complete that mission.  Like Jonah we may not always understand Your divine plan, but we know that it is our duty to trust and obey and not to question and disobey.  We also understand that we cannot deceive You nor can we run away and hide, because You know our every thought and see our every movement.  The story of Jonah reminds us of Your great mercy, not only for Your reluctant servant, but for the sinners You commanded him to call to repentance.  Give us the courage to submit to Your commands even when we do not understand, and give us the compassion we need for those who do not know You and for those who profess to know You but only imperfectly.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Joash became king of Israel in Samaria.  He reigned for forty-one years.  He did what is displeasing to Yahweh and did not give up any of the sins into which Jeroboam son of Nebat had led Israel.  It was he who recovered the territory of Israel from the pass of Hamath to the Sea of Arabah, in accordance with the word which Yahweh, God of Israel, had spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-Hepher.
2 Kings 14:23-25
(Jeroboam II of Israel ruled from c. 783-743 BC)

We will be using the New Jerusalem Bible translation for our study.  It is a translation from the oldest and most reliable Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of the Bible and is a translation that has tried to remain faithful to the original languages.  New Testament quotations will be from the New American Bible (NAM).  It is also a translation from the best Greek texts of the New Testament and is more accurate than the New Testament translation of the NJB.  References to the literal Hebrew and Greek words are from the Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English (IBHE) and Interlinear Bible Greek-English (IBGE).

The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets.  It is the only prophetic book that tells a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.  In the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah is the 5th in the collection of books of the "Twelve Minor Prophets" and is read liturgically during the Feast of Yom Kippur (Feast of Atonement) because of its themes of divine judgment followed by God's mercy and salvation.  In the Christian canon it is listed among the Books of the Prophets and is usually the 11th book, placed between the Books of the Prophets Obadiah and Micah.   Parts from the Book of Jonah are read at the start of Lent and in the liturgy of the Sacrament of Baptism because of the images of repentance, salvation through water, and Jonah's "resurrection" to a renewed life. 

The main theme of the Book of Jonah is God's sovereignty over all people and His divine plan to extend His gift of mercy and salvation beyond Israel to include the Gentile nations.  In the New Testament, no other Old Testament prophet is named by Jesus more than the prophet Jonah.  Jonah is the only prophet other than Jesus to come from the Galilee, and Jesus compares events in the Book of Jonah to His death, burial and resurrection.  The story of Jonah foreshadows the mission of God the Son to extend God's mercy and forgiveness to humanity and to restore mankind to a greater intimacy of covenant unity than our first parents enjoyed before their fall from grace in Eden.

The Book of Jonah is concerned with telling the story of Jonah's mission to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire.  He lived in the period of the Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  He was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (c. 783-743 BC), and his mission to Nineveh probably took place during the reign of Assyrian king Ashurdan III (773-755 BC).(1)  Jonah was the son of a man named Amittai and he came from Gath-Hepher, a town in the Northern Kingdom about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.  His Hebrew name means "dove", but, as we shall see, the Prophet Jonah was a most "un-dove-like" man.  He was called to his prophetic ministry after the death of the prophet Elisha, and the prophets Hosea and Amos were his contemporary prophets to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
He was the only prophet of Yahweh other than Jesus of Nazareth that Scripture records came from the Galilee.

Question: What statement did the chief priests make to Nicodemus when he tried to defend Jesus that showed perhaps they did not know the Scriptures as completely as they should?  See Jn 7:50-52.
Answer: They said prophets did not come from the Galilee, but they were wrong since Jonah came from the Galilee.

At this period in the history of the ancient Near East, the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the region.  The heartland of Assyria lay in what is now northern Iraq around the upper Tigris River.  The Assyrian's initial stage in empire building came in the second millennium BC in the Old and Middle Assyrian periods.  But its greatest period and the only time in which the Assyrians came into direct contact with Israel was in its last period which historians refer to as the Neo-Assyrian period of the first millennium BC from c. 934-609 BC.  In the Neo-Assyrian period the Assyrians created an empire that extended farther than in previous periods of expansion. 

The Neo-Assyrian period was accomplished in three phases.  The first phase was from 934-824 BC, during which the Assyrians halted the expansion aspirations of the Aramaean city states.  Assyrian king Shalmaneser II defeated a coalition that included Ahab of Israel at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC.  In this campaign, as in others to the north, east, and Babylonian south, the Assyrians desired not so much to acquire permanent conquest (although they achieved some of that in the territories immediately to their west) as to neutralize external threats and to acquire booty and slaves.

The second phase was initiated after the death of Shalmaneser III (824 BC) and continued until 744 BC.  The first decades of this period saw more military activity against the Aramaeans, the beneficiary of which was Israel (2 Kng 13:5).  But this period also produced a number of setbacks for the Assyrians in the growing external challenges to and occasional revolts against Assyrian authority by various vassal states as well as internal struggles among members of the Assyrian royal family and ambitious royal officials.  With both the Assyrians and Aramaeans weakened in the latter phase of this period (c. 770-744 BC) both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Sothern Kingdom of Judah were able to expand their territories significantly under kings Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, reclaiming territory that had been previously lost to the Aramaeans, Moabites and Edomites.  It was during this period that Jonah was God's prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (c. 783-743 BC).  With Jonah's encouragement, King Jeroboam won back Israelite territory on the east side of the Jordan River that had been taken by the Aramaeans and their Ammonite allies.

