Though we know almost nothing about the author of the Book of Jonah, it has been suggested that the book emerged after the Babylonian exile due to its universalist monotheistic message which came about with Second Isaiah, the anonymous sixth-century prophet of Babylonian exile. This global conception of God is wholly different than the more localized tribal war-god of the ancient Canaanite character.
Jonah means “dove” and he is the son of Amittai, which is closely linked to the word “truth” in Hebrew. Jonah, is linked to Noah’s dove which he sends out from the ark amidst the flood water. However, ironically Jonah is an unwilling agent. In this way he is similar to other prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even Moses, though Jonah alone flees from God to the other ends of the earth. Jonah is the only prophet called to prophecy to a foreign and unfriendly nation.
The Book of Jonah at only 4 chapters is radical for recasting traditional views of prophets in ancient Israel as a kind of aggressive global monotheism. It looks beyond the bounds of a nation-state with the hopes of a new kind of existential national religion, one predicated on “faith.” In this way Jonah is a critical text for the laying the foundations of Christianity and Islam, and is a good explanation of why it is the chosen book of many later missionaries.
God’s command of the natural world is notable in Jonah – instead of simply rebuking and punishing a recalcitrant prophet, God has forced the oceans to swell and for a giant fish to swallow Jonah. After three days and nights Jonah prays and God speaks to the fish who vomits up Jonah. Then he proceeds to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire to proclaim their wickedness and that God will destroy the city in 40 days. Thus, the Assyrians turn their back on evil and God spares them. However, in despair Jonah leaves the city and sets up a tent under an unknown fruit tree, but God sends a worm into the fruit which angers Jonah and makes him pity the plant, but God responds angrily that he pities the plant but not the 120,000 people in Nineveh who were living in evil. The book appropriately ends in a question from God to Jonah – “shall I not have pity on Nineveh…?” (4:11). The important piece of this text is that God now has “pity” – a quality we rarely see in the Torah and other earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible, and that he cares about potentially curing the evils of other kingdoms. This was not the case with the Canaanites or the surrounding peoples from the early scriptures from Deuteronomy to Kings.
The following is Michelangelo’s portrayal of Jonah in his masterful paintings at the Sistine Chapel around 1512 -Jonah is one of seven prophets depicted, and five sibyls. He is the only prophet in the Sistine Chapel to look upward. He leans back as a fish comes to nibble at his leg, an allusion to the book of Jonah: