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Jan 10 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

A Brief Introduction to Jonah

The Book of Jonah

(This overview was printed and handed out as a supplement to the Bible study)

More than anything else, the book of Jonah is a story and the narrative becomes more fascinating the deeper we go into it. A few characteristics of this story include the following:

  • The protagonist (main character) is Jonah, but he is not necessarily a “hero”.
  • The antagonist (typically the bad guy or villain) is also Jonah. In other words, Jonah is his own worst enemy. There would have been no storm, no “great fish,” no worm or scorching east wind if not for his stubborn resistance to God’s will.
  • The plot in a story usually involves some kind of conflict. In this instance, the tension that moves the story forward is between God’s will for Jonah and Jonah’s will for God. Jonah was convinced that he knew what God should do, but was afraid of what he would do.

The Book of Jonah is a carefully constructed story

  • The story ends where it began, with “Nineveh, the great city.” This creates an envelope around the whole book, that lets us know the circle is complete even though it leaves us hanging at the end (1:2 & 4:11).
  • The story divides into two narratives that run parallel to each other 
    Part One (chapters 1-2): Jonah runs from God to avoid Nineveh 
    A great wind, a great storm and a great fish
    The sailors “called on their gods” and on Yahweh (1:5, 14)
    The concern of the captain and his crew, “not perish” (1:6)
    Jonah learned his lesson (2:8)
    Part Two (chapters 3-4): Jonah goes to Nineveh and argues with God
    The people of Nineveh “call on Yahweh” (3:8)
    The concern of the king and his people, “not perish” (3:9)
    A scorching wind and a dead plant (4:8)
    The lesson Jonah was supposed to learn (4:10-11)
  • Key words and phrases. We recognize key words in the way that they are emphasized in the text. The emphasis comes through repetition, being doubled (e.g., “feared a great fear,” being new or unusual expression, or in some way by drawing attention to their usage.
    Great, greatly
    Cast, throw, hurl
    Cry out (call)

We will discover more elements of the story’s structure as we go through it.

Questions regarding the point or purpose of this story 

Is it:

  • God’s sovereign power over elements and nations? (This seems to be taken for granted rather than appear as a theme)
  • The miracles–e.g., the great fish and Jonah’s survival?
  • The revelation that no one can run from God or dodge his will?
  • The eternal reliability of God’s self-revelation to Moses? (4:2)
  • God’s justice?
  • God’s compassion for all people?

What kind of story (genre) is the best fit for Jonah?

  • Historical?
  • Wisdom writing?
  • Prophetic?
  • Comedy? (The story certainly contains comic elements)
  • Ironic tale? (We will encounter irony in some of the scenes)
  • Satire?
  • Mashal or parable?
    The word mashal appears in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and is translated by a number of different words into English. The one idea that connects to these various meanings is that a comparison is being made. When mashal is a parable, its purpose was to illuminate or illustrate a truth, be thought provoking, or provide an insight. Some Rabbis’ taught that “before parables no one understood the Torah, but when Solomon and others created parables, then people understood” (quoted in Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 8).
    We cannot say the book of Jonah is a mashal, and one reason is because no other Old Testament book is entirely a parable. But neither is there any other book in the Bible quite like Jonah.

The book of Jonah is a prophetic message, delivered in narrative form. It is more concerned with the message God communicates through the story than with the details of a specific historical situation.

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