Assyria's troubles were reversed in the third phase of the Neo-Assyrian Empire beginning in 744 BC with the ascension to the throne by a vigorous and talented new ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III.  It became obvious to all the peoples of the ancient Near East that the intention of the Assyrians to conquer the entire region was about to be fulfilled  The Assyrians were ruthless conquers, bringing about great blood-shed, disemboweling pregnant women, destroying entire cities and deporting the surviving populations out of their ancestral lands into other conquered Assyrian territories.  So hated and feared were the Assyrians that their capital city of Nineveh became the prophetic symbol for all that was evil, (Nahum chapters 2-3).  It was at about the time of the end of phase two in the history of Neo-Assyria that Yahweh called His prophet Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to warn the citizens of His divine judgment if they did not renounce their many sins.  Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  Its ruins are located near what is today the modern city of Mosel, Iraq.(1) 

Question: What did Jonah's contemporary prophet Amos prophesy concerning Assyria in c. 750 BC?  See the Book of Amos, especially 3:9-12 and 5:1-2.
Answer: He foretold the total destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital city of Samaria by the Assyrians.

The Book of Jonah can be divided into two parts: Jonah's first prophetic mission which he failed to obey and the second prophetic mission to which he was obedient.

SUMMARY OUTLINE OF THE BOOK OF JONAH
Biblical Period # 7: The Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
Covenant # 4: The Sinai Covenant
Focus Prophetic mission #1 Prophetic mission #2
Scripture 1:1------------------------2:1-------------------------3:1-------------------------4:1-----------------4:11
Division Disobedience & Judgment Prayer & Deliverance Obedience & Deliverance Prayer & Rebuke
Topic God's mercy to Jonah God's mercy to Nineveh
Refusal to accept mission Acceptance of mission Successful Mission to Nineveh Anger concerning successful mission
Location Jaffa, a seaport in the Northern Kingdom of Israel on the Mediterranean Sea Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrian Empire on the Tigris River in Upper Mesopotamia
Time c. 758/55 BC
(Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel who reigned from c. 783-743 BC)

Chapter 1: Jonah's Mission and His Attempt to Avoid It

Where shall I go to escape your spirit?  Where shall I flee from your presence?  If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol, there you are.
Psalm 139:7

Jonah 1:1-2 ~ Yahweh calls Jonah to his prophetic Mission
1 The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 "Up! [Arise]" he said, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim [cry out] to them that their wickedness has forced itself upon me."  [..] = literal translation IBHE, vol. III, 2119; Hebrew words = quwm/arise, yalak/go, and qara/cry out.

Question: What three commands does God give Jonah in his prophetic call in verse 1?
Answer: God tells him to get up = "Arise", to "go", and to "proclaim" or literally "cry out."

It was God's intention to send Jonah on a mission to Nineveh to call the Assyrians to repentance.  God never condemned a people without sending a prophet to give a warning that the wrath of Yahweh was at hand, and they were going to pay the price for their sins against humanity unless they repented.

Jonah 1:3-9 ~ Jonah attempts to avoid his mission
3 Jonah set about running away from Yahweh, and going to Tarshish.  He went down to Jaffa and found a ship bound for Tarshish; he paid his fare and boarded it, to go with them to Tarshish, to get away from Yahweh.  4 But Yahweh threw a hurricane [great wind] at the sea, and there was such a great storm at sea that the ship threatened to break up.  5 The sailors took fright, and each of them called on his own god [gods], and to lighten the ship they threw the cargo overboard.  Jonah, however, had gone below, had lain down in the hold and was fast asleep, 6 when the boatswain went up to him and said, "What do you mean by sleeping?  Get up!  Call on your god [gods]!  Perhaps he [the gods] will spare us a thought and not leave us to die."  7 Then they said to one another, "Come on, let us draw lots to find out who is to blame for bringing us this bad luck."  So they cast lots, and the lot pointed to Jonah.  8 Then they said to him, "Tell us, what is your business?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  What is your nationality?"  9 He replied, "I am a Hebrew, and I worship Yahweh, God [ha elohim = meaning "the God" even though the plural form is used] of Heaven, who made both sea and dry land."  [..] = literally elohim which is "god" plural, IBHE, vol. III, page 2119.  The One True God of Israel is often referred to in the plural even though it is obvious He is believed to be One God.

Nineveh was to the northeast, but Jonah attempted to go west to Tarshish, in exactly the opposite direction and as far from Nineveh as he could travel.  Tarshish was the literal "end of the world" in Jonah's time.  It was the region of southern Spain on the Mediterranean Sea within the straights of Gibraltar.  Beyond the Straights of Gibraltar was the great unknown.  Jonah left from the seaport of Jaffa (Joppa).  It was an important harbor in ancient Israel, and today it is a suburb of modern Tel Aviv.  It was the port through which the cedars of Lebanon came for the construction of the Temple Solomon built for Yahweh (2 Chr 2:15/16).

