Out of my distress I called to the Lord, and you answered me;
From the midst of the nether world I cried for help,
And you heard my voice.
Jonah is the fifth book of the twelve Minor Prophets— and an odd one at that. For one thing, it’s a satire. It is neither historical nor oracular, but aims to entertain readers with the comical story of Jonah, an 8th century B.C. Hebrew prophet who— let’s face it— is a bit of a buffoon. When God commands Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh about their wickedness, he boards a ship bound for Tarshish— the opposite direction. Jonah thinks he can run away from God, but he’s in for a rude awakening. En route to Tarshish, Yahweh whips up a huge storm, endangering the ship and its sailors. Rather than perish for the sake and stupidity of Jonah, the sailors throw him overboard into the sea, where he is swallowed by a big fish.
For three days, Jonah hangs out in the belly of the fish (not a whale, by the way), contemplating his unfaithfulness to God and singing hymns of thanksgiving. (Who wouldn’t in that situation?) God, apparently satisfied, speaks to the fish, which promptly pukes Jonah up on dry land. God commands him a second time to go to Nineveh and this time he obeys.
Once at Nineveh, Jonah proclaims God’s warning that the city will be destroyed in forty days if it does not change its evil ways. Incredibly, the people of Nineveh heed the warning almost immediately and put their faith in Yahweh. God relents. This makes Jonah mad, because God was unrelenting with him. He seems to have forgotten his own disobedience and that God was merciful to him despite it. In the end, the Lord does several things to “soothe [Jonah’s] ill temper,” but Jonah remains “mortally angry,” while Yahweh cares for the Ninevites, who “don’t know their right hand from their left.”
The book of Jonah was believed to have been written in the 6th century B.C., after the Israelites’ exile in Babylon, and the story of Jonah, though entertaining, is a forceful reminder that prophecy is not simply aimed at condemning the Israelites’ enemies and making them feel superior. Rather, it shows that God loves all peoples, and that God has chosen the Israelites to be witnesses of that love to all nations.