There are three main themes with the Book of Jonah: 1) Jonah running away from his calling to preach repentance, 2) the fish story as a type for the death and resurrection of Christ, 3) Jonah's peculiar response to the Ninevites' repentance.
Jonah 1:2 Arise, go to Nineveh
Nineveh was a great city of the Assyrian Empire. Not since Moses has an Israelite prophet been commanded to call Gentiles to repentance. Over the centuries, the Jews had become more and more nationalistic and ethno-centric. Theirs was the true God; no one else could claim the same. This is the context of Jonah's call. To make matters worse, the Ninevehites were not just Gentiles, they were the Jews' worst enemies. Jonah's decision to run away rather than call them to repentance may have been based on his hatred of the Assyrians, his personal feelings of inadequacy, or even his concern about the danger of preaching to the Assyrians.
"Jonah's apprehension at being called to preach repentance to Nineveh is easier to understand when one learns of the cruelty for which the Assyrians were known. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, for example, made known how he tortured captives, including women and children. Some were left to die of thirst, while others were imprisoned or burnt alive. Still others were impaled on stakes, flayed, and left to dehydrate in the sun. The now-famous wall panel of Sennacherib from Nineveh, depicting the taking of Lachish, shows Assyrians torturing Israelite captives in this manner. The luckier ones escaped with minor tortures, such as amputation of a hand, an ear, a finger, a nose, or having their eyes put out." (John A. Tvedtnes, "Jonah," Ensign, June 1974, 27)
Jonah 1:3 Jonah rose up to flee... from the presence of the Lord
"How can Jonah's experience be applied to our lives? Do we ever run from our responsibilities in the Church? Are we ever afraid to do a task given us by our leaders? Does the Lord seem to put obstacles in our lives to help us turn around and establish more valuable priorities? The example of Jonah provides answers to these questions as we understand how God works with his children." (Victor L. Ludlow, "Unlocking Old Testament Prophecy," Ensign, Oct. 1990, 62)
"We need to be careful to earnestly seek the counsel of the Lord and of Church leaders about accepting calls. If we turn down a call, we might temporarily halt our spiritual progression, just as Jonah did when he ran from his mission call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah spiritually stagnated in the belly of the fish for three days and nights until he repented and expressed this interesting realization to the Lord:
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. (Jonah 2:8-9.)
"Even if we have the same callings year after year, such as visiting teacher, home teacher, ward librarian, or CTR-B teacher, we can still gain new and vital knowledge and skills and "with joy ... draw water out of the wells of salvation." (Isa. 12:3.)... Through Church callings, we are able to learn to understand many eternal principles." (Marie Searle, "An Invitation from the Lord," Ensign, Dec. 1989, 23)
Neal A. Maxwell
[The man of Christ] expects a variety of assignments in the Church; some carry the thrills of making a beachhead landing deep in enemy territory, and others involve "minding the store" back home. When he sings, "I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord" (Hymns, no. 75), it is not only a promise to go to a Nineveh, but it is also a pledge to stay at his present post. ("The Man of Christ," Ensign, May 1975, 102)
Jonah 1:3 Jonah... went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish
"We know that Joppa (modern Jaffa) was a port located in approximately the center of Israel's Mediterranean coast. But where was Tarshish?
"We know Tarshish was a Phoenician possession involved in the mining and processing of tin and other metals. The name Tarshish seems to be a Phoenician word meaning refinery or smelter. An old Assyrian inscription tells us it was located somewhere at the far western end of the Mediterranean. Many have thought it was in Spain, and this is clearly a possibility, as that land is known to have been exploited by Phoenician miners. But the discovery of a stone covered with large Phoenician letters has presented a more likely answer.
"The Nora inscription, found at a ruin of that name in southern Sardinia, an island west of mainland Italy, and now housed in a museum in the nearby city of Cagliari, stands about three feet tall. Of reddish local stone, it bears eight lines in the Phoenician alphabet common to the ninth century B.C.
"Scholars have disagreed widely over its exact translation. But whatever the case, the first line plainly reads 'b-T-r-sh-sh,' which translates to read 'in Tarshish'." (Ross T. and Ruth R. Christensen, "Archaeology Reveals Old Testament History: Digging for the Truth," Ensign, Feb. 1974, 64-65)
Jonah 1:12 I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you
In Jonah again we find an interesting trait of character. When upon the raging waters, and fears were expressed by the sailors as to their ability to save the ship, Jonah, feeling conscience-stricken at the course he had taken in not proceeding to Nineveh as commanded of the Lord, came forward and confessed himself as being the cause of the disaster that was about to befall them, and was willing to be sacrificed in the interest of those on board. Also in other prophets and men of God, although they may have on certain occasions, like Jonah, exhibited weaknesses, there is something really grand and admirable shown in their character. But such traits of character as we find evinced in the ancient worthies are not the products of accident or chance, neither are they acquired in a day, a week, a month, or a year, but are gradual developments, the results of continued faithfulness to God and to truth, independent of either the plaudits or criticisms of men. (Journal of Discourses, 23:191-192)
Jonah 1:17 the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah
The story of Jonah is perhaps the biggest "fish story" ever told. For many, it is just plain unbelievable.