Question: In the New Testament, what miracle took place at Jaffa?  See Acts 9:36-43.
Answer: It was where St. Peter raised Dorcas from death.

Verse 4 leaves no question concerning the origin of the great storm; it is Yahweh who sent the storm.  Jonah was attempting to run from his mission, but God was not going to let him run.

5 The sailors took fright, and each of them called on his own god, and to lighten the ship they threw the cargo overboard.  Jonah, however, had gone below, had lain down in the hold and was fast asleep...
Question: What do verses 5-6 tell us about the sailors on Jonah's ship?
Answer: They were pagans from different counties who worshipped different gods of their own peoples but also respected the gods of other nationalities.

6 when the boatswain went up to him and said, "What do you mean by sleeping?  Get up!  Call on your god!  Perhaps he will spare us a thought and not leave us to die."
The captain of the ship called upon Jonah to join them in petitioning his god as the others were doing to save the ship and the lives of those onboard.  The sailors are pagans but they are also religious men who believe in a higher power.

7 Then they said to one another, "Come on, let us draw lots to find out who is to blame for bringing us this bad luck."  So they cast lots, and the lot pointed to Jonah.
The sailors suspect that the sudden storm is the result of having a person on board who is guilty of some crime, and so they cast lots to determine who might be the guilty party.  Such beliefs were common in antiquity.  It is not fate but God's will that the lot fell to Jonah.

8 Then they said to him, "Tell us, what is your business?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  What is your nationality?" 
They question Jonah trying to determine how he might be responsible for their peril.
Question: What is ironic about the situation?
Answer: The sailors are motivated by pagan superstition but they are religious men and ironically they are correct because it is Jonah who is responsible for the storm.

9 He replied, "I am a Hebrew, and I worship Yahweh, God of Heaven, who made both sea and dry land." 
Jonah identifies himself by his ethnicity and not by his nationality, and he identifies his God by His Divine Name as the God of all creation.  "El" is the generic word for a single deity and "elohim" is the plural form, but Yahweh is usually referred to as Elohim.  Jewish scholars interpret this as evidence of the Israelite belief that Yahweh is greater than all other gods, but Christians see this use of the plural form as a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Triune nature of God that is revealed in the New Testament.

Jonah 1:10-16 ~ Jonah suggests a remedy for calming the storm
10 The sailors were seized with terror at this and said, "Why ever did you do this?" since they knew that he was trying to escape from Yahweh, because he had told them so.  11 They then said, "What are we to do with you, to make the sea calm down for us?"  For the sea was growing rougher and rougher.  12 He replied, "Take me and throw me into the sea, and then it will calm down for you.  I know it is my fault that this great storm has struck you."  13 The sailors rowed hard in an effort to reach the shore, but in vain, since the sea was growing rougher and rougher.  14 So at last they called on Yahweh and said, "O, Yahweh, do not let us perish for the sake of the man's life, and do not hold us responsible for causing an innocent man's death; for you, Yahweh, have acted as you saw fit."  15 And taking hold of Jonah they threw him into the sea; and the sea stopped raging.  16 At this, the men were seized with dread of Yahweh; they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows to him.

The sailors are pious men and are astonished that Jonah would dare to attempt to run away from his God.  They believe in false gods but that does not mean they weren't trying to live moral lives, and they were seeking a higher power to give their lives meaning in the only way they understood. 

Question: How are the sailors both pious and moral?
Answer: Even though they believe Jonah's admission that he has put all their lives in danger because of his actions, at first they resist his suggestion that they throw him into the sea and try to save themselves and him.

Finally, when all hope is gone, they decide to throw Jonah into the sea but they pray to Jonah's God, using His Divine Name, and they ask Yahweh to save them and absolve them of responsibility for Jonah's death. 

Question: The miracle of the calming of the sea convinces them of Yahweh's power and they demonstrate they believe in Him by doing what three acts?
Answer:

  1. They feel a reverent fear of Yahweh and, instead of each man praying to "his gods"
    (verses 5, 6), they call on Yahweh (verses 14-16).
  2. In gratitude for their salvation, they offer a sacrifice in Yahweh's name (verse 16).
  3. They make personal vows to Yahweh (verse 16).

Notice that God's Divine Name is used 11 times from 1:1-16; 11 is the number in Scripture that signifies incompleteness.  Also notice that the Divine name is use 7 times in the exchange with the sailors between ( 1:9, 10, 14 three times, 16 twice).  7 in Scripture is the number of spiritual perfection, fullness and completion.  Jonah's relationship with God is lacking and incomplete because of his disobedience, but the sailors come to belief in He of the Divine Name.  The conversion and offer of sacrifice of the sailors prefigures Gentiles coming to accept Yahweh as the One God and their offer of sacrifice to Him in an acceptable place other than the Jerusalem Temple.  That acceptable place will become every Christian altar upon which the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered.

