This essay was originally written, by me, for my undergraduate Old Testament class.
A book of the Old Testament that has always fascinated me is the book of Jonah. Of all the prophets in the Old Testament, Jonah is perhaps the most unique. His mission is far different than those of other prophets; he is to preach repentance and salvation to a populous and powerful Gentile city. He is chosen by God, preaches an authentic message, and even brings about the repentance of a great number of people outside the Israelite nation. Yet, he also runs away from God, is filled with contempt for the Ninevites, and is downright selfish and ungrateful. He even declares he wants to die because of God’s mercy towards the people. The cute and unproblematic depictions in children’s books exist in stark contrast to the real Jonah. He does not have the type of personality that one would consider admirable. He is, however, a type of Christ and the book foreshadows the ministry of Jesus. No Christian can or should read the book of Jonah without understanding this fact. I assert this as fact not because of any sort of arrogance on my part, but because of the words of our Lord in the Gospels (Matthew 12:38-42, Luke 11:29-32). Even besides what Christ Himself mentions, there are several striking similarities to Jesus and His ministry while here on Earth. There are also considerable differences that highlight Christ’s perfection. I considered whether to cover just one chapter or the entirety of Jonah and concluded I must cover the whole. While it is debatable that the whole thing can be called a pericope (there are probably four in Jonah, each a chapter), it is impossible to truly appreciate the typology of the book without taking a bit from different places. Additionally, it is only 48 verses in total, less than some chapters of the Old Testament. Therefore, I will be drawing from various parts of the book to demonstrate the truth of this type.
It is necessary to begin with some scholarly discussion on the book of Jonah as a whole, as well as the context in which it was written. The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary says that “The single issue on which scholars agree unanimously is the uniqueness of Jonah among the Book of the Twelve Prophets. Unlike all the others, it tells a story…rather than relating oracles spoken by a prophet” (Keck). However, scholars do not agree on the genre of the book. Some say it is a folktale, others a satire, and yet others believe it to be genuine history (Keck). Another unique aspect of the book is that Jonah preaches to a people other than the Israelite nation. He is the only minor prophet (if we even want to call him a prophet, as scholars debate that too) that preaches entirely to Gentiles. This is of extreme significance in understanding how Jonah and his message in terms of typology. It is also necessary to understand the importance of Nineveh both in the world and to the Israelites. If one takes the position that the Jonah in the book of Jonah is the same as the one in 2 Kings 14:25, then “the setting for the book of Jonah [is] between 790 and 760 BC” (Keener). This means that “he was being sent not to the capital city of a vast empire but to one of the provincial centers of a struggling nation” based on the circumstances of the time (Keener). It should be noted that the dating of Jonah, and whether this Jonah is the same as the one mentioned in 2 Kings, are not agreed upon. The other significant fact about Nineveh is that it was seen as a very evil city in other parts of the Old Testament, and other prophets looked down upon it. Nahum describes it as a “city of bloodshed” in Nahum 3:1, and Zephaniah condemned it in Zephaniah 2:13-15. Based on these perceptions of the city, it is probably safe to say that most Israelites viewed Nineveh as a sinful and awful place. Today we may look at Jonah’s attitude as being cruel and unusual, but at the time it would have been the natural and expected reaction of any decent Israelite. He is not unique for viewing Nineveh in such a negative way.
As we know, Jonah boards a ship headed towards Tarshish, which is in the southern region of Spain. This was the furthest point west that the Israelites knew, so it is fitting that Jonah would flee here as it would put him as far away from Nineveh both in a literal and figurative sense. However, the Lord “hurled a great wind upon the sea” causing a storm so violent that “the ship threatened to break up” (Jonah 1.3). Jonah, meanwhile, is fast asleep below the deck. Other than being sent to preach repentance, this is the first indicator of Jonah being a type of Christ. St. Cyril of Jerusalem points out a similarity I have never heard before, that is of Jesus during the storm compared to Jonah during the storm. I cannot write any better than the Saint did, so I will let him speak for himself:
There are two other often overlooked facts of this story on the boat. The first is Jonah’s sacrifice of his life to save the sailors. Jesus, too, sacrificed His life on the cross, but more perfectly than Jonah as it was for the salvation of all sinners, requiring no additional sacrifices. The second is the conversion of the Gentile sailors. According to the Holman Study Bible NKJV Edition, “The integrity and spiritual sensitivity of these Gentiles would have shocked Israelite readers of this book, confronting their belief that non-Hebrews were unworthy of God’s mercy” (Sprinkle). Jesus regularly does this in various parables and even in His actions. He says a Roman Centurion has more faith than any in Israel, He shows a Samaritan as a model of compassion, dines with tax collectors, and dares to ministers to lepers. This enrages the Scribes and Pharisees. We then move to one of the most notable and famous events in Jonah, the focus of many a children’s book, that is, the swallowing of Jonah by the big fish. James Kugel points out that, “it was the story of the big fish that gained prime importance” among Christians (Kugel). The comparison of Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish (or whale depending on your view) to Christ’s three days in the tomb is directly stated by Jesus himself in Matthew’s account, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, Matthew 12.40). Some writers, such as Charles Elliot, have even gone so far as to say that Jonah may very well have died in the belly of the fish and “would thus have been a more perfect type of Christ” (Elliot). It should be noted, though, that Elliot subscribes to a literalist, historical account of Jonah. There is not consensus on this issue. Regardless, the similarity of Jonah’s time in the belly of the big fish/whale has not been overlooked.
