In Jonah, there’s no story before God’s call to Jonah. No setting is described. The author mentions no year or season. He doesn’t tell us who he is or why he’s writing. He doesn’t tell us anything about his main character, Jonah, except his name and his father’s name. The word of God comes to Jonah, but we don’t know where or how.
This differs from other prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Each of these books describe either a broad historical setting, the specific setting of God’s call, or the prophet’s life and background. It may be that the author of Jonah assumed that his audience would already be familiar with his protagonist. Jonah is mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 14:25, where he spoke God’s word to the evil king of Israel, Jeroboam. But since we don’t know the author or when the book of Jonah was written, we also don’t a have a clear sense of the book’s original audience.
What matters is God’s presence and call, not details about the prophet or setting. God is present through his word.
Though Jonah doesn’t say anything to God, he responds to his call by running away, with a particular geographical location in mind: “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jon. 1:3). He’s running away from God’s calling, God’s presence, and God’s word.
An Unprecedented Call
Jonah isn’t the first reluctant prophet. Moses, Israel’s first prophet, objected when God, speaking to him from a burning bush, called him to confront Pharaoh and lead God’s people out of Egypt. He said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exod. 3:10). Likewise, Jeremiah objected to his call, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jer. 1:6). Both question their own fitness for the task. In each case, God reassures them that he will be with them and give them the words to speak.
But Jonah doesn’t say anything to God. The text doesn’t offer any motive for Jonah’s response. Nothing suggests he doubts his own abilities. No other prophet had ever run away from God’s call, and the text doesn’t say why he does this.
We know, though, where God has called him to go. Our geographical coordinates are Nineveh, northeast of Israel, and Tarshish, due west, across the Mediterranean Sea. God calls Jonah, like Moses, to speak to a great pagan empire. But Moses had grown up in Egypt, raised in Pharoah’s family. And God called Moses to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go, so they could worship God in the land God had promised them through his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18–21). It’s a message of blessing and liberation for Moses’ own people.
God calls Jonah, on the other hand, to leave the promised land and bring a message to a foreign empire. It’s not a message of prosperity and freedom for Israel. In fact, Jonah likely knows it means the opposite. When idolatry and injustice characterized the monarchy in Israel, God brought acts of blessing to individual Gentiles through his prophets, Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 5:1–14). According to Bryan D. Estelle, “There are, then, two sides to this coin. At the same time that blessings come to the Gentiles, judgment comes upon Israel.” It’s this unique calling that sends Jonah running.
The fact that we know little about Jonah also suggests that the problem is the task itself. No evidence indicates that Jonah had a prickly personality or a history of insubordination. It’s not about Jonah—it’s about the calling.
The Willing Prophet
It’s likely, then, that Jonah points to something larger than himself. Though a historical figure, Jonah also represents the people of Israel. According to God’s plan, all nations would know God through Israel’s holy ways (1 Kings 8:59–6). Jonah, fleeing from God’s presence, is a picture of Israel. When God gives Jonah a message about the prosperity of his own people, Jonah listens and obeys (2 Kings 14:25). But he’s utterly unwilling to bring the knowledge of God to a dangerous, pagan enemy.
Unlike Jonah, Jesus doesn’t run from his call. He willingly comes to us. In fact, he becomes one of us. And he willingly goes to the cross, executed by a different pagan empire: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from my father” (John 10:17–18).
Jesus came willingly, so that we, through faith in him, could know God.
This is an excerpt from Jonah, a Core Bible study that aims to lead you into a deeper understanding of how the Old Testament points to the work of Christ. Check it out here.