Many commentators accuse Jonah of being a coward, but his action in offering to sacrifice himself to save the sailors and his actions later will demonstrate that he was a courageous servant of the Lord, even if he was disobedient in trying to avoid his mission.
Question: Why do you think Jonah attempted to run away and to not go to Nineveh?  See Jonah 4:1-2.
Answer: It is unlikely that Jonah was a coward, but it is more likely that he was a patriot.  He did not want the people of the Assyrian capital city to repent.  He wanted them to be utterly destroyed so the Assyrians would not destroy his own people and his own nation.

This was St. Jerome's interpretation of Jonah's disobedience: "The prophet knows, the Holy Spirit teaching him, that the repentance of the Gentiles is the ruin of the Jews.  A lover, then, of his country, he does not so much envy the deliverance of Nineveh as will that his own country should not perish" (Jerome, Commentary on Jonah, 1.3).

Jonah did not know it since he was cast into the sea, but the Gentile sailors' confession of faith in Yahweh foreshadows not only his mission to Nineveh but the future conversion of Gentiles in the New Age of man in the New Covenant in Christ Jesus.

Chapter 2: God's Judgment on Jonah and His Mercy

Jonah 2:1-11 ~ Jonah prayers to God from within the tomb of the great fish
1 Now Yahweh ordained that a great fish should swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.   2 From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God; he said: 3 "Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh and he answered me, from the belly of Sheol I cried out; you heard my voice!  4 For you threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods closed round me.  All your waves and billows passed over me; 5 then I thought, 'I am banished from your sight; how shall I ever see your holy Temple again?'  6 The waters round me rose to my neck, the deep was closing round me, the seaweed twining round my head. 7 To the roots of the mountains, I sank into the underworld, and its bars closed round me forever.  But you raised my life from the Pit, Yahweh my God!  8 When my soul was growing ever weaker, Yahweh, I remembered you, and my prayer reached you in your holy Temple.  9 Some abandon their faithful love by worshipping false gods, 10 but I shall sacrifice to you with songs of praise [todah = thanksgiving].  The vow I have made I shall fulfil!  Salvation comes from Yahweh!"  10 Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah onto the dry land.  [..] = IBHE, vol. IV, page 2121

Chapter 1 has shown God's divine providence at work for Jonah and for the sailors.  Now that providence focuses on Jonah, saving him from the sea in the reoccurring Biblical theme of salvation in the midst of judgment (i.e., the Great Flood judgment on a sinful humanity but saving Noah and his family, the judgment of the Red Sea on the Egyptians but saving the Israelites, etc.).  While the storm was a judgment against Jonah, being swallowed by the great fish was not a punishment for Jonah; it was his salvation (2:2, 6, 9).  The Hebrew word for the beast is dagah, meaning "fish" feminine and not the Hebrew word for sea mammal.

2 From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God; he said: 3 "Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh and he answered me, from the belly of Sheol I cried out; you heard my voice!
In the Bible the sea is often depicted as a place that is hostile to man and an element that only God can control (cf. Job 7:12; Ps 104:9; etc.).  For this reason, the sea is sometimes compared to the domain of death from which no one can return, Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek (verse 6). Jonah's entombment in the great fish leads to his death, and he laments being buried in Sheol, the abode of the dead. His prayer is a mosaic of passages similar to the Book of Job but mostly similar to passages from the Psalms.

Question: What is unexpected about Jonah's prayer?
Answer: It is not a lament or a reproach against God for his difficulties; instead after recounting his distress, he expresses faith that God hears his prayer.  The prayer ends in thanksgiving and praise of Yahweh.

Jonah's prayer is not the lament that might be expected but is instead a typical "todah" "thanksgiving psalm" in which past afflictions are remembered (verses 3-7), an account of how the person kept his faith and was rescued (verse 8), and ending in praise of Yahweh with a promise to offer sacrifices and to keep vows made to the Lord (verses 9-10).  Confident that the Lord is with him, Jonah is being grateful and thanking God in advance for his salvation.

Question: What was the result of Jonah's todah psalms? What comparison can you make to Jesus, as Jesus does in Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-32 and the todah Psalm Jesus begins by quoting the first line from Psalm 22 from the Cross.
Answer: At God's command, , the fish spit out his body and Jonah is resurrected from death on the third day. Jesus was entombed and resurrected on the third day. This is part of the "sign of Jonah" that Jesus prophesizes will be given to the world.

10 Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah onto the dry land.
Question: Is this the first time God has used an animal to assist Him in dealing with a wayward prophet?  See Num 22:22-31
Answer: No.  God used a donkey to get the attention of the prophet Balaam.

