Jonah (and the Whale): A Biblical Study Guide


The book does not mention who the author was, but tradition says that it was the prophet himself, Jonah. He was from Gath Hepher in Zebulun.   People think this because it is very similar in style to that of the narratives about Elijah and Elisha.  It is also possible that it just came from the same circle of prophetic writers that made accounts of those prophets (Barker 1387).   Another theory is that the author lived long after this actually happened since the author use “was a” to refers to Nineveh in 3:3 so he has written this after Nineveh’s destruction by the Babylonians in 612 BC (Metzger 431-432).


The book was originally written for the Jewish people, like the rest of the Old Testament.  It was intended to teach them a lesson from God.

Date of Authorship:

Scholars do not know exactly when the book was written, but because of the preaching to the Gentiles the book is usually dated after the postexilic period.  Scholars generally agree the book was written after the destruction of Nineveh in 612BC (Sasson, pg 26).  Outside of this theory people don’t really have a specific date but some have estimated as early as 750BC and as late as 250BC.

Main themes of the Book:

Throughout the book the main theme of Jonah is his willingness to accept blessing and mercy and his reluctance to see his enemies, the Ninevites (or Assyrians), receive the same treatment.  Another theme is God’s unchanging nature, in contrast to Jonah’s inconsistency.  Finally there is the theme of God’s desire to save not just the Jews but also the Gentiles (Metzger 434-435).

Main characters in the book:

Jonah being eaten by a great Fish

The main characters of the book of Jonah consist of Jonah, God, the sailors with their Captain, the Ninevites, the king of Nineveh, and the great fish.   Jonah, son of Amittai was an eighth-century Israelite prophet.  Besides his role in prophesying to the Ninevites and being the co-star with God in the book of Jonah, he is also mentioned in 2 kings 14:25 as the prophet who prophesies of Israel’s expansion under king Jeroboam II (785 – 745 BC) (Achtemeier, 335). The sailors and their captain in the book of Jonah were sailing to Tarshish and were very religious because when the ship got caught in a storm the sailors immediately started praying to their gods.  When Jonah told them about his God they were deeply afraid.  God is the creator of the universe; he is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  He is the God of the Israelites and in this book he is also shown to be the God of the Gentiles.  The Ninevites were the people of Nineveh, which was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  The people were very evil and even another minor prophet, Nahum, in his own Old Testament book, states that the Ninevites sins include: extreme violence, plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation (Barker 1387-1389).  The king of Nineveh was the king of the Assyrian empire.  He seems to also be a religious person because when he hears about what Jonah is saying he covers himself in sackcloth and ashes and made the whole empire mourn for the city and to give up there evil ways (Shaultz 1255).   The great fish is believed to be just an extremely large fish, not necessarily a whale.  The great fish is an obedient servant of God and when he swallows Jonah, who was happy because to be saved from drowning.  Then at God’s command, the fish spat Jonah out.

Main teachings of the Book:

The main teaching of the book may boil down to simply telling the reader not to be like Jonah and listen to what God tells you.  Two other teachings to be noted are that God is unchanging and that God is merciful and loving.   This is shown when Jonah said in 4:2, “O Lord is this not what I said when I was still at home?   That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”  So God does not change his nature and he is a loving God.  Another main teaching in the book is that the Jews were not the only ones worthy of God’s blessings.   In Jonah 4:4 and 4:9, the writer is teaching us that as humans we are so clueless and wrong sometimes, that we need to trust in God’s righteousness and that he is always right(Metzger, 435).  Finally, a big part of the Book of Jonah is how we all get second chances.  God gave Jonah a second chance by saving him from drowning by sending the great fish to swallow him and then spit him out later, and again when God did not destroy Nineveh because they repented of their sins (Sasson 239).

Significant theologies in the book:

The book of Jonah shows its readers that much like Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 4:12 and Luke 15:10 that it is often the sinners that recognize there need for forgiveness not the righteous.   The book of Jonah also serves as bulwark against the narrow and rigid thinking of the Jews, that they alone were worthy of God’s blessings (Metzger 435).  Some people feel that the book of Jonah supports a view of universalistic, which is the view that all people can become God’s chosen people (Sasson 25).   Another theology is the fact that Jesus referred to Jonah when the people asked him for a miracle in Matthew 16:4 Jesus says “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”  So when Jonah was swallowed by the great fish it is in some way a representation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jonah also shows how God is completely sovereign and can control animals or anything in creation.

What is the relationship of this book to the people of God, viz Israel?

The Book of Jonah is a minor prophet, so the book holds significant value to the Jews both as a historical book and as reveling God blessing is not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles as well.

Give either the internal or external evidence for these books being included in the canon.

The canonization of Jonah really hasn’t been questioned.  Especially since Jesus mentioned Jonah in his ministry.  There has been some debate as to why the book is a minor prophet and not a historical book (Metzger 437-438).

Basic Outline:

  1. Jonah flees his mission (ch. 1-2)
    1. Jonah’s commission and flight (1:1-3)
    2. The Endangered sailors’ cry to their gods (1:4-6)
    3. Jonah’s disobedience exposed (1:7-10)
    4. Jonah’s Punishment and Deliverance (1:11-2:1; 2:10)
    5. His prayer of thanksgiving (2:2-9)
    6. Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission(Ch 3-4)
      1. Jonah’s renewed commission and Obedience (3:1-4)
      2. The Endangered Ninevites’ Repentant Appeal to the Lord (3:5-9)
      3. The Ninevites’ Repentance acknowledged (3:10-4:4)
      4. Jonah’s Deliverance and Rebuke(4:5-11)


List of Resources:

In my opinion one of the best study material for the Book of Jonah is the Zondervan NIV Aplication Commentary by James Bruckner.  It is extremely thorough and it is solidly balanced on its interpretation of the Bible.  I think it would be extremely helpful for anyone looking to do some serious studying on the book.  Click here if you would like to order it from Amazon they have some of the most competitive prices on the internet selling both new and used copies.

Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul L., ed. “Jonah, Nineveh, God, Assyrian.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. 1 vols. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

Barker, Kenneth L., ed. Zondervan: NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 1387-1393.

Stuart, Douglas K., ed. Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea – Jonah. Vol. 31. Colombia: Nelson Reference & Electronic. 424-510.

Sasson, Jack M. Jonah: a New Translation. Vol. 24B. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Shaultz, John, ed. Life Application Study Bible. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1997.


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