Obscurities in Biblical Jonah

  I will write several articles on the biblical book Jonah. In this first one, I will point out the difficulties with the story, the New Testament explanations that try to see Christian doctrine in the tale, and the view of a prominent Christian who does the same. In a future article I will summarize the view of John Calvin, and in others I will offer Jewish interpretations as well as a rational view.

 

                                          New Testament and John Wesley on Jonah

 

The biblical book of Jonah is considered a significant book with important messages by Christians and Jews. Jews, for example, read the book during the synagogue service[1] during the middle of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Yet, like much of the Bible, the story has many obscurities and raises many questions for which there are no definite answers.

For example: Who was Jonah? When did he live? Is he mentioned elsewhere in the Bible? Is the story true or a parable? If it is a parable, is the prophet called Jonah, which means a “dove,” to remind us of the dove that Noah sent off from his ark to discover if the flood waters no longer covered the earth? If so, does Jonah symbolize, as does the dove, peace?

Why did Jonah not want to obey God’s command to speak to the people of Nineveh? Can a person who actually heard God disobey God? Did Jonah really hear God or was this an inspiration that he was not willing to pursue? Why did he choose to escape to Tarshish? Where is Tarshish?

Why did God cause a storm to rock the ship in which Jonah slept? How could he sleep during the storm while all the sailors were rushing about tossing items from the ship to save it? What is the significance of the sailors tossing lots to determine if Jonah was the cause of the storm? Should we be reminded of the other times in Scripture when lots were used, such as Purim or by Joshua? When the sailors were reluctant to toss Jonah into the sea, what does this tell us about them? What caused the sailors to cry to Jonah’s God instead of their pagan deity? What does Jonah’s desire to be tossed tell us about him, was this a suicide attempt?

What is the significance of the large fish saving Jonah? Why a fish? Why was a miracle necessary? What is the significance of “three” days? Why is there another mention of three days – Nineveh was a city as large of three day’s journey? Isn’t Jonah’s description of his predicament entirely different than what the narrative states occurred when he cried to God – he mentions nothing about a large fish? Should we interpret crying to God as a prayer?

Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that every inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required their punishment? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong?

Why was Jonah distressed to learn that Nineveh would not be destroyed? Isn’t the notion that Jonah was upset because he had predicted the downfall of the city and people would consider him a liar a poor answer? Didn’t he imply with his prediction that the city would only be destroyed if the people continued to act improperly? When did he build a hut and sit and watch the city, was it after the forty days predicted for the downfall of the city? Since Jonah built a hut to protect himself from the sun, why was it necessary for God to “prepare a gourd, and make it to come over Jonah that it might be a shadow over his head”? If God wanted to later destroy the gourd, why did God need to create a worm to destroy the gourd? Why was the sun beating on Jonah’s head after the gourd was destroyed, he had the protection of the hut?

How should we understand God’s final critique of Jonah? Why does God say that the people of Nineveh “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand”? Why does God say that the animals should be saved?

Finally why did God save Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire[2] that would destroy the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE?[3]

In short, virtually every aspect of the Jonah story, the narration and the events, are obscure.

Many biblical commentators and theologians and even the New Testament interpreted the story and answered some of the questions raised. One of the commentators was John Wesley, a prominent Christian. It is worthwhile to see what the New Testament states and Wesley’s view even though they give the story a doctrinaire Christian interpretation. Whether one agrees with what they state or not, the ideas are thought-provoking; if we disagree, we are prompted to recognize the problem and seek an answer.

 

New Testament: Matthew 12:39-41

Two New Testament gospels mention the book of Jonah, Matthew and Luke. Matthew states that Pharisees requested that Jesus show them a sign. He responded that the only sign they would get is “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah, he continued, was in the whale’s belly, “so shall the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Then, the “men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they repented the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.”