It is possible that the storm and the fish had traveled up the coast and deposited Jonah on dry land due west of Nineveh.  It still would have been a long journey for Jonah to travel from the coast to the heart of Mesopotamia on the east bank of the Tigris River.  The earliest mention of Nineveh in the Bible is in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10:11.  The last mention of Nineveh in the Bible is in Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:30-32 where Jesus says in the Last Judgment the men of Nineveh will arise to condemn Jesus' generation for their failure to believe in Him.(2)

Chapter 3: The Repentance of the Assyrians of Nineveh and God's Mercy

Jonah 3:1-10 ~ The repentance of the Ninevites and God's merciful pardon
1 The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah a second time.  2 "Up!" [Arise!] he said.  "Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach [cry out] to it as I shall tell you."  3 Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of Yahweh.  Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to cross it took three days.  4 Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city and then proclaimed [cried out] "Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown."  5 And the people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.  6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes.  7 He then had it proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles, as follows: "No person of animal, herd or flock, may eat anything; they may not graze, they may not drink any water.  8 All must put on sackcloth and call on God will all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil ways and violent behavior.  9 Who knows?  Perhaps God will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath, so that we shall not perish."  10 God saw their efforts to renounce their evil ways.  And God relented about the disaster which he had threatened to bring on them, and did not bring it.  [..] = same three Hebrew words as in 1:2 (quwm = arise, yalak = go, and qara = cry out).

God repeated the call to Jonah's prophetic mission with the same three words: arise, go and cry out.  This time Jonah accepted his mission. 

3 Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of Yahweh.  Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to cross it took three days.
The "three days" is probably hyperbole to emphasis the size and importance of the city.  It might also be symbolic as the three days in the belly of the great fish is probably symbolic.  A three day period in Scripture usually points to something that is significant in God's divine plan, occurring at the end of the three day period.  See the document "The Symbolic Significance of the third day."  Jonah was released from the fish in three days and Jesus will be released from the tomb in three days.  Both events are part of God's Divine Plan in bringing about salvation.

4 Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city and then proclaimed [cried out] "Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown." 
Jonah walked to the middle of the city and courageously proclaimed in 40 days the destruction of the city.
Question: What are the two responses to Jonah's pronouncement of divine judgment and destruction for the city of Nineveh?
Answer: The people of the city believe him and declare their repentance through fasting and wearing sackcloth, a sign of mourning.  Their king also responds by wearing sackcloth and covering his head in ashes, a sign of repentance.  He also issues an official decree declaring a communal fast for the citizens and their animals and encourages the populace to renounce their evil ways and to call upon Jonah's God for forgiveness.

The king uses the title Elohim (gods plural but with a singular pronoun).  The literal text reads:  9 Who knows?  He may turn, and God [Elohim] may repent and turn away from the glow of His anger, that we do not perish.

Most Biblical scholars doubt the historical accuracy of this event.  However, historically there were two disasters and an astronomical event may have prepared the Gentiles of Nineveh to be receptive to Jonah's message of divine judgment.  Two plagues devastated the city in c. 765 and 759 BC, and a total solar eclipse, usually interpreted by pagans as a divine sign, occurred in 763 BC.

10 God saw their efforts to renounce their evil ways.  And God relented about the disaster which he had threatened to bring on them, and did not bring it.
Yahweh's divine judgment is always meant to be redemptive.  In this case the threat of divine judgment produced the desired result.  God welcomed their repentance and lifted His "hand of judgment", sparing the citizens of Nineveh and their king.

Chapter 4: Jonah's Grievance and God's Rebuke

 

Jonah 4:1-3 ~ Jonah's anger and his prayer to God to let him die
1 This made Jonah very indignant; he fell into a rage.  2 He prayed to Yahweh and said, "Please, Yahweh, isn't this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country?  That was why I first tried to flee to Tarshish, since I knew you were a tender, compassionate God, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, who relents about inflicting disaster.  3 So now Yahweh, please take my life, for I might as well be dead as go on living."

Question: Why was Jonah angry?
Answer: He was angry with God because his mission was successful and God spared the Gentile Ninevites.

We also learn for the first time that Jonah's motive for refusing the mission was because he was afraid God would be merciful to the Assyrians and their king.  Jonah asks to die because he knows that the prophecy that the Assyrians will destroy his nation will now come to pass.

Jonah 4:4-11 ~ Yahweh's response to Jonah
4 Yahweh replied, "Are you right to be angry?"  5 Jonah then left the city and sat down to the east of the city.  There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.  6 Yahweh God [Yahweh 'Elohim] then ordained that a castor-oil plant should grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head and soothe his ill-humor; Jonah was delighted with the castor-oil plant.  7 But at dawn the next day, God ordained that a worm should attack the castor-oil plant and it withered.  8 Next, when the sun rose, God ordained that there should be a scorching east wind; the sun beat down so hard on Jonah's head that he was overcome and begged for death, saying, "I might as well be dead as go on living."  9 God said to Jonah, "Are you right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?"  He replied, "I have every right to be angry, mortally angry!" 10 Yahweh replied, "You are concerned for the castor-oil plant which has not cost you any effort and which you did not grow, which came up in a night and has perished in a night.  11 So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand [twelve times ten thousand] people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals? [..] = IBHE, vol. IV, page 2123

Notice the parallels between chapters 1 and 2 and chapters 3 and 4:

