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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. The man Jonah. Jonah (‘dove’) is found in the Bible as the name of only one person, the Israelitish prophet of 2 Kings 14:25 and the Book of Jonah. All that is really known about him is found in those two sources. According to both, he was the son of Amittai (LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] A mathi ), and the former connects him with Gath-hepher , a place named in Joshua 19:13 , in the territory of Zebulun, now probably represented by el-Meshhed , 2½ miles to the E. of Sepphoris, and not far from Kefr Kennâ and Nazareth, in the neighbourhood of which is a grave of Nebi Yûnus or Yûnis. If this identification is right, Jonah was not only Israelitish in the narrower sense, but Galiæan. He seems to have lived and worked in the latter part of the 9th cent. b.c. or in the earlier part of the 8th. His one prediction, recorded in Kings, of the extension of the kingdom of Samaria from the Orontes to the Dead Sea, is said to have been fulfilled in the reign of Jeroboam ii. (b.c. 790 to 749 or 782 741). It has generally been inferred that the prediction was also uttered in that reign, but the inference is uncertain. It may have been delivered under Jehoash (b.c. 802 790 or 798 782), or even under Jehoahaz (815 802 or 798). Still, Jonah may be reasonably regarded as to some extent a contemporary of Jeroboam ii. There is no mention in Kings of any connexion of Jonah with Assyria, but it is quite possible that the memory of a visit to Nineveh was preserved by tradition or in some lost historical work. From b.c. 782 745, Assyria was comparatively weak, and was governed by relatively insignificant kings.

That the Jonah of Kings is identical with the Jonah of the book was questioned by Winckler in 1900, but the objection was withdrawn in 1903. The identification of Jonah with the son of the widow of Zarephath, which is mentioned by Jerome, and other assertions of Jewish origin, have no historical value.

2. Book of Jonah

(1) Analysis

Jonah, the son of Amittai, is commanded by Jahweh to go to Nineveh and announce there impending judgment (Jonah 1:1 f.). For a reason not mentioned until near the end of the book ( Jonah 4:2 f.) the fear that Jahweh will repent of His purpose, and spare the Ninevites he refuses to obey, and in order to escape from. Jahweh’s immediate jurisdiction goes down to Joppa, and books himself in a ship manned by heathen, almost certainly PhÅ“nicians, for Tarshish , probably the PhÅ“nician colony in the S. W. of Spain, called by the Greeks Tartessus , and now represented by Cadiz and the country round ( Jonah 1:3 f.). When a violent storm comes on, and the prayers of the mariners to their gods are of no avail, they conclude that there is some one on board who has offended some deity, and cast lots to discover the culprit. The lot falls on Jonah ( Jonah 1:4-7 ), who acknowledges his guilt and advises them to cast him overboard ( Jonah 1:8-12 ). After making futile efforts to bring the vessel to land ( Jonah 1:13 ), the sailors reluctantly cast him into the sea, with the result that the storm at once subsides and the wondering heathen adore the God of the Hebrews ( Jonah 1:14-16 ). Jonah is swallowed by a fish appointed for the purpose by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , and remains in its belly 3 days and 3 nights ( Jonah 1:17 ), during which time he prays ( Jonah 2:1 ). His prayer, which fills the greater part of the chapter, is rather a psalm of praise ( Jonah 2:2-9 ). He is then cast by the fish on the land at a place not specified ( Jonah 2:10 ), is commanded to discharge the neglected duty, goes to Nineveh and delivers his message over a third of the city ( Jonah 3:1-4 ). King and people repent, and show their repentance in a public fast (which includes even the domestic animals), and pray ( Jonah 3:5-9 ). Their penitence and prayer are accepted, to the prophet’s disgust ( Jonah 3:10 to Jonah 4:4 ). As he sulks in a booth outside the city, waiting to see the issue, a remarkable series of experiences is arranged for his instruction ( Jonah 4:5-8 ): the shooting up of a castor-oil plant (or, as some think, a bottle-gourd) appointed by Jahweh, which delights him by its welcome shade; the killing of the plant by a worm, also appointed by Jahweh; and the springing up of a hot wind which also blows by Divine appointment, so that the now unshaded prophet is so tormented by the heat, that, like Elijah ( 1 Kings 19:4 ), he longs for death. When he still sulks, it is pointed out to him that if he, a man, cares for the plant which sprang up and perished so quickly, and which was in no way the product of his toil, how much more must God care for the great city, which has in it so many thousands of little children and much cattle ( Jonah 4:9-11 ).

