Feast upon the Word Blog

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KD OT Testament Lesson 33: Jonah

Posted by Karl D. on August 25, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Jonah
Reading: Jonah, Micah 2,4-7

1 Approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 Background

2.1 Nineveh

Jonah is commanded by the Lord to go to Nineveh. The city of Nineveh was the capital of Assyria during the 7th century BCE.1 Assyria conquered Samaria (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) in 722 BCE. The city of Nineveh was later destroyed by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 BCE.2

2.2 Who was Jonah?

Well, the name and father’s name are identical to a prophet mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Jonah of Kings was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-764 BCE3).

3 Tools of the Author

I think the book of Jonah is wonderful to read. I find it both moving and refreshing. I think it provides a nice theological balance to other parts of Old Testament, and emphasizes themes that are very important in the New Testament.

Despite its size, Jonah strikes me as a complex book. The book easily allows the reader to reflect on many important ideas, concepts, and themes. What themes stuck out to when you read the book of Jonah?

  1. God’s Grace and mercy
  2. The importance of forgiveness
  3. The power of repentance
  4. The constrained understanding of humans relative to God
  5. Others?

3.1 What literary devices does the author of Jonah use?

The author of Jonah uses literary devices very effectively to drive home some important theological points. What literary devices does the author of Jonah use?

  1. Irony
  2. Satire
  3. Parody
  4. Surprise/Misdirection/Ambiguity
  5. Hyperbole
  6. Humor

How does the author use these devices to emphasize the main themes of the book? How does the author use these devices to teach important truths about by God and humanity?

3.2 Humor

Is the book of Jonah funny?

  • Humor is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but I find the book of Jonah to be intentionally and genuinely funny.
  • Funny images: Animals fasting and putting on sackcloth and ashes; A big fish vomiting a person.

6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.

  • Sacred Comedy; pretty cool if you ask me.
  • Why would the author use humor?
  • Could the use of humor allow the author to grapple with issues that are difficult to talk about? Do any of the themes in the book of Jonah strike you as difficult? Would any of the themes have been particular emotional/painful to say a post-exile (Persian period) Israelite audience? Do some of themes in the book veer into difficult areas for you?
  • Does the use of humor make it easier to insert yourself into the story?
  • By describing Jonah’s mistakes in a humorous way does it make it easier for us to see our own mistakes, laugh at our mistakes, and ultimately seek forgiveness for our mistakes?

3.3 Irony: Who listens to God?

How and why does the author use irony to make his/her point? As an example, who obeys God in the narrative?

  1. The gentile sailors
  2. The big fish
  3. The wicked gentile population of Nineveh
  4. The animal population of Nineveh

In short everyone and everything except the Lord’s prophet.

3.4 Why Tell This Story?

Why does the author tell a story in which the prophet is disobedient and where he/she emphasizes that everyone else in the story is obedient to God’s commands?

  • The author didn’t have to tell Jonah’s story. He could have chosen to stay silent. Why tell this story?
  • Is it to show that sometime even prophets screw up, sin, or refuse to serve the Lord? To humanize the Lord’s servants?
  • While it is true that prophets are human and certainly fallible, I don’t think it is the point (or at least not one of the central points).
  • I think we are the point. The hyperbolic irony points straight back to us: the Lord’s covenant people. It is gives use a chance to be introspective.
  • What is the author try to get use to realize? What is he trying to teach us about God and about ourselves?
  • One thing that stuck out to me as I read was that sometimes we don’t believe God or his promises. Sometime we are more obtuse than even the animals. We cannot discern the right hand from the left hand. We don’t believe God will help us through difficult situations. We don’t believe he will change us. We don’t believe he will renew us even though we have a covenant relationship with Him. We don’t believe in the transforming power of Grace. We don’t trust him.

4 Surprise: Go to Nineveh

Read Jonah 1:1-3

(1) Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, (2) Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. (3) But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

4.1 Ambiguity

Notice the ambiguity; we don’t know why Jonah flees when the Lord calls him. How does the ambiguous nature of Jonah’s action affect you as a reader?

4.1.1 Your Reaction

  • What thoughts go through head when you read that Jonah fled?
  • At this point in the narrative are Jonah’s actions unlike any other prophet or important figure in scripture?
  • Suppose you have never read the Book of Jonah know nothing about it. Why would you think that Jonah flees?
    • Shades of Moses? I am uneducated. I am slow of speech.
    • Shades of Amos? I am a herdman.
    • Any similarities with Book of Mormon prophets?

4.1.2 The Sandals of an Ancient Reader/Listener

  • Suppose you are an Israelite in the post-exilic area (586-438 BCE) and you are reading this story for the first time. You, of course, have no love for the now fallen Assyrian empire and you are aware that Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BCE. What would you think about Jonah’s actions at this point? What would you think of a story that started with God sending a prophet to cry repentance to a city like Nineveh? What might you suspect is the main point of the story?

4.2 The Use of Surprise

This is a wonderful use of surprise. It shocks us when Jonah’s actual reason for fleeing is revealed. Read Jonah 4:1-3:

(1) But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. (2) And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. (3) Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.

  • This delayed revelation of the reason for fleeing also forces us to go back and reflect on Jonah’s previous actions. to review them in light of our new information.
  • In other words the use of surprise supplies the reader with another chance to be introspective.

