The Problem of Jonah

“The Word of the LORD was to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying,” – Jonah 1:1 (my translation)

This semester I have chosen to study the book of Jonah for my morning devotions.  I’ve done this for three reasons, in addition to general spiritual edification; first, to brush up on by Biblical Hebrew.  Jonah was the book we studied in Hebrew III in seminary, so I’m most familiar with its Hebrew.  Second, because I will be preaching through it in youth group this semester.  Finally, because I’m hoping to teach a college class on it in the Spring.  At the same time, the last time I studied this book it changes my perspective on God’s heart for the nations and for my city specifically.  So while some of the reasons for this study may seem to practical, I’m also asking God to change my heart in the process.

Below are some thoughts that will help us frame the study of this incredible little book.

Problems With Jonah:

Who is Jonah?

The first problem we run into with Jonah is – who is he?  Second Kings 14:25 mentions that he is a prophet who spoke during the days of king Jeroboam.  We can be fairly certain this is the same Jonah in the book of Jonah because he is listed as having the same father, “son of Amittai” (2Kgs. 14:25, Jn. 1:1).

There are two interesting details in this passage about Jonah.  First, he was a source of blessing to Israel in the midst of a wicked King.  2 Kings 14 says that Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kgs. 14:24), but the one good thing he did do was “restore the boarder to Israel” (2 Kgs. 14:25).  Apparently he did this because Jonah prophesied this command to him.  The writer of Kings says that the Lord sent Jonah to Israel because he saw the “affliction of Israel was very bitter” and so “[God] saved them by the hand of Jeroboam” (2 Kgs. 14:26-27).  Therefore, the ministry of Jonah brought salvation and restoration to Israel, even though God had to use a very sinful vessel, Jeroboam, to bring His redemption.

The second, and most intriguing, detail is that this passage calls Jonah “his servant.”  In the Scriptures, “the servant of the LORD (Yahweh)” is a very rare and prestigious title. It is given to Moses, Joshua, David and maybe just a handful of other people.  In our context, that exact phrase is not used, but “his servant” comes in the context of “the LORD” and His work in Israel.  At the very least, it indicates that God thought enough of Jonah to put him in the conversation with the elite prophets and kings of Israel and Judah.  This is amazing because what we see in the book of Jonah looks nothing like “the servant of the Lord.”  Indeed, those who call Jonah “the reluctant prophet” and doing Jonah a great kindness – he was flat out the rebellious prophet.  And yet, the defining title the Scripture give to Jonah are God’s “servant.”

And so, already, we see some of the problems this little book presents – the description of the main character does not fit the little biographical information we have of him elsewhere in Scripture.  Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing contradictory between Jonah and 2 Kings 14, just paradox and intrigue.  It indicates the desire of the Biblical authors to dig deep to find the answers to these types of questions.

Details of Nineveh

The next problem that we see in the book of Jonah is the description of the city of Nineveh.  It is repeatedly described as “the great city (Jn. 1:2),” it has a population of at least “120,000 people (Jn. 4:11),” it is “three days journey in breadth (Jn. 3:3),” and it was ruled by a “king (Jn. 3:6).”  All these details are very problematic for the city of Nineveh at the time of Jonah (roughly 775 B.C.).  At that time, while a well known city, it most likely was not large enough to need three days to traverse, it was not ruled by a “king” and it had not achieved a status of “greatness” in world history (it did, however, seem to have a population that would fit the “120,000” or so number we see in chapter 4).

Apologists have done a very good job of explaining these discrepancies, and if you are curious about the historical answers to them all, please check out the commentaries I list below.   However, the truth is, when you see these difficulties there are simply two reactions you can have: first is to dismiss the book as fiction (after all, a man does spend three days in the belly of a fish), or, second, you can dig deeper, preferably into the text of Scripture, to see if there are answers to these questions.

Here are some lines of thinking we will explore in this study.  First, what if “great” in the book of Jonah means more than size, reputation or strength, but also includes the idea of value, closeness to God, and is a literary marker for His sovereign rule.  Then, the historical size and reputation of the city is of less importance.  What if the message of the book of Jonah has less to do with historical Nineveh, and more to do with prophetic Israel – in other words, what if the purpose of the book is connected to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12?  Then, seeing a ruler, whom our author gives the title “king,” bowing before the “word of the Lord” (Jn. 3:6) takes on entirely different meaning.  What if “three days” in Nineveh is being paralleled to “three days” in a fish where in one location a sinful prophet is rescued, in the other a sinful city is rescued?  Then “three days” takes on a different meaning.  There are problems with these explanations, but we’ll deal with them when we handle the text of Jonah.  For now, it is just something for us to ponder.

Who Repents and to Whom?

The next problem of the book is the issue of Gentile repentance.  Simply the fact that Yahweh sends a Jewish prophet to a Gentile city if very problematic for the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.  The fact that the Gentile city repents is even more problematic.  In fact, not only does the Gentile city repent, but the do the works found in the Law (Jn. 3:7-9)!

There have been many questions raised about Nineveh’s repentance.  How did they know what to do?  What god were they repenting to, Yahweh or their own?  How could they have repented when Jonah’s sermon contained no details about God?  These are good questions that we will answer in our study.  For now, let me just suggest that the speed and accuracy in which they repented is meant by the author as a judgment on Israel for their lack of repentance in spite of hundreds of years of prophets.

