Not only is Jonah a historical narrative, it is also an allegorical look at the nation Israel during Jonah's time.
Jonah was a real person and a recognized prophet. He was referenced by Jesus as a real person, and we also read about him in 2 Kings 14:25, where Jonah prophesied to King Jeroboam of Israel. So, I am very comfortable stating that the events in the book of Jonah are historical events that really took place.
If you were writing a history of your life, what would you write about? Most likely your accomplishments, right?
Would you ever write about your failures? Well, maybe – if those failures led to a life changing decision or direction, right?
How would you describe Jonah?
How many of you believe that Jonah was a great example of what NOT to do?! Yeah, he is not an example to follow. His disobedience and attitude are terrible, especially for a mouthpiece of God!
What makes a man of God, a prophet, the mouthpiece of God, act like Jonah and then be willing to have his terrible actions recorded for future generations? WHY would he want this horrible example of himself to be canonized into the Hebrew scriptures?
What if, along with being a historical narrative, the story of Jonah also had a bigger message to share?
God used the prophets to relay his message to his people, and to record their words for future generations. The books that are a part of our Old Testament canon were primarily recorded by the prophets.
God said this, through the prophet Hosea:
Hosea 12:9–10 (CSB) — 9 I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt. I will make you live in tents again, as in the festival days. 10 I will speak through the prophets and grant many visions; I will give parables through the prophets.
The word Parable here is a word that means comparison as well as something to ponder.
“ADAMEH” “be like” or “resemble” … “Adam” (human) was made “in the image” or “be like” or “to resemble” God!
Hosea’s life was a parable of sorts. God told him to marry a prostitute and have children with awkward names to represent what Israel had done and become.
Ezekiel was commanded to lie on his side and eat bread cooked over dung for 430 days to represent the years that Israel and Judah had sinned against God. His life was a parable. [Ezekiel 4]
What if, alongside of being an historical account of Jonah’s life, the story of Jonah is also a parable or allegory? Is it possible that the message of Jonah is NOT about Jonah, nor even primarily about the sailors or Ninevites, but is actually an allegorical lesson for the Jews? [AND for us?]
I think it is not only possible, it is intentional and that there are even multiple levels of this that can be explored.
Let’s start by actually covering the verses I did not get to last week, even if it’s a quick glance for now.
Jonah 4:5–11 (CSB) — 5 Jonah left the city and found a place east of it. He made himself a shelter there and sat in its shade to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God appointed a plant, and it grew over Jonah to provide shade for his head to rescue him from his trouble. Jonah was greatly pleased with the plant. 7 When dawn came the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, and it withered. 8 As the sun was rising, God appointed a scorching east wind. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head so much that he almost fainted, and he wanted to die. He said, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 9 Then God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “Yes, it’s right!” he replied. “I’m angry enough to die!” 10 And the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. 11 So may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”
First, I think that the most unusual part of these verses is not Jonah’s attitude. It is rather that God mentions the animals again. Apparently, it was not a foreign concept to the Jews that the fate of animals was connected to humans and that God cares for both, as we read:
Psalm 36:5–6 (CSB) — 5 Lord, your faithful love reaches to heaven, your faithfulness to the clouds. 6 Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your judgments like the deepest sea. Lord, you preserve people and animals.
This passage of the plant at the end of Jonah has been mostly a mystery to me. Why is it there? What is the point? Are we just supposed to see Jonah’s bad attitude and God’s patience in teaching him a lesson or is there more?
Most of the commentaries have very little to say about this part, and quite a few of the children’s story books leave the plant and worm out.
It just seems like this whole part is very disconnected with the rest of the book, doesn’t it? If we take the literal lesson it could be that God is merciful to those that repent and punishes those that do not. That is a good lesson.
It says that God cares about Nineveh, right?
Yet, around 660BC, God sent the prophet Nahum to prophecy to Nineveh that it will be destroyed… and eventually it was! So, this compassion for Nineveh is certainly NOT the same as his compassion for Israel.
It is possible, however, that there is also a deeper meaning or another level of meaning to these verses. This is not uncommon.
Quick Overview of what takes place:
When humans first sinned, they were kicked out of the garden and they were sent in which direction? East of Eden. And Cain was sent further east. East symbolizes distancing from the presence and ideal of God.
Jonah left Nineveh and went to the East. Going to the East, in Hebrew narrative, is often symbolic of leaving the presence of God.
Hosea 13:15–16 (CSB) — 15 Although he flourishes among his brothers, an east wind will come, a wind from the Lord rising up from the desert. His water source will fail, and his spring will run dry. The wind will plunder the treasury of every precious item. 16 Samaria will bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God. They will fall by the sword; their children will be dashed to pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
The wind is personified – it is the people’s enemy, who will bring about the punishment from God.
Hosea 12:1 (CSB) — 1 Ephraim chases the wind and pursues the east wind. He continually multiplies lies and violence. He makes a covenant with Assyria, and olive oil is carried to Egypt.
Ephraim is Israel. And the charges brought up against Israel is that she has become VIOLENT. Wait, isn’t that the charge that was levied against Nineveh, too?
