My final reason for not reading Jonah historically is how the book is structured and how this structure makes certain points. In all other prophetic books, the prophet is speaking the Word of the Lord in a time of crisis, either political or theological (mostly both). But in Jonah, the prophet seems to be a foil for certain episodes, which makes me think the point of the book is not historical but theological. I understand that those are not mutually exclusive. But the structure in Jonah seems to point to it not being historical, based on some of the details of some of the episodes or “scenes.”
Scene/Chapter 1—The Pagan Sailors: On the boat, you have the pagan sailor’s conversion experience & Jonah’s de-conversion. The sailors go from pagans (call on their own gods) to YWHW-worshippers who “make sacrifices and vows to YHWH.” The fact that they sacrifice and make vows leads me to think this is highly charged theology rather than history. For instance, these are things you do in a Temple (which pagans were not allowed to do), they are things you do not do in a boat (what a strange image to have sacrifices being offered on the boat. Besides, I hear fire and wooden boats are a bad mix), and they are the exact things Jonah promises to do in his re-conversion in the great fish (2:10).
The pagan sailors become YHWH worshippers while the prophet of God, who says with his mouth that he is a YHWH worshipper, disobeys and runs from YHWH. And . . . scene.
Scene/Chapter 2—The Exile & Redemption of Jonah: As we already talked about, chapter 2 is filled with poetic chaos-creation language as well as exile and redemption. As we mentioned before there are also important references to the Temple, interesting for a prophet from the north to say that he will worship at the Temple, which is in the South. We now have two “outsiders” who say they will worship at the Temple, the pagans and the Northern Israelite.
But more importantly, Jonah was given a command by God, he disobeyed and is exiled. His exile is expressed with “death/exile/chaos language.” During his exile he longs for the Temple. And his redemption is expressed in “new life/return from exile/re-creation” language. In other words, Jonah is a miniature Israel (technically, a metonymy). He is playing out Israel’s story.
Scene/Chapter 3—The Repentant Pagans: We begin chapter 3 the same way we started chapter 1. This time Jonah obeys. And the Ninevites repent. Importantly, they repent in a very Israelite way, with fasting and putting on sackcloth and ashes. Even the animals participate in repentance! Side note: there is an interesting theme of Ninevite/Animals in the story.
Of course, there is the biting sting of a story written to post-exilic Jews of a pagan nation (Nineveh no less) repenting from their ways in a very Jewish way while the pre-exilic Jews refused to do the same and so were exiled by a pagan nation (Assyria no less). But as we read the story we are more interested to see how Jonah will react to the repentance of Nineveh, in light of his own “return to the land.” And . . . scene.
Scene/Chapter 4—The Pouting Prophet: We cut to Jonah sitting outside the city, popcorn in hand, waiting eagerly for the destruction of the city. But when it doesn’t come, he is pissed. And we find out why he disobeyed in the first place and it’s somewhat comical. He says, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah’s formulaic phrase is taken almost verbatim from Exodus 34:6–7 (we are about to get a whole lot of Exodus) and is basically used as a temper tantrum.
He would rather die than see God be gracious to the Gentiles?
Scene 5—The Parabolic Punch line: We end chapter 4 with a real-life parable. And the details are fascinating. I will include some here though they should have been in Part 3, as you will see. On the side of this mountain we are all of a sudden in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, or, Sukkot. How do we know? Well, Jonah builds himself a Sukkah (shelter). This seems really out of place if we are meant to read this story historically but it makes a lot of sense if not (the author is making a point that doesn’t necessitate making chronological sense of the story).
Sukkot is a Jewish celebration to remember the Exodus. They live in make-shift booths/shelters/sukkot to remind them of when God brought them out of Egypt, something Jews still do today (Lev 23:40–43). We are given a further hint that we are in the middle of Sukkot by the next passage, which says God caused a “leafy plant” (we aren’t sure of the Hebrew here) to grow up to give Jonah shade.
But why would Jonah need a plant for shade if he just built himself a shelter? Because, based on Lev 23:40, during Sukkot you put “leafy branches” as the roof of your Sukkah. Without the leafy plant, Jonah’s shelter has no roof to keep the hot sun from beating down on him (as we’ll see in a minute).
The irony of all this is that Sukkot is a celebration of joy. The Israelites are actually commanded to rejoice during this time. But Jonah, we are reminded several times, is “angry.” We don’t have time to go into the details but note that there are many connections between the Festival of Sukkot and the Temple (1 Kings 8; 2 Chron 7), especially after the exile (Ezra 3:2–4). These connections help us make sense of these weird details we find in Jonah. Even the pagans fit nicely into this Sukkot theme, as we find in the messianic vision of Zechariah 14, where “all the nations that attacked Jerusalem will worship YHWH to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot).”
Irony and drama is in full force in chapter 4.
The next morning God provides a worm (hint: same word as Exod 16:20 for the worms that infest the Manna) that apparently eats up in a single morning a plant that was big enough to provide Jonah with shade and then provides a “scorching east wind” (hint: he did this in Exod 14:21 too), and Jonah is back to wanting to die.
But don’t let all of these details (as cool as they are) overcrowd the simple point that the entire book ends with: “10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
This nexus of connections between creation, exodus, exile, the Temple, and Gentiles, all written to a post-exilic audience leads to the question of how Israel will respond to God’s mercy toward the Gentiles after their return from exile. And we end abruptly with angry Jonah and the slow-to-anger God who chides Jonah for accepting God’s mercy but not rejoicing at his mercy to others.
This very point is made in yet another story. This story is not historical and is told by Jesus a few hundred years later. We know it as the Prodigal Son. As Gentiles, we often read that story as though the main point is the Prodigal Son. But if you read the story as a Jew would have (remember Jesus was speaking to Jews when he told the story) and pay careful attention to how it ends (the point it’s making), the connection to Jonah is compelling:
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”