Notes for “Reading the Book of Jonah Together”


 Berit Olam:  Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry Series.  The Twelve Prophets Volume One   Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2000    “Jonah”     by Marvin A. Sweeney

Yonah / A new translation with a commentary anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources.   ArtScroll Tanach Series.  Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, Mesorah Publications, 1978

“Jonah” by Phyllis Trible in The New Interpeter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VII (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1996).  pages 461-530.


Counted as one of the 12 prophets and prophetic books.

Jonah is very closely tied to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  It is read in its entirety during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur.  A textbook on repentance, atonement, and mercy.  “The prophet, the sailors, the Ninevites all teach eternal lessons of repentance.”

Sweeney p. 303: “It follows Obadiah in the Masoretic text and functions as a means to temper Obadiah’s diatribes against Edom with a demonstration of the LORD’s capacity for mercy toward the city of Nineveh.”

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria which conquered the northern kingdom (Israel), with its ten tribes, in 722 BCE. (It was not the capital at the time of the conquest, but at a time shortly thereafter.)  If THEY can be forgiven, then anyone can!

This book is a work of fiction that is notable for its irony and even parody.  Phyllis Trible suggests that virtually every chapter / unit of the book were once separate entities and oral traditions that were brought together later by an editor.  Who knows?

  • elements of folklore where animals/nature and people interact
  • elements of parable, though long as a completed work
  • elements of satire – with Jonah as the target
  • elements of midrash – teaching commentary by religious leaders

Regardless of how the work came together, they are now quite integrated.  United by common and repeated words, wordplays (go up and go down), and much more.

The name Jonah in Hebrew means ‘dove’, perhaps symbolizing the ‘flighty’ nature of Jonah’s behavior.  Doves in Hebrew poetry, however, were symbols of love – perhaps this is the hidden message – that the LORD’s mercy and love, even for foreign peoples, wins out in the end?  The rabbis note p. xxviii: “…a bird which maintains an inviolable loyalty to its mate, is used in parables of the Sages to symbolize Israel’s loyalty to God.”

The setting for the story is BEFORE the conquest of Israel thus raising substantial questions that the Jewish people faced in later centuries – on the one hand the LORD has made promises to them but allows them to be conquered as punishment for sin, on the other hand the LORD has made promises to the world that evil-doing nations will ultimately be punished but then the LORD forgives them.  Whose side is the LORD really on?????

The rabbis stress the element of repentance.  In Jewish tradition the LORD has 13 attributes of mercy.   The Rosh Hashanah service says: “I am the God of Mercy before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and repents.”  The Hebrew word for repentance is based on the word turn / return.  Even good and holy persons are called to continual repentance as a means of holiness.   Rabbis p. 128: “Repentance implies a return to an earlier state of sinlessness and purity.  In its loftiest sense, it means a return to the state of Adam before his sin – the total spiritual redemption of creation.”

DATE? – most likely sometime after the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom Judah in 587 BCE.

Chapter One

Note the irony: Jonah, a prophet and Jew, flees from the LORD.  Later, Nineveh, the sinful and pagan city, repents for its sins.  However, many prophets DID resist the LORD’s call – but they didn’t run away.

Chapter one contains a number of words related to sea-faring that do not occur elsewhere in the bible and are therefore difficult to pin down.

There was a prophet Jonah ben Amittai (Dove son of Faithfulness) in the northern kingdom (2 Kings 14:25) who prophesied during the kingship of Jeroboam.  Jeroboam successfully conquered local territories and expanded his kingdom in a modest way.  This prophet predicted his success in doing all of this – and then, in this story, plays a major role in saving Nineveh of the Assyrians who will soon enough conquer Israel and carry them all off to oblivion.

The rabbis hold the early prophet in high esteem and attribute this book to him.  Some rabbinic traditions believe that the young son of the widow that the prophet Elijah brought back to life was Jonah, who, after being revived stayed with Elijah.

Why then would he have tried to flee?  Rabbis: p. xxviii: “Only a prophet can appreciate the spiritual bliss of prophecy.  To be worthy of such a state is beyond the dreams of even great people; Jonah was there and he chose to give it up in order not to shame Israel by the comparison of its stubbornness with the obedience of Nineveh to the warning of God’s prophet.  It was not from God’s authority that he fled; had he not recognized God’s sovereignty, there would have been no need to flee.”….  “He fled not to diminish the Word of God, but to diminish his own receptivity to prophecy.”

