AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | The Date of the Book. | Historical Background | The Interpretation of the Book. | Integrity of the Book. | The Hebrew Text and the Septuagint.


The opening words of the book,

"Now the word of Yahweh came unto Jonah the son of Amittai",

would point to its having been written in the reign of Jeroboam ii (788-747BC), since, according to ii Kings xiv.25, the prosperous years of this king of Israel were foretold by

"Jonah, the son of Amittai, which was of Gath-Hepher."

For it is evident that we are intended to understand by the Jonah of this book the prophet mentioned in ii Kgs.xiv.25. This would indicate a date for the book soon after 800BC.

The arguments against such an early date are, however, overwhelming. Much stress need not be laid on the fact that the author of our book seems to have known the book of Joel (cp.iii.9 with Joel ii.14, and iv.2 with Joel ii.13), the narrative portions of which belong to the middle of the fourth century BC, though this indication of date must not be ignored. (See above, pp.358 ff.)

But more convincing is the language of the book. Thus, when we find words used by the writer which are common in post-Biblical Hebrew, but which do not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, or only in writings that are recognized on all hands to be of late date. The presumption is irresistible that their presence in the book denotes a late period.

It might be urged that the words or phrases in question are merely marks of "working over" by a late editor; but the objection is not valid, for they do not at all give the impression of being the work of an editor. Moreover, they belong too much to the general style of the writing to suggest that they are not part of the original form.

A few illustrations may be offered: In i.5 the word translated "mariners" is Aramaic and is never found in classical Hebrew, but it is common in the Talmud and in Midrashic works.

In the same verse the Aramaic word for "ship" occurs, and it is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for this is used in the preceding verse, which shows that it was not yet superseded; in the Mishnah and the Gemara it is the Aramaic word which is used.

In iii.2 the word translated "preaching" (better "proclamation") never occurs elsewhere in the Bible, but it is common in post-Biblical Hebrew; and, once more, in iii.7 an Aramaic word is used for "decree", and this, too, is never found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but is common in the Talmud.

Of verbs we have, e.g.: In i.6 an Aramaic root used, meaning to "think upon" or "take thought for". It occurs in (Aram.v.4), though the verbal form is different, otherwise it is not found in the Old Testament, but it is frequent in this form in the Targums. In i.11, 12 the verb meaning "to be calm" is Neo-Hebrew, occurring in the Old Testament in late passages only, Prov.xxvi.20, Ps.cvii.30; it is the usual word in late Hebrew, and is common in the Talmud and Midrash. So, too, the verb for to "prepare", in i.17 (Aram.ii.1), iv.6, 8, is found in the form used only in Neo-Hebrew and Aramaic. Likewise in iv.10 the word for to "labour" is late Hebrew, found elsewhere in the Bible only in Ecclesiastes and in the later portions of Proverbs, but it is common in post-Biblical Hebrew.

But still more important are modes of expression, which are alien to classical Hebrew; these are perhaps the most telling signs of late composition.

In the RV the phrase in i.4 is rendered:

"so that the ship was like to be broken" (i.e. on account of the mighty tempest). Literally it is, "so that the ship was minded to be broken".

This verb is never used in reference to inanimate objects like a ship in classical Hebrew. The RV avoids the difficulty, as it would sound to us, by rendering "was like to be broken".

Again in iv.10, in reference to the gourd, it is said:

"which came up in a night, and perished in a night".

This is necessarily a paraphrase. Literally the Hebrew might be translated:

"which was the son of a night, and perished the son of a night".

The form of the relative is late (so, too, elsewhere in the book), and the mode of expression is Neo-Hebrew, and it is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

To late Hebrew belong also the forms for "on account of whom" (i.7), and "for my sake" (i.12) ; similar forms occur in other late books, e.g. Ecclus.viii.17, Song of Solomon i.6, iii.7, and they are the usual forms in post-Biblical Hebrew and in the Targums.

Finally, in iv.11 the word for 10,000 in the original is an Aramaism. It is a form of the absolute found only in late Biblical books and in post-Biblical literature.

These examples constitute a strong argument for the late date of the book of Jonah, especially on account of the approximation to Aramaic that they exhibit. It is true that as early as the reign of Hezekiah (725-696BC) we find knowledge of this language existent in Palestine; but this was exceptional.

In writing about the prevalence of the Aramaic language in general during the Persian period, Noldeke remarks that

"this preference for Aramaic, however, probably originated under the Assyrian Empire, in which a very large proportion of the population spoke Aramaic. In it this language would naturally occupy a more important position than it did under the Persians. Thus we understand why it was taken for granted that a great Assyrian officer could speak Aramaic (ii Kgs.xviii.26 = Isa.xxxvi.11); and why the dignitaries of Judah appear to have learned the language; namely, in order to communicate with the Assyrians." [Encycl. Bibl., i.281 f.]

While the nobles knew Aramaic, the common people did not understand it, and that was why the princes asked Rabshakeh to use it. We must not, therefore, conclude that because at this comparatively early period Judaean officials knew Aramaic, it was in any way generally known in Palestine at that period. Although the influence of Aramaic steadily grew, this did not really begin until well after the Exile.