"The historicity of the story of Jonah has been questioned by some scholars on several counts... some have argued that there exists no whale or 'great fish' whose throat is large enough to permit it to swallow a man whole.
"And it is interesting to note that the Greek New Testament uses the word 'whale,' while the Hebrew book of Jonah says that 'the Lord had prepared a great fish.' (Jonah 1:17.)
"The fact that the animal was 'prepared' could indicate that it was not a conventional animal, and that it was easily capable of swallowing a man whole. In addition, there exists a more recently documented case of a man who was actually swallowed by a whale and lived to tell about it.
"In 1891, a whaling crew operating off the Falkland Islands was beset with difficulties. A whale, which emerged when a harpoon sunk into its flesh, turned on the small boat and capsized it. Three of the men who were overboard were unable to make it back to the mother vessel.
"Later that evening, the dying whale surfaced and was rigged to the side of the whaling ship. When the crew began the task of butchering it, one of the three missing men, James Bartley, was found inside the whale's stomach. He had survived in his mammalian undersea prison for 15 hours! The acidity of the whale's stomach had permanently bleached his skin and removed his hair, and he was almost blind. Unable to continue his chosen trade, Bartley turned to shoe making and remained a cobbler the rest of his life.
"The seemingly impossible story of Jonah becomes more believeable when viewed in relationship to the equally fantastic-but true-modern event. ("Jonah," Ensign, June 1974, 27)
Not surprisingly, modern scholars have doubted the authenticity of the James Bartley story. The records do appear meager, but the underlying critique questions the story's plausibility just like skeptics have doubted the authenticity of the Job account. One thing about the Bible-it is not for the faithless. How could anyone believe in the entire earth being covered with water, or the story of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea, or Elijah calling down fire from heaven to destroy a water-soaked sacrifice. Let's face it-some of the Bible stories are incredulous, but that is why they are in the Bible, because they are so amazing. Those who believe that "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26) don't need the story of James Bartley to believe that God has the power to prepare a great fish or whale with a cavity large enough to sustain a man by swallowing sufficient air to keep the man alive for 3 days. The event is certainly miraculous, but with an obvious purpose-to provide a sign of the Resurrection of Christ (Matt. 12:38-41).
Jonah 2:1-10 Jonah's time in the belly of the fish is a type for the death and resurrection of Christ
There are many elements of this story which are meant as a type for the death and resurrection of Christ. We remember the Lord's reference to Jonah's story:
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (Matt. 12:38-41)
The Jews, like the Jews of Jonah's day, trusted in their lineage through Abraham. Salvation was a product of being an Israelite, or so they thought. Jesus intentionally used the example of Gentiles, like the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites to embarrass the faithless scribes and Pharisees.
How then is the story of the prophet Jonah a type for the death and resurrection of Christ?
- Jonah had to be sacrificed to save the crew of the ship-Christ had to be sacrificed to save the world
- The men prayed for forgiveness for shedding Jonah's blood-Pilate washed his hands of Jesus' blood
- The crew cast lots to determine the cause of the storm-The Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus garment
- Cast into the sea, Jonah was overwhelmed with the power of the sea, "the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me" (Jonah 2:3)-On the cross, Christ was surrounded by a sea of wicked men, "For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me" (Ps. 22:16)
- Jonah was swallowed by the fish and presumed dead-Christ died on the cross and presumed to remain dead
- Jonah spent three days in hell, or "the belly of hell" (Jonah 2:2)-Christ spent three days in the spirit world.
- Jonah was "brought up... from corruption" (Jonah 2:6)-Jesus was resurrected from the corruption of the tomb
- Jonah then preached to the Gentiles-Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, then preached to the Gentiles (3 Ne. 15:23)
Jonah 2:7 when my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple
"For Jonah the temple was a place where he, repentant, sorely repentant, could find comfort and forgiveness and mercy. It was to the temple that his thoughts turned in his dire need, and to his commitments to God in the temple, the vows that he had vowed. He looked to the temple for restoration and a spiritual future.
