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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Jonah Introduction


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The Prophet. - We know from Kg2 14:25 that Jonah the son of Amittai was born in Gath-hepher, in the tribe of Zebulon, which was, according to Jewish tradition as given by Jerome, "haud grandis viculus Geth," to the north of Nazareth, on the road from Sephoris to Tiberias, on the site of the present village of Meshad (see at Jos 19:13); that he lived in the reign of Jeroboam II, and foretold to this king the success of his arms in his war with the Syrians, for the restoration of the ancient boundaries of the kingdom; and that this prophecy was fulfilled. From the book before us we learn that the same Jonah (for this is evident from the fact that the name of the father is also the same) received a command from the Lord to go to Nineveh, and announce the destruction of that city on account of its sins. This mission to Nineveh evidently falls later than the prophecy in favour of Jeroboam; but although it is quite possible that it is to be assigned to the time of Menahem, during the period of the first invasion of Israel by the Assyrians, this is by no means so probable as many have assumed. For, inasmuch as Menahem began to reign fifty-three years after the commencement of the reign of Jeroboam, and the war between Jeroboam and the Syrians took place not in the closing years, but in the very first years of his reign, since it was only the continuation and conclusion of the successful struggle which his father had already begun with these enemies of Israel; Jonah must have been a very old man when he was entrusted with his mission to Nineveh, if it did not take place till after the invasion of Israel by Pul. Nothing is known of the circumstances of Jonah's life apart from these biblical notices. The Jewish tradition mentioned by Jerome in the Proaem. to Jonah, to the effect that Jonah was the son of the widow at Zarephath, whom Elijah restored to life (Kg1 17:17-24), which has been still further expounded by Ps. Epiph. and Ps. Doroth. (see Carpzov, Introd. ii. pp. 346-7), is proved to be nothing more than a Jewish Hagada, founded upon the name "son of Amittai" (lxx υἱοῦ Ἀμαθί), and has just as much historical evidence to support it as the tradition concerning the prophet's grave, which is pointed out in Meshad of Galilee, and also in Nineveh in Assyria, for the simple reason adduced by Jerome (l.c.): matre postea dicente ad eum: nunc cognovi, quia vir Dei es tu, et verbum Dei in ore tuo est veritas; et ob hanc causam etiam ipsum puerum sic vocatum, Amathi enim in nostra lingua veritatem sonat.

