To understand the book of Jonah, we must first analyse its main characters, because Jonah, God, the sailors and the Ninevites all exhibit extraordinary behaviour. We begin our study with Jonah, as he has the most complex personality. He moves from one extreme to the other: from passiveness to activity, from suicidal irritation to overflowing joy, from disobedience to obedience, from flight to the west to refusal to leave his safe shelter east of Nineveh.
Secondly, we will look at God, who also seems to present different facets of himself. He wants to judge the Ninevites, but not without giving them one last chance to repent and be saved. God confides to Jonah the task of warning them, but is so set on the completion of this mission of grace to the Ninevites that he is prepared to kill his prophet if the latter does not obey. The conflict-laden relationship between Jonah and the LORD lies at the heart of the entire account.
Thirdly, we will analyse the pagans’ behaviour. Despite the fact that the sailors’ and the Ninevites’ behaviour is not typical of the common behaviour of pagans, it can be more easily analysed, as it shows one particular facet throughout the entire book. Contrary to the ever-changing portrait of the prophet and the progressive revelation of the LORD, the sailors’ and the Ninevites’ behaviour throughout the account is stable and uniform from start to finish. The sailors and the Ninevites form two groups which are so well-characterized and which are so similar that it is possible to view the navigators of the west and the citizens of the east in the same way.
Jonah is such a complex personality that views about him will invariably differ from one commentator to the other. (1) Some see in him a type of carnal man, and the entire account as deriding the prophet. (2) Others consider Jonah to be a courageous prophet who is basically attached to his people, for whom he sacrifices himself at the risk of exposing himself to divine judgment. (3) A third group, torn between the prophet’s faults and his qualities, is inclined to consider him as schizophrenic personality who oscillates between the best and the worst traits. (4) It is also possible to see Jonah as a man of God who is deeply attached to the LORD for the basic essentials, but who disagrees with him on a particular point. We feel that this last approach best explains Jonah’s contrasting behaviour.
1. The Worst Kind of Prophet
Jonah is often described in very negative terms. He is “mulish, sinister, petty, ludicrous, good-for-nothing, disobedient and hypocritical, remarkably difficult to understand why God bothers about him… narrow, chauvinistic” or “petty, narrow-minded and obstinate”. He is a man “whose theology was as clear as ice – and twice as cold.” Thus, “The greatness and the goodness of God are enhanced against the background of Jonah’s meanness and malevolence.” In short, Jonah is “a religious psychological monster”.
Some commentators divest the prophet of all positive characteristics: “The writer has progressively and deliberately destroyed Jonah’s credibility, making him one who strikes out too readily at the world when it does not suit him.” “The general argument that some parts of the portrait are not unsympathetic is simply inadequate.”
2. A Martyr for Israel
Other commentators take a more positive view of Jonah. Of course, they recognize that Jonah often appears to be suicidal. In the midst of the furious storm, he descends into the hold and falls into deep slumber, perhaps hoping to sink with the ship, instead of helping the sailors keep the ship afloat (1:5); when the storm whips up, he proposes that the sailors throw him overboard (1:12); at the end of his mission, he twice asks the LORD to take his life (4:3, 8). This suicidal attitude can, however, be explained in a positive way if Jonah is seen as a martyr for Israel. The prophet could be saying to himself that if he does not go to Nineveh, its inhabitants would not hear God’s threat. Consequently, they would not repent, being ignorant of any imminent danger, which would unavoidably lead to the city’s destruction. If Nineveh were destroyed, the Assyrians would have to renounce their imperialistic ambitions…and the kingdom of Israel would be saved. Jonah would thus accept destroying himself to make God’s plan fail. Jewish tradition defends this point of view (see footnote 10, p. 96).
3. A Schizophrenic Personality
The explanation of “Jonah’s martyrdom” does not, however, explain his suicide wish after having carried out his mission. That is why other commentators, without bypassing certain positive aspects of the prophet–particularly his courage and righteousness–end with Jonah’s fluctuating nature, which goes from one extreme to the other: feverish, then static; mute, then talkative; rebellious, then thankful; depressive, then euphoric. Above all, the prophet appears to be a schizophrenic personality who is difficult, and even impossible, to understand and who slips between our fingers like a fish.