5 Asleep

Read Jonah 1:4-5

4 But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.

  • What do you think of the contrast between Jonah’s actions and the Sailors’ actions?
  • What do you make of Jonah going to sleep? Might we able to use this as a metaphor for us and our spiritual lives?
  • Once again the author uses language like “Jonah was gone down.” What does the repeated use of “gown down” language emphasize or stress?

6 More Irony: The Stormy Sea

Read Job 1:6-15

(6) So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. (7) And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. (8) Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? (9) And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. (10) Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

(11) Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. (12) And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. (13) Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. (14) Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee. (15) So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

  • What do you make of the lot casting? Are you surprised it works?
  • What is ironic about Jonah’s actions in this pericope?
  • What is surprising in these verses?
  • In verse 6 the captain asks Jonah to pray, but Jonah never does it. Thus the narrative relays a striking image of a prophet who refuses to pray. Is this action (or lack thereof) unique for a prophet or can you think of examples where other prophets have difficulty remembering to pray? What does it tell us about Jonah and ultimately ourselves?
  • How is this pericope tied in with Jonah’s attitude in chapter 4 verses 1-3 that we read previously?
  • Jonah claims he fears the Lord. Does he?
  • Does Jonah seem to think of God only in terms of justice and punishment. Are we ever like Jonah?
  • How do the sailors show mercy to Jonah? Is it an important part of the message of the book that gentile sailors show mercy to him while Jonah is trying to obstruct the Lord’s plan to show mercy (to gentiles)? How might an ironic image such as this be an optimal or at least a good way to teach about God’s grace and mercy?

7 The Big Fish

Why is the swallowing of Jonah by the big fish important to the story? Is it simply another funny image in a story full of funny images?

I think Jonah’s reaction to the swallowing is very telling. Read 2:1-10:

(1) Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, (2) And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. (3) For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. (4) Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. (5) The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. (6) I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. (7) When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. 8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. 9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. <br>

10 And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

  • What did Jonah want to be delivered from?
  • How did the Lord deliver Jonah?
  • How is this deliverance ironic?
  • What did the Lord want Jonah to learn from his experience inside the big fish?
  • Is the big fish swallowing experience instructive for us?
  • How does the temple imagery fit into the narrative?
  • What do you make of the contrast between the poetry of the first 9 verses and the description in verse 10?

8 A Visit to Nineveh

Read Jonah 3:1-4

1 And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. 3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. 4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

  • Are you surprised by Jonah’s actions here given his prayer in the belly of the fish?
  • What do you make of the fact that Jonah says the city shall be overthrown? Is this phrase ambiguous? Do you think Jonah intended to deliver a message with multiple possible meanings?

9 The Gourd

Read Jonah 4:5-11:

(5) So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. (6) And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. (7) But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. (8) And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. (9) And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. (10) Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: (11) And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

9.1 Jonah and Us

  • What is Jonah doing, at least initially in this part of the narrative?
  • How does Jonah react to the gourd?
  • Why does Jonah want to die?
  • What do we learn about Jonah?
  • What do we learn about ourselves from this pericope?

9.2 The Gourd

  • Why the gourd? What does it teach us? How is it linked to the big fish? How is linked to Nineveh?
  • How does the Gourd help explain the inclusion of fasting and repenting animals?
  • How are the people of Nineveh like the gourd?

9.3 Cannot Discern

  • What does “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” mean?
  • Why does the Lord mention that the city has much cattle in that same sentence?
  • I wonder if the King’s actions requiring sackcloth and ashes to be put on the animals and the animals to fast when Jonah calls the city to repentance typifies or is an example of what is meant by “cannot discern between their right and left hand?”
  • Are Jonah and the Israelites the contrasting group that can discern their right hand from their left? Or are the covenant people in the same state as Nineveh but in a different way?
  • Why does this teach us about the Lord’s mercy and grace?


1 Daniel E. Fleming “Nineveh” The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds. Oxford University Press Inc. 1993.

2 Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler (editors), 1999, Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 1200.

3 “Jeroboam” A Dictionary of the Bible. by W. R. F. Browning. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

3 Responses to “KD OT Testament Lesson 33: Jonah”

  1. Clark said

    If ever there was a story missionaries think about – it’s Jonah. I suspect a lot have seen parallels to their own life at various points in the story. Even those who wanted to go on a mission.

    Out of curiosity do people think the very nature of the story (i.e. being swallowed by a whale) entails questions about historicity, myth and accuracy? I think Jonah, more than any other OT narrative raises these and then raises obvious questions abou other texts, such as Job.

    Not that I’d bring that up in Sunday School, although I’ve heard even fervent literalists raise those issues at Church before. I’m curious as to how you guys handle those questions when they pop up in Church.

    • Karl D. said

      Out of curiosity do people think the very nature of the story (i.e. being swallowed by a whale) entails questions about historicity, myth and accuracy? I think Jonah, more than any other OT narrative raises these and then raises obvious questions abou other texts, such as Job.

      It is a good question, Clark. My experience is the two lessons that people tend to want to discuss questions of histroricty and accuracy about the most are Jonah and Job.

      I will teach this lesson to 14-17 age group class on Sunday. If the class raises any of those issues I will certainly discuss it with them. I think the odds are pretty good they will. It is a pretty bright group.

  2. kirkcaudle said

    3:6-8 is actually pretty funny. I have never read that passage in a comedic fashion before.

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