The Book of Jonah: A Whale Tale?

jonahWhenever we talk about the book of Jonah, most of us think of our childhood picture of the absurdly disobedient prophet, swallowed by a whale. In our memories Jonah is more a cartoonish farce than a serious prophetic book of the Bible. After all, the story is surprisingly humorous, drenched with irony, and weaved with dramatic twists. Everything appears to be larger-than-life – the enormous city of Nineveh (1:2; 3:3), the massive storm at sea (1:4), the gigantic fish (1:17), the sailors’ full-size fear of God (1:10, 16), and Jonah’s comically overblown anger (4:1) and eggshell glee (4:6, 9). And the events themselves seem entirely far-fetched – a man surviving three days inside a fish (1:17; 2:10), immediate, city-wide repentance in response to a reluctant prophet (3:5-9), and gourds growing overnight (4:6, 10)?

Nevertheless, these delightful and extraordinary aspects shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that Jonah is a sober work of the prophets (1:1; cf. Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1; etc.). As far as it’s composition, Old Testament scholar T. Desmond Alexander has commented: “The book of Jonah is undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of biblical literature…it has been composed by an author who has used his literary skills to the full.” Historically, the book is entirely consistent with what we know of this time-period, assuming “Jonah the son of Ammitai” is identical to the prophet of the same name mentioned in 2Kings 14:25. Theologically, the work is profound. It is a masterful meditation on repentance (both human and divine), on Yahweh’s universal sovereignty over all peoples, the global mission and universal compassion of Israel’s God, and the scandal of grace. Psychologically, the story is not only gripping in its artful narration, but also in capturing the complex and strong emotions that divine judgment and grace stir in us. The book ends much like Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son: both Jonah and the older brother seething in anger over Father’s forgiveness of the undeserving. The question posed: Will we too be angry at God’s rich mercy, or will we join the party and celebrate the recovery of the lost? Will we, finally, repent and receive grace ourselves?

Beginning January 12th, we’ll begin our journey through this amazing book of the Bible. Though it is brief, the themes are deep, and the questions raised demand considerable reflection. For this reason, we will be spending a substantial amount of time in this short story – 15 weeks, in fact, ending Easter Sunday, when we’ll explore Jesus’ reference to Jonah’s adventure in Matthew 12:38-41 as a type of the resurrection of Christ.
I’m so looking forward to this!