Tarshish is an unknown place, perhaps only meaning conveyed is of “a city far, far away”.  The rabbinic sources are also divergent.  Some understand the word to mean “sea” so that Jonah was sea-bound, headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh.

Instead of taming and calming the forces of the deep, the LORD uses them to get at Jonah.

Jonah goes down to the hold of the ship while the sailors beseech their own gods.  The rabbis say this was not an insult to them, that he was ashamed to pray to the LORD and so went to sleep expecting to die.  The word “sleep” may be more “in a trance” or “in a pre-death type coma”.

Note that Jonah would rather die, by being thrown into the sea, than carry out his prophetic mission to Nineveh.

The pagan sailors act like prophets, the prophet acts like a pagan sailor!

Psalm 107: 23 – 32

Some went off to sea in ships,

plied their trade on the deep waters.

They saw the works of the LORD,

the wonders of God in the deep.

He spoke and roused a storm wind;

it tossed the waves on high.

They rose up to the heavens, sank to the depths;

their hearts trembled at the danger.

They reeled, staggered like drunkards;

their skill was of no avail.

In their distress they cried to the LORD,

who brought them out of their peril,

Hushed the storm to a murmur;

the waves of the sea were stilled.

They rejoiced that the sea grew calm,

that God brought them to the harbor they longed for.

Let them thank the LORD for such kindness,

such wondrous deeds for mere mortals.

Let them praise him in the assembly of the people,

give thanks in the council of the elders.

Chapter Two

The rabbis story is this p. 105 “It may be noted that the multitudes of people who crowded into the Temple courtyard always had enough space to prostrate themselves on the Day of Atonement and confess their sins without being overheard – this despite the fact that they had theretofore been crowded.  Thus, God provides space where needed even in a small enclosure.  The same could have happened whatever the species which swallowed Jonah.”

God directs the fish to swallow Jonah and later to spit him out.  The fish, unlike Jonah, does what he is directed to do!  Yet, there is nowhere that Jonah can go to escape from the LORD – even at the bottom of the sea.

Three days in the belly of the fish, three days to walk across Nineveh – a long time.

In the prayer Jonah does a lot of good things – but doesn’t really acknowledge his own guilt as a part of the situation.  Was this a problem for those after the Babylonian captivity?

The rabbis ask – why did it take three days?  Some of them speculate that it was too comfortable for Jonah in the belly of a large fish – so it spit him out into a smaller fish or a pregnant fish where he was uncomfortable and THEN he began to pray.  (Note that in Hebrew the gender used switches to feminine and the text doesn’t say large at the end.)  For the rabbis – every little thing is there for a reason!!!

Chapter Three

This time, when the word comes to Jonah instead of fleeing he gets up immediately and does it.

Even the king and the animals fast.  In contrast – despite the great feats / miracles accomplished through Moses and Aaron, the pharaoh would not acknowledge the LORD.  Trible p. 513: “Unlike the sailors in the storm at sea, the Ninevites do not confront immediate and unqualified danger.  Unlike the sailors after the calming of the sea, the Ninevites have no evidence of divine mercy.  They have heard from Jonah only an ambiguous pronouncement that does not even mention God.  Nevertheless, they begin to overturn.  Their response prepares for a contrast with Jonah in chapter 4.  So easily they believe in God; so fiercely he will argue with the LORD.”

The king instructs all to give back anything they had stolen.  Gospel story connection – the tax collector.

Sweeney p. 323: “Upon seeing Nineveh’s repentance, the LORD demonstrates divine power in a manner very different from Jonah 1 and 2 in that the LORD chooses not to carry out the previously announced punishment of the city.”

Chapter Four

Jonah is silent before God and then acts by leaving the city.  Now he waits for 40 days, according to Rabinnic tradition.

The LORD acts with the plant, and then speaks again.

The LORD created and destroyed the plant to make the point he wanted to make.

The burning east wind came twice a year between dry and rainy seasons.  The cause of great dust storms.

Those who do not know their right from the left – children.


When we read the Scriptures – it is not just for understanding but we do it with an openness that allows God to reach out to us and touch us, perhaps transform us.  Any gentle prodding today?

Should God have any concern for the innocent of Nineveh?  For the innocent of Germany?  Of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Of …?  Does this book undermine the entire idea of a ‘favored nation’?

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