(2) Integrity . Most recent critics ascribe 1, Jonah 2:1-10; Jonah 2:3-4 , with the exception of a few glosses, to one writer. About the hymn or psalm in Jonah 2:2-9 there is diversity of opinion. There are three views: (1) that it is by the same writer (G. A. Smith); (2) that it was used by him but not written by him (Baudissin); (3) that it was inserted by an editor who missed the prayer referred to in Jonah 2:1 (Nowack, Marti, Cheyne, Kautzsch, and perhaps Horton). The last view is on the whole the most probable, for the following among other reasons. ( a ) The psalm fits in with the experience of a ship-wrecked mariner who has reached the shore, rather than with the situation ascribed to Jonah ( Jonah 2:3-6 ); ( b ) it has been aptly described as ‘a cento of passages from the psalms’ (there are echoes of passages in Psalms 3:1-8; Psalms 18:1-50; Psalms 30:1-12; Psalms 31:1-24; Psalms 42:1-11; Psalms 50:1-23; Psalms 116:1-19; Psalms 120:1-7; Psalms 142:1-7 ), which implies that the writer had a considerable part of our present Psalter before him, and so points to the study rather than the belly of a fish.

(3) Date and Authorship . The book used to be regarded as Jonah’s composition, but that belief is now generally abandoned except in the Roman Catholic Church. Since Nineveh is clearly referred to as no longer standing: ‘Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city’ ( Jonah 3:3 ), the terminus a quo cannot be placed earlier than about b.c. 600 (fall of Nineveh b.c. 606). The terminus ad quem is fixed by the mention of the Twelve Prophets in Sirach ( Sir 49:10 ), c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 200. The date therefore lies between 600 and 200. For closer definition the following facts are helpful. The anonymous reference to the Assyrian king, and perhaps the description of him as ‘the king of Nineveh’ ( Jonah 3:6 ), suggests a considerable interval between Assyrian times and the composition of the book. The Heb. is distinctly late. There are several indications of Aramaic influence: sephînâh ‘ship’ a word common to Aramaic and Arabic, found here only in the OT; shâthaq ‘be calm’; ta‘am ‘decree’; hith‘ashshçth in the sense of ‘think’; minnâh ‘prepare,’ ‘appoint,’ etc. Had it been possible to assign the book to the 8th or the 9th cent. b.c., these phenomena might have been accounted for on the assumption of Aramaic influence on a Galilæan dialect, but as that date is out of the question, they point to a much later period, the 4th or 5th cent. (König, Driver, E. Kautzsch, Budde, Cheyne), c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 300 (Marti). Cheyne puts the psalm as late as the prayer in the appendix to Sirach. It has been suggested that the book is an extract from a larger work, e.g. the ‘commentary of the book of the kings’ referred to in 2 Chronicles 24:27 , as it begins: ‘Now (Heb. wa- ) the word of the Lord came to Jonah’; but other historical Heb. writings begin in the same abrupt manner.

(4) Interpretation . The ancient Jews seem to have regarded the book as historical ( 3Ma 6:8 , Tob 14:4-8; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant. IX. x. 2), and were followed by Christian interpreters. Modern scholars are greatly divided. Archdeacon Perowne, J. Kennedy, and Clay Trumbull have defended the old view. Kleinert, König, C. H. H. Wright, G. A. Smith, and Cheyne treat the book as an allegory of the fortunes of the people. Jonah, ‘the dove,’ represents Israel. Jonah the prophet stands for Israel, which was to prophesy amongst the nations. The sea figures the destruction which repeatedly fell on Israel. Cheyne supplements the symbolical key by the mythological. The fish (that is the dragon, the subterranean sea) refers to Babylon, which swallowed Israel, not to destroy it but to give room for repentance; and the link between Jonah and the original myth is found in Jeremiah 51:34-44 . E. Kautzsch, Driver, Nowack, and Marti see in the story a didactic narrative founded on an ancient tradition.