 

New Testament: Luke 11:29-32

The Pharisees are not mentioned in this episode in Luke. Instead, Jesus berates the people generally for being “an evil generation who seek a sign.” He continues: no sign shall be given them “but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the son of man be to this generation.” He concludes with the very words contained in Matthew about the “men of Nineveh” rising in judgment.  In both books, Jesus states that the attack of the “men of Nineveh” will come from the south, from the area where the queen came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, meaning the Queen of Sheba. Actually, Israel was destroyed in 70 CE from the north-west by the kingdom of Rome.

 

 John Wesley

John Wesley, an English theologian, was the co-founder with his brother Charles and fellow cleric George Whitefield of the evangelical movement known as the Methodist Church. He was born in 1703 and died in 1791 with his final words being, “The best of all is, God is with us.”

While not considered a systematic theologian, he is recognized to have been a logical thinker and a clear and concise writer. He stressed the importance of loving God and felt that grace (an undeserved gift from God) was the way that God “sanctified the believer.” He felt that the Bible was the sole source of the truth because it was the word of God, and he called himself the “man of one book.” He was an abolitionist and spoke out against slavery.

He wrote a short book in 1765 called “Jonah: Explanatory Notes and Commentary.” He admits to “being conscious of my very imperfect acquaintance with the Hebrew tongue.” He maintains that Jonah the son of Amittai in this book is the same man as the Jonah son of Amittai in II Kings 14:25 and that he is the author of this book. In II Kings the prophet Jonah tells King Jeroboam ben Joash of Israel (also known as Jeroboam II) that God said to restore the coast of Israel. According to W. F. Albright Jeroboam II ruled for forty years from 786 to 746 BCE. He was the fourteenth king of Israel. This would date the prophet in the mid-eight century BCE.

Wesley states “he was a messenger of mercy to Israel in the reign of Jeroboam the second. We (also) have here (in the book of Jonah) a remarkable instance of God’s mercy toward repenting sinners.”

Contrary to the New Testament that sees Jonah prefiguring the advent of Jesus and the punishment of Israel, Wesley writes that “every word (is) the oracles of God” and “what runs tho’ the whole work and will much recommend it (is) the doctrine of absolution,” meaning the chance for the removal of sin and the beginning of peace. However, like the New Testament, he adds: “And in Jonah we have a most remarkable type, of our Lord’s burial and resurrection.”

He states that the city of Nineveh was eighteen miles and three quarters in length and eleven miles and one quarter in breadth. He explains Jonah’s flight as perhaps Jonah thinking God “would not put upon him this work when he was got into a strange country.” He says that “Lots are an appeal to heaven in doubtful cases,” but should not be used when the matter can be determined in another way. He sees “Jonah’s casting over-board was a type of Christ’s death, so the effect it had upon the mariners might be a type of the conversion of the heathen from idols unto God.” Likewise, he felt that the people of Nineveh converted and believed in God.

Why, after obeying God and seeing the conversion of heathens was Jonah distressed? He felt disgraced because he had predicted the city’s destruction and “hardened sinners…will brand me a liar.”

 

Summary

These Christian sources chose to see the book of Jonah, as they see other parts of the Hebrew Bible, predicting the coming of Jesus and how he was resurrected after his death. They take the tale as a true event and the miracles as God’s way of informing people about Jesus.

There are problems with their interpretations. Jonah is depicted in the biblical book as a reluctant prophet who was criticized by God for the lack of human feelings, unlike how Christians think of Jesus. Contrary to the New Testament, Israel was not destroyed by a southern country but by the north-western nation of Rome. Jonah should not have been despondent because he would be labeled a liar, as Wesley contends, because he only predicted the fall of Nineveh if the people failed to repent – he told the truth. Additionally, while the Bible does have people tossing lots, we realize today that this is a superstitious practice and we should not say that it can be done in doubtful cases.

[1] As the haphtarah.

[2] II Kings 19:36.

[3] Nineveh was itself destroyed in 612 BCE.

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