As indicated previously, the story of Jonah is not about how he survived the ordeal of getting swallowed by a fish. The title “Jonah and the Whale,” which is often put on children’s books and even to some sermon titles, is one of the biggest misnomers of Scripture. Not only was the fish not a whale at all, but the fish is only mentioned in three verses out of the entire book (1:17; 2:1, 10)! The book of Jonah is not a fish story.[ref][contentblock id=16 img=html.png]III:740.[/ref]
But what is the book about? In his commentary on Jonah, Jack Sasson includes numerous quotes from various scholars and Bible teachers about the theme and purpose of Jonah, showing that there is very little consensus on the question.[ref][contentblock id=18 img=html.png]323-325.[/ref] The theories include such ideas as: Jonah being a prophetical allegory of the resurrection of Jesus; God’s plan of salvation for the whole world: the post-conversion experience of a man who had a nervous breakdown; the emptiness of a life lived apart from God; and “the revalorization of some archaic and universally distributed symbols of mythico-ritual scenarios.”[ref]This is the view of Mircea Eliade. See [contentblock id=18 img=html.png]325[/ref] (Yes, feel free to roll your eyes at that last one.)
Thankfully, we do not have to pick one purpose for Jonah, but can focus instead on prominent themes that run throughout the book. Here are a few:
Although the book of Jonah is not about world missions, the theme of God’s mission to the world is definitely present in the book. Certainly, God desired Jonah to proclaim a message to Nineveh in the hopes that they would turn from their wicked ways. God does not desire that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Tim 2:4). God’s mission to the Gentiles is definitely a theme within the book.[ref][contentblock id=4 img=html.png]85; [contentblock id=11 img=html.png]1462.[/ref]
More than that, the mission of God is not just a theme in the book of Jonah; I will argue in the commentary that follows that the mission of God is the central theme. But we will see that God’s mission is not primarily directed toward Nineveh as often taught, but in a different direction altogether. To say much more at this point would be to spoil the story.
Though the mission of God is the main theme within Jonah, there are numerous other themes as well that weave their way through this masterful story.
The Role of Israel.
A second common theme that emerges from the book of Jonah concerns the role of Israel among the nations of the world. The Israelites (whether we are discussing the Hebrew people as a whole, Northern Israel, or Southern Judah) viewed themselves as having a special place in God’s plan for the world. They were God’s chosen nation, a royal priesthood, a called-out people of God. But what did this mean? From numerous stories and prophetic accounts in Scripture, it appears that most Israelites seemed to believe that their role as God’s Chosen People made them better than other nations, or at least more blessed and better suited to serve and honor God. They developed a religious nationalist exceptionalism which caused them to expect mercy and blessing from God for themselves while seeking judgment and condemnation from God for their enemies. They wanted God all to themselves, and wanted only themselves for God. The experiences of Jonah in this book challenge such a mindset, and just as Jonah is challenged to reconsider how he views God and how God views other nations, so also the reader is challenged to rethink their own view of God and why He called Israel out from among the nations. Was it because He loves only them, or is there another explanation?
The Character of God.
Related to the theme of the role of Israel is the theme of the character and nature of God. “It is the greatness of Israel’s God that is the burden of the book.”[ref][contentblock id=5 img=html.png]192.[/ref] He is portrayed as the God who made land and sea, and who controls the weather and sea creatures. He is also the God who delivers and forgives those who repent, but requires obedience from His people.
In some ways, God is even portrayed as a deity who is willing to “toy with mortals.”[ref][contentblock id=18 img=html.png]350.[/ref] He brings terror and a near-death experience upon the sailors, while the guilty partly sleeps below deck. After He sends a plant to give shade and joy to Jonah, He immediately kills the plant and then asks Jonah, “Why are you angry?” For anyone who has ever felt perplexed at God’s behavior, the book of Jonah will ask your questions for you. Chief among them is, “What kind of God is this? What is God like?”[ref]Cf. [contentblock id=24 img=html.png]443.[/ref]
At numerous points in the story, various characters question God’s character. Their questions are never explicitly stated, but are implied in the questions of the ship captain and sailors (1:6-11) and the call to repentance by the king of Nineveh (3:7-9). Neither group knows much of anything about the God whom Jonah proclaims, so their statements can be read as questions concerning the nature and character of this God whom Jonah serves. Near the end of the book, Jonah states what he believes to be the character of God, and says that it is because of what he knows about God that led him to behave the way he did (4:2). In the end, the book of Jonah contains some of the “clearest and most beautiful expressions” about the nature and character of God in the entire Old Testament[ref][contentblock id=3 img=html.png]3.[/ref] and reveals that God “can never be bound by human misconceptions” of His character, will, or purpose.[ref][contentblock id=21 img=html.png]1063[/ref]
The Nature of Evil.
A major theme in Jonah is the question of evil. What is evil? Can God do evil? Who defines evil? If something is evil for one person, is it also evil for someone else? If someone perceives an action as evil, and God is the one doing it, is it actually evil? (cf. 1:2, 7-8; 3:7-8, 10; 4:1-3, 6).
Some Hebrew scholars will criticize my translation of “evil” (Heb., raa) in Jonah, as the word has a wide variety of meanings in the Hebrew language.[ref]See the discussion of this word in [contentblock id=24 img=html.png]437. See my comments on “evil” in 1:2 for a brief critique of Stuart’s position.[/ref] While I am aware of the wide variety of meanings for the word, I have chosen to consistently translate it as “evil” so that the English-speaking students of Jonah can see the frequent usage of this term and see for themselves the ongoing debate about the nature of evil in the book.
The Conditions of Repentance.
In close connection with the nature of evil is the biblical concept of repentance. The book of Jonah raises questions about whether or not God can repent, and what the requirements and results are for genuine human repentance. At the end of the book, God wants Jonah to learn that “whether people repent from sin is not the only criterion that God evaluates when granting forgiveness.”[contentblock id=18 img=html.png]351 God refuses to tell Jonah what causes Him to grant mercy, and in fact, “deliberately trivializes the causes that swayed him to pardon Nineveh’s crime.”[ref][/ref][contentblock id=18 img=html.png]351 Many churches and theological systems today have much to learn from the book of Jonah about the nature, conditions, and consequences of repentance.
Due to what the book teaches about repentance, the book of Jonah, along with the final verses from Micah, are traditionally read on the Day of Atonement, which is observed as a day of repentance for observant Jews.[ref]Cf. [contentblock id=4 img=html.png]81.[/ref]
The book of Jonah contains prophecy which does not come true. Or does it? Scholars and theologians have debated whether or not the prophetic word of Jonah came true. Jonah himself would have probably argued that his prophecy was not fulfilled.[ref][contentblock id=5 img=html.png]175. See also [contentblock id=4 img=html.png]84.[/ref] Does this then make him a false prophet? Some might say “Yes,” but interestingly, God weighs in on the subject and says “No.” It appears that what matters most in prophecy is not necessarily what the prophet meant, but what God meant when He told the prophet what to say. Such an understanding of prophecy has far-reaching implications for how the rest of the prophecies in Scripture are interpreted and understood.
Furthermore, the book of Jonah seems to indicate that there is an inherent conditional element behind all prophecies, even if not explicitly stated. The message of Jonah to the people of Nineveh contained no conditional statement. That is, he did not preach that Nineveh would be overturned unless they repented. But nevertheless, when Nineveh did repent, God turned back from the destruction He has planned to bring upon the city. As such, it appears that one purpose of the book of Jonah is to show the inherent conditional nature of all prophetic speech.