the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers Ellicott's Commentary
by Charles John Ellicott
THE REV. ARCHDEACON AGLEN, M. A.
THE Book of Jonah occupies a position unique in the Bible. Classed among the prophetical books, it has no single point in common with them. Its one prediction of the overthrow of Nineveh differs entirely from the judgments announced by Nahum against the same power, by Isaiah and others against Moab, or Philistia, or Babylon. In these, according to the true prophetic spirit, ruin is connected immediately with sin as an inevitable consequence. We have pictures of moral corruption, and of the social and political convulsions that must necessarily, in the course of God’s providence, follow. In Jonah’s one utterance we have simply a prediction of a coming overthrow, with a date precisely stated in a manner quite foreign to the ordinary prophetic style. In the body of prophecy, therefore, the book has no proper standing. As a narrative in one of the historical books, the story of Jonah’s mission would have been in place. Indeed, it appears as if it were a fragment from a series of narratives of prophetic acts, similar to those incorporated in the Books of Kings about Elijah and Elisha.
This displacement from its true position is no doubt due to the opinion of the collectors of the canon as to the authorship of the book. They assumed that Jonah himself wrote it. This assumption is nowhere made in the narrative itself, though the use of the third person must not be taken as conclusive against it.
That the prophet is identical with the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25, the statement of his parentage, “son of Amittai,” leaves no doubt. A native of Gath-hepher, of the tribe of Zebulun, Jonah the son of Amittai prophesied at the commencement of the reign of Jeroboam II., i.e., in the latter part of the ninth century B.C. His prophecies, we gather from the same passage, had reference to the victories of Jeroboam. Beyond this we know nothing of him till he abruptly bursts on us as the prophet commissioned to announce the destruction of Nineveh. A passing allusion in the Book of Tobit (Tob. 14:4), which refers to the prediction as still waiting fulfilment, and evidently knows nothing of its sequel; and the well-known references in the New Testament (Matthew 12:40; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:30), exhaust all that Scripture has to tell us about Jonah and his mission. Tradition, fastening on the meaning of the name Amittai (’çmet, “truth”) identified him with the son of the widow of Sarepta, because, on receiving him back alive, she knew that the prophet’s word was “truth.” A tomb at Gath-hepher, mentioned by Jerome, was also assigned to Jonah by tradition.
The most various opinions have prevailed as to the nature of the book. It has been accepted as literal history, it has been described as pure fiction. Some have called it a parable, others an allegory, others a poetical myth, others a dream; others again, while recognising an historical basis, hold that the narrative has been enlarged and embellished to suit the purposes of the unknown author. It is not within the scope of this Commentary to discuss these various modes of treatment, and happily the lessons of the book are entirely independent of the views as to its character. Whether history or parable, it conveys in the most striking way some of the profoundest truths of religion, truths which, if to be discovered at all elsewhere in the Old Testament, are certainly nowhere else pronounced with such firmness and power. The story of the threefold deliverance—of the vessel when relieved of its burden of guilt—of the prophet, in whom, however reluctant, the Divine purpose had found its fitting instrument—of the doomed city, saved, in spite of its doom, by repentance—this story does not lose its impressiveness even if read as the work of imagination trying to explain the mysterious dealings of God. Many minds, not sceptical of a basis of miracle, yet find a difficulty in the concentration of so much of the marvellous round one figure and one brief incident. But the figure is none the less striking, the character none the less instructive, if it is the creation of fiction; and the incident, even if unhistorical, carries a wealth of profound spiritual truth. The tradition mentioned above connecting Jonah with Sarepta, however fanciful, is singularly appropriate, since in the book bearing the prophet’s name we come upon a clear anticipation of so much of the teaching of Him who commended the faith of the Sidonian woman, and rebuked the exclusiveness of the disciples. That the heathen world might look to the great God for blessings which the favoured race was rejecting or despising, that others beside Israelites had a claim on the justice and mercy of Jehovah, that repentance and prayer could be effectual outside the Mosaic system—these lessons, which even Christ’s disciples were slow to learn, are the prominent lessons of this book. Others less obvious are touched on in the notes. The power and universality of their