A Look at Jonah 1:1-3

The book of Jonah begins like much of the prophetic literature found in the Bible: the word of the LORD is given to one of His prophets, and a message is given to the prophet to proclaim. But, three verses into the book the prophet Jonah takes the reader in a different direction. Instead of obeying God, Jonah silently arises and urgently flees in disobedience.

The book of Jonah differs from much of the prophetic writings in that it is mostly a narrative. Jonah is not merely a fable or fairy tale. It is a great historical account featuring a great city, a great storm, a great fish, and a great evil.[1] The book of Jonah is not the only place in which Jonah is seen. There is a mention of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:24-27 in which he is identified as a northern prophet of the early eight century BC.[2] Although this date has some challengers such as Jack Sasson, most hold to this date for the time in which the book of Jonah takes place.

Jonah 1:1-3 sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Jonah attempts to flee from the presence of Yahweh, Jonah starts his trek downwards which would ultimately lead him to the depths of the sea and to the roots of the mountains (2:6) before being brought back up by God and given the same commandment to arise and go preach to the Ninevites of their coming judgment.

JONAH 1:1

“And the word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying:”

The way that Jonah opens is typical of introductions found in other prophetical books, although not exactly parallel. It most closely resembles Joel 1:1 which says, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel, son of Pethuel.” Although Jonah and Joel’s introductions are very similar, Joel differs in a significant way. Joel’s introduction introduces a list of oracles or prophetic sayings, but Jonah has the introduction of a narrative. This is unique within the prophetic books, but is found in other narrative literature about prophets. A look at Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-10, which says “The word of the LORD came to him (Elijah), saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there…’” shows a striking similarity to Jonah 1:1.[3]

The phrase “the word of the LORD came to…” does not open any other biblical books. But it is found opening episodes in larger books (cf. 1 Sam 15:10; 1 Kgs 6:11; 16:1; 21:17, 28; 2 Chr 11:2; Isa 38:4; Jer 29:30; 32:26; 33:19, 23; 34:12; 35:12; 37:6; Zech 7:8).[4] There is no need to think that the book is a continuation of an account already underway or that it is part of a larger work no longer in existence. It is an account of God’s continuing work with His people and a prophet named Jonah.[5] The first word, וַֽיְהִי , is often nothing more than an introductory expression which needs no translation. Several books which begin with it (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, and Ezekiel) do not lose any meaning by not translating it. Here it is the main verb of the clause, but there is no reason to try to link Jonah with any other narrative.[6]

Some have taken the literal meaning of Jonah, “dove,” and Jonah’s father Amittai, “truth,” as ways to better understand (or perhaps preach) the book of Jonah. Some focus on the characteristics of doves and compare and contrast them with Jonah. They say that doves symbolize peace, but Jonah desired judgment, and that doves are home-loving birds, and Jonah also loved his home and people. It is the stubborn nationalism of Jonah that God addresses throughout the book.[7] Some also contrast Jonah with the dove that Noah sent from the ark.[8] Eugene Roop points out that even though you can see Jonah as “Dove, son of truth,” those who do typically interpret the narrative as a parody see Jonah’s name as satire.[9] What the narrator is trying to show through this introduction to the book is that Jonah’s commission was at least formally traditional. A prophet had been called by God.

JONAH 1:2

“Arise and go immediately to Nineveh, that great city, and announce against it because their wickedness has gone up before me.”

Verse two summarizes the LORD’s instructions to Jonah. The first thing that Jonah is told to do is ק֠וּם לֵ֧ךְ (“arise and go”). Many scholars agree that ק֠וּם is used with an inceptive force, indicating that the action required is to take place immediately.[10] The phrase can be translated “Go at once” showing the immediacy. It is not necessary to rid the English translation of ק֠וּם when doing this, however. To do so removes some of the beauty of the intentional use of certain words by the author. Here Yahweh is telling Jonah to arise, to get up. Does this mean that Jonah was lounging about, not adhering to his duties as a prophet? The text does not say, but there is potential validity to thinking so.

