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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Jonah

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( 1:1–16 )

Like the book of Joel and unlike those of e.g. Hosea and Amos this book lacks any biographical or chronological background to the divine commission. The word of the Lord came: how, when, and where are less important than its startling content—Jonah is to preach judgement to Nineveh. At the time of Jeroboam II Nineveh was not the capital city of Assyria, though later (in the reign of Sennacherib, 704–681) it became so, but in the mind of our author it stood for all the wickedness which had been endemic in the Assyrian empire. Its ‘king’ ( 3:6 ) is not named and its size ( 3:3 ) is expressed in appropriately exaggerated terms. The text here is focused not on history but on morality.

Other prophets had addressed foreign nations (cf. Am 1:3–2:3; Jer 46–51 , etc.) but none had been sent in person to preach exclusively to a powerful foreign city. For our writer, God's concern is not with the Jews only but with Gentiles also (cf. Zech 8:23; Mal 1:11 ). However, the task was daunting: ‘arise’, Jonah was told, and so he did, but only to flee in the opposite direction ( 1:3 )! Tarshish may have been Tartessus in Spain, in the far west, and there is humour in the way the writer depicts the outcome of the prophet's encounter with God, in such contrast with e.g. Isaiah ( 6:8 ‘Lord, here am I; send me’).

The humorous note is maintained as the chapter develops, depicting a constant succession of descents. Thus the Lord ‘hurled a great wind’ down to the sea ( 1:4 ); the cargo was hurled into the sea ( 1:5 ); Jonah had gone down to Joppa, then down into the heart of the ship ( 1:2, 5 ) and was thrown down into the sea ( 1:15 ), only to descend into the belly of a great fish ( 1:17 ; ‘the belly of Sheol’ 2:2 ), all to indicate the invincible power and purpose of the Lord in heaven over the lives of those who disobey him. The sailors begin to discern this, for Jonah was not reticent about telling them of his God ‘the LORD…who made the sea and the dry land’ ( 1:9 , a bold statement of faith under the circumstances), and when the tempest ceased they worship Jonah's God with vows and sacrifices offered not in the sanctuary in Jerusalem but (by traditional Heb. standards irregularly) on board ship—the reluctant prophet's first ‘converts’ ( 1:16 ), whose allegiance to his God he had won by his willingness to offer his life for them ( 1:12 ). Gradually the character of his God was becoming clearer to, and delineated in, the prophet himself.

The world of our writer is a cosmopolitan one, in which fleeing from one's god (v. 10 ), offering prayers to many gods (v. 5 ), casting lots (v. 7 ), propitiatory human sacrifice (v. 14 ), and offering heterodox worship to an alien deity (v. 16 ) are all part of the life of the seagoing people of whom he writes with such sympathetic insight and perhaps also with experience of the life of a busy port. Little of the narrative of the OT relates to life at sea—the Hebrews were not a seafaring nation (cf. 1 Kings 9:27 where Phoenicians had to teach them seafaring skills)—but it is the author's aim to tell his readers that amidst all the superstition and, by Jewish standards, religious irregularity of such a way of life, the God of Israel, maker of sea and dry land alike, is sovereign over the affairs of men, and may attend to their prayers.

( 1:17–2:10 )

As we might expect with this God who is gracious and merciful, deliverance from the sea was provided for the runaway prophet (v. 17 ), in the form of a ‘large fish’ which swallowed him. This is the best-known of all the episodes in the story, and the one which occasions Jesus' prediction in Mt 12:38–41 that the Son of Man would also be delivered after three days and nights in the heart of the earth, as a sign to his generation of God's favour upon him. Jesus' imagery, and that of Jonah here, is brutal in its intimation that before deliverance there may come humiliation and agony, but though ‘weeping may linger for the night … joy comes with the morning’ (Ps 30:5 ). God is perceived in his role of creator both here (of the fish) and in 4:6–7 (the bush and the worm), ever active in achieving his redemptive purposes for the human race, just as he is perceived in Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 43:1 ) and in Jn 5:17 (‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’). ‘He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Ps 121:4 ).

Jonah's ensuing prayer presupposes his deliverance ( 2:2, 6 ) and has been thought by some to be a later insertion into the book. Certainly, its poetic structure interrupts the prose narrative sequence of 2:1, 10 . There are precedents, however, for proleptic anticipations of deliverance in the Hebrew psalter itself (e.g. Ps 40:1, 13 ), and this provides an appropriate indication of the prophet's new, grateful, and ultimately more obedient frame of mind in the ensuing sections of the story. The language of his song of thanksgiving is derived largely from existing psalms (e.g. cf. 3:4; 120:1; 118:5 with Jon 2:2, and Ps 31:22 with 2:4; 69:1 with 2:5 , etc.) thus reminding the reader that the God of our deliverance is the God whose promises were daily sung in Zion.