4. A Man with a Remarkable Character
A fourth approach emphasizes many of Jonah’s qualities. Prior to dealing with them in detail, two remarks are necessary. The first concerns the nature of the mission confided to Jonah. Have all of the prophet-bashers taken into account the difficulty of his mission? To travel over a thousand kilometres from home to a bloodthirsty people in order to announce God’s imminent judgment to them is anything but an easy task. If you add to that the fact that the mission was not only the first but also the only one of its kind, because never before and never again did God ask a man to carry out something like that, we realize how difficult the task was and what qualities were required to carry it out successfully.
The second preliminary remark is about the men whom God calls to a particular ministry. In general, God assigned such tasks to men who were pious, upright and spiritual. Of course, these men sometimes had a previous spiritual history which was somewhat tarnished (this particularly holds true for the apostle Paul, former persecutor of the church), but once they were called to the ministry, these men were dedicated to the LORD; some already had been so for a long time, some only for a short while. Whether it was Abraham, Moses, David, Old Testament prophets or apostles—all were above the norm. They were spiritual models of their times.
Regarding the ministry to the Ninevites, would it not be reasonable to think that God would have confided such a delicate mission to a man with proven spiritual qualities, perhaps the best of his generation? In any case, Jonah has many obvious qualities.
Courage. Jonah is courageous at every test. He accepts voyages on land and by sea, not for pleasure, but by conviction or obligation. There were many dangers involved: storms and pirates at sea, discomfort and brigands on land. After the exile, Ezra points out the dangers which lie in store for travellers who journeyed from Mesopotamia to Palestine (Ezra 8:21-23, 31). It comes as no surprise that the Hebrews avoided traveling outside of the Promised Land as much as possible, because they were horrified at mixing with pagans. In spite of this, Jonah accepts two long voyages to the far ends of the known world. He lives with the sailors, faces a storm on the Mediterranean (during which he remains calm, whilst the sailors panic); he goes to Nineveh, then decides to remain near the Assyrian metropolis. He even preaches a message of condemnation to the murderous people, fearing only that he might be heard (4:2)! Jonah is even capable of composing a psalm of thanks inside a sea monster. His courage comes in part from his knowledge of God.
Knowledge of God. Jonah perfectly understands God’s plans. From the very start, he knows that the goal of his mission to Nineveh is not the destruction but rather the salvation of the city (cf. 4:2). If God had wanted to destroy the city, Jonah would not have needed to inform the Ninevites of their fate.
Jonah also recognizes the gesture which sailors must carry out in order to keep their ship from sinking: they must throw their peculiar passenger into the sea (1:12). The procedure is strange, but the events prove the prophet right (“So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.” 1:15).
Jonah can praise God when he is within the fish because he knows he is safe. The God who has begun this work of salvation will certainly carry it through to the end, and once again this is proved by the events that come to pass (“Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.” 2:10). The prophet’s words of praise in the fish are full of psalms and display meditation and even memorization of Scripture.
Knowledge of Scripture also makes it possible for Jonah to announce Nineveh’s destiny. In less than forty days, the city is “overturned” as he had announced (see p. 127).
Finally, knowledge of God’s patience and compassion (cf. 4:2) allows the prophet to argue with God. He knows that his LORD will not punish him immediately. He can sleep during the storm, because it must rage even more strongly if the ship should truly be sunk (cf. 1:13).
Some commentators think that Jonah is mistaken in thinking he can flee far from God, but Jonah never intends to escape from divine might. He is convinced that God is the LORD of the earth and the sea. The only motive for his flight is his disagreement with God’s plan (see p. 97).
Faith. Jonah’s faith stems from his knowledge of the LORD. The prophet lives in line with what he knows about God. He can sleep during a raging tempest because he believes in God’s patience and goodness. By the same token, he thanks God for saving him in the fish and before he sets foot on firm ground because he believes that the LORD will always complete the salvation he has begun. In faith Jonah announces the end of the storm to the sailors (to the point that they dissociate themselves from him). By faith he announces to the Ninevites the imminent upheaval that awaits them.
Truth. Jonah is the son of Amittai, that is to say the son of truth. When he speaks, he says the truth. He quickly reveals to the sailors that he is fleeing far from the LORD (1:10). He testifies his faith in the LORD to them (1:9) and announces how they can save themselves at the risk of his own life (“throw me into the sea” 1:12). Each time Jonah opens his mouth and deigns to answer the questions asked, he states the truth. The same statement holds true regarding his contact with the Ninevites. At the start of the book, he refuses to announce God’s message to them, but when he finally accepts the mission, he tells them the truth, even though he doesn’t like the task and there is a risk that the message could infuriate this murderous people.