Yahweh tells Jonah to go to “Nineveh, that great (הַגְּדוֹלָ֖ה) city.” Here Nineveh described as “that great city.” Its people are known for their wickedness. Evil (raah) and great (gadol) appear frequently in various forms throughout the narrative. It is not just Nineveh that is described as great, but the storm, the fish, and anger also are described as great in the book. What the word great entails is debated, especially in context with Nineveh. Some say that it designates nothing more than its size. Others discuss that its size, influence, number of people, abundance of evil, etc. all can be encompassed by the term “great.”[11]

The city Nineveh was old, dating back to approximately 4500 BC, and one of the major cities of Assyria. Situated on the bank of the Tigris River, it was built by Nimrod, according to Gen 10:11. It was an extremely well-fortified city and the capital of Assyria for a time.[12] It stood about 550 miles northeast of Samaria, a journey that would require Jonah to travel more than a month to reach. [13] The great size of the city was no representation of its moral character, however. Beyond its size, the city was also known for the ruthless atrocities it imposed on its captives. And it is the wickedness/evil of the inhabitants of Nineveh that had “gone up before” Yahweh.

The Hebrew changes from third singular “against it,” to third plural and shows that Yahweh is talking about the evil of those who indwelt Nineveh. God was watching from heaven and knew what was happening on earth. The evil had come up to Yahweh, appealing for judgment as Gen 4:10; 18:20, 21. The Septuagint translates it Ἀνέβη ἡ κραυγή τῆς κακίας αὐτής πρὸς μέ, “The cry of its wickedness is come up unto me.”[14]

Jonah is told, “וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ” (“and announce against it”). Although some do not think that “against it” is a proper translation[15], most scholars and translations translate it this way. Sasson argues that when קְרָא is used with עָל it means “against.”[16] It is an appeal for or an announcement of the Lord’s judgment against them (cf. Deut 15:9; 24:15; 1 Kgs 13:2, 4, 32; 2 Kgs 23:17).[17]

What does this passage say about God? Typically in the Old Testament God is conceived as only being concerned with Israel, the nation in whom He had chosen to be His people. Yet here Yahweh is seen concerned with Nineveh and its survival. The great city of Nineveh, in all their wickedness, mattered to God, and his concern and love reaches out to all people.[18]

JONAH 1:3

“So Jonah arose and fled to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. And he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish. And he paid its fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the LORD.”

In verse two, Yahweh told Jonah to “arise and go,” and here in verse three Jonah arose, but then fled in the opposite direction. Unlike Elijah of 1 Kings 17:8-10, who “set out and went,” Jonah directly disobeyed Yahweh. Jonah is not the only prophet who resisted God’s command. Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah all raised objections to God’s command, but were eventually persuaded to accept their call. Jonah silently and urgently ran away.[19]

No motives are explained as to why Jonah disobeyed God so forcefully. The narrative does not tell us at this point. The reader is left to his imagination. Eventually Jonah expresses why he did not want to go in Jonah 4:2. The reason Jonah did not want to go was because of fear. It was not a fear, as some assume, of the Assyrian’s and their brutality. It was a fear that Nineveh might actually repent. If Nineveh repented, what would that mean for Israel’s own stubbornness and sin? Some think that Jonah thought if God spared Nineveh, then that would eventually mean the destruction of Israel.[20] Ultimately, however, we are not given any reasons as to why Jonah flees in the beginning. But reasons are not needed to obey God at His word.

