The Book of Jonah

Do you know the book of Jonah? Everyone knows the story, right? Jonah was a disobedient prophet who rejected his divine commission, tried to run away, was cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish, rescued in a marvelous manner, and returned to his starting point. Lots of people know this much of the story. But that is the briefest of summaries of just the first chapter. The summary above does not include a lot of information and perspective from the beginning verses. It ends up missing the point and trajectory of the first chapter and the whole book itself. There are three more chapters after the great fish and the subsequent rescue – and a lot more to know about the Book of Jonah.

Here is a summary of what follows. Having been returned to the starting point, Jonah obeys the LORD and goes to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s ancient enemy. The Ninevites listen to the prophet’s message of doom (which in Hebrew is only 5 words long) and repent immediately. All, from king to lowliest subject, humble themselves in sackcloth and ashes. Seeing their repentance, God does not carry out the punishment planned for them. At this, Jonah complains, angrily because the Lord spares them. The end. Again, so summary in nature that I would suggest it misses all the important points.

So…do you know the Book of Jonah? Some might have said “yes” because they knew the outline of the first chapter but might be a bit surprised to know there is more to the story.  Others knowing the story continued might have just realized that the above summary encapsulated a good deal of what they knew. Perhaps they are starting to wonder about the details of what else is in next three chapters. Once in a while when asked about Chapter 4, there can be a look of “really, I didn’t know that was part of the story.” After all my years of leading Bible Studies, I am not too surprised. I think modern-day Christians have a preference for the New Testament. And that is awesome. I think the author of the Letter to the Hebrews might have explained this preference when he wrote:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Perhaps people think “why read the ‘partial and various’ when we can go directly to the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s final word.” And so, our inclination is to give preference to the New Testament. Perhaps we will look to the books of the prophets when Jesus references them (e.g., Luke 4:18 when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2). It seems to me we are also interested in the narrative stories of Abraham, Moses, and King David – but willing to skip lots of details to focus on the action/adventure aspect of the storyline. But dive into the Books of the Prophets Nahum or Habakkuk? Not so much.

I think some of our exposure to many books of the Old Testament come from reading children’s Bible stories to our kids and watching video and online media of those same stories. And I think that is great and the material is appropriate for children. When one reaches adulthood, do we move on to other media more attuned and directed to our adult experience and sensibilities? Or was the last encounter with a book of the Old Testament back in children’s media.

Take a moment and use your browser, e.g., Google Image Search, and enter “Book of Jonah.” 90% of the returned images will have a whale – from children’s books to Scripture commentaries. While the whole “whale thing” makes for creative imagining, it really does not have much to do with the trajectory of the story. We just don’t seem to know a whole lot about the book.

The Book of Jonah, as a whole, does not really come into play in our Catholic lectionary cycle. Jonah makes a brief appearance in Year B on the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time. In odd numbered years (e.g., 2021), it appears several time in weekday Masses during the 27th week of Ordinary Time – in fact, it gets pretty complete coverage, all thing considered. So, unless you are someone who attends daily Mass or follows the daily readings, I am going to go out on a limb and say your adult understanding of the Book of Jonah was shaped by “Veggie Tales” videos and children’s books (one or two of which stop with the details of Chapter 3 and leave Chapter 4 out altogether!) This is a challenge, not only for Jonah, but for many stories of the Old Testament. And most of these stories are watered down and reduced to a bland, generic moral imperative of “be nice.” This is especially true of the Book of Jonah.

Do you know the Book of Jonah? At a deeper level some might say “yes” because they have read the book in its entirety and are familiar with the narrative and its details. Does the “yes” include more detailed discussion of the book in Bible Study (group or individual)? And if it does include a more thorough reading, has the reader reached a consensus of the meaning of the book for (a) the original hearers of the account, and more importantly, (b) the meaning for our lives?

“Do you know the Book of Jonah?”… interesting question. Do I know the Book of Jonah? I am working on it. I have moved (I hope!!) a lot closer to understanding the book as a framework by which to view and reflect upon my life.

In this series of posts (that will follow) I hope to move you, the reader (and myself), to understand Jonah as an amazing book that can speak to the life of 21st century readers – that can speak to your life!

In the meantime, take some time and read the Book of Jonah. It is pretty short; should take less than 15 minutes. And then go back and make notes and asks yourself questions. Just in the first three verses you might wonder about his name, “Jonah, son of Amittai” – especially in Scripture, names have meanings.  What makes Nineveh so wicked? Where is Tarshish? Where is Joppa? Is that the same as the modern Israeli city? Why is Jonah fleeing “away from the Lord”?

So, stay, tuned. The next couple of posts will be background materials before we get into the study of the text itself…so hang in there!

4 thoughts on “The Book of Jonah

  1. Many know Mosul and would be surprised it’s where Jonah watched “Veggie Tales.” I’m currently reading Karl Keating and St John Paul II describe the story of Jonah as didactic fiction. Well perhaps JPII actually said poetic literature and not strictly historical but uses (fictional elements) to communicate a message to the reader.

    • Hey Wayne – good to “see” you online. Today’s installment of “Jonah” delves into the the literary features of the book. …in fact I think it posted already. Have a spiritual and fruitful Lent. God bless.

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