Jonah is equally and fully transparent in his relationship to God. He expresses his thanks to God in the fish (2:2-7); he completes the mission he has promised to carry out while he was still in the fish’s stomach (2:11); he voices his irritation after pardon has been granted to the Ninevites (4:2-3); he repeats his exasperation after the vine withers and dies (4:8-9).
Love of fellow man. Jonah is often considered to be a xenophobic nationalist who only cares about his own people’s well-being. Yet Jonah accepts to sacrifice his own life to save a pagan crew from a storm (“Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you.” 1:12). He is also willing to risk his life to offer the Ninevites the message of salvation. Of course, he only does so after much hesitation, and, it seems, with great reluctance (cf. 4:2), but he does it nonetheless. Thus, “Biblical” love is characterised more by acts than by sentiment.
However, brotherly love is a field where Jonah has yet to make some progress, because despite the reality of his love, it is not yet on the level of the love which God has for all mankind. In fact, the book of Jonah is basically an instruction book on God’s love of man.
Jonah may be criticized about his restrictive love, but how many men do better than he? Who is prepared to give his love and pardon to the most perverse beings if they repent? Who is prepared to pardon in the way God pardons? Jonah is at least frank. He expresses his opposition to God.
Perseverance. Let us note one last characteristic of Jonah: perseverance. The prophet carries out his commitments to the hilt. He may be reticent about obeying God’s orders, but once he has given his word (“What I have vowed I will make good. ” 2:9 NIV), he carries it out immediately, even if it greatly displeases him.
Jonah’s obstinacy manifests itself especially in his resistance of God’s plan to save the Ninevites. Thus, Jonah goes to the other end of the world to express his disagreement with the LORD (see Commentary, p. 97). He sleeps during a raging storm to show God that he refuses to listen to him (see p. 101). He prefers to be thrown into the sea than to repent. Finally, it is only in the most extreme situation, at the bottom of the sea, that he bends his knee before God (see p. 112). But after carrying out his mission, he rears up again and vociferously expresses his disagreement (4:2). He sticks to his opinion and refuses to leave Nineveh, because he wants to have the last word. He pays with his person by remaining on the fringe of Nineveh in the same manner in which he had paid with his person and his money when he left for Tarshish (1:3), He makes the effort to build a little hut which he then refuses to leave, despite the extreme climatic conditions (4:8). In the same vein, in his final dialogue with God, he refuses to reconsider and sticks to his guns: “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?’ And he said, ‘I have good reason to be angry, even to death.’” (4:9).
Jonah is obviously stubborn. Is this an asset or a flaw? It all depends on what side of the coin you’re looking at. Nevertheless, we can generally say that perseverance is an asset. It characterizes a man who has convictions and is not stopped either by unfavourable circumstances or other people’s opposition. The success of great projects throughout the course of history is generally due to perseverance, the tenacity of those who swim upstream to see their plans through. Thus, if Jonah ends up failing in his opposition to God’s plan, it is simply because he finds himself face to face with someone who is more determined than he is. The test of will with God as his opponent turns to the latter’s advantage, because above all, God wants Jonah’s mission to be successful. The LORD’s resolve is stronger than Jonah’s.
Jonah has a number of moral and spiritual qualities, but he still rebels against God. The meaning of his rebellion and his flight to Tarshish shall be examined in the Commentary, because the test of strength between the LORD and his prophet constitutes the framework of the entire book.
In the book of Jonah, God reveals two very different aspects of his character. First, he shows himself as the judging God; then, progressively, the element of grace becomes increasingly apparent.
The start of the book is characterized by God’s displeasure with sinful men. The LORD takes radical measures against the Ninevites, because their “wickedness has come up” before him (1:2). He then lets a furious wind blow across the sea because of Jonah’s disobedience (1:4). The sailors are also stricken by divine wrath, because they have taken in the rebellious prophet in full knowledge of his erring ways (1:10). The storm gets worse as Jonah’s obstinacy increases. He turns a blind eye to the first signs of God’s anger when he goes to take nap in the hold (1:5). The storm is also the result of the sailors’ refusal to disavow the wrongdoer (they try to reach the shore instead of throwing Jonah into the sea 1:13).