However, the most difficult repentance to account for is actually that of the sailors who throw Jonah overboard.  Why?  Because these Gentile sailors actually pray to, repent, offer sacrifices, and are saved by Yahweh – the covenant God of Israel.  Even the divine, covenant name is used in the description of their repentance, “Then the men feared the LORD (Yahweh) greatly, and they offered sacrifices to the LORD (Yahweh) and made vows (Jn. 1:16).”  Why and how could Gentiles be repenting to a God who had only revealed Himself fully (in the use of His name) to His covenant people Israel?

The Fish

Of course the most famous problem of all – the fish.  Much ink has been spilt by apologist explaining how Jonah could have survived in the belly of a fish for three days.  Much ink has also been spilt to explain how this proves the story is simply metaphor, parable, or fiction.  For what its worth, I think that ink on both sides of these two arguments has simply been wasted.   What if Jonah actually died inside a real, true, historical fish, and God resurrected him in order to complete the mission he was sent to fulfill?  Two evidences for this to wet your appetite.  First, Jonah says he descended to “the belly of Sheol (Jn. 2:2),” which is the place of death.  Second, Jesus uses this account of the picture of His death, burial, and resurrection.  Does the sign of Jonah not become more powerful if Jesus was talking about an actual death and resurrection?

Perhaps the best advice with regards to the fish is that of pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church in Seattle Wa. when he was preaching through this book.  “Don’t let the fish steal the story!”  Driscoll is right.  After all, the fish is only mentioned three times, and only 25 percent of the book involves the fish.  Thus, the primary issue of meaning is probably found in the rest of the story.

The Psalm

The Psalm Jonah prays in the middle of the fish is also very difficult to handle.  Unfortunately, it is often bypassed and overlooked when the book is preached.  The reality is, the strongest connections to Messianic prophecy are found in this Psalm – which might have more to do with why Jonah was considered a prophet than his troubled journey to Nineveh.  It also might reveal some of the irony on why this book is read every year by Jews at the feast of Atonement.  But we’ll explore all this later.

The Beginning and End

The last difficulty I will handle is the way the book begins and the way the book ends.  No doubt, the book ends with a very awkward statement – “also much cattle?”  However, the commentator Page also notes that the book begins as if “we are reading the continuation of an account already underway” (NAC, p.223).”  Both give the impression that Jonah is the part of a greater whole.  While there are many explanations to why this phenomenon is in the book, I’ll simply suggest that perhaps Jonah is meant to be read as part of the whole book of the Twelve Prophets.  In other words, while the book can stand alone in its message and meaning, it is meant to fit into the overall message and meaning of the Minor Prophets.  Thus, it’s beginning and its ending hints that it is connected to a larger message.

Closing Thoughts

In addition to a plethora of Hebrew grammar guides, dictionaries, and lexicons, I will be using four commentaries on the book of Jonah in this study.  They are listed below:

Jonah, The Anchor Bible Commentary, by Jack Sasson, published by Doubleday, 1990.  This is considered by most scholars to be the best commentary on the book of Jonah, and by all accounts they are right.  However, it is a VERY technical commentary and a knowledge of Hebrew is almost essential in order to be able to read the book.  Also, Sasson is not a mainstream evangelical, so while his analysis of the text is the best out there, his final conclusions at times can be suspect.  In our study I will cite this commentary either as “Sasson + page number” or “ABC + page number.”

Minor Prophets I, New International Biblical Commentary, by Elizabeth Achtemeier, published by Hendrickson, 1996.  While not nearly as technical as Sasson, Achtemeir’s commentary is surprisingly insightful and very easy to read.  She, like Sasson, is not an evangelical, so I disagree with some of her conclusions.  However, the strength of this commentary is she allows the literature of Jonah to tell the story, and thus lead to the meaning.  Since she discounts the historical accuracy of the book, she does not let apologetics get in the way of meaning (a weakness of current evangelicalism).  I will cite this commentary either as “Achtemeier + page number” or “NIBC + page number”.

Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, The New American Commentary, by Billy Smith and Frank Page, published by Broadman and Holman.  This is basically your mainstream, evangelical commentary of Jonah.  It is good in that is defends the historical accuracy and witness of the text, answers apologetic questions, and gives a God-centered message of the book.  Its weakness is that in an effort to prove the story true, it often overlooks the details and messages of the text.  However, if you have questions ABOUT Jonah (not necessarily about the meaning of Jonah), it is very good.  I will cite this commentary as either “Page + page number” or, as above, “NAC + page number.”

Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, by David W. Baker, Desmond Alexander, and Bruce Watke.  After Sasson, this is proving to be the best commentary on the book of Jonah I am reading.  It is evangelical in theology, but it also handles the Hebrew text well and gives practical insights to the book.  If you could just buy one commentary on the book of Jonah, buy this one (although rumor has it that it is going out of print).  I will cite this commentary as either “Alexander + page number” or “TOTC + page number.”

I sincerely hope you enjoy our study of the fascinating book.


Jeremy Gwaltney


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