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Background Considerations:

Jonah outside the book of Jonah. The contribution of the story of Jonah to Old Testament thought and practice must have been a real surprise, given its attention to the wider world of people on whom God showers his grace (Can God really do that for known enemies?). The reference to the prophet in 2 Kings 14:23-29 and his story in the book of Jonah represent what we know from the Old Testament. However, somewhat in keeping with the fact that there really was no ending to the story, Jonah’s influence extended far beyond the four chapters in which it was told.

Early Christian artists have left us many examples of the influence of Jonah on them, particularly in the context of the death of loved ones. Numerous burial remains artistically depict Jonah’s being spit out by the whale/fish/sea monster as a reminder to those who visit the tomb that resurrection from death is the basis for their hope.

The “sign” of Jonah. “Sign” (semeion) appears often in the Gospel accounts and carries tremendous theological significance. Sometimes associated with the Messiah, at times to the end of the world, the word may also stand for miracle. Signs convey meaning beyond what is observable on the surface; believers should pay close attention if they are to discover the meaning. The three New Testament references to Jonah all arise in relation to the “sign” of his story. Actually, there are two elements to the sign of Jonah (which are developed further below and which have generated a good deal of debate as to interpretation and significance): rescue from the belly of the whale and implications from the prophet’s preaching.

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read through the entire book of Jonah in search of what might have been the “sign” of Jonah.
  • Matthew 12:38-42. In the context of pressing questions from religious leaders for some kind of sign, Jesus responds with a broadside against sign-seekers, asserting that only the sign of Jonah mattered. So, what is the sign of Jonah? Is it the three days and nights in the belly (koilia) of the fish as tied to the three days and nights during which time Jesus was in the heart (kardia) of the earth (vs. 40)? Is the sign of Jonah hope for the resurrection? Or, is the sign of Jonah connected with the repentance of the Ninevites (vs. 41), as a testimony against Jesus’ Jewish audience? Is the sign of Jonah hoped-for repentance? Or, could it somehow be both? Or neither? And what is so important about the sign of Jonah anyway, that it should be the only one Jesus thought worth our time? Some recent commentaries might prove helpful here.
  • Matthew 16:1-4. A similar context leads to Jesus’ same response to the pressure for a sign: there will be no sign except the sign of Jonah, the interpretation left to the readers who have already run across Matthew 12.
  • Luke 11:29-32. In a parallel account to Matthew 12, Luke’s Gospel again pictures people in search of a sign. Here, the significance seems to be tied to repentance.

Contributions to the study of Jonah

Jonah outside the book of Jonah adds a new dimension to our understanding of how later audiences benefitted from the original story. Do either the rescue from the fish or the call for repentance capture the real point of the story as first told? Why is this?

Lessons for Life

How do people with an apocalyptic focus avoid too much emphasis on “signs” as the basis for religious faith, especially when Jesus seemed to limit the role of signs?

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