Later on, God’s judgment becomes shadowy. When God repeats his call to Jonah to go to Nineveh, he no longer speaks of the Ninevites’ “evil ways”, but simply of a “proclamation” to be announced (3:2). Jonah predicts that the city will soon be overturned (3:4). However, his message does not necessarily imply destruction, but possibly also a repentance (see p. 127). Faced with Jonah’s discontent after the Ninevites’ change of behaviour, God gives his prophet a reminder, not with the threat of death by storm but by making him uncomfortable with blazing sunshine.
God’s grace is presented at the beginning, but in a very discreet manner. From the start, Jonah’s mission is conceived as a matter of grace and that is how Jonah understands it (4:2), but the reader is not informed of this intention until the last chapter. Before destroying Nineveh like Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed in the past, God wants to warn the Ninevites to give them a final occasion to repent.
God gets angry at Jonah (and with the sailors who have taken him in), but his judgment is progressive so as to give the prophet and the sailors time to repent. The minute repentance has taken place, God ceases the danger (“and the sea stopped its raging” as soon as Jonah is thrown into the water) or sends an unexpected rescuer (“the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah” 1:17).
At first, Jonah is saved from death, but he remains sequestered within the fish for several days “Jonah was inside the stomach of the fish three days and three nights” 1:17), possibly to bring him to the shore, but perhaps also to convince him to carry out his mission. In fact, the narrator indicates that Jonah will be freed just after having signalled the prophet’s intention to carry out his vow (2:9b-10).
God’s grace comes to light when the LORD reverses his decision to destroy Nineveh after all of its citizens repent (“then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” 3:10).
God’s grace towards Jonah also manifests itself in Chapter 4. God even undertakes different efforts to release the prophet from his predicament and to convince him that God’s action is sound.
In a general way, God’s divine grace is conveyed by his patience with sinners and the pardon which he grants when they repent.
God’s Astonishing Actions
God is so intent on completing his mission to the Ninevites–making sure they have one last chance to be saved–that he uses exceptional means to make it work. All of creation participates: the winds on the sea in the west (1:4) and over the land in the east (4:8); creatures great (1:17; 2:10) and small (4:7); plants (4:6). All of the elements of creation obey immediately. The only one who has trouble with submission is Jonah. But Jonah is not just anyone–he is a prophet of God with obvious moral and spiritual qualities.
God insists on carrying out his plan by means of Jonah, despite his reticence. God does not choose another prophet, nor does he consider using non-human means (the Creator God could have written a message in the sky for the Ninevites, just like he could have revealed himself through dreams and visions). Yet God chooses Jonah to see his plan through.
God is prepared to do anything to carry out his plan, even to let Jonah perish if he continues to refuse, even to drown an entire ship’s crew who supports the prophet. This is the second source of astonishment in this book. How can “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness” (4:2) go so far as to sacrifice his own prophet to carry out his work of salvation? Isn’t it a contradiction to want to save atrocious sinners and to kill a faithful believer with many spiritual and moral attributes?
The exceptional methods which the LORD applies testify to his determination to accomplish a prophetic sign which shows the extent of his grace.
God’s Wish to Instruct
The book of Jonah underscores the LORD’s wish to instruct. God wants to teach the Ninevites, Jonah, Israel, the entire world.
The Ninevites. God sends Jonah to announce the divine judgment to the Ninevites, but also and primarily to give them one last chance to repent and be saved.
Jonah. Once the mission is accomplished, God does not lose interest in Jonah, but does everything to convince him of the divine plan’s justness. God intervenes in creation again and miraculously makes a vine grow (4:6); he then sends a worm (4:7) and a hot wind from the east (4:8). Above all, the LORD speaks with Jonah, because in the last chapter, the majority of the words are the LORD’s (approximately 70%).
The book ends with the LORD’s longest verbal intervention (it contains 60% of all of the words he speaks in this book). Jonah must understand the deep meaning of God’s love. God is not only the patient judge, “slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness”, hoping for the Ninevites to repent (4:2), but he is also the Creator who maintains the relationship of a father to a child with the beings he has created. The pagans are immature beings “who do not know the difference between their right and left hand” (4:11). They are like children who are in great need of instruction.
Israel and the world. The book of Jonah is prophetic. God announces the extent of his love to Israel and, beyond his chosen people, to the entire world. The book prepares Christ’s coming (see p. 60-67). The figure of God the Father emerges progressively.
