Written about 5th century BCE, Jonah is one of the Twelve Prophets in
the Bible. Jonah can be read as a
humorous satire or allegory, atypical of the prophetic books. A prophet, such as
Isaiah or Elijah, acts as a mediator between man and God, often receiving
divine revelation through dreams or visions. In contrast, Jonah has no
visionary experience and runs away from
Joppa upon receiving a simple directive to go to Ninevah to preach repentance
to the people. In comparison to the great biblical prophets, Jonah has no moral
courage. He lacks guts. Elijah confronts
angry kings, survives banishment and lives in a cave while fed by a
raven. Elijah stands apart from society and willingly undergoes hardship to
avert society and governments from ultimate self-destruction. Jonah, though, is
self-centered. He cares for his own skin. He has little or no interest in the
plight of those around him. Jonah seeks to escape rather than serve God.
In the prophetic books, much of the text is dedicated to
divine warnings, instructions or visions; but in Jonah there is almost none
outside of the initial instruction to preach redemption at Ninevah. Moreover, Jonah only unwillingly does his
task under forces of natural coercion.
In trying to escape the mandate, Jonah jumps the first ship out of Joppa
to Tarshish, going in the opposite direction of his assigned destination.
Commentators point out that Tarshish symbolically stands for the end of the
world, possibly the Tarsus region
in Turkey or
Tartessus in Spain.
In all, Jonah is an anti-prophet. He has no moral courage, no burden of
conscience toward society and behaves in a cowardly manner; his single
overbearing interest is in his own personal welfare.
Because Jonah is
an allegorical book, interpretation is gained through the exposition of symbols and
metaphors. Jonah goes down to the harbor; he goes down into the hull of the
ship and he goes down into the belly of the monster and finally he goes down to
the bottom of the sea, starkly contrasting
with the ascension to the place of sacrifice and worship that is repeated in Jewish ritual
and antithetical to the soul's journey of ascension toward God. King David
calls, "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy
place?" (Ps 24:1) The answer is obvious: not Jonah. Jonah seeks refuge in the infernal regions,
rather than the heavens.
Jonah sleeps in the hull of the boat, unaware of the impending dangers he imposes upon the sailors. Although he tells them to
cast him overboard, it is not a heroic act of self-sacrifice. If he remained on
the ship, it would sink with everyone aboard. It is the final recourse. Quite
possibly, the angry sailors would throw him overboard anyway as he was the only
one not sane enough to pray.
Jonah arrives in Ninevah, but he shows no compassion for the
people. He does his duty of preaching under duress after the harrowing
experience of being in the belly of a monster at the bottom of the sea. He is
angry when the inhabitants of Ninevah repent. Instead he grieves over the vine
that offered him shelter. The JPS
translation identifies it as the ricinus
or castor oil plant which provides a deadly toxin, ricin, but commonly used in
medicines. Jonah, is not only blind, but deaf, to the plight of the people and
his own state of existence. He has no insight into metaphor and no ability for
the interpretation of natural phenomena. He cannot see that his existence is
as dependent upon the mercy of God as the those around him. He does not recognize
that he has been living in the shelter of a potentially deadly situation. He
does not comprehend that the same thing which can kill, can also bring life. He
is clueless to divine interpretation.
Ninevah, alludes to the story of Noah's survival of the Flood (Genesis 6-10).
Ninevah was built by Cush, the son of
Ham. Ham was the accursed son ofNoah who uncovered his father's
nakedness. Noah cursed Ham and all of his descendents to be slaves of his
brothers, damned forever as inferior. Jonah's preaches redemption, but Jonah is
unpersuaded by his own message. He resents his mission. Even the flocks and
herds don sackcloth and ashes to be redeemed, but Jonah has no compassion for
the city. He doesn't get the message.
Jonah retains a
significan position in the Jewish liturgy as it is read on the afternoon of Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement, calling each person to account for himself to
return to God. The book is highly allegorical, using intricate figurative
language which makes English translation difficult. Translation of metaphor and
poetry is at best inept, but Jonah is imbued with complex rhetorical figures and a continual
source of inspiration and interpretation by Jewish comentators. Redemption for
the accursed is through God's mercy and compassion for all people.
Jonah does not share
equal status in the Christian tradition. Frequently, it is brushed aside as a prefigurement of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Jonah
is used as a moral tale, demonstrating the futility to escape from God.
Often, Jonah serves as a vehicle for
fervent sermons warning of damnation or for proselytizing. The multitude of
deeper interpretations are lost. Jonah is often remembered as the first mythic
As Jonah is
allegorical and heavily dependent on symbolic language, translations are
significant. If it is not possible to read the Hebrew text, both the critical
editions of Septuagint and Vulgate are better vehicles for critical study due
to the complex nature of classical languages.
For English translation, the King James and Jewish Publication Society
translations are both recommended. The Oxford Study Bible uses the Jewish
Publication Society translation with commentary within the margins.