JONAH (joh' nuh) Personal name meaning, “dove” and name of book of Bible preserving story of a part of prophet's ministry. The Book of Jonah is unique among the Minor Prophets in consisting of a short story about a prophet and in confining his message to a sentence (3:4).
The hero or rather anti-hero is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-29 as active in the reign of Jeroboam II (about 785-745 B.C.). His prediction of national expansion for the Northern Kingdom, evidently made early in the reign, expressed God's longing to save His people, wicked though they were. This theological background is important for the book.
A series of cumulative arguments suggest that the unknown author of the book be assigned to a comparatively late date, probably to the fifth century B.C., though many Bible students think the book came from about 750 B.C. Its Hebrew language is marked by Aramaic features, some of which can be paralleled only in Imperial Aramaic, current in the Persian period. There appear to be deliberate echoes of Jeremiah 18:7-8,Jeremiah 18:11 (Jonah 3:8,10) and of the postexilic Joel 2:13-14 (Jonah 3:9; 4:2). The title “king of Nineveh” (3:6) seems to imply that the city was the capital of Assyria, which it became only at the end of the eighth century. The book appears to be loosely tied to history and presents later theological reflection.
Some have regarded the book as an allegory: Jonah then stands for Israel swallowed in Exile by the Babylonian sea monster (compare Jeremiah 51:34, Jeremiah 51:44). Yet God used the fish not to punish Jonah but to rescue him. Rather, the book is to be regarded as a satirical parable intended to criticize and correct its readers' attitudes (compare 2 Samuel 12:1-6; 2 Samuel 14:1-11; Isaiah 5:1-7). It builds on an earlier phenomenon, as the parable in Luke 19:11-27 builds on Archelaus' visit to Rome. The book's extraordinary features—the seemingly exaggerated size of Nineveh (3:3); Jonah's survival with a song in the fish's interior, digestive juices notwithstanding; and the suddenly appearing/disappearing plant (4:6,7)—are meant to rivet the hearers' attention and to enhance the purpose of the book. The fantastic debt in Matthew 18:24 may be compared. Jonah is presented as a caricature of Elijah, who obeyed God the first time (1 Kings 17:8-10; Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-3) and had reason for despair (1 Kings 19:4; Jonah 4:3).
The two halves of the book have a dual focus, on pagans (1:4-16; 3:3b-10) and on the Israelite prophet (1:17–2:10; 4:1-11) in their respective relations to God. The portrayal of pagans in a positive light as sensitive and submissive to God's will recognizes their worth and potential in His sight. Jonah is shown to be inconsistent: after praising God for rescuing him from threat of death, he complained when God did the same for pagans. Two credal statements represent God as universal Creator (1:9) and as Preserver of the lives of pagans in an extension of His covenant grace (4:2; compare Exodus 34:6; Psalms 145:8-9,Psalms 145:15-16). He so loves the world: the book has a pre-missionary role in defining a theological truth, God's relation to the world outside the sheepfold of faith. Even the Assyrians' later destruction of Israel (2 Kings 17:1) and their tyrannical imperialism (2 Kings 18:22-24; Nahum 3:1-4, Nahum 3:19), which the book appears to presuppose, could not debar them from God's loving concern for their survival.
In the Gospels, especially at Matthew 12:40, Jonah's stay in the fish (1:17) is represented as a type of Jesus' brief confinement to the grave. Exegetically the fish is the means of God's rescue of the prophet from drowning. In Jewish exposition the incident was given a negative interpretation as a threat from which Jonah had to be saved. Jesus reflected this contemporary understanding: His concern was to teach about His mission rather than to exegete the book.
I. People with Bad Reputations Can Be Pious and Know God (1:1-16).
II. God Hears the Distress Calls of His People (1:17–2:10).
III. God in His Compassion Turns Away from Judgment When Any People Repent (3:1-10).
IV. God's People Should Mirror God's Compassion for All People (4:1-11).
Leslie C. Allen
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.