The book of Jonah, to judge from its language, must belong to an early stage of this period of gradual transition from Hebrew to Aramaic, approximately 350BC or thereabouts. Some scholars would put it a little later.


In the case of the book of Jonah the historical background must be considered from a point of view different from that of the prophetical books in the stricter sense. Here it is not the external historical surroundings which concern us, but the internal state of the country and its people.

During and after the Exile circumstances arose which accentuated the antagonism between Jews and Gentiles. The work of Ezra in inculcating the observance of the Law had, in course of time, the effect of exaggerating in their own eyes the importance and superiority of the "people of the Law", and of causing them to look upon all other peoples as inferior to themselves.

Moreover, as the elect people of God, the Jews, upon whom alone - as was believed - the marks of divine favour had been showered, and above all, who had alone been the recipients of divine revelation, regarded all other nations as outside the pale of God's mercy and care. This was, more or less, the official attitude towards the non-Jewish world. But not all the Jews assumed this narrow, uncompromising position. A deeper conception of the Personality of God and a higher ideal of human relationship impelled them to oppose the self-centred particularism of many of their brethren, and to think and speak of the Gentiles, too, as objects of the divine solicitude and compassion. Instead of the belief in a coming vengeance of God upon the Gentiles, culminating in their utter destruction, the Jews, according to this view, were to be God's instruments for the salvation of the nations of the world. These opposing standpoints find expression in some of the post-exilic writings of the Old Testament; but nowhere are they presented in more convincing contrast than in the book of Jonah. The writer sets forth Jonah as the type of the narrow-minded, exclusive Jew, who not only despises all non-Jews, but conceives of the Almighty as the God of the Jews only, and as a God who has no care for the rest of His creation. The author himself, on the other hand, not only makes Jonah the unconscious or unwilling cause of the conversion, first of the mariners, and then of the Ninevites, but also teaches the divine truth of the universal Fatherhood of God.

Our book thus reflects the two opposing schools of thought, the particularists and the universalists, within Jewry. The author was, thus, a propagandist, and accordingly it may well be that he chose the name of Jonah as his leading persona dramatis for the purpose of propaganda. We suggest that there was here a twofold reason:

(i) The historical Jonah lived at a period during which the Assyrian Empire was growing to great power. It was, at the most, very shortly before his activity that an Assyrian monarch, Shalmaneser iii, came for the first time into direct contact with the land of Israel, and the result was humiliating to the Israelites, who had, therefore, no reason to love the Assyrians. Indeed, the fear and hatred of them grew with the centuries, and their very land became detestable. The feelings entertained towards this land to the northeast are well depicted in one of the visions of the prophet Zechariah. He sees in his vision a woman named Rish'a, who is the personification of "Wickedness", lifted up and carried away to the land of Shinar, the land to the Northeast (Zech.v.5-11), i.e. Babylonia, which had been part of the Assyrian empire. [See Isa.xi.11, Dan.i.2.]

Not only is this land the most fitting dwelling-place for "Wickedness". But what is more important, the land where "Wickedness" has her abode must inevitably go to ruin. Nothing could more pointedly illustrate the hatred of the Jews for the Gentiles who lived in this land of "Wickedness" than this prophetical vision. Now it was in the reign of Shalmaneser iii that direct contact between Israel and this land began.

It may or may not be a point of significance that, unlike his immediate predecessors, Shalmaneser iii made Nineveh the royal residence. [Hommel, Geschichte Babyloniens und Assyriens, p.589 (1885).]

At any rate, the historical Jonah lived at a time when Assyria had become the leading world power, and when it had come for the first time, and with dire consequences, into direct contact with Israel. And this may well have been one reason why the writer of our book chose the name of Jonah the son of Amittai as that of his hero, for there was a point of contact between Jonah and the land to the north-east which applied to no other prophet. [There is no reason why the writer of Jonah should not have known something about Assyrian history, especially when it touched that of his own people.]

(ii) It is conceivable that the name of Jonah appealed to the writer of our book for an additional reason. The name means "dove"; and Nineveh, the city to which he goes, was the chief sanctuary of the goddess Ishtar whose sacred bird was the dove. It is possible that the writer of our book wished to place in contrast Jonah, the "dove" sent by Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the dove sacred to the tutelar goddess of the city. The idea may seem fanciful at first. But our author, as we shall see, was not unfamiliar with some of the mythological data regarding ancient Nineveh. In which case he may have desired, quite in the Jewish fashion, to point a moral by showing the difference of purpose between his God in sending His messenger, the dove, and the heathen goddess with her debased cult, who was symbolized by her sacred dove.


Apart from the traditional interpretation which takes the story of Jonah in a literal sense, and which is now discarded by all modern scholars, there are two methods of explaining it, one or other of which is adopted by commentators:

The mythological, and the symbolic.

The main objection to the mythological interpretation, as it seems to the present writers, is that from the point of view of the narrative itself it has no raison d'etre.

The mythological interpretation necessarily postulates that the great fish that swallowed Jonah is Tehom, the dragon of the subterranean deep. [It is always the ordinary Hebrew word for "fish" that is used (i.17, ii.1, 10, viz. Dag.]

