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Background Considerations:

Sense of an ending. Does the story of Jonah end? Is there what some literary analysts call “a sense of an ending” to this biblical book? Do we have closure on the plot? Well, we are left with surviving Ninevites, so there is something to serve as a conclusion. But is Jonah’s experience brought to a close? Where is Jonah at the end of the story? What is he doing? What is he contemplating? Is he still there? Does his booth still stand? Has he come to a satisfactory solution to his dilemma about God’s grace? Has he “gotten over it” yet? Why this set of loose ends to the story? What purpose does it serve the listeners/readers to jerk to a stop like this with so many unanswered questions? What are we supposed to do with the book, with Jonah? Are we to write our own endings?

Unending questions. In the course of the story, Jonah is asked 11 questions. Eight come from the mariners in 1:6-11 (What do you mean you sleeper? On whose account has this disaster come upon us? What do you do for a living? From where do you come? What is your nationality? What is your ethnic background? What have you done to get yourself into this fix? What shall we do to survive the sea?) and address information which might lead to their rescue. The rest come from God (Do you do well to be angry [about Nineveh]? Do you do well to be angry about the plant? Should I not show compassion on Nineveh?) and have to do with Jonah’s misplaced anger and God’s surprising grace. In fact, the book closes with a question: What should I do with all these people who don’t have a chance? Which means that the book really doesn’t end.

“As the story winds down, the questions addressed to Jonah more and more become questions addressed to those listening to the story. Jonah, it becomes clear, is me! Thus the story asks its hearers: Do you recognize yourself in the figure of Jonah? Do you detect in yourself symptoms of the Jonah syndrome?” – James Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 156.

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read through the entire book of Jonah.
  • Jonah 4:10-11. Any humor here? Any irony? Any skewed values? Any lurking surprises? A plant which God “appoints” comes and goes in a day; what about 120,000 people? What should God do with them? And what about all those cattle?! Almost seems like an add-on: let’s not forget about all those cattle that joined the Ninevites (chapter 3) in the fast from food and water and the donning of sackcloth and crying out to God for deliverance. What should we make of these final words to the story?

Contributions to the study of Jonah

How should we characterize the general picture in the Old Testament of foreigners? Where are they on the food chain? How do they rate? Should they be destroyed? Tolerated? Loved? Saved? Should they be allowed to influence the purity of God’s people? In the context of the Old Testament and its varied perspectives on this matter, where does Jonah’s story fit? How much of a surprise was it? How does it compare/contrast in the treatment of foreigners with stories and books like Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, Esther, Daniel, Ruth, Joel? How significant was the impact of Jonah’s story?

Lessons for Life

How should the story of Jonah affect the way we relate to those we would not expect to be candidates for the kingdom? How much of a critique is this story to our attitudes and behavior?

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