The desire to instruct is so strong in the book of Jonah that it (almost) eclipses the wish to save the Ninevites. It must be said that salvation is closely linked to knowledge of God, because the announcement of grace through Jesus Christ is the way chosen by God to save the world.
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! of good things…
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17).
The pagans’ behaviour is at the same time both surprising and banal. It is surprising because it is the opposite of what a Hebrew reader would expect them to do; it is banal in the sense that it remains constant throughout the book. From start to finish in the account, the pagans do what is right and their attitude is exemplary.
When the storm grows worse, the sailors throw the freight overboard (1:5). The material loss is not a senseless gesture, but rather reflects the wisdom of people who are capable of evaluating the importance of a situation and who take the necessary measures. They add a religious effort to this gesture. To be on the safe side, they invoke all deities (1:5); even Jonah is urged to pray to his God (1:6). When faced with the fact that their efforts have no effect, they do not give up; they look for the cause of the problem (1:7). When Jonah is recognized as being responsible, he is not immediately lynched—he is questioned (1:8). The sailors want to know more, and they keep cool. Their concern about preventing Jonah from undergoing a severe judgment and their horror at committing murder are commendable (1:13-14). Once a solution presents itself, the sailors do not forget to thank the Creator (1:16).
The Ninevites’ behaviour is even more remarkable. All of the city’s inhabitants repent, without the least exception (3:5). The king takes the display of repentance to the extreme (3:7).
The contrast to the prophet is obvious. The pagans do the right thing, whereas Jonah persists in his contention of God. Of course, Jonah temporarily changes his attitude in the middle of the book (Chapters 2 and 3), but his inner attitude is not really transformed. In the long run, Jonah does not appear to change.
We note that the reader does not know what happens to the pagans afterwards. The sailors offer a sacrifice to the LORD and swear an oath when the storm is over, but nothing is mentioned about their behaviour later on. Do they become true worshipers of the LORD or do they return to their pagan beliefs? No-one knows. The Ninevites repent immediately, but no-one knows for how long. Jonah wants to wait and see, but God doesn’t let him. A reader might also ask about the extent of the Ninevites’ repentance. They show many exterior signs: an official fast, sackcloth and ashes, both young and old commit to it, even their animals. But are these feelings accompanied by a change of lifestyle? Of course, the king has given the order: “But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.” (3:8), but has this command been obeyed? We can hope so, without being entirely certain.
Stability and Change
Stability and change are the bases of the book of Jonah. Certain characteristics of Jonah, God and the pagans evolve during the course of the account, whereas others remain constant.
The portrait of God presented by the narrator develops throughout the chapters (he goes from judgment to salvation), but God’s attributes remain constant from start to finish. In fact, the goal of the mission confided to Jonah is always the Ninevites’ salvation. God’s repentance at the end of Chapter 3 is not merely a whim, but an attitude which could have been expected from the start, as Jonah testifies at the beginning of Chapter 4. The revelation of God is progressive, but God’s attributes are unchangeable.
The portrait of Jonah also evolves during the course of the account. Yet this development is cyclical, not linear. The picture of Jonah fluctuates throughout the book: revolt and submission, silence and abundant words, irritation and joy. With God, the light gradually comes to shine, but with Jonah, fog and confusion remain. However, despite the many changes, Jonah reflects the image of a persevering and obstinate man who is set on having the last word. In conclusion, the portrait of Jonah fluctuates, but the prophet’s character is constant.
The pagans are the opposite of Jonah. They remain the same from the beginning to the end. This can be seen as positive or negative. In a positive sense, the pagans always do what is right in the book of Jonah. They are like children (cf. 4:11). They are malleable and can still be taught, contrary to Israel who is hardened. In a negative sense, the pagans’ behaviour is constantly changing. Their stability is rooted in their instability, with change as the only constant. We could also ask if that will be their behaviour in the future. Will the pagans continue to do what is right, or is their conduct as described in the book of Jonah characterized by its brief duration?
In conclusion, the behaviour of men–be it that of Jonah, the sailors or the Ninevites–remains enigmatic and uncertain. Some questions remain, but that is basically not a problem, because God is constant. The reader does not need to know everything about life. From the moment he recognizes God and knows he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness”, he can turn to his Creator. That is all he needs to live.