Studies in the Story of Jonah—Lesson 1
by Reta Halteman Finger
“Of course the story of Jonah is a true story. It can’t just be a parable because Jonah’s father is named. Besides, I read a story once about a man who was swallowed by a fish and came out alive. It can happen.” The opinion is voiced with sincerity and conviction.
“But is the fish the main idea?” I ask my students. “What is the point of this story?”
“That you can’t run away from God,” another self-confident youngster announces.
This is my class of first-year students at Messiah College, and this is their first lesson in their first required course—Encountering the Bible. We start with the short stories of Jonah and Ruth in the Old Testament. They are fun to read because they are narratives, with characters and plots. Unlike long history books of Kings and Chronicles, or the puzzling poetic oracles of other prophets, Jonah is short and familiar. Everyone knows Jonah from their picture Bible storybooks and Sunday school lessons—even though the “whale” usually dominates the drama!
Why study the story of Jonah in a feminist context? All the human characters are men! Nevertheless, we’ll find more feminine aspects than at first glance. Besides, Jonah himself is anything but heroic. He’s not even called a prophet, and he manages to get just about everything wrong.
Going deeper—a literary analysis of Jonah 1:1-17
As we begin with the first two paragraphs, verses 1-3 and 4-6, I recommend printing out the text so you can mark it up and create your own headings. For example, we might call the first paragraph, “Jonah flees from God,” and the second, “God pursues Jonah.”
Watch for repetition of key words or ideas, such as flee from the presence of the Lord. Three cities are mentioned: Nineveh, Tarshish (3 times), and Joppa. God wants Jonah to go east to Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. But Jonah flees toward Tarshish, a city in the far west, where Yahweh is not known. At the time, Joppa is Israel’s only seaport. In verses 1-6, note how often Jonah goes down—first to Joppa, then down into the hold of the ship, and then lies down. All his actions are away from Yahweh (see also v 10).
But by verses 4-6, Yahweh has caught up with his runaway prophet. What three terms emphasize the severity of the storm? How pervasive is the word “god”? What is the worldview of ancient people concerning cause and effect in nature?
In the third paragraph (vv 7-10), the sailors use an ancient method to learn the will of the gods—casting lots by throwing dice. It works—the lot falls on Jonah. The sailors are aghast. “What terrible thing have you done that you flee from the presence of your god?” (v 10). Jonah has good theology in verse 9. He worships Yahweh, who made the sea and land. But ironically he has gone down to the sea to flee from Yahweh!
In verses 11-16, compare the behavior of the sailors with what you have seen of Jonah so far. Who is more pious and godly? Who fears shedding innocent blood? Who respects the Hebrew God more? After throwing Jonah overboard, the sea immediately calms, and the sailors offer a sacrifice and vows to the Hebrew God (v 16). An unintended conversion!
When Jonah asked to be thrown overboard in order for the storm to abate (v 12), did he fear drowning? The Hebrews, lacking good harbors, were generally afraid of the sea and Leviathan, the “dragon of the sea,” (mentioned in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah). Perhaps Jonah fears that Yahweh, who made the sea, will prepare for him a fate worse than death. We don’t have long to wait; Yahweh prepares a fish to swallow and entomb Jonah for three days and nights, the traditional time it takes to reach the underworld.
Although we find no women in this story thus far, the Hebrew word for ship is feminine and has a will of her own: she threatens to break apart (v 4). Jonah goes down into “her hold” as into a womb, and falls asleep. (The actual Hebrew term is “the innermost parts of the ship.”) Later, he ends up in the fish’s belly (v 17), which comes from the same Hebrew root as womb. Jonah is both protected and entrapped by these female images.
What’s so scary about Nineveh?
Why was Jonah so determined to run away? What did the original Israelite audiences understand that is not made explicit in the story? Of all the empires surrounding Israel, the Assyrians, with their capital in Nineveh, were the most brutal. In 722-21 BCE, they had conquered the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom and carried off many Israelites, replacing them with other ethnic groups. The prophet Amos described how Assyrians would herd prisoners into exile by roping them together with fishhooks through their noses (Amos 4:2). The last thing Jonah wanted to do was preach to these cruel people!
We will leave Jonah stewing (or being stewed) in the belly of the fish until the next lesson.
Questions for discussion and reflection:
1. If you knew this story before, did you learn anything new?
2. How would you classify this story—as a parable, a farce, historical fiction, or what?
3. If God called you to preach to people you consider enemies, who would they be? ISIS? Iran? White supremacists? Your nasty neighbors or co-workers?
View a satellite video of Jonah’s travels below or click here.