Because of her violence and lies, she will be punished by an east wind. Who is that east wind according to this verse? Assyria.
WHY would God punish Jonah and not the Ninevites? What was the difference? Repentance, right? Jonah was never repentant and is punished for it. His pride saw Nineveh as wicked and deserving death, but he did not see anything wrong with his own actions and that brought about trouble – the scorching east wind.
If Jonah is a type of Israel, it is possible to consider that Israel, having left the presence of God (gone east) and trying to protect themselves, got into trouble. This could possibly even refer to the times of Shalmaneser III who raided Israel and took animals, crops and people before the time of Jonah.
The plant could represent protection from that trouble. The east wind could represent Assyria. During the time of Jonah, Israel did NOT feel the oppression of the Assyrians as the Assyrians were in a weaker state.
2 Kings 18:1-8 Hezekiah was a king of Judah that followed the Lord and was able to defeat the Assyrians and hold them off.
But then there is that punishing east wind and beating sun that makes Jonah want to die. Perhaps this is telling of the coming exile under the Assyrians.
2 Kings 18:9-12 Israel’s king Hoshea (a wicked king) gets captured and Israel gets taken into exile…
2 Kings 18:12 (CSB) — 12 because they did not listen to the Lord their God but violated his covenant—all he had commanded Moses the servant of the Lord. They did not listen, and they did not obey.
2 Kings 18:13-18 – Judah is also taken captive.
Perhaps the whole scene with the plant is also teaching us that Israel was persecuted by Assyria, and then God protected them, but God was going to remove that protection because of their arrogance and send in Assyria to almost wipe them out to the point where they wished they were dead.
THAT, by the way, is the message of the book of Hosea.
Speaking of books, let’s zoom out at look at THIS book as a whole: The Macro Perspective.
Let’s have a little fun here 😊 Does anyone remember what the name “Jonah” actually means? DOVE, right?
Hosea 7:10–12 (CSB) — 10 Israel’s arrogance testifies against them, yet they do not return to the Lord their God, and for all this, they do not seek him. 11 So Ephraim has become like a silly, senseless dove; they call to Egypt, and they go to Assyria. 12 As they are going, I will spread my net over them; I will bring them down like birds of the sky. I will discipline them in accordance with the news that reaches their assembly.
Hosea compares Israel (Ephraim) to a silly or senseless dove. Let’s take our silly and senseless prophet, Jonah (the Dove) and consider him a type of Israel. In other words, let’s contemplate the idea that the EVENTS in this story of Jonah are possibly meant to point out the actions of Israel, and Jonah is representative of Israel.
What are the events of Jonah’s journey in this narrative, prophetic book?
I am going to read for you some passages from other prophets. Let’s see if you notice and similarities between the message to Israel and Judah and the story of Jonah:
Amos 2:4 (CSB) — 4 The Lord says: I will not relent from punishing Judah for three crimes, even four, because they have rejected the instruction of the Lord and have not kept his statutes. The lies that their ancestors followed have led them astray.
Jeremiah 2:5 (CSB) — 5 This is what the Lord says: What fault did your ancestors find in me that they went so far from me, followed worthless idols, and became worthless themselves?
Jeremiah 3:11–13 (CSB) — 11 The Lord announced to me, “Unfaithful Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. 12 Go, proclaim these words to the north, and say, ‘Return, unfaithful Israel. This is the Lord’s declaration. I will not look on you with anger, for I am unfailing in my love. This is the Lord’s declaration. I will not be angry forever. 13 Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the Lord your God. You have scattered your favors to strangers under every green tree and have not obeyed me. This is the Lord’s declaration.
Jeremiah 16:11–13 (CSB) — 11 Then you will answer them, ‘Because your ancestors abandoned me—this is the Lord’s declaration—and followed other gods, served them, and bowed in worship to them. Indeed, they abandoned me and did not keep my instruction. 12 You did more evil than your ancestors. Look, each one of you was following the stubbornness of his evil heart, not obeying me. 13 So I will hurl you from this land into a land that you and your ancestors have not known. There you will worship other gods both day and night, for I will not grant you grace.’
Isaiah 27:8 (CSB) — 8 You disputed with Israel by banishing and driving her away. He removed her with his severe storm on the day of the east wind.
Daniel 9:7–18 (CSB) — 7 Lord, righteousness belongs to you, but this day public shame belongs to us: the men of Judah, the residents of Jerusalem, and all Israel—those who are near and those who are far, in all the countries where you have banished them because of the disloyalty they have shown toward you. 8 Lord, public shame belongs to us, our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. 9 Compassion and forgiveness belong to the Lord our God, though we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the Lord our God by following his instructions that he set before us through his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has broken your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. The promised curse written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, has been poured out on us because we have sinned against him. 12 He has carried out his words that he spoke against us and against our rulers by bringing on us a disaster that is so great that nothing like what has been done to Jerusalem has ever been done under all of heaven. 13 Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquities and paying attention to your truth. 14 So the Lord kept the disaster in mind and brought it on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all he has done. But we have not obeyed him. 15 Now, Lord our God—who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a strong hand and made your name renowned as it is this day—we have sinned, we have acted wickedly. 16 Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, may your anger and wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people have become an object of ridicule to all those around us. 17 Therefore, our God, hear the prayer and the petitions of your servant. Make your face shine on your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake. 18 Listen closely, my God, and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations and the city that bears your name. For we are not presenting our petitions before you based on our righteous acts, but based on your abundant compassion.