Chart of the Parallels between Chapters 1-2 and 3-4
Chapter 1 Chapter 3
Call = arise, go, cry out (verse 2) Call = arise, go, cry out (verse 2)
Jonah arises and flees to Tarshish (verse 3) Jonah arises and goes to Nineveh (verse 3)
God acts = destructive storm (verse 4) Jonah acts = preaches destruction (verse 4)
Sailors call to their gods (verse 5) Ninevites repent, fast, wear sackcloth (verse 5)
Gentile captain proclaims 'Elohim's power behind the storm (verse 6) Gentile king repents, fasts, wears sackcloth (verse 6)
Sailors seek YHWH's will (verses 7-13) King seeks 'Elohim's will (verses 7-8)
Sailors pray to YHWH: "let us not perish" (verse 14) King orders Ninevites to pray to 'Elohim" "Let us not perish" (verse 9)
Storm ceases and the sailors are spared (verse 15) God spares Nineveh (verse 10)
Chapter 2 Chapter 4
Jonah is saved (verse 1) Jonah is angry (verse 1)
Jonah prays (verses 2-10) Jonah prays (verse 2-3)
God responds (verse 11) God responds (verses 4-11)
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015

 

Both the ship captain and the Assyrian king acknowledge that there is a single divine power to which they must turn for their salvation.  Notice that two different terms for God are used in the narrative concerning the response of the Gentile sailors and the Gentile Assyrians of Nineveh: 'Elohim and Yahweh.  At the time of their conversion, the Gentile sailors and their captain appeal to God by His Divine Name, Yahweh, but the Ninevites and their king do not.  The parallels between the sailors and their captain and the Ninevites and their king indicate that this is not merely an accidental background against the story of Jonah. The sailors and their captain, like the Ninevites and their king, are representative of the pagan world and their leaders.  The sailors and their captain pray to and acknowledge Israel's God, calling on Him by His Divine Name which God told Moses "is the name by which I am to be invoked for all generations to come" (Ex 3:15b).  The Church Fathers interpreted the use of the Divine Name as evidence of their conversion experience.  The Ninevites and their king also recognize the hand of God in the world but they go no further in identifying the universal God through whom salvation is possible beyond the temporal salvation they experienced through His divine mercy in sparing them.   They do not acknowledge God by His divine covenant name YHWH.  It is the Gentile's sailors acknowledgment of the God of Israel by His covenant name that lead most scholars, both Jewish and Christian, to see their calling on God by His Divine Name, Yahweh, as a true conversion experience.

Question: Compare the response of the Gentile captain and sailors and the response of the Assyrian king and his people similar to what the Israelite Galileans and Jewish disciples of Jesus will experience when they spread the Gospel of salvation to the Gentiles?  Is the response different today?
Answer: Some Gentiles who hear their message of salvation through Christ Jesus will respond in the same way with some repenting and converting and others somewhat receptive to the message but making no lasting commitment.  This is the same varied response Christians experience today in sharing the message that salvation comes only through Christ Jesus.

Jonah's mission has been successful.  The Ninevites have repented and God refrains from destroying the city and its people.  The book could end here, if its message was simply that God's salvation extends to the Gentiles.  But the last part of the book presents a dialogue between God and His prophet that gives an unexpected twist to the entire story showing the full extent of God's patience and mercy and enriches the story from a doctrinal point of view. 

God asks Jonah if he has any right to be angry.  It is a question God will ask twice (verses 4 and 9).  Jonah does not answer God's question but withdraws to the east of the city (verse 5) and the "scorching wind" came from the east (verse 8).  In the Bible movement to the "east" is often symbolic of moving away from God and godly influence (for example Cain in Gen 4:16 and Lot in Gen 13:11), and an "east wind" is a sign of destruction or divine judgment (Ps 48:7; Is 27:8; Jer 18:17; Ez 17:10; 19:12; 27:26; Hosea 12:1/2; 13:15; Hab 1:9).  Jonah is distressed both spiritually and physically as he sits in the sun.  In Jonah's anger he has moved spiritually away from God and God will chastise His prophet with an east wind. 

Question: Why has Jonah gone to sit outside the city?  What is he waiting for?  See verse 5c.
Answer: It is probably because Jonah believes the people will go back to sinning and the punishment is simply delayed. He is waiting for divine judgment to be fulfilled.

There is some justification for Jonah's anger (verses 1-4, 8-9).  In Deuteronomy 18:22 a true prophet is to be identified by his prophecy being fulfilled.  For Jonah God's announcement that He will punish Nineveh and then His reversal of the judgment reflects badly on Jonah.  The point is that everyone who sins deserved judgment, but mercy is always God's response to true repentance.  When Jonah first tried to run away from his mission, he knew that mercy and compassion were essential attributes of Yahweh (see Ex 34:6-7).  He understands this now intellectually (verse 4), but he is unwilling to admit that the same patience, mercy, and compassion God has extended repeatedly to the Northern Kingdom of Israel when the people and their kings repented of their sins in violating the covenant with Yahweh and worshipping false gods should be extended to the pagan Gentiles. 

6 Yahweh God [Yahweh Elohim] then ordained that a castor-oil plant should grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head and soothe his ill-humor; Jonah was delighted with the castor-oil plant.  7 But at dawn the next day, God ordained that a worm should attack the castor-oil plant and it withered.  8 Next, when the sun rose, God ordained that there should be a scorching east wind; the sun beat down so hard on Jonah's head that he was overcome and begged for death, saying, "I might as well be dead as go on living." 
Using a castor-oil plant, God gives Jonah a lesson about mercy.  It is both a practical and a theoretical lesson:

  1. The plant is additional proof of God's mercy because it makes Jonah comfortable and soothes his anger (verse 6).
  2. The destruction of the plant He created emphasizes the point that God has sovereignty over all of creation (verse 7).

