Why was the book of Jonah written?

We’ll take a break from the authors of the Old Testament this week because we ran across a fascinating essay by Bishop Shelby Spong on the book of Jonah that is worth three bullets. 

A brief refresher, for those of us who have not cracked open an Old Testament text since fifth grade. God told Jonah to go preach to the people at Nineveh. Jonah gave God a head fake and took off in a different direction in a boat. A storm came up, Jonah was tossed overboard by the captain, swallowed by a fish (the author did not know about whales), then spit up on the shore of Nineveh three days later. Reluctantly, Jonah offers some emotionless commentary to the people about turning away from their bad behavior. Surprisingly, they loved the message anyway, begin to follow God’s direction, and hold potlucks on Sunday after service. With that summary, here’s your three bullets:

  • When was Jonah written? It was written after the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem a hundred or so years after the Babylonians had defeated them and carted most of them off to Babylonia. Let’s call it around 400 BCE.
  • Why is that important? Because although the majority of the Jewish people were taken away to Babylon, a few were left behind. And despite all good intentions, they inter-married with some of the local ‘unclean’ Gentiles. When the other Jews returned from Babylon, they decided to lay the blame on the defeat of Jerusalem directly on these Gentiles and their Jewish/Gentile offspring. Things were getting pretty ugly.
  • Sooo Nineveh is Jerusalem? Yep. Except the author of Jonah couldn’t step up to the podium on the Sabbath and directly criticize the Jewish leaders because … well … he’d probably be shown the gate along with the Jewish/Gentile offspring. So this unknown author wrote a tall tale that was entertaining on the surface, but contained a universal message of God’s acceptance of all peoples, even those irascible Gentiles and their offspring.

We’re pretty sure there’s also all kinds of metaphysical and symbolic stuff buried in Jonah. (e.g. three day symbolism). But we’re gonna stop here for now.

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