2. The Book of Jonah resembles, in contents and form, the narratives concerning the prophets in the historical books of the Old Testament, e.g., the history of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19; Kg2 2:4-6), rather than the writings of the minor prophets. It contains no prophetic words concerning Nineveh, but relates in simple prose the sending of Jonah to that city to foretel its destruction; the behaviour of the prophet on receiving this divine command; his attempt to escape from it by flight to Tarshish; the way in which this sin was expiated; and lastly, when the command of God had been obeyed, not only the successful result of his preaching of repentance, but also his murmuring at the sparing of Nineveh in consequence of the repentance of its inhabitants, and the reproof administered by God to the murmuring prophet. If, then, notwithstanding this, the compilers of the canon have placed the book among the minor prophets, this can only have been done because they were firmly convinced that the prophet Jonah was the author. And, indeed, the objections offered to the genuineness of the book, apart from doctrinal reasons for disputing its historical truth and credibility, and the proofs adduced of its having a much later origin, are extremely trivial, and destitute of any conclusive force. It is said that, apart from the miraculous portion, the narrative is wanting in clearness and perspicuity. "The author," says Hitzig, "leaps over the long and wearisome journey to Nineveh, says nothing about Jonah's subsequent fate, or about his previous abode, or the spot where he was cast upon the land, or the name of the Assyrian king; in brief, he omits all the more minute details which are necessarily connected with a true history." But the assertion that completeness in all external circumstances, which would serve to gratify curiosity rather than to help to an understanding of the main facts of the case, is indispensable to the truth of any historical narrative, is one which might expose the whole of the historical writings of antiquity to criticism, but can never shake their truth. There is not a single one of the ancient historians in whose works such completeness as this can be found: and still less do the biblical historians aim at communicating such things as have no close connection with the main object of their narrative, or with the religious significance of the facts themselves. Proofs of the later origin of the book have also been sought for in the language employed, and in the circumstance that Jonah's prayer in Jon 2:3-10 contains so many reminiscences from the Psalms, that Ph. D. Burk has called it praestantissimum exemplum psalterii recte applicati. But the so-called Aramaisms, such as הטיל to throw (Jon 1:4-5, Jon 1:12, etc.), the interchange of ספינה with אניּה (Jon 1:5), מנּה to determine, to appoint (Jon 2:1; Jon 4:6.), חתר in the supposed sense of rowing (Jon 1:13), התעשּׁת to remember (Jon 1:6), and the forms בּשׁלּמי (ch. 1:7), בּשׁלּי (Jon 1:12), and שׁ for אשׁר (Jon 4:10), belong either to the speech of Galilee or the language of ordinary intercourse, and are very far from being proofs of a later age, since it cannot be proved with certainty that any one of these words was unknown in the early Hebrew usage, and שׁ for אשׁר occurs as early as Jdg 5:7; Jdg 6:17, and even שׁלּי in Sol 1:6; Sol 8:12, whilst in the book before us it is only in the sayings of the persons acting (Jon 1:7, Jon 1:12), or of God (Sol 4:10), that it is used. The only non-Hebraic word, viz., טעם, which is used in the sense of command, and applied to the edict of the king of Assyria, was heard by Jonah in Nineveh, where it was used as a technical term, and was transferred by him. The reminiscences which occur in Jonah's prayer are all taken from the Psalms of David or his contemporaries, which were generally known in Israel long before the prophet's day.

(Note: They are the following: Jon 2:3 is formed from Psa 18:7 and Psa 120:1; Jon 2:4 is taken literally from Psa 42:8; Jon 2:5 from Psa 31:23, whilst Jon 2:5 recals Psa 5:8; Jon 2:6 is formed from Psa 69:2 and Psa 18:5; Jon 2:8 from Psa 142:4 or Psa 143:4, whilst Jon 2:8 recals Psa 18:7 and Psa 88:3; Jon 2:9 is formed after Psa 31:7; and Jon 2:10 resembles Psa 42:5 and Psa 50:14, Psa 50:23.)

Lastly, the statement in Jon 3:3, that "Nineveh was an exceeding great city," neither proves that Nineveh had already been destroyed at the time when this was written nor that the greatness of Nineveh was unknown to the contemporaries of Jonah, though there would be nothing surprising in the latter, as in all probability very few Israelites had seen Nineveh at that time. היתה is the synchronistic imperfect, just as in Gen 1:2. Nineveh was a great city of three days' journey when Jonah reached it, i.e., he found it so, as Staeudlin observes, and even De Wette admits.

The doctrinal objections to the miraculous contents of the book appear to be much more weighty; since it is undeniable that, if they were of the character represented by the opponents, this would entirely preclude the possibility of its having been composed by the prophet Jonah, and prove that it had originated in a mythical legend. "The whole narrative," says Hitzig in his prolegomena to the book of Jonah, "is miraculous and fabulous. But nothing is impossible with God. Hence Jonah lives in the belly of the fish without being suffocated; hence the Qı̄qāyōn springs up during the night to such a height that it overshadows a man in a sitting posture. As Jehovah bends everything in the world to His own purposes at pleasure, the marvellous coincidences had nothing in them to astonish the author. The lot falls upon the right man; the tempest rises most opportunely, and is allayed at the proper time; and the fish is ready at hand to swallow Jonah, and vomit him out again. So, again, the tree is ready to sprout up, the worm to kill it, and the burning wind to make its loss perceptible." But the coarse view of God and of divine providence apparent in all this, which borders very closely upon atheism, by no means proves that the contents of the book are fabulous, but simply that the history of Jonah cannot be vindicated, still less understood, without the acknowledgement of a living God, and of His activity in the sphere of natural and human life.

