When we look at the message of Jonah through the wider lens of redemptive history, his prophecy takes on a whole new and expanded meaning—God’s mercy extends to the ends of the earth–not just to Israel. Jonah’s actions must be interpreted in light of YHWH’s greater purpose.
Moral Tale or Historical Event?
A Well-Known Story
Most everyone knows the story of Jonah. Jonah was a reluctant Hebrew prophet who, while fleeing from his divine commission, was thrown overboard in the midst of a horrific storm by his terrified shipmates, only to be swallowed by a big fish (usually assumed to be a whale). Jonah then spent three days and nights in the fish’s belly, before being vomited up by the fish on a foreign shore. Once safely on land, Jonah fulfilled his evangelistic mission, went to Nineveh as commanded, and preached to the Ninevites who repented en masse. The story is simple enough it can be understood by a child, but profound enough that theologians and biblical scholars still debate its meaning.
Whenever considering any book of the Bible it is important to ask and answer several questions to make sure we interpret the book and its message correctly. Who was Jonah, when did he live, why did he write this book, and what is in it? How does this particular prophecy compare with the other Minor Prophets who lived and ministered about the same time? These questions are especially important with a book like Jonah, which many think to be an allegory or a moral fable, seeing the story as so implausible that it cannot possibly be speaking of historical events. How can someone be swallowed alive by a whale and live for three days? No, the critics say, this cannot be history, so it must be an allegory, a teaching parable, or a work of fiction, designed to teach us some important spiritual or moral truth.
When we interpret Jonah’s prophecy through this fictional lens, the reader’s focus usually falls upon Jonah himself, the prime example of a reluctant prophet who refuses to obey God’s will. By not obeying God, Jonah finds himself in the belly of a whale, until God relents and the whale then spits Jonah out safe and sound–if a bit shook up. The moral to the story is that should God call you to do something you do not want to do, learn the lesson of the story of Jonah. Obey the Lord and avoid the kind of calamity which comes upon those who, like Jonah, will not do what they know God wants them to do.
No Mere Morality Tale
But when we ask and then answer the “Who?” “When?” “Why?” and “What?” questions, it becomes clear that Jonah’s prophecy is not an allegory, nor does it offer such a trivial and moralistic message. This is not a “once upon a time in a land far away” kind of book. The prophecy opens with Jonah’s personal ancestry–revealing the name of his father enabling us to compare other biblical references to this family, thereby tying Jonah’s ministry directly to the reign of Jeroboam II, one of the last rulers of Israel (the Northern Kingdom).
Jonah’s prophecy comes in the form of a prophetic narrative (much like 1 and 2 Kings) with a song/Psalm included within the narrative (chapter 2). It is clearly set in a particular period of time–the final days of Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Yet unlike the books of the Kings, the Book of Jonah does not emphasize God’s prophet’s obedience to undertake a difficult prophetic call. On the contrary, the Book of Jonah focuses upon the prophet’s determined reluctance to fulfill his mission. But what is that mission? That is the critical question not often properly considered.