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Background Considerations:

  • Prophets. Review a good Bible dictionary’s article on “prophet” and think about how Jonah fits the role and where he is historically. Among other early prophets, we know of several in the northern kingdom of Israel: Ahijah (1 Kings 11:29-39); Jehu (1 Kings 16:7-12); Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 13); the prophets noted in 1 Kings 13 (a puzzling story) and 20:13-22 and 28; and Micaiah in another intriguing story in 1 Kings 22. Amos (from the south) and Hosea (a northerner) also both preached in the northern kingdom before it fell to the brutal Assyrians (hmmm, including the Ninevites!) in 722 B.C.
  • People and places. The Assyrians, known around the ancient Near East as the most cruel and oppressive of rulers, as the arch-enemy of all the countries in and around Palestine, are featured in the story of Jonah as worth converting. A good Bible dictionary will provide background and archaeological information on this world power and its accomplishments as well as on the city of Nineveh. Reliefs from Iraq show Assyrian assaults on several ancient cities, including Lachish in southwest Judah.
  • The times. While all agree that Jonah was a prophet in the eighth century, as the one verse of the Old Testament outside the book of Jonah to mention him suggests (2 Kings 14:25), there is lots of debate about when the book of Jonah was written. Since it is more about the prophet than the preaching of him, some have suggested that the story was penned later, much later by an inspired writer who felt the prophet’s story would contribute to understanding something special about God at a time of perplexity. Many feel that the message of God’s surpassing compassion for foreigners joins other similar voices in the time after the Babylonian exile when others were saying the Jews should avoid contact with foreigners, in fact separate themselves entirely from them. The varied perspectives emphasized preserving identity as God’s people on the one hand (Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi) and, on the other, an inclusive attitude toward foreigners since God’s house was a “house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56; maybe the story of Ruth, Joel). The stories of Esther and Daniel belong in the discussion as well.

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read the entire book of Jonah through.
  • Jonah 1:1-2. The invitation to go to Nineveh, “that great city.”
  • Psalm 139:1-18. Beautiful reminder of God’s care and closeness.
  • Jeremiah 1. The call of the prophet Jeremiah, picturing God’s knowledge of the prophet and his irresistible call to preach.
  • Nahum. This book is entirely against the Assyrians and Nineveh, dating to the last half of the seventh century, predicting the flaming demise of the city, which collapsed in 612 under the Babylonians, the Medes and the Scythians. It belongs to a category of literature called “oracles against foreign nations” (found in all the writing prophets except Hosea), and calls for the removal of Nineveh. These oracles provided encouragement for Israel/Judah as the promise that threatening neighbors will no longer present a threat.

Contributions to the study of Jonah

  • There is so much information about this book and its background that it may seem too daunting a task to read. But it will be worth it in our quest to understand and appreciate the book and the story of Jonah.

Lessons for Life

  • The story of Jonah raises the question of what it means to live “prophetically” in one’s world, not in the inspired sense, but in the sense of the human vocation of helping people come to know a loving God. What might that look like today?

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