(Note: The offence taken at the miracles in the book originated with the heathen. Even to Lucian they apparently presented an occasion for ridicule (see Verae histor. lib. i. 30f., ed. Bipont). With regard to the three days' imprisonment in the belly of the fish, and on the Qı̄qāyōn, Augustine in his Epist. 102 says, "I have heard this kind of inquiry ridiculed by pagans with great laughter;" and Theophylact also says, "Jonah is therefore swallowed by a whale, and the prophet remains in it three days and the same number of nights; which appears to be beyond the power of the hearers to believe, chiefly of those who come to this history fresh from the schools of the Greek sand their wise teaching." This ridicule first found admission into the Christian church, when the rise of deism, naturalism, and rationalism caused a denial of the miracles and inspiration of the Scriptures to be exalted into an axiom of free inquiry. From this time forward a multitude of marvellous hypotheses and trivial ideas concerning the book of Jonah have been brought out, which P. Friedrichsen has collected and discussed in a most unspiritual manner in his Kritische Uebersicht der verschiedenen Ansichten von dem Buche Jona.)

The book of Jonah records miraculous occurrences; but even the two most striking miracles, the three days' imprisonment in the belly of the sea-fish, and the growth of a Qı̄qāyōn to a sufficient height to overshadow a sitting man, have analogies in nature, which make the possibility of these miracles at least conceivable (see the comm. on Jon 2:1 and Jon 4:6). The repentance of the Ninevites in consequence of the prophet's preaching, although an unusual and extraordinary occurrence, was not a miracle in the strict sense of the word. At the same time, the possibility of this miracle by no means proves its reality or historical truth. This can only be correctly discerned and rightly estimated, from the important bearing of Jonah's mission to Nineveh and of his conduct in relation to this mission upon the position of Israel in the divine plan of salvation in relation to the Gentile world. The mission of Jonah was a fact of symbolical and typical importance, which was intended not only to enlighten Israel as to the position of the Gentile world in relation to the kingdom of God, but also to typify the future adoption of such of the heathen, as should observe the word of God, into the fellowship of the salvation prepared in Israel for all nations.

As the time drew nigh when Israel was to be given up into the power of the Gentiles, and trodden down by them, on account of its stiff-necked apostasy from the Lord its God, it was very natural for the self-righteous mind of Israel to regard the Gentiles as simply enemies of the people and kingdom of God, and not only to deny their capacity for salvation, but also to interpret the prophetic announcement of the judgment coming upon the Gentiles as signifying that they were destined to utter destruction. The object of Jonah's mission to Nineveh was to combat in the most energetic manner, and practically to overthrow, a delusion which had a seeming support in the election of Israel to be the vehicle of salvation, and which stimulated the inclination to pharisaical reliance upon an outward connection with the chosen nation and a lineal descent from Abraham. Whereas other prophets proclaimed in words the position of the Gentiles with regard to Israel in the nearer and more remote future, and predicted not only the surrender of Israel to the power of the Gentiles, but also the future conversion of the heathen to the living God, and their reception into the kingdom of God, the prophet Jonah was entrusted with the commission to proclaim the position of Israel in relation to the Gentile world in a symbolico-typical manner, and to exhibit both figuratively and typically not only the susceptibility of the heathen for divine grace, but also the conduct of Israel with regard to the design of God to show favour to the Gentiles, and the consequences of their conduct. The susceptibility of the Gentiles for the salvation revealed in Israel is clearly and visibly depicted in the behaviour of the Gentile sailors, viz., in the fact that they fear the God of heaven and earth, call upon Him, present sacrifice to Him, and make vows; and still more in the deep impression produced by the preaching of Jonah in Nineveh, and the fact that the whole population of the great city, with the king at their head, repent in sackcloth and ashes. The attitude of Israel towards the design of God to show mercy to the Gentiles and grant them salvation, is depicted in the way in which Jonah acts, when he receives the divine command, and when he goes to carry it out. Jonah tries to escape from the command to proclaim the word of God in Nineveh by flight to Tarshish, because he is displeased with the display of divine mercy to the great heathen world, and because, according to Jon 4:2, he is afraid lest the preaching of repentance should avert from Nineveh the destruction with which it is threatened. In this state of mind on the part of the prophet, there are reflected the feelings and the general state of mind of the Israelitish nation towards the Gentiles. According to his natural man, Jonah shares in this, and is thereby fitted to be the representative of Israel in its pride at its own election. At the same time, it is only in this state of mind that the old man, which rebels against the divine command, comes sharply out, whereas his better I hears the word of God, and is moved within; so that we cannot place him in the category of the false prophets, who prophesy from their own hearts. When the captain wakes him up in the storm upon the sea, and the lot shows that he is guilty, he confesses his fault, and directs the sailors to cast him into the sea, because it is on his account that the great storm has come upon them (Jon 1:10-12). The infliction of this punishment, which falls upon him on account of his obstinate resistance to the will of God, typifies that rejection and banishment from the face of God which Israel will assuredly bring upon itself by its obstinate resistance to the divine call. But Jonah, when cast into the sea, is swallowed up by a great fish; and when he prays to the Lord in the fish's belly, he is vomited upon the land unhurt. This miracle has also a symbolical meaning for Israel. It shows that if the carnal nation, with its ungodly mind, should turn to the Lord even in the last extremity, it will be raised up again by a divine miracle from destruction to newness of life. And lastly, the manner in which God reproves the prophet, when he is angry because Nineveh has been spared (Jon 4:1-11), is intended to set forth as in a mirror before all Israel the greatness of the divine compassion, which embraces all mankind, in order that it may reflect upon it and lay it to heart.