The plant becomes a kind of parable for Jonah.  If Jonah pities the plant why should God not take pity on the Ninevites?

Question: Now Jonah gives a second reason for wanting to die. What are the two reasons Jonah gave for wanting to die?  Compare 4:3-4 and 4:8-9.
Answer: The first reason is because of his emotional distress at God forgiving the Ninevites and the second is because of his physical distress.

Jonah's counter argument to God's mercy could be that a show of penance cannot disguise the fact that the Assyrian Ninevites have performed wicked acts and will do so again.  It is at this point that God gives further justification for His acceptance of their penance and the forgiveness of their sins: 11 So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand [twelve times ten thousand] people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?

Question: What justification does God offer for His mercy to the Ninevites despite their sins in verse 11?
Answer: He says they did evil acts because they did not know any better. 

The literal text has "twelve times ten thousand" for the population of Nineveh; it is a symbolic number suggesting that the Ninevites are more like the chosen people of the 12 tribes of Israel than Jonah might realize.  At one time the Israelites did not know God, and now that they do know God and understand what it means to be a holy people, they continually sin and then repent and ask for forgiveness.  Concerning the large number of Ninevites who repented, St. John Chrysostom writes: "This great number is mentioned for a particular reasons: every prayer, which it is offered in the company of many voices, has enormous power" (De incomprehensibile Dei natura, 3).  It is for this reason that in the Mass we pray and petition God as a community.  And notice that God also takes into account the animals that are innocent of sin but would be helpless victims of the city's destruction.

The story of Jonah ends with God asking Jonah a question and making a challenge.
Question: What is the question and what is the challenge?
Answer: God asked why Jonah felt pity for the plant that gave him shade that was destroyed by the worm but could not understand why God had pity on the city of Nineveh with its large population of citizens who never had the opportunity to know the One True God and animals who were also spared.  The challenge is for Jonah to accept the will of God in directing the lives of humans in both judgment and in mercy.

Question: What is ironic about Jonah's role in the story?
Answer: Although the Israelite Jonah is a reluctant missionary in God's Divine Plan, he is successful in spreading knowledge about the God of Israel to both the Gentile sailors and their captain and the Ninevites and their king.

The Book of Jonah focuses on the theology of conversion, penance, and forgiveness that is conditional on turning one's heart back to Yahweh and making Him the Lord of one's life.  The theme of the Book of Jonah is revealed in God's answer to Jonah in chapter 4 which is that God has dominion over all nations and not just Israel.  Just as He had the authority to punish any nation, He also has the prerogative to have compassion on any nation, to forgive their sins despite an pronouncement of judgment, and to accept their conversion through faith in Him.  In Romans 9:6-8 and 30 St. Paul writes, But it is not that the word of God has failed.  For not all who are of Israel are Israel, nor are they all children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall bear your name."  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.  [..].  What then shall we say?  That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have achieved it, that is righteousness that comes from faith ... (NAB).  And as Paul wrote to the Galatians, For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are one in Christ Jesus and if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendant, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29 NAB).

What is the Prophetic Message of Jonah's Story for the New Covenant Christians?

Most Bible scholars doubt the historical accuracy of the book and claim it is a folktale written after the Babylonian exile.  They also do not believe the Jonah in the story is the same Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:15.  However, Jesus does not treat the Book of Jonah or the prophet as a fictional creation.  No prophet is mentioned more times by Jesus than the Prophet Jonah who, like Jesus, also came from the Galilee.  Jesus spoke of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant when He visited His Galilean home town of Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry in Luke 4:25-27, giving the example of the prophets Elijah and Elisha being sent by God to Gentiles.  Jesus also mentioned the prophet Jonah more than any other Old Testament prophet.  He announced that the "sign of Jonah" would be the sign that His authority was from God; that "sign" was His death, burial in a tomb, and His resurrection on the third day that was prefigured in Jonah.  He will also call St. Simon-Peter symbolically the "son of Jonah" in the mission he would fulfill in "arising" and "going" to "proclaim" the Gospel of salvation to Rome to establish the headquarters of the Church in the capital city of the Roman Empire; it was a regional super power and Gentile empire that was to be called to repentance and conquered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Prophet Jonah is referenced by Jesus 6 times in 5 verses in Matthew's Gospel:
1. Matthew 12:39 The only sign it will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah.
2. Matthew 12:40 For Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for 3 days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
3. & 4. Matthew 12:41 (twice) On judgment day the men of Nineveh will appear against this generation and they will be its condemnation, because when Jonah preached they repented; and look, there is something greater than Jonah here.
5. Matthew 16:4 It is an evil and unfaithful generation, and the only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah.
6. Matthew 16:17 Jesus replied, "Simon son of Jonah*, you are a blessed man because it was no human agency who revealed this to you but my Father in heaven."

