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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Jonah

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. The book is named after the main character, but I think the author was a sage at the royal court in Israel who heard Jonah give an account of the mission to King Jeroboam II and realized the theological implications!

B. Jonah's name means “dove” (BDB 402). This was a symbol of the nation of Israel:

1. used by David as a reference to God, Psalms 68:13

2. used by David as a reference to Israel, Psalms 74:19 (also Hosea 11:11)

3. used by Song of Songs as an affectionate metaphor, Song of Solomon 2:14; Song of Solomon 5:2; Song of Solomon 6:9

4. used by Hosea as a negative reference to Israel (northern tribes), Hosea 7:11

5. used by Isaiah as a reference to foreign nations that are seeking YHWH, Isaiah 60:8


A. This book is part of the “latter prophets” (Ecclesiasticus 49:10).

B. “The Twelve” is a grouping of minor prophets (Baba Bathra 14b):

1. they fit on one scroll, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel

2. they represent the twelve tribes or the symbolic number of organization

3. they reflect the traditional view of the book's chronology

C. The order of “the Twelve” or Minor Prophets has been linked by many scholars to a chronological sequence. However, there are problems with this view

1. The first six books are different between the MT and LXX.


2. Internal evidence puts Amos chronologically before Hosea.

3. The date for Joel is highly debated. I list him as an early post-exilic prophet along with Obadiah.

D. Jonah is read annually on the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), which made the book well known.


A. It is different from the rest of the Minor Prophets (it is mostly narrative). Except for Jonah 2:2-9 it is prose, which is a prayer in poetic form, and a brief prophecy in Jonah 3:4.

B. The genre of Jonah has been debated. Many scholars are uncomfortable with the miraculous, predictive, and theological aspects of the books. Therefore, there has been much speculation about its genre. Many others are surprised by the series of unusual events and ironic reversals!

1. allegory

2. Jewish Midrash

3. parable

4. typology

5. purposeful hyperbole (see note at Jonah 1:2, also see Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pp. 458-459)

6. historical narrative similar to the recorded lives of Elijah and Elisha in the books of I & 2 Kings

C. Jonah's name is rare in Hebrew as was his father's (i.e., Amittai, BDB 54). A man and father by these names are mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. He lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (783-743 B.C.). The Jews have always asserted the historical validity of Jonah (cf. III Macc. 6:8; Tobit 14:4,8; Josephus' Antiq. 9.10.2). Jesus referred to Jonah as an historical person, Matthew 12:39-40; Matthew 16:4 and Luke 11:29.

D. It is possible that Jonah, like Job, was written and/or expanded by a sage to teach a theological truth (i.e., God's love for all people, even pagans). Most prophetic books record the messages of the prophet, but in Jonah the only prophetic message is five words in Jonah 3:4.

E. Jonah is the most missionary book in the OT. The theme of the universal love of God for all humans was a radically new perspective (cf. Isaiah and Micah).


A. The author may be the main character. He is introduced in Jonah 1:1, like the other Minor Prophets. This is the traditional view.

B. Jonah and his father, Amittai, were rare Hebrew names; both occur in 2 Kings 14:25. He was a prophet from Gath-hepher in Jeroboam II's time (cf. Joshua 19:13), in the tribal area of Zebulon, three miles northeast of Nazareth.

C. It is possible that a Hebrew sage at the royal court of Israel took the life of a historical person and expanded it to present a theological truth (similar to the book of Job). Possibly Jonah was called by the king of Israel (Jeroboam II) to defend himself for preaching to Israel's enemy. Jonah was a royal northern prophet (cf. 2 Kings 14:25). This may explain why he seems so antagonistic to the Ninevites in the book. A sage may have heard his defense and seen the theological implications and expanded and recorded Jonah's experience (conversation with Dr. John Harris, ETBU, 1998).


A. If the author is Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25, then a date during the reign of Jeroboam II (783-743 B.C., see Appendix for dates) must be advocated.

B. Jonah is often said to have been written late, but this is usually based on

1. the rejection of predictive prophecy

2. the rejection of the supernatural elements of the book as historical

3. the assumption that it addresses post-exilic national pride and exclusivism


A. There are two dates in the history of Assyria that could be the occasion of the repentance of Nineveh:

1. a tendency toward monotheism (i.e., Nebo) during the reign of Adad-Nirari III (805-782 B.C.), the last strong ruler before Tiglath-pileser III took the throne in 745 B.C.)

2. a major plague in Assyria in the reign of Assurdan III (771-754 B.C.)

B. There are two periods in Jewish history that especially needed Jonah's message:

1. an eighth century date, Israel needed Jonah's call to repent

2. a post-exilic date, Israel needed to recognize her arrogance and national pride


A. The chapter divisions show the progression of the plot.

B. Brief Outline (basically in two parts, chapters 1,2 and 3,4)

1 John 1:0 - God's will rejected and replaced by Jonah's will. God wins!

2 John 1:2 - Jonah repents (poem written in past tense and depicts worship in the temple in Jerusalem).

3 John 1:3 - God's will received; Nineveh repents.

4. Jonah 4:0 - God's character revealed in contrast to Jonah's attitude and action.


A. This book clearly demonstrates God's power and sovereignty over nature, nations, and revelation. God has a freedom to act even beyond His covenant with Israel!

B. In this book the Gentiles (sailors, Ninevites) are religious and seek God, while the Hebrew prophet is rebellious and flees from God.

C. God's (the main character of the book, as in all OT books) love for all mankind is seen clearly in Jonah 3:10 and Jonah 4:2, Jonah 4:11. God not only loves humans, but also the animals, Jonah 4:1. It also demonstrates the power of repentance and faith in YHWH (and His word and prophet).

D. The hated, cruel Assyrians are accepted by YHWH on the basis of their repentance and faith in Him, Jonah 3:5-9. They are not required to become Jews (cf. Acts 15:0).

E. Jonah symbolizes God's call to Israel to be a kingdom of priests to the world (cf. Genesis 12:3; Exodus 19:4-6). Israel became nationalistic, exclusivistic, and prideful instead of evangelistic and redemptive (cf. parable of the Good Samaritan; Luke 10:25-37).

F. In many ways this book parallels the themes of Jesus' parable about the two sons in Luke 15:11-32, with Jonah (Israel) being the older brother.

G. Other theories of purpose are

1. the power of repentance (read at Yom Kippur, and see Matthew 12:41)

2. how justice (role of prophet) and mercy (character of God) meet

3. the freedom of a just God to act in mercy

4. contrast of God's love and Jewish nationalism

5. God's forgiveness of one generation does not protect other generations

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