The antihero of the book of Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14.25 as a prophet of salvation during the expansionistic era of Jeroboam II. The choice of this prophet as the target of didactic satire is doubly appropriate, first because he proclaimed nationalistic oracles in behalf of Israel and second because his name means “dove [of faithfulness or truthfulness].” The author wrote a short parable characterized by fantastic events to poke fun indirectly at a little man whose inner thoughts remain virtually hidden. Although certain similarities exist between this story and the prophetic legends of Elijah and Elisha, a greater kinship is with 1 Kings 13. Neither Jonah nor this unnamed man of God is intended for emulation; hence the term “legend” is not entirely appropriate.
The book of Jonah resembles later *midrash, for it interprets biblical texts explicitly (Exod. 34.6) and implicitly (Num. 23.19; Ezek. 18.23). In each instance the issue is the nature of Jonah's God: Is divine mercy a more powerful attribute than justice? Can the deity actually repent? Does God's preference to grant life rather than death extend beyond Israel's borders?
Jonah's resistance to the divine call exceeds the usual reluctance, exemplified by Moses, Amos, and Jeremiah. Jonah actually flees from God, and after the deity has shown him the futility of his ways, he carries out the task with a vengeance. Then he resents the sparing of repentant Ninevites and argues that justice ought to prevail, although he has experienced undeserved compassion. This picture of Israelite prophecy is not flattering, for Jonah is unrepentant to the end. Furthermore, his manipulation of the facts in answering the sailors renders the prophet suspect and extols their superior ethics. When he does resort to prayer, Jonah exalts the ego and uses the occasion to accuse God. He is also spiteful, hoping that the sailors' repentance will be short‐lived, and he eagerly awaits the destruction of Nineveh.
When was this unflattering depiction of prophecy written? Like many biblical books, this one yields few clues about its time of origin. The supposed Aramaisms may reflect a northern or Phoenician linguistic influence, so they do not necessarily indicate a postexilic date for the book. The expression “king of Nineveh” is no different from king of Samaria (1 Kings 21.1; 2 Kings 1.3); the same usage occurs in Neo‐Assyrian inscriptions. Moreover, the use of the past tense with references to Nineveh is not without stylistic precedent in Hebrew narrative (Gen. 29.17; Exod. 9.11; Num. 14.24). The literary relationship between the book of Jonah and other texts (Exod. 14; 32; Deut. 21; 1 Kings 19; Jer. 26 and 36; Ps. 139) does little to clarify the date of the book. Even the apparent citation of Joel cannot be proved, for both references may derive from a common source.
Another approach to dating the book is by searching for its probable setting. The negative attitude toward prophecy resembles Zechariah 13.1–6, but that text cannot be dated with any certainty. Furthermore, unflattering views of prophecy may have existed at various times and places. The antiparticularism is often thought to be a response to the narrow policy of Ezra and Nehemiah. Thus, Ruth and Jonah function to combat the view that would exclude foreigners from divine solicitude. Others suggest that the primary purpose of the book is to encourage repentance on Israel's part, and that was an important aspect of the message proclaimed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The search for an appropriate social and religious context for the book implies that its essential message is clear; this, however, does not seem to be the case. The favorable depiction of foreigners at Jonah's expense is striking, but is this openness to non‐Israelites the central theme of the book?
The strange behavior on Jonah's part is given a rationale from sacred tradition. Jonah quotes (4.2) Exodus 34.6, the cultic confession that the Lord is both compassionate and just, as the reason for his flight from the divine presence. This conscious reflection on the nature of God offers a decisive clue to the purpose of the book. The conflict between Jonah and God concerns theodicy. Is it fair for the wicked inhabitants of Nineveh to escape the deity's wrath by repenting of their sins? Linguistic features link Nineveh and the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, a comparison in which the Israelites could concur because of the suffering inflicted on them by Assyrian hordes. Nevertheless, the object lesson involving a fast‐growing plant that perished just as quickly offers a justification for God's repentance. The closing question addressed to the sulking prophet throws into relief divine compassion for all creatures in Nineveh.
The author may have had more than one purpose. The great prophets had predicted the destruction of foreign nations, but these oracles had failed to come true. Were the prophets false? No, this book suggests, for the Assyrians gained time by repenting. Again, from the perspective of several prophets, Israelites were entirely unrepentant. How could the nation escape God's wrath? By turning from their evil ways and evoking the Lord's pity. Is it too late for that? No, for God is so eager to save them that repentance even by the wicked Ninevites would result in forgiveness. Although the portrait of Israelite prophecy is troubling, the radical self‐criticism goes a long way toward redeeming the profession.
Several literary features of the book have captured the imagination of modern critics. These include the repetition by God and the polytheistic sailors of key words such as “get up,” “go,” and “cry out/proclaim”; the presence of vivid terms like “throw,” “go down,” and “evil” (the last even in self‐description by the people of Nineveh); and varied names for the deity, which do not appear to be used capriciously. Moreover, the book has numerous allusions to earlier biblical expressions, particularly in the psalm (chap. 2) that Jonah utters from the belly of the fish. Perhaps the grotesque and fantastic achieve their pinnacle in the attribution of thoughts to the endangered ship (1.4). The weighty message does not exclude humor: on hearing Jonah's facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up. This entire psalm is a devastating mockery of Israelite piety as it is exemplified by the dubious prophet whose sole concern was his reputation for accuracy of prediction or a restriction of divine compassion to Israel.
James L. Crenshaw