"I love that whole story. I wish the moving part in it relevant to the temple were more broadly understood and shared." (Donald W. Parry, ed., Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 13)
Jonah 3:10 God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way
"Prophets regularly announced judgment against Assyria, but the book of Jonah shows the nation in a very different light, as repenting and turning to the Lord. It is most unlike Nahum, which glories in the imminent demise of Assyria. Jonah presents a critique of the nationalism that was rampant in much of Judah, a nationalism that said God loved only the chosen people and not 'the other.' The book of Jonah challenges the exclusivity and intolerance toward foreign peoples that is found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. God can and does extend his mercy to all peoples. Sometimes this mercy seems to contradict God's justice: the Assyrians had brutalized Judah, so where was the justice in God showing mercy to those who deserved death and destruction? But that is the point: sinners don't always get what they deserve. If they repent and turn to God, then God's love and mercy is available to them." (Barry J. Beitzel, ed., Biblica: The Bible Atlas, [Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2006], 308-309)
Jonah 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry
"'Forty days,' he told them, 'and you will be destroyed unless you repent... Jonah liked delivering that message... for he was eager for the Ninevites' destruction. The worse they and their prospects were, the happier it made him feel. He enjoyed his role as 'prophet.' But to his surprise and chagrin, the Ninevites repented and the Lord withdrew his sentence...
"In his mind, Nineveh didn't deserve to be saved. And he, one of the aggrieved and mistreated, didn't deserve to be required to help them... We don't want what we deserve, believe me. Jonah is finding that out... Our only hope is to receive what we don't deserve-the mercy that brings the gift of eternal life." (James L. Ferrell, The Peacegiver, [Deseret Book, 2004], 102-103, 93, 96-97)
Jonah 4:4, 11 Doest thou well to be angry?... should not I spare Nineveh?
"The book of Jonah ends with a question, a question the Lord asks of Jonah. But the scriptural record stops before Jonah answers. Jonah's answer is omitted because his answer is important only to Jonah. The question remains for us unanswered, as the Lord poses it to each reader anew. The Lord now asks that question of you. And your answer-today, and in every moment hereafter-will determine whether you will remain gripped by despair or find your way to joy.
"What's the question?...
"Should not I spare Nineveh?...
"There is something about the Jonah story that you should know...
The Lord commands Jonah to preach against the wicked Ninevites.
Jonah sins, not wanting Nineveh to be saved.
Jonah repents and the Lord saves Jonah.
Nineveh repents and the Lord saves Nineveh
Jonah sins, not wanting Nineveh to be saved.
The Lord asks Jonah a question: Should not I spare Nineveh?
"...The elements of the story repeat themselves in reverse order. It's a chiasm-an ordering structure prevalent in Hebrew writing... Chiastic passages point inward, to the center. The end of the chiastic story is not so much the end as it is an invitation to consider the center anew. With that in mind, let's think about the chiasm's closing element, the Lord's question, 'Should not I spare Nineveh?' What do you notice in the center?
"Well, in both of the center elements the Lord delivered salvation. First he saved Jonah, and then he saved Nineveh... The Lord saved Jonah and Nineveh alike, and on the same terms-repentance. So if Jonah's answer to the Lord's question is, 'No, the Ninevites, who you have saved, shouldn't be saved,' who, then, by implication, must also not be saved?
"Jonah... if Jonah can't be happy at the thought of Nineveh's salvation, then he makes himself unworthy of salvation... [In other words] Jonah is already unworthy of salvation, as is Nineveh. No one merits it. Salvation is an act of mercy. The Lord poses his question in terms of mercy for Nineveh, but mercy for Nineveh is no longer in question. The mercy that remains in question is mercy for Jonah. The implication of the Lords question is this: mercy can be extended only to those who are willing to extend it themselves.
"The Lord's question to Jonah is the same one he posed in the parable of the unmerciful servant, whose debt the lord-his master-had forgiven: 'Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?' the lord asked. 'And his lord was wroth,' the Savior taught, 'and delivered him to the tormentors... So likewise,' the Savior continued, 'shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.'
"... [Jonah] has forgotten his own prior sin; he has forgotten the mercy extended to him by the mariners, who tried to spare him even when they knew he was the cause of their troubles; he has forgotten the ultimate mercy of the Lord, who delivered him even though he didn't deserve it... All he can see is that he is 'right,' 'entitled,' 'deserving'... feeling no personal mercy, he is locked in despair...
"Meanwhile, the Lord's question hands in the air, 'Should not I spare Nineveh?'
"What do you suppose would happen... if Jonah were to give up his belligerence and answered, both in word and feeling, 'Yes!'? Do you suppose he would sit the same way under those sticks? Do you suppose his countenance would remain sour? Do you suppose he would continue to curse at the sun? Do you suppose he would feel the way he currently does about Nineveh?'...
"No... his world would change, wouldn't it-not because he would be perfect but because he would recognize in that moment that he has no claim to perfection in others, that his and others' hopes rest entirely on mercy, that he is entitled to nothing and grateful for everything. In that moment, he wouldn't become perfect, but he would become innocent-innocent because he would have allowed the Lord's offered mercy to well up inside of and change him into a new man, free from the clutches of sin." (James L. Ferrell, The Peacegiver, [Deseret Book, 2004], 103-107, 119-120)