Unlike the other prophetic books in the Bible, the book of Jonah does not collect the sayings of a prophet. (In fact, Jonah's only prophetic utterance amounts to a mere half verse, 3.4b.) Instead, this book is a simple narrative telling the story of how one prophet responded to God's call in an unexpected way. The story is often humorous as it moves from one episode to the next, but its central theme is quite serious: God's all-encompassing love extends to all the world's peoples and must be shared, even with nations whom history had shown to be one's mortal enemies. This is a significant and ever-relevant message, here presented in parable style, challenging those Israelites who taught that God has no concern or love for the people of other nations, especially enemies. In the context of this parable, Jonah functions symbolically, doing everything he can to avoid God's call and not share God's message of forgiveness with people he thinks are beyond God's concern.
Rather than respond to God's call to go to Nineveh, the capital of the deadly enemy of so many of the smaller nations of the Ancient Near East, Jonah boards the next ship leaving in the opposite direction, hoping to get beyond the reach of God. He does not want to go to Nineveh and proclaim God's message, fearing that God will be merciful rather than vindictive (as he would prefer). When his ship threatens to sink in a fierce Mediterranean storm, the sailors discover that Jonah has been disobedient to his God. Concluding that Jonah is the cause of this storm, they toss him overboard. The storm ceases, but Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, in whose belly he is then preserved alive for three days and nights. Deeply alienated from God, the creator and sustainer of all things, Jonah prays “out of the belly of hell,” a psalm of deliverance (chapter 2; cf. Pss 86, 88, and 91). The fish then spits out Jonah onto the seashore and the prophet makes his way to Nineveh, where he delivers his warning. He is shocked to see the Ninevites take his warning with the utmost seriousness, cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes, repent of their evil ways, and accept God's forgiveness. Jonah's response to this is to sulk in anger, but God uses an object lesson to teach the prophet the meaning of mercy and love, which for God has no limits whatever.
Jonah Receives God's Call to Prophesy in Nineveh but Runs Away (1.1-16)
Jonah Is Swallowed by a Great Fish but Saved by God (1.17—2.10)
Jonah Goes to Nineveh and Proclaims God's Message (3.1—4.11)