The Prophet Jonah is referenced by Jesus 4 times in 3 verses in the Gospel of Luke:
1. Luke 11:29 The crowds got even bigger and he addressed them, "is an evil generation, it is asking for a sign.  The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah."
2. Luke 11:30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be a sign to this generation.
3. & 4. Luke 11:32 On judgment day the men of Nineveh will appear against this generation and be its condemnation, because when Jonah preached they repented, and look, there is something greater than Jonah here.
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2004

*In all the New Testament passages except one, Jonah's entombment in the great fish for three days and his release become a symbol of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection on the third day that is the "sign" that His authority to preach as He does comes from God. The exception is that St. Peter is symbolically called "son of Jonah" because his mission, like Jonah, will be to go to the Gentile superpower of the world in his time and to call the Gentiles of the Roman Empire to conversion and faith in the God of Israel.  He will establish Jesus' Kingdom of the Church in Rome and will use the Roman Empire as the Church's vehicle of salvation to the other Gentile nations.

Passages from the Book of Jonah are read in the Jewish liturgical readings on the Feast of Yom Kippur, the Feast of Atonement.  In the Catholic Church, the text of Jonah is read during Lent and is used in baptismal liturgy.  Jesus compares Jonah's Sheol-like entombment in the watery depths within the great fish and Jonah's release three days later to His descent into Sheol where the kingdom of death had no power over Him and had to release Him to Resurrection in three days.  The role of water in the Jonah story explains why the text is used in baptismal liturgy.  In the Sacrament of Baptism, the Christian experiences a form of burial in the baptismal waters only to be raised up and reborn to a new form of life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Question: What did the success of Jonah's mission prefigure?  See Is 66:18-24 (8th century BC prophet); Lk 2:29-32 (prophet who held Jesus at His Temple dedication); Mt 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 (Jesus' command to His disciples).
Answer: It prefigured God's desire that His message of eternal salvation be carried by those Israelites/Jews who were Jesus' disciples to the Gentiles of the world. Their success in answering the call, in arising and in going out to the Gentile nations to proclaim the Gospel of salvation and promised an equal share in the New Covenant in Christ Jesus is fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Simeon.

Luke 11:29-30, The crowds got even bigger and he [Jesus] addressed them, "This is an evil generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be a sign to this generation."
Jonah is a figure of Christ, the "Son of man," in three ways:

  1. He is a sign prefiguring Christ's death, burial, and descent into Sheol (like all mankind prior to the opening of the gates of Heaven; 1 Pt 3:18-19—Sheol referred to as "prison").
  2. He is a sing prefiguring Jesus' resurrection on the third day (Mt 12:39-41; Lk 11:29-32).
  3. He is a sign of repentance and conversion that will lead to Jesus' Gospel of salvation being preached to the Gentiles and leading to their repentance and conversion as prophesied by the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 66:18-24.
The Sign of Jonah The Sign of the Son of Man (Jesus)
Death and descent into Sheol. Death and descent into Sheol.
Resurrection after three days. Resurrection after three days.
The repentance of the Gentile people of Nineveh in response to his preaching. The repentance of the Gentiles in response to Jesus' Gospel of salvation.

Question for reflection or group discussion:
The question and the challenge that God made to Jonah at the end of the Book of Jonah can be applied to all of us:

  1. "Why are you angry" when God's plan does not go according to your idea of what the plan should be; can't you simply trust God?
  2. The challenge is to accept God's divine will even when one cannot understand why God wills events as He does.

Have you been like Jonah, resisting God's divine plan in your life and have you been able to accept God's divine will even if it means suffering for you or someone close to you?  How would you answer someone who has turned away from God because they cannot come to terms with either the question or the challenge?

Endnotes:
1. The city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire until 612 BC when the city of Nineveh fell to the combined forces of the Babylonians and the Medes.  It was the beginning of the end for the Neo-Assyrian Empire.  25 centuries later archaeologists discovered the great library of King Ashurbanipal II in the ruins of Nineveh.  The documents discovered in the library not only corroborated much of what was recorded in the books of 1 and 2 Kings concerning the politics of the region but included the names of kings of both Israel and Judah, and also provided a wealth of information about the ancient Near East.
2. In July 2014, ISIL (ISIS) destroyed what was called the traditional tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, Iraq.  Mosul is near the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh.  An Assyrian Christian church had been built above the tomb in the 14th century AD, but the church was converted into a mosque when the Muslims took over.  ISIL barbarians wired the church-turned-mosque with explosives and blasted it into rubble, capturing the event on video.  It is highly unlikely that Jonah remained in the pagan city of Nineveh after the success of his mission.  He would have been completely separated from his covenant people and Temple worship.  It is more likely that the Christians living in Nineveh in the 14th century were looking for a way to honor the Prophet Jonah and take advantage of pilgrims looking for a site to connect with the Jonah and his mission. 
Picture of the "so called" tomb of Jonah as it looked before it was destroyed:
tomb of Jonah as it looked before it was destroyed

Catechism references:

Jonah 1:3 (CCC 29); 2:1 (CCC 627); 2:3-10 (CCC 2585)

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2015 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.