Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Jonah, the Book of, an ot book, fifth of the Minor Prophets. Jonah, the son of Amittai, was an eighth-century b.c. Israelite prophet. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as God’s ‘servant’ from Gath-hepher in Galilean Zebulun, who prophesied Israel’s expansion under Jeroboam II (785-745 b.c.). The same prophet is also mentioned in the book of Jonah; however, it is generally regarded that the protagonist of the work placed among the twelve Minor Prophets retains only the loosest connection to the historical Jonah. Rather, the book of Jonah has the character of a parable, dealing with the role and purpose of the prophet. Often dated to postexilic times (late sixth century b.c. and beyond), the work nevertheless bears thematic affinities to Genesis, the Deuteronomistic history, and to pre-exilic prophets such as Micah, Nahum, and Jeremiah.

Content: According to the story, Jonah was commanded by God (1:1-2) to warn Nineveh in Assyria of its great evil. Jonah, however, fled, boarding a ship to Tarshish that God then assailed with a storm. The sailors called upon their gods and desperately cast lots to learn who was responsible for the divine wrath. Jonah, slumbering in the hold, was singled out. He instructed the crew to cast him overboard, which, once done, quieted the sea—whereupon the sailors offered thanks to God (chap. 1). God then appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah. Inside the fish, Jonah burst into prayer, expressing partly lament, partly thanksgiving for God’s (future?) deliverance. The fish then vomited Jonah alive onto dry land (chap. 2).

After these episodes, God again commanded Jonah to warn Nineveh. Jonah now complied, with spectacular results—bringing the Ninevites and their animals (!) to total repentance in sackcloth and ashes by a single brief oracle (chap. 3). But Jonah brooded angrily, apparently disappointed that divine mercy left his oracle of judgment unfulfilled. God grew a castor plant (Heb. kikayon) over Jonah, providing him shade from the sun’s heat, but turned Jonah’s comfort to distress by withering the plant (chap. 4). ‘You pity the plant,’ said God, ‘for which you did not labor…should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from left, and also much cattle?’

Interpretation: Modern investigators differ on the story’s meaning. Some hold it to deal with Israel’s mission, reluctantly embraced by Jonah, to preach God’s universal mercy to non-Israelite nations. The book would thereby represent a polemic against the alleged narrow nationalism of Ezra’s postexilic community. Others, with perhaps more justice, see an intra-Israelite message concerned with divine mercy and the power of repentance. The book also stresses a change in a prophet’s role from a deliverer of oracles to a persuader—since God’s decrees can be reversed by repentance, the prophet must preach to arouse change of heart. Literary interpreters note the story’s intensive wordplays and thematic coherence, despite its composite character. Chaps. 1 and 3 portray Jonah’s interaction with uncommonly repentant Gentiles; chaps. 2 and 4, his own experience of God’s providence. Jonah’s prayer, echoing both psalm themes and certain Ugaritic motifs of sacred enclaves and personal redemption, satirically underscores Jonah’s apparent narcissism and isolation.

The work was interpreted allegorically by Jewish and Christian readers. It is read publicly by Jews on the Day of Atonement to mirror the experience of the repentant worshipers. In Matt. 12:39-41, Jonah 2 is cited to prefigure Jesus’ death and resurrection. Medieval Jewish Cabala saw it as a paradigm of general resurrection.


The Book of Jonah

I. Jonah’s call and his reaction (1:1-17)

A. God tells Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh (1:1-2)
B. Jonah takes a ship in the opposite direction (1:3)
C. Jonah is cast from the storm-wracked ship (1:4-16)
D. Jonah is swallowed by the great fish (1:17)

II. Jonah in the great fish (2:1-10)

A. Jonah’s prayer (2:1-9)
B. Jonah is put on dry land by fish (2:10)

III. Jonah as preacher of repentance (3:1-4:5)

A. Jonah preaches repentance to Nineveh (3:1-5)
B. Nineveh repents and God has mercy on the city (3:6-10)
C. Jonah disappointed by God’s mercy (4:1-5)

IV. The castor plant (4:6-11)

A. Growth and death of plant; Jonah’s reaction (4:6-8)
B. God’s word to Jonah (4:9-11) comments: Taken as a whole, Jonah's behavior is similar to that of the unmerciful servant in Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant, the text of which is available at Both Jonah and the unmerciful servant (1) sinned, (2) begged for and received forgiveness, and (3) were unforgiving toward others who also asked for forgiveness.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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