1. Who was the author of Jonah?
Tradition places authorship on the prophet Jonah himself. Researching this provides some alternatives, but whether Jonah wrote the account or he dictated to someone to write the original message does not change. At times, Jonah was the only person around, so he would have had to relay the information first hand to a possible different author. Alternatively, while it is possible that another author could have been inspired from God with the details of the book; the message wouldn't change. So, Jonah, the son of Amittai is counted as the author.
Jonah also appears to be the first of the prophets to actually record a book of Scripture. According to some timelines, Jonah predates Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. All of the prophets before Jonah had their messages recorded in either the books of the Kings or the books of the Chronicles.
2. Is Jonah (the prophet or the book) mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament?
Thankfully, Jonah is mentioned once in the Old Testament, which greatly helps in determining a date range as well as an original audience. 2 Kings 14:25 - He (Jeroboam II) restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.
So, Jonah made a prophecy about Jeroboam II, which means he lived during or before Jeroboam II's reign, which started in 793 BC and ended in 752 BC.
3. When was Jonah written?
This is a bit more difficult, and it has quite a bit of bearing on the original message as well as the original target audience. Conservative estimates place the date around 760 BC (Ryrie and MacArthur), which would place it near the end of Jeroboam II's reign. A little research also shows scholars who date the book later, as in the 3rd or 4th century BC, tend to view the book as a parable or allegory rather than as an actual, historical account.
As there is no compelling evidence to take it any other way than how it is presented, and the fact that Jesus viewed Jonah as an actual historical figure (Matt 12:40) as well as the events that transpired at Nineveh as being true (Matt 12:41), the latter makes more sense despite, as some would view it, the unbelievable submarine ride that Jonah experienced. God is more than able to keep someone alive in the belly of a whale for three or more days.
The 78 year window would range from 800 to 722 BC; the absolute latest date of the borders prophecy would be 752 BC, which was the end of Jeroboam II's reign and the prophecy about Israel's borders would have to be fulfilled before then. Also, somewhere from 751 to 740 BC, the king of Assyria come up against Menachem, king of Israel, so the nation of Assyria was coming back into power.
Conversely, the book could have been written and taken place after the borders prophecy of Jonah. We don't have a record of Jonah's death, so we have to estimate the average lifespan that Jonah may have had with concrete events that had to take place during it.
We know that Jonah was of prophet age (at least older than 20 and probably 30+) before 752 BC; estimating a 60 or so year life span would place the latest time of the book around 722 BC.
4. When did the events of Jonah take place?
Once again, definitive information is hard to come by when determining when the actual events in the book of Jonah take place. Since we are still trying to nail down dates, all resources are available for this purpose. To that end, we can use history to narrow down a time that the Assyrian empire was not so much of a threat to Israel, which would allow the fulfillment of Jonah's prophecy in 2 Kings. 760 BC corresponds with a time near the end of an Assyrian decline, however, about 10 or so years later, Pul, the king of Assyria, would come up against Menahem. The decline was very near its end in 760 BC.
5. To whom was it written?
Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided kingdom. Once again, 2 Kings proves invaluable as Jonah is described as the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher, which is near the sea of Galilee.
6. What was the spiritual condition of the original audience?
The northern kingdom never had a good king as its sister Judah did; the kings of Israel ranged from indifferent to evil. Kings in Israel are continually described as "he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin." Even the best kings of Israel who did right in the sight of the Lord did not tear down the idolatrous mountain worship places, and so the people continued in their idolatry.
Coupled with the unrepentant idolatry was the wrong interpretation of God's grace in allowing the expansion of borders. The people of Israel wrongly assumed that worshipping YHWH along with all the other gods was acceptable and proof of that was the peace and relative security that God allowed.
The real purpose of God's grace was to show Israel that they would only turn back to the Lord under threat of destruction much as it was in the days of the Judges. God's goodness was not a motivator, but His hand of discipline would be.
All this is to say that the original target audience lived in relative peace and security, which Israel experienced in the window of dates we have discussed (800-722 BC). It was shortly after 722 BC that Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, captured Damascus and started the exile of the northern kingdom.
This is the key to finding the original message of Jonah: it was written to a people that lived in peace who continued in idolatry and refused to repent despite God showing His loving mercy and grace in the peace.
7. What Scripture was available to the original audience for interpretation?
Because Jonah seems to be one of the first, if not the first, prophet to have his name as the name of a book of Scripture (with apologies to Samuel.), we can safely exclude all of the minor prophets as well as the major prophets from enlightening the original audience as to God's message from the book of Jonah.
We can also safely assume that all of the Scripture from Solomon's writings and before would be available with the possible exception of Job (Moses and Solomon have been suggested as the author of Job and so it would be available if that was the case. However, other suggestions for authorship include Elihu, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra, so it may not have been available). All of the Psalms, with the exception of the post-exile ones, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the books up to and including parts of the books of the Kings and Chronicles.
Internally, we find evidence in Jonah 2 of Jonah praying parts of several Psalms (3, 18, 31, and 50), so that is useful for establishing concrete examples of Scripture that was available for help in interpreting Jonah's time-locked message.
Notes about Jonah's (Israel's) culture at the time
As mentioned above, the northern kingdom of Israel was engaged in idolatrous worship that proceeded from the kings on down to the lowest peasant. A hundred years before Jonah, Elijah's confrontation of Ahab and the prophets of Baal serves as a prime example of the spiritual condition of the people, who had not changed.
The people continued to worship YHWH, along with Baal, Molech, and a whole host of other gods. They refused to honor even the first commandment.
Israel, and Judah for that matter, also saw themselves as God's chosen people, which they were, but they did not see this as a matter for humility, but rather they were arrogant. They forgot God's own description of them as a stiff-necked, rebellious people, and thought themselves as better than the Gentiles. Rather than have compassion on people who did not know the grace of God, the nation of Israel despised and hated the Gentiles.
Added to this attitude about the nations of the world was the focused hatred on two ancient enemies of the northern kingdom: Syria and Assyria. God had used these two kingdoms to discipline Israel in the past; Israel did not have this perspective and soon returned to idolatry once the threat had passed. So rather than repenting due to the discipline of the Lord, Israel viewed it as simply human oppressors wanting more power.
Into this culture, God brings a message to Jonah, the son of Amittai: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city [of your enemy, who you have a great hatred against] and cry against it [so as to give them a warning of the destruction to come and provide an avenue for their salvation], for their wickedness has come up before Me.” Jonah 1:2
Jonah's reaction is actually, not surprising. He wanted Nineveh's destruction! What better way for the peace and prosperity to continue in Israel than to have a huge city of the enemy wiped out! Bring it on, God!
We might feel the same way if we were told that God intended to destroy Mecca; surely that would show those Muslims what God thinks of them. We might be more reluctant to obey God if He directed us to preach the gospel in Mecca for their salvation. Especially knowing the persecution that we (and Jonah in his situation) would suffer.
While it is very tempting to judge Jonah harshly, we need to temper our thoughts about him with the deficiencies in us due to our own prejudices and hatreds.
With that, we are finally ready to start with Jonah chapter 1!
The format that we will be following is a verse by verse study with stops at paragraphs and chapters for looking at concepts and ideas in the larger context. Without giving too much away, the book's major sections break down along chapter divisions, so there is no need to separate sections from chapters.