The only reference to the prophet Jonah outside of the book bearing his name is in the book of Kings, with a brief mention regarding a prophecy related to the expansion of Israel’s borders during the reign of Jeroboam II.

[Jeroboam II] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel. But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Joash.

(2 Kings 14:25-27)
Melozzo da forlì, The Prophet Amos, Santuario della Santa Casa (Loreto) Sacristy of Saint Mark, c. 1477

We can infer from this account in Kings that some unnamed person, or persons, was claiming that the name of Israel would be eradicated, presumably as a result of the “distress” the nation was suffering (and several scholars read this as evidence of a prophetic word contradicting that of Jonah). This is the same kind of language that is used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe an attack or invasion by a foreign power, and as the Assyrian empire was expanding at this time we can reasonably presume the threat was coming from that direction. Jonah’s message was that rather than being eradicated the nation would actually expand their borders. However, another voice was claiming that Israel would be defeated, and this voice was either loud enough, or authoritative enough, that the writer of Kings felt it was important to mention. The most interesting thing here, at least to me, is that we may possibly be able to identify the source of the contradictory message that Israel would be “blotted out.”

A contemporary of Jonah and Jeroboam II was the prophet Amos (the book bearing his name begins by telling us that he lived “in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel” Amos 1:1). Interestingly, Amos prophesied quite specifically that “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land” (Amos 7:11). Two things are certain by comparing the accounts in Kings and Amos: Jonah prophesied about Jeroboam II’s military success and the prophet Amos prophesied of his defeat. It is true that Israel eventually went into exile, but not during the reign of Jeroboam II. There also is nothing in the historical records to suggest that Jeroboam died “by the sword.” Jonah’s prediction, on the other hand, came true, according to the writer of 2 Kings. 

So here we have two biblical prophets making contradictory claims about the success or defeat of the king of Israel. The message of one comes true while the other is proven wrong by history. It might seem extraordinary that the messages of both prophets were preserved, and books bearing both their names – Jonah and Amos – are found together in “the book of the Twelve” (as it is known in the Hebrew Bible, or “the minor prophets” in Christian Bibles). Technically, according to the definition of a “false prophet” in Deuteronomy 18:22, we could argue that Amos was a “failed” prophet as his prediction was not fulfilled.[1] However, the fact that his message was preserved in the Bible suggests that the people who first compiled the Hebrew Bible (or ‘Old Testament’) were less concerned about whether a prophet’s predictions came true or not, and were more concerned about the moral implications of their message, and whether or not they were able to persuade the community to change for the better.

The fact that Amos’s predictions about Jeroboam II and Israel were not fulfilled does not disqualify them from inclusion in the Bible. This suggests to me that books like “the Twelve,” and probably others, were part of a dialogue, with conflicting views and opposing voices, and we should not expect the Bible to present a consistent theme or message. It is more important to understand the conversation, to listen to the different voices, to consider the process and the outcomes, than to try to find a consistent message. There is a lesson here, I think, for those people who believe the Bible is “inerrant,” without error, infallible in every word, and that it contains no contradictions. It seems obvious to me that the people who first preserved all the books of the Bible into a single collection weren’t trying to avoid contradictions, and they weren’t concerned about eliminating or covering up historical inaccuracies. They felt no need to “fix” the mistakes of some of the biblical writers. What was apparently most important to them was to preserve the conversation, no doubt with a view to continuing the dialogue. That’s also why we will be disappointed if we look to the Bible for the answer to all of life’s questions. Rather than providing answers, the Bible preserves the questions and discussions of ancient communities, and sometimes the contradictory ideas that they developed in an effort to explain the issues which faced them. For me, reading the Bible as a record of these conversations makes it much more fascinating, and valuable, than trying to read it as an answer to all life’s questions and being disappointed when I don’t find them.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:22 says: “when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”