When Jonah finally arrives to Nineveh, he declares that the city will be destroyed in forty days. It should be noted that forty days is a very important number in scripture, usually used to denote a trial of some sort. After Jonah has delivered his simple message, the ruler of the city issues a decree commanding the people to don sackcloth and fast, and most of all for the inhabitants to “turn from [their] evil ways and from violence” (Jonah 3.8). The city does so, even though it is clear they do not actually know whether it will work. The king says “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not (Jonah 3.9)? This is not the saying of a confident leader, but one who is entirely uncertain whether his city will be destroyed or not. After all, Jonah never said anything about a way out. He simply stated that in forty days, Nineveh would be overthrown. We are never given any indication that Jonah urged the people to repent or whether he even gave them the idea of avoiding destruction as a possibility. It seems, then, that the king and inhabitant’s actions are done with the utmost sincerity. They wear sackcloth and ashes and cease from their evil actions not because they have been told to, but because they “believed God” and were struck with a true fear of Him and His wrath (Jonah 3.5). It is unlikely that the people of Nineveh had any mature conception of Yahweh, nor were they particularly mature at all according to Yahweh, consider that He says they “do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4.11). Verse 5 in chapter three “uses the impersonal term God, not the personal name Yahweh” indicating they really did not understand what exact God they were fearing or that Yahweh is the one true God (Sprinkle). While they may have been immature, they would still have had a deep sense of the divine, as all cultures of the day and region did. Their act of piety and repentance is simple, humble, and from a true fear of the Lord. What more does Christ ask from us? Indeed, He exhorts us to be like children if we wish to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it” (Jonah 3.10). This made Jonah extremely angry to the point of wishing death upon himself. An improper reading of the book would cause one to think that Jonah is angry because the Lord has gone against Jonah’s wishes. This is partially true, as Jonah has no good thoughts about Nineveh and would love to see it destroyed. However, the real reason is that Jonah knew all along that God would relent, and he did not want to be the one to bring this salvation to the Ninevites. He says, while praying to God, “I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (Jonah 4.2). This verse is striking because it demonstrates two facts. One is Jonah’s violent contempt of the Ninevites and unwillingness to preach to them, and the other that he, like many other Israelites and prophets, had a conception of God not entirely unlike the one we find in the New Testament. Rather than believing in a wrathful God bent on vengeance as many would have us think is portrayed in the Old Testament, Jonah believes in a merciful and forgiving God. That is precisely why he hates his mission; he knows it will succeed. I disagree entirely with Kugel’s take, and I think that he missed the mark on Jonah. He claims that Jonah is angry because everything a prophet says is supposed to pass and the destruction of Nineveh does not, which would disgrace Jonah (Kugel). Yet, Jonah himself states plainly that he knew this was coming, it is what he “said when [he] was yet in [his] own country” (Jonah 4.2). It is abundantly clear that Jonah knew God would relent. Therefore, Jonah is suffering from success. “Reacting with anger to the total success of his own preaching, he becomes a caricature of a prophet” (Keck). Contrast this with Christ and subsequently the Apostles. Unlike Jonah, Christ came down to Earth willingly. Jonah begrudgingly preached to the people of Nineveh, outsiders he despised. Jesus not only preached to non-Jews, He died for them. Rather than preaching destruction in forty days, He successfully undergoes forty days of fasting and tempting by Satan.
In the book of Jonah, we get a glimpse of the Messiah and the future of salvation. The idea of Gentiles believing in God and being saved en masse as they are in this book would have been as shocking and unbelievable to the Jews then as it was to many Jews at the time of Jesus. It is one of the most radical books of the Bible, and I love it. Jonah presents an incredibly interesting and multi-faceted prophet, and his mission is unlike that of any other prophet. The book is short and sweet but full of meaning. While Isaiah and Zechariah get much attention for their messianic verses (and rightly so), Jonah often goes overlooked or oversimplified, despite being directly cited as a Sign of the coming of the Son of Man by Christ in two Gospel accounts. It is rich with typology, including the storm and its calming, the sacrifice of Jonah, the three days in the belly of the fish, and the salvation of a great many Gentiles. Like all scripture, the book of Jonah teaches us the most important fact of existence: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is loving, merciful, and slow to anger. He is the God of all, and He extends His mercy and salvation to all.
Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+12&version=RSVCE
St. Cyril of Jerusalem. “Treasures of the Fathers: Jonah the Prophet.” Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, https://www.lacopts.org/story/treasures-of-the-fathers-jonah-the-prophet/.
Kugel, James L. “Twelve Minor Prophets.” How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, Free Press, New York, 2008, pp. 628–632.
Keck, Leander E. “The Book of Jonah .” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume VII, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1996, pp. 463–529.
Keener, Craig S., and John H. Walton. NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Zondervan, 2016.
Sprinkle, Joe. “The Book of Jonah.” Holman Study Bible: NKJV Edition, Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2017, pp. 1494–1500.
Elliott, Charles. “Jonah.” The Old and New Testament Student, vol. 10, no. 3, The University of Chicago Press, 1890, pp. 134–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3157311