The phrase ‘the belly of Sheol’ (meaning the very depths of the earth, where the shades of the dead are assembled) is not to be found elsewhere in Hebrew poetry, and vividly expresses the poet's despair in his life-threatening predicament. Even there, however, God has heard him (cf. Ps 139:8 ‘if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there’). In vv. 3–6 the writer piles metaphor upon metaphor to accentuate the horror and terror of his plight, echoing some traditional formulae (e.g. Ps 88:7 , ‘you overwhelm me with all your waves’; Ps 69:1 , ‘the waters have come up to my neck’; Ps 103:4 , ‘who redeems your life from the Pit’) as well as his own vivid imagery. His faith stands in contrast to that of other psalmists, who doubt God's ability to reach into the realm of death (cf. Ps 6:5; 88:5–7, 10–12 ). Our writer believes that God dwells in the temple in Jerusalem (v. 7 ) and from there hears those who pray towards his house (for this practice cf. Dan 6:10 , where thrice-daily prayer is offered), a view particularly appropriate to the scattered Jewish communities of the post-exilic Diaspora. Idolatry (v. 8 ) was a mark of apostasy amongst Jews living abroad, but vows and sacrifices could still be offered to the God of Israel in Zion (v. 9 ), just as the mariners had done in 1:16 , and as Jonah appears to be intending here. He echoes Ps 50:14 (‘Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High’), with its ensuing note of deliverance (‘Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me’) and its prior dismissal of the necessity of animal sacrifice (‘Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?’). ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord’ (v. 9 ) is an echo of Ps 3:8 and is a triumphant climax to this remarkable expression of faith against all the odds. All this God heard; he spoke to the fish (this is not the only place in the OT where he uses a sub-human creature to achieve his purposes, in the life of a recalcitrant prophet, cf. Num 22:28–30 ), and Jonah is, in the narrator's vivid phrase (reminding us of the depths to which the prophet had been sent by God), spewed out upon the dry land, presumably near his Galilean home (v. 10 ).

( 3:1–10 )

We now reach the heart of the story. God persists in his gracious purpose towards sinful Nineveh and again calls Jonah to the task of warning its people of impending judgement. This time he obeys the call and reaches the outskirts of the fabulously large city (vv. 1–3 ), ‘a three days' walk’ across. Our writer has already exhibited considerable narrative skills, using irony, humour, assonance, and alliteration, and to these he now adds hyperbole. Faced again with so vast a task, this time Jonah, undaunted, faithfully proclaims the message he was given in what must be the shortest prophetic oracle on record (and the only one in this book): ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (v. 4 ). Interestingly, the Greek tradition here reports ‘three more days’ but is unsupported by any other versions or Hebrew MSS. The variation may be caused by the Greek translator's awareness of the three-day journey with which Jonah was faced. (For a suggestion that 4:5 belongs here see below.) His preaching had its effect (v. 5 ) in city-wide repentance indicated by a fast. Even the city's king (vv. 6–9 ), whom the narrator may have believed to have been one of Assyria's emperors (though he never says so), sits in sackcloth and ashes ordering repentance, fasting (even for animals), and prayer, to attract the compassion of Israel's God and to avert his wrath. In Mt 12:41 Jesus cites this story to shame his own impenitent Jewish contemporaries. The result here was, as Jer 18:8 would lead the post-exilic reader to expect, that God ‘changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it’ (v. 10 ). The king's words in v. 9 (‘Who knows? God may relent and change his mind…’) echo those of the only slightly earlier Joel, where ( 2:13–14 ) we learn that because God ‘relents from punishing’ there is hope for the penitent and fasting sinner. Jonah's mission, which was God's also, was a success, despite his original fears and the narrow nationalism ascribed to his prophetic ministry in 2 Kings 14:25 , upon which the rest of this story depends for its dramatic effect.

( 4:1–11 )

This nationalism, however, has not yet been cured, for Jonah is hurt and angry at the non-fulfilment of his prediction (vv. 1–3 ) and, in a rebuke to his God reminiscent of Jeremiah's daring accusations (e.g. 20:7 ), he claims that from the beginning he had known that God's proverbial compassion (Ex 34:6–7 ) detracted from his justice. Unfulfilled prophecy is a problem addressed by biblical writers in a number of places, but it is unwarranted to see it as the principal subject-matter of the book, the climax of which ( 4:11 ) is about God's universal compassion. Like Elijah (1 Kings 19:4 ) he prays for death, but his reasons are less noble than Elijah's, being marked by self-pity and petulance. There is also a hint of sheer exhaustion in v. 5 , which some have thought to transfer between 3:4 and 5 as it suits that context well, whereas here it interrupts the narrative sequence (God himself is about to create a shelter for him, v. 6 ) and we have already been told ( 3:10 ) what Jonah is here waiting to learn. No surviving manuscript or version makes the transposition, however, and if accepted it would be a copying error at a very early stage of the story's literary transmission.

God, however, challenges Jonah to review his attitude (v. 4 ), and, being Lord both of the sea and of the dry land by Jonah's own admission ( 1:9 ), now uses the fruits of the dry land (‘a bush’, v. 6 , which translates a Heb. word of uncertain meaning, though attested in Assyrian also; and a worm, v. 7 ) as he had earlier used a creature of the sea, to teach Jonah a lesson. The lesson was that Jonah cared more about his pleasure in the sheltering plant which he had not cultivated than about God's concern for a huge city of people and their livestock which he had cared about for years (vv. 9–11 ). As claimed for Assyrian kings (and attested on their building inscriptions), the Lord is the good shepherd of all his sheep, as the Hebrew kings themselves recognized (e.g. Ps 23 ), and Jonah here, like Jesus' followers in Jn 10:16 , needs to learn he has sheep in other folds also. Their sin is born of ignorance (‘who do not know their right hand from their left’, v. 11 ), and their repentance was welcome to a merciful God. Such theology is also present in the NT (e.g. Lk 23:34 ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’; 1 Tim 1:13 ‘I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief’), and implied in Ezek 18:28 ‘because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die’, where the word ‘considered’ implies seeing the truth of the situation at last. The prophet's task, as that of all God's people, is simply to speak his message wherever he may be sent. The outcome, so the book of Jonah is telling its readers, is God's responsibility, and his alone. As another Jewish writer with a similar theological problem was led to conclude, ‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” ’ (Rom 11:33–4, cf. Isa 40:13 ).

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