(5) Teaching . The prominence given by Christian expositors to the incident of the fish has tended to obscure the chief aim of the writing to protest against the narrowness of thought and sympathy which prevailed among the Jews of the time, and was daily growing in intensity. Whoever the author was, he had higher thoughts about God than most of his contemporaries, perhaps it may even be said than any other of the writers of the OT, and entertained more charitable feelings towards the Gentile world than most of his people. The God of Israel, he believed, cared for all men. Penitent Gentiles, and many in Gentile circles, were ready to repent if only they were taught; could obtain pardon as readily as penitent Jews. Nay, Jahweb sought their repentance. Nowhere in pre-Christian literature can be found a broader, purer, loftier, tenderer conception of God than in this little anonymous Heb. tract. Cornill describes it as ‘one of the deepest and grandest things ever written.’ ‘I should like,’ he adds, ‘to exclaim to any one who approaches it: “Put thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” ’ How high the teaching of the book rose above later Judaism, say the Judaism of the time of Christ, and the following generation, is strikingly shown by the way in which it is summarized by Josephus ( Ant. IX. x. 2). There is not a word there about the penitence of the Ninevites, or God’s remonstrance with Jonah. The main lesson of the book is absolutely ignored by the proud Pharisaic priest. Another leading thought of the book is the duty of Israel to make its God known to the Gentiles.

(6) The book in the Synagogue and the Church . It is said in the Mishna ( Ta‘anith , ii. 1) that the ritual of a public fast in time of drought included reference by the leader of the congregation to the Book of Jonah, and it has been used from ancient times to the present day in the ceremonial of the Day of Atonement. Christians were early attracted to it by the remarkable allusions in the Gospels: Matthew 12:32 ff; Matthew 16:4 , Luke 11:29-32 . The reference to the entombment in the fish is in Mt. only. The allusion to the repentance of the Ninevites is in both Mt. and Lk. The significance of the former has been much debated, and some have regarded it as a proof of the historicity of the OT narrative. That in no way follows. Our Lord found the story in the Scriptures, and appealed to it as something generally known to His hearers. His use of it fastened on the imagination of the early Christians, and led them to take great interest in the whole Book of Jonah. The remains of early Christian art in catacomb paintings, on sarcophagi, lamps, glasses, etc., include a very large number of pictures which have some part of the story of Jonah for their theme. Dr. Otto Mitius, who published a monograph on the subject in 1897, has noted 177 examples. The oldest, in the Catacomb of S. Callisto, may date from the 1st century.

(7) Parallels to Jonah. Attention has often been called to the classical myths of Andromeda and Hesione, the scene of the former of which is laid in the neighbourhood of Joppa, but reference to them, even indirectly, is improbable. Nor is it likely that the Heb. writer had in mind a dragon myth of Babylonia. A really striking parallel to part of the first chapter ( Jonah 1:7-15 ) was noted by a German scholar in 1896 in Buddhistic literature. A young man of Benares named Mittavindaka, the son of a merchant, went to sea in defiance of his mother’s objection. When after a time the vessel was unable to proceed on its course, owing to some mysterious impediment, the sailors concluded that it must be through the sin of some one on board, and therefore cast lots to discover the offender. The lots were cast three times, and each time the lot fell to Mittavindaka. As he was clearly the culprit, they turned him out of the ship, and placed him on a raft. Their ship was then able to continue the voyage. The close correspondence of this Indian story with the part of the Biblical story referred to is very remarkable, but need not point to any connexion between the two beyond community of feeling and action, under similar circumstances, of Indian and PhÅ“nician mariners.

W. Taylor Smith.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Jonah'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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