Jonah delivered just a one-liner of a prophecy:
“In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed (3:4).
By definition, according to Moses, Jonah wasn’t an authentic prophet:
“If a prophet speaks on behalf of the LORD, but the prophet’s prediction fails, then that wasn’t a message from the LORD. The prophet only presumed to speak for the LORD. No need to fear a person like that” (Deuteronomy 18:22).
Yet Jonah, like no other prophet in the Bible, accomplished his mission. He convinced a nation’s king and the people to repent. These were Assyrians of what is now northern Iraq, feared for their terror tactics such as impaling citizens of enemy nations.
Their repentance in response to Jonah convinced God to change his plans to destroy Nineveh, their capital city.
Jonah wants fireworks
Shockingly, Jonah got mad about it.
It sounds like he wanted to see Sodom and Gomorrah fireworks in Nineveh. Jonah may have felt that God’s change of plans made him look like a fake prophet. Jonah might have thought no one would ever believe his predictions again.
Jonah is a prophet who shows up in 2 Kings 14:25. He was real. But many Bible scholars seem to read this story in the book of Jonah as fiction—like a parable with a message about what God is like and who God cares about.
Fish catches Jonah
Jonah is most famous for trying to run away from God, getting caught in a violent storm on the Mediterranean Sea, and getting swallowed by some large fish, not identified as a whale or anything else. Three days later, the fish spits him back out on shore, like a fisherman throwing back a catch he didn’t like.
The story ends oddly, like many parables do. Jonah is sitting by a dead bush near what is now Mosul, Iraq. He’s pouting and God is humbling him further by saying, essentially: You grew attached to that shade bush. It mattered to you. Shouldn’t the 120,000 souls in Nineveh matter to me?”
That’s called a zinger.
Some 1,300 years later, Jesus would become famous for the zingers he delivered in his fictional parables. Those stories were intended to teach people about what God is like and about how citizens of God’s kingdom should behave.
Yet many Christians, perhaps most, read Jonah’s story as history. And they argue that if God can make the universe, he can make a fish big enough to swallow someone thicker than a beachball. That’s what a whale could swallow, up to about 12-15 inches or 30-40 centimeters.
Back in Nineveh, everyone’s on board with God except Jonah, God’s prophet.
He may have needed some time to figure things out. Like the rest of us.
Jonah didn’t seem to write his own story. The story isn’t told in the first person, with a bunch of “I’s” and “me’s.” Whoever wrote this, the story is about Jonah, son of Amittai. Jonah was a prophet who lived in Galilee, in what is now northern Israel. He lived in the village of Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:25). Scholars associate that with the Arab village of el-Meshed, about three miles (5 km) north of Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth.
Jonah ministered during the reign of King Jeroboam II (about 793-753 BC). He correctly predicted that Jeroboam would regain all the land that belonged to the northern Jewish nation of Israel. That’s from the Mount Hermon region in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, where the southern Jewish nation of Judah began.
Jonah’s story begins in the northern Jewish nation of Israel, which maintained a capital in the village of Samaria. Jonah lived north, in the Galilean village of Gath Hepher. He went to Joppa, caught a ship to Tarshish, possibly in what is now Spain, but got thrown overboard in a storm. He finally traveled to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, now the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. He went there to deliver God’s warning that Nineveh had 40 days left before God dropped a hammer on them.
The big takeaway—beside the flaws in Jonah’s character—seems to involve who God cares about.
—The LORD is presented as God of everyone, not just of the Chosen—the Israelite ancestors of the Jewish people.
—God cares about everyone and is willing to forgive anyone, including vicious Assyrians who, in about 722 BC, would erase Jonah’s nation from the world map. But that would have been a different generation of Assyrians. God forgave Jonah’s generation of repentant citizens of Nineveh.
—With apologies to Moses, God can change his plans when people change their plans.