Joel 2:12–14 (CSB) — 12 Even now— this is the Lord’s declaration— turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. 13 Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the Lord your God. For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and he relents from sending disaster. 14 Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him, so you can offer a grain offering and a drink offering to the Lord your God.
Hosea 11:1–11 (CSB) — 1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 Israel called to the Egyptians even as Israel was leaving them. They kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the hand, but they never knew that I healed them. 4 I led them with human cords, with ropes of love. To them I was like one who eases the yoke from their jaws; I bent down to give them food. 5 Israel will not return to the land of Egypt and Assyria will be his king, because they refused to repent. 6 A sword will whirl through his cities; it will destroy and devour the bars of his gates, because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning from me. Though they call to him on high, he will not exalt them at all. 8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? I have had a change of heart; my compassion is stirred! 9 I will not vent the full fury of my anger; I will not turn back to destroy Ephraim. For I am God and not man, the Holy One among you; I will not come in rage. 10 They will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will be roused like birds from Egypt and like doves from the land of Assyria. Then I will settle them in their homes. This is the Lord’s declaration.
But these are just a select few, of the MANY passages that confirm the same message to Israel that Jonah lived out in our narrative. And THIS is just one level of the allegory – the one that refers just to Israel. I think there are more.
It is very possible that the entire book of Jonah is not only a historical book, but also an allegory about the Jews. I do not think it is helpful to say the book of Jonah is either historical or allegorical. I think it is better to acknowledge it as both. Some have denied the history of it because of the miracles over nature and death, but as you will see next week, those are CRUCIAL to the claims of the Messiah who will truly rescue people from the exile.
Jonah is a type of Israel. Jonah disobeyed God and turned from him. When threatened, Jonah begrudgingly agreed to acknowledge God and his decree, but never repented. Jonah is a messenger to the non-Jews, who then repent. Jonah is upset that God shows mercy to the repentant pagans but not to the suborn, rebellious chosen people of God.
Just as it is crazy for a prophet to think he can run from the Lord, it is equally insane for Israel, God’s chosen people, his COVENANT people to think they can run from God.
Jonah should have repented and humbly followed God, just as Israel should have.
Jonah’s selfish prayer in the fish of deliverance and stubborn obedience out of self-preservation and not love should make every Jew cringe and recognize their own rebellion.
God’s mercy to the most wicked, violent people should have reminded Israel that even THEY, who have also been described as violent now, could be forgiven if they only repent.
And Jonah’s over-the-top temper tantrum complaining of God’s mercy on the Ninevites and complaining even more about his hardship is a slap in the face to the Israelites who were doing the same thing.
The message to the JEWS is that God sees their ridiculously silly attitude and rebellion and, though he would relent from his fierce anger, he has had enough and will not relent until they are punished but not wiped out. This is THE EXILE Narrative!
I think there are a few things you and I can glean from this exercise of chasing prophets:
God does not change, even if he does relent. His message is consistent, his Word is trustworthy and he reaffirms his character and his mission over and over lest we lose sight of it - and even with all of that we can lose sight of it!
God is a God of compassion and He gave Israel chance after chance, warning after warning to try to spare them from the punishment they disserved. But their stubbornness, not wanting to admit God was right, not wanting to repent or change their ways, led to their punishment but not their extinction.
God is truly “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster”.
The name “Adam” means “human.” It also means “parable” which refers to something which is like or resembles something else. Humans are a parable. “Jonah” … literally, the silly dove described in Hosea, is a “parable” or “depiction” of Israel. A group of people who scorned God’s love by violating the marriage covenant they made with him. Israel is a parable of the rest of humanity. That includes us. Humans were made to resemble God, but we have all rejected him and worshipped other things. We have all cheated on God.
And yet, we see that God’s character, as shown through the “parable” of Jonah, is one of a relentless lover, constantly pursuing humanity with forgiveness, like a scorned spouse with a desire to reconcile. Hosea showed it towards Israel and Jonah shows it to all of humanity.
God’s ultimate outreach of compassion, his ultimate act to reclaim his love, his bride, was revealed and manifested in Jesus. The life and work of Jesus was the perfect example of what humans were made to be, and his life was sacrificed so that we can realize that purpose alongside him.
Jonah, in hindsight, is a great “adam,” or “parable” on several layers. We’ve just seen how the story represents Israel and God’s relationship with them throughout the whole Old Testament period. It also represents God’s bigger picture plan for humanity, and how that was realized in Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself referred to Jonah, and we can see how the story of Jonah represents the story of Jesus in more ways than one!