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Background Considerations:

  • The prophets. Who were these people and what tasks would best describe their job? The major word used for “prophet” in the Hebrew Bible was nabi, which derives from an Akkadian word meaning “to call out” or “to be called.” The so-called “messenger formula” used by the prophets (“Thus says the Lord …”) confirms the definition of prophets as those who speak a message on behalf of another, in this case God. Jonah joins a host of biblical spokespersons who preached God’s message. Some have their words recorded in biblical books under their name, others we only hear about in other books. The book of Jonah is different from many prophetic books in that it is much more about the prophet than spoken by him. and in that most is in prose rather than poetry. Checking a good Bible dictionary under the words “prophet” and “Jonah” will help prepare one for understanding the book better. It would also be advisable to read the entire book of Jonah each week during this study.
  • Literary analysis. The book of Jonah is an extremely carefully written short story. It is mostly narrative, with only the thanksgiving song of chapter 2 in poetry. Thus, the disciplines of poetic and narrative analysis will contribute significantly not only to our understanding of, but also our appreciation for the book. It is a masterpiece, characterized by a host of literary features intended to edify and entertain hearers/readers. The more recent commentaries on Jonah will usually pay some attention to literary considerations and, in the process, will enrich our listening and reading. What can one learn by paying attention in the book to irony, repetition, structure of the chapters, the questions asked of Jonah, the conversations, the use of natural phenomena, plot, character development, imagery? It is also in this context that issues of fact and fiction have been raised. Can a story be true even if not entirely factual?

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read the entire book of Jonah to capture its flavor and overall impact. This is a good practice, recommended by literary analysts, who suggest that repeated reading or hearing of the whole book allows us to be surrounded by it, absorbed into the story, captivated by the message.
  • 2 Kings 14:23-29. These seven verses report on the 41-year reign of Jeroboam II in the eighth century B.C. – only seven verses! It was during his reign that Amos and Hosea ministered. It was during his reign that we have the only other reference in the Old Testament to Jonah, a reference which gives us his historical context. What do we know of the prophet from these verses? About his message? About his role?
  • Psalm 139:7-10. Where can a person go to escape God?
  • Exodus 34:6-7. Of all the portraits of God which appear in the Bible, this is the one God seems to have provided as a self-portrait. Each word in this description, when read with the original meaning in mind, adds tremendous depth and texture to God’s character. Check them out in a good Bible dictionary.

Contributions to the study of Jonah

  • By paying attention at the start to the literary features of this book, we are in for some grand surprises and important insights.

Lessons for Life

  • Even at the outset, what is this story about? How are we, am I, a part of it?

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