Reading Jonah Well

A few years ago, I’d asked students of mine to look through Children’s Bibles and/or storybooks to see how the Biblical story was presented. It quickly became apparent that the story wasn’t presented well – and the second part of the assignment was asking them how the story Bibles could do it better.

One of the most notorious examples of a story that was bound to be written poorly was that of Jonah. The fish/whale seems to take over the story completely, and the rest of the big of Jonah is given a few lines at the end of the book, if it’s even mentioned at all. (n.b. I have actually seen story books that end the story of Jonah with the whale spitting him out – so much for chapters 3 and 4!).

The exercise was somewhat useful in raising awareness about what kind of poor theology and lack of respect for the biblical text we pass on in children’s books. More so, it stirred up in me an even stronger desire to pay closer attention to the details in the biblical text. The book of Jonah is a great place to begin.  Jonah is a story most people hear way too often growing up in the church, and we have a tendency not actually to look at what’s in the text. After all, we already know the story, right?


Certainly I’d noticed things about Jonah previously when looking at it more closely – but even after spending an entire class translating the Hebrew text into English, there are still things I’d never seen and never thought about. Doing research on what areas were controversial in the book of Jonah actually helped me see more – I’d had no idea there was so much written about the animals in the book of Jonah and this despite the fact that ever since translating the book, the final verse has been one of my favourites:  “Should I not have compassion on these people who do not know their right from their left – and all the animals (cattle), too?”

A few weeks ago I pulled out the book of Jonah as the source of study for a small group evening. The following are some of the things we saw:
– despite the idea that most of us have that the Ninevites fasted for three days, there’s no actual number of days given in the text.
– if you know whether a prophet is sent from God because his words come true (cf Deut 18), what does that say for Jonah’s words of destruction (in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed) that clearly didn’t come?
– the shade tree that God raises actually comes above a hut that Jonah built – so it’s almost redundant (and would it have made that much difference if the plant/tree was or wasn’t there?)
– the animals also have to fast in Nineveh – no food and no water. And they are also dressed in sackcloth. Can you imagine how much noise and “crying out” there would have been from the animals?!?

4 thoughts on “Reading Jonah Well

  1. When it is REALLY hot shade over a hut would make life much more pleasant, the temperature in a hut would be only a little below ambient, with shade over it it would drop quite a bit.

  2. I’d agree, and I can see that shade would make a difference. If it was only shade (and not a hut), as I’d grown up thinking, I could kind of understand why Jonah was angry. But with a hut also there, it’s not like Jonah didn’t have some kind of protection from the sun – and how much shade can one plant actually produce? Surely not enough to justify Jonah being angry enough to die.
    And it’s not like Jonah didn’t choose to sit there and wait and watch.

  3. How do you see the order of events in Jonah 3:6-9 vs 3:5, and 4:5ff vs 4:1-4? They seem to be in reverse order. Someone told me that 3:5 and 4:1-4 are summary statements and the rest is adding more details to the story. He based that on the fact that Hebrew is more cyclic in the presentation of events than linear. What is your opinion about this?

    1. I have to admit that I haven’t thought much about these questions about the order of Jonah.
      The repentance of 3:5 does seem to be a summary (introduction) of the verses that follow it. It’s like saying this is what happened (v.5) – and this is how it happened (vv 6-9).
      Yet, in chapter 4, it seems different. Verses 1-4 seem to long and detailed to be a summary. I would actually say that it is two occasions of different anger: the first is Jonah’s anger about the lack of judgment on Ninevah and the second for the dying of the plant. The interesting part is the dialogue that goes with it. When the Lord asks Jonah about his anger in v. 4, there is no answer. But when Jonah is asked again in v.9, he does respond with saying that he does have a right to be angry. The Lord’s response indicates that Jonah’s anger was inappropriate for both incidents of vv. 1-3 and vv. 5-8. I would say that the double anger has the rhetorical effect of magnifying Jonah’s anger and making his anger look foolish (the book of Jonah is often considered a bit of a satire). The anger about the lack of destruction is something I can somewhat understand – after all, since Jonah’s prophecy did not come true, it questioned whether he was actually a valid prophet (cf. Deut 18)! But the question being asked of the reader is whether one’s reputation and being right/justified is more important than mercy. And Jonah’s foolish anger over the plant makes it obvious what the reader ought to choose: mercy.

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