But this by no means exhausts the deeper meaning of the history of Jonah. It extends still further, and culminates in the typical character of Jonah's three days' imprisonment in the belly of the fish, upon which Christ threw some light when He said, "As Jonah 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" (Mat 12:40). The clue to the meaning of this type, i.e., to the divinely-appointed connection between the typical occurrence and its antitype, is to be found in the answer which Jesus gave to Philip and Andrew when they told Him, a short time before His death, that there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast who desired to see Jesus. This answer consists of two distinct statements, viz., (Joh 12:23-24): "The time is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except the grain of wheat fall into the earth, and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit;" and (Joh 12:32), "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." This answer of Jesus intimates that the time to admit the Gentiles has not yet come; but the words, "the hour is come," etc., also contain the explanation, that "the Gentiles have only to wait patiently a little longer, since their union with Christ, with which the address concludes (Joh 12:32), is directly connected with the glorification of the Son of man" (Hengstenberg on Joh 12:20). This assertion of the Lord, that His death and glorification are necessary in order that He may draw all men, even the heathen, to Himself, or that by His death He may abolish the wall of partition by which the Gentiles were shut out of the kingdom of God, at which He had already hinted in Joh 10:15-16, teaches us that the history of Jonah is to be regarded as an important and significant link in the chain of development of the divine plan of salvation. When Assyria was assuming the form of a world-conquering power, and the giving up of Israel into the hands of the Gentiles was about to commence, Jehovah sent His prophet to Nineveh, to preach to this great capital of the imperial kingdom His omnipotence, righteousness, and grace. For although the giving up of Israel was inflicted upon it as a punishment for its idolatry, yet, according to the purpose of God, it was also intended to prepare the way for the spread of the kingdom of God over all nations. The Gentiles were to learn to fear the living God of heaven and earth, not only as a preparation for the deliverance of Israel out of their hands after it had been refined by the punishment, but also that they might themselves be convinced of the worthlessness of their idols, and learn to seek salvation from the God of Israel. But whilst this brings out distinctly to the light and deep inward connection between the mission of Jonah to Nineveh and the divine plan of salvation, the typical character of that connection is first made perfectly clear from what Jonah himself passed through. For whereas the punishment, which he brought upon himself through his resistance to the divine command, contained this lesson, that Israel in its natural nationality must perish in order that out of the old sinful nature there may arise a new people of God, which, being dead to the law, may serve the Lord in the willingness of the spirit, God also appointed the mortal anguish and the deliverance of Jonah as a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the whole world. As Jonah the servant of God is given up to death that he may successfully accomplish the work committed to him, namely, to proclaim to the Ninevites the judgment and mercy of the God of heaven and earth; so must the Son of God be buried in the earth like a grain of wheat, that He may bring forth fruit for the whole world. The resemblance between the two is apparent in this. But Jonah deserved the punishment of death; Christ, on the contrary, suffered as the innocent One for the sins of mankind, and went voluntarily to death as One who had life in Himself to accomplish His Father's will. In this difference the inequality appears; and in this the type falls back behind the antitype, and typifies the reality but imperfectly. But even in this difference we may perceive a certain resemblance between Jonah and Christ which must not be overlooked. Jonah died according to his natural man on account of the sin, which was common to himself and his nation; Christ died for the sin of His people, which He had taken upon Himself, to make expiation for it; but He also died as a member of the nation, from which He had sprung according to the flesh, when He was made under the law, that He might rise again as the Saviour of all nations.