application have been well brought out by Dean Stanley, who thus sums them up. “In the popular traditions of East and West, Jonah’s name alone has survived the lesser prophets of the Jewish Church. It still lives, not only in many a Mussulman tomb along the coasts and hills of Syria, but in the thoughts and devotions of Christendom. The marvellous escape from the deep, through a single passing allusion in the Gospel history, was made an emblem of the deliverance of Christ Himself from the jaws of death and the grave. The great Christian doctrine of the boundless power of human repentance received its chief illustration from the repentance of the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonah. There is hardly a figure from the Old Testament which the early Christians in the Catacombs so often took as their consolation in persecution, as the deliverance of Jonah on the sea-shore, and his naked form stretched out in the burning sun beneath the sheltering gourd. But these all conspire, with the story itself, in proclaiming that still wider lesson of which I have spoken. It is the rare protest of theology against the excess of theology; it is the faithful delineation, through all its various states, of the dark, sinister, selfish side of even great religious teachers. It is the grand Biblical appeal to the common instincts of humanity, and to the universal love of God, against the narrow dogmatism of sectarian polemics. There has never been ‘a generation’ which has not needed the majestic revelation of sternness and charity, each bestowed where most deserved, and where least expected, in the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’” (Stanley, J. C. ii. 356, 357).
 Two classical myths have been by various critics brought into connection with the story of Jonah, that of Hesione, who was chained to a rock as food for a sea-monster, and was delivered by Hercules, and that of Andromeda saved by Perseus from a similar fate. The latter is locally connected with Joppa. A Babylonian myth, in which the name Oannes, supposed to be cognate with Jonah, occurs, has also been adduced.
 The references of our Lord to Jonah no more attest its literal truth, than his allusion to the Psalms as David’s settles the authorship of the whole of the Psalter. It would be strange if He who chose the parabolic method to convey the highest truths of His Kingdom, should have hesitated to enforce them by reference to writings of the same kind, even supposing we are not right in judging of His knowledge on points of literary criticism as limited. The argument of Keil and others, that Jonah could not have been adduced as a type of Christ unless his history is actual fact, is only valid when we have restricted the meaning of the word type to suit the argument. And the New Testament does not represent Jonah as a type, but as a sign.
If the question of the nature of the narrative may be set aside as of secondary importance, that of authorship and date must be given up from want of sufficient data. The linguistic argument may be used as strongly for the North Palestinian origin of the author, as for his late date. He was evidently familiar, beyond most scriptural writers, with the manners and language of the maritime cities of Phœnicia, and apparently knew more of the appearance of Nineveh and its customs than mere hearsay was likely to give. The repentance of the city, and its consequent salvation from a threatened overthrow, have, as yet, found no confirmation from profane history. The other references to Nineveh in the Bible are apparently inconsistent with them. Prophets later than Jonah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, continue to denounce the idolatries of the Assyrians, and predict their punishment. They give no hint of any previous sudden conversion. The only allusion to Jonah in writings anterior to Christianity (Tobit, see above) is ignorant, as we have seen, of any repentance, a fact which makes the existence of the book of Jonah before the probable composition of the book of Tobit, about B.C. 180, extremely doubtful.
 Unless we may connect the occurrence with the incursion of the Scyths mentioned by Herodotus (I. 103) which appears to have interfered with the prosecution of the siege of Nineveh by Cyaxares, and saved it for some twenty or twenty-five years. This historical fact may have been used by the author, like the name of Jonah himself, as a basis on which to found his story.
The various theories and counter theories that have been built upon this slender evidence, leave the book with the description that has happily been given of it, “this book of unknown authorship, of unknown date, of disputed meaning, but of surpassing interest.”
The division into chapters, in the Authorised Version, gives the best arrangement of the contents of the book. Its language is prose, but with sparks of poetic feeling showing in words and expressions, as well as in the hymn (Jonah 2:0), which, though modelled on, and in a great degree dependent, both in thought and style, on the Psalter, is yet evidently the work of an original mind.