Have You Missed the Point of the Book of Jonah?


As has been noted by many,  the book of Jonah stands out among the other writings in the Book of the Twelve. The narrative flow of the book, as well as the historical questions, if any, addressed, have staged interpretive difficulties in the study of the Twelve as a whole. Yet, commentators have traditionally shared broad thematic consensus on the overarching message of the book, highlighting the character of Yahweh as gracious and compassionate.

But one finds a challenge to the traditional interpretation of Jonah in the latest volume of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (“Meaning More than They Say: The Conflict between YHWH and Jonah.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament [December 2012 37], 237-257). Rob Barrett, professor of theology at Georg-August University of Göttingen, argues that the focus of the book does not lie in the narrative aspect of the composition, but rather in  the speeches present in the book. Through an analysis of the speeches, Barrett exposes, what he terms, a conflict between Yahweh and the prophet. In each instance, as Barrett states, the direct speeches recorded betray a deeper meaning than intended by the speaker, resulting in the central focus of the book resting not on the Gentile sailors or the people of Nineveh, but on the relationship between Yahweh and Jonah.

While many have looked to chapter four as explanation for Jonah’s flight in disobedience from Yahweh, Barrett claims that this is an inadequate conclusion. The function of the concluding chapter is not to elucidate Jonah’s motivation for fleeing from the call to Nineveh, but rather to evince Yahweh’s commitment to his mercy on Jonah, as representative of Israel. Rather than Jonah’s conflict with Nineveh taking a central role, the conflict “only provides the stage upon which the drama between YHWH and Jonah plays out” (246). Instead of being about Yahweh’s compassion on the nations, the book of Jonah is said to be about Yahweh’s compassion on Israel.

While there is much that could be said about this article, it must suffice to make only cursory comments. Barrett is indeed to be commended for a fresh approach to the study of the book of Jonah. The speeches in the book have largely been subordinated the other aspects, in many cases to their own neglect. Yet, the focus on the direct discourse present yields some fruitful exegetical considerations, particularly in grasping the literary structure of the book.

Another feature of the article that is worthy of note is Barrett’s presentation of Jonah as a representative of Israel. On a popular level, it has been common to identity wayward individuals, running from “the will of God,” with Jonah, without properly understanding his role in the plot of the book. But as part of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Jonah contained a message that was originally given to the people of Israel, and as such, functioned to instruct, rebuke, and shape God’s people first under the old covenant. Viewing Jonah as representative of Israel opens new vistas of understanding for interpreters.

Yet with these features noted, there is one primary objection I have with Barrett’s thesis. In concluding that the locus of authorial intent is in Yahweh’s conflict with Jonah, Barrett downplays, if not almost entirely, the role of Gentiles in the composition. Regarding this Barrett states:

“When the conflicts with the Ninevites (and sailors) are granted priority, the interpretation of the book leads inexorably toward the radical idea that YHWH enters into meaningful relationship with non-Israelite peoples, which results in an overwhelmingly weighty theological burden for such a difficult and brief book” (241).

Yet the trajectory of the Hebrew Bible is directed towards this very burden (Gen 12:3; Isa 2:2-4; Zech 14:16). When read in the larger canonical context, Gentile inclusion does not appear an unexpected feature, especially in the commentary of the latter prophets. And this need not, as Barrett asserts, lead to some form of replacement theology (the church instead of national Israel), but can be seen in the historical-redemptive plan of God to create one man in Christ (Eph 2:11-22).

Barrett’s article certainly provides some deep reflection on the text of Jonah, and for that I am thankful. But the primary thrust of his conclusion may indicate that you may have be reading Jonah just fine all along.


Filed under Jonah

3 responses to “Have You Missed the Point of the Book of Jonah?

  1. I believe John Walton (“Jonah, Book of,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (GrandRapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 403) and Mark Boda (A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament, 318) make the same argument using a different avenue.

    If I recall, they look to the placement of Jonah within the Book of the Twelve as an interpretive grid. The message is to Israel. Will they repent? God’s question to Jonah at the conclusion of the book is a question to Israel, before she is exiled. We receive no closure in the book of Jonah itself. Yet, we find that closure, dissatisfactory though it may be, in the following books within The Twelve.

    If Barrett’s conclusion is that the Gentile inclusion cannot be sustained from the book of Jonah, then I believe he rhetorical force of God’s call for Israel to repent is lessened. The fact that God will accept the repentance of “pagan” sailors and will forgive the heinous sins of Nineveh (described in Nahum), then how much more will he forgive the sins of his own people?

    All that is to say, the two go hand in hand.

  2. Jacob,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have been greatly helped by both Walton and Boda on many issues in the past, so thanks for the references.

    Though the unity of the Twelve is a question consistently on the forefront of my mind, I am hesitant to lean on it too heavily for themes absent from a particular book. For instance, if Gentile inclusion is in fact missing from Jonah, I question how legitimate it is to content ourselves with its presence elsewhere in the Twelve for understanding the theology of Jonah. This approach, though common, appears to detract from the message of the individual books themselves. This is not to discourage canonical reading, but rather seeks to allow an individual book itself to speak before allowing others to fill in the blanks.

    That said, I agree with you that Gentile inclusion and the call for Israel’s repentance dovetail in Jonah.

  3. Interesting post Andrew! It’s great that you are focusing on books that normally escape Christians’ attention.

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