It is here that Jonah begins his progression downward. As he flees from the LORD, Jonah makes it his desire to get as far away from (מִלִּפְנֵ֖י) the LORD as possible. What was Jonah thinking? Did he really think he could escape from the presence of Yahweh? Perhaps his view of mercy had kept him from making wise decisions. Some have said Jonah thought that in fleeing the land of Israel, where Yahweh was peculiarly present and worshipped, he could escape from his power and influence. This would have been a likely conception of how gods interacted in those days, but Jonah more than likely knew better. He knew the truths stated in Ps 139:7-10.[21]

Jonah went down to Joppa, a port city sixty miles away. He found a boat that was going out to Tarshish and paid its fare. There is much discussion about where exactly Tarshish was and why Jonah decided to go there. It is generally accepted that Tarshish is a city about 2,500 miles away from Joppa located in Spain in the opposite direction of Nineveh. There have been archaeological findings to support this, but as for the story itself its actual location is not of the greatest concern. It is mentioned three times in this verse, and two of the times “away from the presence of Yahweh” is mentioned. What is clearly seen is that Jonah is going through much trouble to get away from the presence of Yahweh. He purchased the fare for the boat going to Tarshish. Some say that this fare for the boat was not merely a ticket, but the fare for the entire boat.[22] There is a sense of urgency that Jonah was trying to flee as quickly as possible and do whatever it took to do so.

It is not a coincidence that Jonah “went down” (יֵּרֶד) to Joppa and again “went down” into the boat. This is the narrator contrasting the call for Jonah to “arise and go,” but instead Jonah went to great lengths to arise and flee, and then go down. He continues to go down until he is swallowed by a large fish and brought down to the depths of the ocean. In this sense, God gave Jonah what he desired: to escape the presence of God.

CONCLUSION

Jonah starts off similarly to many other prophetic writings, but before you know it he has jumped on a boat with the intentions of fleeing from the presence of Yahweh. The language used is vivid and intentional. Jonah 1:1-3 begins the story of prophet who eventually learns that you cannot escape from God’s presence. This story also says interesting things about God Himself. God was interested in the great city of Nineveh in its sin. He was being merciful to them by sending a prophet to warn them of their coming destruction. Why did God not choose a prophet who would have willingly obeyed Him? Why did God not raise someone up in the midst of Nineveh? There were lessons that God wanted to teach Jonah, Nineveh, the eventual reader, and especially Israel through this story. God is indeed everywhere, and His presence cannot be fled from. Even though Jonah gave it his best efforts, he learned this truth the hard way.


[1] Eugene F. Roop, Ruth, Jonah, Esther, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2002), 107.

[2] D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Jonah 1:1–3.

[3] Roop, 105.

[4] Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, vol. 19B, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 223.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brynmor F. Price and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 21, A Translators’ Handbook on the Book of Jonah, Helps for translators (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1978), 47-53.

[7] Paul Mackrell, Opening Up Jonah (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2007), 18.

[8] Robert Jamieson and A. R. Fausset, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Jonah 1:1–3.

[9] Roop, 106.

[10] Price and Nida, 49.

[11] Roop, 107.

[12] Smith and Page, 224.

[13] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-), Jon 1:1–3.

[14] The Pulpit Commentary: Jonah, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 1-2.

[15] D. A. Carson,  Jonah 1:2.

[16] Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation, 1st ed. (Anchor Bible (Doubleday), 1990) 74.

[17] Smith and Page, 225.

[18] Peter C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets : Volume 1, The Daily Study Bible Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 217.

[19] Roop, 108.

[20] Smith and Page, 226.

[21] Jamieson and Fausset, Jonah 1:3.

[22] Price and Nida, 53.

5 thoughts on “A Look at Jonah 1:1-3

  1. Thanks for posting! Recently read Tullian Tchividjian’s “Surprised By Grace” which was about Jonah. I was really surprised by how much there is to learn from such a short narrative!

    I’m encouraged by the simple fact that you pointed out: God could have given up on Jonah and picked someone else, but He wasn’t only concerned with the city Ninivah, but also with one man Jonah! -Michael

  2. oh btw, How do you like the “New Bible Commentary”? I have the BKC volumes, but have had my eye on that one for a while as well. Is it worth it?

    1. Cool. yeah, I tend to check out a specific-book commentaries from my college’s library when I’m doing a study or teaching from a particular book, but like to have some general 1/2 volume commentaries on hand for day to day use.

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