This symbolical and typical significance of the mission of the prophet Jonah precludes the assumption that the account in his book is a myth or a parabolical fiction, or simply the description of a symbolical transaction which the prophet experienced in spirit only. And the contents of the book are at variance with all these assumptions, even with the last. When the prophets are commanded to carry out symbolical transactions, they do so without repugnance. But Jonah seeks to avoid executing the command of God by flight, and is punished in consequence. This is at variance with the character of a purely symbolical action, and proves that the book relates historical facts. It is true that the sending of Jonah to Nineveh had not its real purpose within itself; that is to say, that it was not intended to effect the conversion of the Ninevites to the living God, but simply to bring to light the truth that even the Gentiles were capable of receiving divine truth, and to exhibit the possibility of their eventual reception into the kingdom of God. But this truth could not have been brought to the consciousness of the Israelites in a more impressive manner than by Jonah's really travelling to Nineveh to proclaim the destruction of that city on account of its wickedness, and seeing the proclamation followed by the results recorded in our book. Still less could the importance of this truth, so far as Israel was concerned, be exhibited in a merely symbolical transaction. If the intended flight of the prophet to Tarshish and his misfortune upon the sea were not historical facts, they could only be mythical or parabolical fictions. But though myths may very well embody religious ideas, and parables set forth prophetical truths, they cannot be types of future facts in the history of salvation. If the three days' confinement of Jonah in the belly of the fish really had the typical significance which Christ attributes to it in Mat 12:29. and Luk 11:29., it can neither be a myth or dream, nor a parable, nor merely a visionary occurrence experienced by the prophet; but must have had as much objective reality as the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

(Note: Compare also the critical examination of the more recent views that have been published against the historical character of the book of Jonah, and the negative and positive vindication of the historical view, in Hvernick's Handbuch der Einleitung in D. A. T. ii. 2, p. 326ff.; and the discussions on the symbolical character of the book by Hengstenberg (Christology, vol. i. p. 404ff. translation), and K. H. Sack in his Christliche Apologetik, p. 343ff., ed. 2.)

But if it follows from what has been said, that our book contains facts of a symbolico-typical meaning from the life of the prophet Jonah, there is no tenable ground left for disputing the authorship of the prophet himself. At the same time, the fact that Jonah was the author is not in itself enough to explain the admission of the book among the writings of the minor prophets. This place the book received, not because it related historical events that had happened to the prophet Jonah, but because these events were practical prophecies. Marck saw this, and has the following apt remark upon this point: "The writing is to a great extent historical, but so that in the history itself there is hidden the mystery of a very great prophecy; and he proves himself to be a true prophet quite as much by his own fate as he does by his prophecies."

For the exegetical literature on the book of Jonah, see my Lehrbuch der Einleitung, p. 291.

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