Outside his key role in the book of Jonah itself, the prophet Jonah is known to us by one obscure verse in 2 Kings 14:25. The limited setting referenced in this passage seems to be the reign of Jeroboam II, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, in the middle of the eighth century BC. Unlike the other prophetic books, the book of Jonah is not a series of prophecies by the prophet himself. Rather, it is a four-chapter narrative that depicts four successive scenes in Jonah’s call by God to deliver a word of judgment against the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
Scholars typically date Jonah after the return from exile in 539 BC. This is due partly to the theology of Jonah, which includes Jonah’s demand that the Gentiles repent and serve the God of Israel. This theology would have certainly have been out of place during the monarchic period. (See the opposite attitude toward Nineveh in the book of Nahum.). All in all, it seems that Jonah is more story than historical account.
The book of Jonah opens with Jonah resisting God’s command that Jonah travel to Nineveh. For Jonah, this command was as deplorable as the people of Nineveh themselves, especially because there was a chance that through Jonah’s message, Nineveh might repent, thus receiving God’s mercy. Nineveh lay on the eastern edge of Assyria, and so Jonah runs off to Tarshish, likely in Spain, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea. In response to Jonah’s disobedience to God, God causes a violent storm to sweep over the sea, bringing Jonah’s ship into peril. Jonah suggests the sailors in charge of the ship throw him overboard to save themselves, which leads Jonah to his infamous episode with the “great fish.” Jonah spends three days and three nights there, which Jesus appeals to as a sign of his own resurrection.
In a manner of speaking, Jonah “died” in the belly of the fish. He speaks of being in the depths of the “grave,” or “sheol,” the Hebrew word for the place of death. Jonah prays while in the fish’s belly, which is a prayer of repentance and then thanksgiving. He ends his prayer with the famous verse, “Salvation comes from the Lord” (2:9), by which he means “God will deliver me from this fish.” In the next verse, this is exactly what God does when Jonah is vomited out onto dry land—a resurrection from the dead, so to speak.
Through this traumatic episode, Jonah learns his lesson, goes to Nineveh, and prophesies its destruction, leading the people to repent. Just as Jonah originally feared, God has compassion on them and relents from judgment. Jonah is angry at this decision, for he only wants God to be compassionate to Israel—and certainly not to Israel’s enemies! God tells Jonah he has no right to be angry. What God does with Nineveh is God’s business. If God wishes to have compassion on Gentiles, who “cannot tell their right from their left” (4:11), that is for God to decide.
For a postexilic audience hearing Jonah for the first time, the message was two-fold: 1) Israel must not be like Jonah, who resisted God’s desire that he submit to God’s plan to be a light to the pagan nations, seeking their repentance and conversion. 2) Non-Israelite nations are not beyond God’s mercy, for God will have compassion on whom God will have compassion, even if they stand outside the borders of Israel and her religion.
– Peter Enns