But this sea-monster was the embodiment of the principle of evil, inimical to God and man; whereas in our book the fish is represented as beneficent, since it saves Jonah. would be altogether out of place in our story. The fact that neither Tehom is used in reference to the big fish, nor yet Tannin, nor yet Leviathan, both likewise mythological monsters, and harmful, is in itself an argument against a mythological interpretation. Moreover, on the supposition of such interpretation, it may well be asked: What is the application?

Cheyne, one of the most thoroughgoing of this school, says that "it is the all-absorbing empire of Babylon which swallowed up Israel - not, however, to destroy it, but to preserve it and to give it room for repentance." [Encycl. Bibl., ii.2568.]

But what has this to do with the subject matter of the book?

The repentance and conversion of the Gentiles through the mercy and long-suffering of God, not the captivity and spiritual condition of Israel, is the burden of the story.

Having regard to the author's evident love of symbolism, as exemplified by the name Jonah, and by the story of the gourd, it seems much more natural to interpret the sojourn of Jonah in the great fish for three days and three nights symbolically. And to regard this as the symbol of Nineveh, the "great city of three days' journey"; while his being vomited out is symbolic of his going out of the repentant city; he was out of place there.

In this connexion, attention must be drawn to an illuminating article, by the late J. C. Ball. He gives the written symbol denoting Nineveh and its tutelar goddess in cuneiform characters; this in the linear character, or ideogram, appears as the outline of a two-storied building, with a fish on the lower floor. With the determinative prefix for "city" the character was read Ni-nu-a, i.e. Nineveh; and with its determinative of deity, "god" or "goddess", it denoted the tutelar divinity of the place.

"It is," he says, "surely a fact of capital importance for a right estimate of the character of the Biblical book of Jonah that the name of the city to which the prophet was sent was expressed in writing, from the earliest period, by a combination of the symbols for house and fish. For this fact at once suggests that the three days' sojourn of Jonah in the House of the Fish, i.e. Nineveh, might be symbolized or haggadically represented as a three days' abode in the bowels of a 'Great Fish'; much as Israel's enforced sojourn in Babylon could be compared with being swallowed up by a dragon." (Jer.34)

The objection that "there is no trace of the writer of Jonah having been a man of learning" is hardly valid. [Cheyne, ibid.]

The constant intercourse between the Jews of Babylonia and Palestine would make many ideas and traditions current in the former generally familiar, and there is no reason why the writer of Jonah, with his wide outlook, should not have been acquainted with these.


With one notable exception the book forms an obvious unity.

The exception is the psalm contained in ii.2-9 (Hebr.ii.3-10) - In ii.1 it is said:

"Then Jonah prayed unto Yahweh out of the fish's belly. And he said..."

Then follows the psalm. This, however, is not a prayer, but a thanksgiving for deliverance from a watery grave. But this thanksgiving is uttered before the deliverance has taken place, for it is not until the end of the psalm that the words occur:

"And Yahweh spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land" (verse 10).

Moreover, it will be acknowledged that if this psalm occurred elsewhere, e.g. in the Psalter, there would not necessarily be anything in it to suggest its connexion with Jonah in the fish's belly.

It is only its present position that suggests such a connexion.

Nowhere in the psalm is there any mention or hint of Jonah being inside the fish; indeed, such an idea is excluded by the words of verse 5:

"The weeds were wrapped about my head";

as Wellhausen pointedly remarks:

"Weeds do not grow in a whale's belly". (Die kleinen Propheten, p.221 (1898).)

It is evident that the psalm expresses the grateful outpouring of one who had been nearly drowned, whereas in the case of Jonah there is no question of drowning.

The psalm was clearly not an original part of the book, but was added later by one who felt that it would be appropriate to insert what he thought would represent the words which Jonah would have uttered. That the text runs perfectly smoothly without it, is seen by reading ii.10 immediately after ii.1:

"Then Jonah prayed unto Yahweh out of the fish's belly. And Yahweh spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land."

Whether the psalm is earlier or later than the book itself cannot be decided. That it was inserted after the book had been written does not necessarily imply that it was later in date.

All that can be said is that it is post-exilic. (See further, Sellin, Das Zwolfprophetenbuch, p.241 (1922).)

Various passages in it are reminiscent of the Psalms.


Apart from a very few glosses the Hebrew text has been preserved in remarkably good order. One displacement seems to have occurred, iv.5 does not read logically in its present context. Its proper place is after iii.4. It should also be noted that there is a change in the use of the divine names, Yahweh and Elohim.

On the basis of this Bohme [ZATW vii.224 ff. (1887).] has propounded a theory that the book is combined from two sources. This is highly improbable. Marti, who holds that a later reader of the book took exception to the use of the Tetragrammaton and substituted Elohim for it, far more naturally explains it. In iv.6, where both occur together, he presumably forgot to make the alteration.

The Septuagint is of little value so far as this book is concerned. It is, however, of interest to note that in certain MSS and a large proportion of cursives, the Psalms are followed by a collection of liturgical cantica. [Swete, op. cit., p.253.]

Among these is the psalm in ch.ii.