Jonah :: Catholic News Agency

Author: Jonah, son of Amittai

Date Written: 800-700 BC


Jonah, whose name means "dove," prophesied in the time of Jeroboam II, king of Israel 793-753 BC (2 Kgs 14:25).  At the time, the Assyrian Empire was threatening Israel from the north and eventually did overrun the kingdom in 722 BC. Scholars debate the date and authorship of the book of Jonah because there are so few clues as to when it was written.  It is possible it could have been written at a later time by an inspired author writing about Jonah rather than by Jonah himself.  Scholars disagree over the nature of the book of Jonah.  It may be considered an historical narrative or a fictional story.


The book of Jonah is a story about a prophet rather than a prophecy.  It tells the story of Jonah's rocky relationship with God.  When the Lord calls him to preach to Ninevah, Jonah immediately flees in the opposite direction, but the Lord doesn't let him off the hook so easily.  A powerful storm and a giant fish combine to thwart Jonah's plan to escape God's call.  Even the pagan sailors on their way to Tarshish turn pious in the face of disaster and begin praying and offering sacrifices to the Lord (1:16).


Once inside the fish, Jonah realizes his error and repents for being so impetuous.  But the drama is not over yet!  God sends his word to Jonah for the second time, asking him to go and preach to Ninevah.  Jonah reluctantly accepts.  He despised the Ninevites and resented the fact that the Lord wanted to extend his mercy to them.  But when Jonah preaches God's message, the people of Ninevah respond immediately with fasting and prayer, just like the sailors in the first part of the story.  While it seems a prophet should be ecstatic at such a response, Jonah is despondent and finds a hillside on which to sulk (4:5).


But again the Lord won't let Jonah off so easy.  He challenges Jonah's resentful attitude by sending a plant which gives Jonah shade and a worm that kills the plant.  Jonah's resentment is only intensified by this episode so that he becomes "angry enough to die." (4:9)  But the Lord explains that his attitude contradicts the merciful heart of the God he represents.  The story ends before we hear Jonah's response, but we can accept the Lord's challenge to Jonah as a challenge to us.


Do we have attitudes that contradict God's mercy?  Do we run from the Lord when he calls us?  Do we do his will only with reluctance?  The message of the book confronts us with our sinfulness as we see our own faults in Jonah's heart.  Ironically, the people who really "got the message" were the sailors and Ninevites, not the prophet God sent to them!


Jesus looks back to Jonah as a type or foreshadowing of himself (Matt 12, 16; Luke 11).  The Church fathers continued Jesus' line of thought by comparing how Jonah brought a message of salvation to the Gentiles after leaving the fish's belly and Jesus brought the message of the Gospel for the Gentiles after leaving the tomb.


The story of Jonah teaches us respond to God's call and to widen our perspective to embrace the Lord's plan for others even when it contradicts our assumptions or selfish desires.


By Mark Giszczak

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