Journeying Prophets in Kings

Jonah’s Home

The story of JONAH belongs in the book of KINGS. JONAH balances the story of the unnamed Judean prophet (1K13) in KINGS’ literary structure.  Each story describes a journeying prophet that crosses land or sea to confront a wayward king. The two stories are located during the reigns of different apostate northern kings named Jeroboam.

Shared literary tropes evidence that JONAH belongs in KINGS.

  • Each story has a journey towards and away from their confrontation with a heretical king.
  • The Judean prophet goes on a journey.  He is hurled, then killed, but not eaten, by a lion. While Jonah is hurled into the sea, then eaten, but not killed, by a great fish.
  • The journeys are evaluated by the prophet’s obedience and meals. Both stories describe the taking or rejection of shared meals with kings, beasts and prophets.
  • Both stories have two parts, a king’s meal is frustrated in one half, while a beast rejects a meal in the other. 
  • In both stories the prophet rests under a shady plant and the rest is interrupted.

Literary Structure of Kings

Like the two stories of the journeying prophets, the whole book of Kings has two parts. Each half returns to similar themes or topics ordered in a reverse parallel or chiastic form. I identify 14 topics. I enumerate the topics and refer to them by the indices in Table 1.

Significant sets in scripture are often enumerated with integer multiples of seven. However, I am confident the set I offer is formed by my limitations at accurately tracing the author’s intent, rather than the design of the author. It is a convincing number of fragments that strongly suggest the stories shape while clearly not being the true form.

Many of the topics presented can be broken into smaller sections that retain the reverse parallelism, for example the king’s palace then YHWH’s temple are constructed in the book’s first half. These two houses are destroyed in reverse order in the second, but both topics are subsumed under the larger theme of “House” in the table. Some of the topics in the two halves are more loosely connected than others, for example the ‘Wax/Wane’  and ‘Trust’ topics.

The relationship between the ministries of the two great prophets Elijah and Elisha is not covered. Likewise the details between these accounts are recounted in a stylized literary manner. Those details are beyond the scope of this paper.

The structure in the table below covers most of the material in the book. One exception is the section describing the significant reigns of Manasseh and Josiah. In my re-construction it is not balanced with material found in the first half of the book.

The Shoe Fits

In this structure, unit 11 is poorly balanced by unit 18. Unit 11 is a long narrative describing the journey of the unnamed Judean prophet to Jeroboam-I after the dedication of his pagan altar. The story describes two journeys in opposite directions. The prophet displays pious obedience on the outward journey, indicated by his refusal to accept a meal with the king as commanded by God. On the return, the prophet is deceived into disobediently eating a proscribed meal while resting under a tree.

There is little corresponding material in unit 18 in the chart. Both units contain an apostate northern king named Jeroboam. Both units are placed at the beginning of a series of seven bad Israelite kings (see David Dorsey’sorganization of KINGS in the Literary structure of the Old Testament of Kings into 5 sets of seven kings) . These connections are thin.

In 2 Ki 14:25 there is a single reference to a prophet named Jonah who prophesied during the days of Jeroboam-II. If the story of Jonah is imported into the book of Kings, in unit 18, it elegantly balances the story of the Judean prophet.

Jonah also has two journeys in opposite directions. Each journey begins with a command from God to go to Nineveh. Jonah initially journeys away from Nineveh in rebellion to God’s word. He has a mortally perilous encounter with a beast. He confronts a wayward king where a meal is rejected and then retreats to the shade of a plant. These elements are peculiar and shared with the Judean prophet’s story.

Living hungers

Both stories move through a set of three meals between the characters who plays the roles of prophet, king, and beast.

Meals in Journeying Prophet stories

Meals with Kings

Jeroboam initially sought to seize the Judean prophet. His hand shrivels as he reaches for him, his pagan altar is torn down, and the ashes spill out. The king then asks the prophet to entreat God to restore his hand. The prophet does, the hand returns to health and Jeroboam asks the prophet to share a meal with him. The prophet reiterates the command  given to him by God (1K13:8) and like the woman in the garden, intensifies the word given by God by including the rejection of half the king’s house. The three components of the command are to not eat, not drink, and returnby another way (שוב).

Table 1: Literary Structure of Kings

Elijah and Elisha stories collapsed

Jonah begins to go into the city a days journey. He gives a minimal five word message. The people immediately repent. The message then reaches the king. He immediately repents and sits on ashes. He issues a proclamation according to his ‘tastes’ (Jn3:7). The proclamation has three components: to not eat, not drink, and to turn ((שוב  from his evil ways (Jn3:7,8).

If these two stories both belong in KINGS, then we should expect that the author wanted the reader to compare the responses of the two kings in the parallel scenes. The Israelite king does not exercise contrition, his hand shrivels, and once his shriveled hand is restored, it reaches for a meal. The Ninevite king exercises almost immediate and almost melodramatic contrition, he exercises restraint, he calls for a fast.

The scene with Jeroboam occurs at an altar, a place of offering. The command  given by God to Jonah describes the sins of Nineveh using the altar imagery of the their evil coming up before God like the smoke of incense. In essence two different offerings of repentance are brought before God, Jeroboam’s is token, while the Ninevite King’s is genuine. Israel goes into captivity at the hand of Assyria, who capital is Nineveh in 722BC, approximately 40 years from the midpoint of Jeroboam-II long reign.

Meals with animals

After the Judean prophet disobediently eats a proscribed meal with the lying Northern prophet, the word of God comes forth from the Northern prophet and declares that he will surely die. The Northern prophet says that his body will not come to the tomb of his fathers. The prophet is met on the road by a lion, which kills him, his body is thrown on the road. The text draws attention the curious fact that the prophet is killed but not eaten (1K13:28). The prophet’s donkey is also untouched by the lion.

Jonah disobediently runs from God’s command to confront Nineveh. He embarks on a ship away from Nineveh. God hurls a storm onto the waters. Jonah instructs the pagan crew of the ship to lift and hurl him from the ship into the sea. He is then swallowed by a great fish. He spends three days in the belly of the fish, from where he repents, and is vomited onto dry land.

Intuitively the outcomes of the two prophets being the objects of rejected meals by beasts has a symbolic message. The key to unlocking this meaning is that the unnamed prophet is from Judah, while Jonah is from Israel. Prophets warn about future calamity, and the book of Kings describes the future calamity of Judah and Israel. Perhaps the two prophets model the future of their home countries.

Both images, being killed but not eaten, and being swallowed but not killed, suggest an end for the two countries that falls just short of total loss.

  • Donkeys and lions are two animals that symbolize royalty in the old testament. The final verses of the book describe Judah’s king fed at the table of the Babylonian king. I’d suggest that the donkey represents Judah who nervously feeds and shares table with the lion Babylon.
  • Jonah’s fate mirrors that of the Israelites as seen in books like Esther, a small nation that is swallowed whole into a foreign nation but is re-constituted, preserved, in that far land. Jonah being swallowed whole and vomited on a distant shore pictures this future event.

Meals with voice of God

Both the Judean prophet and Jonah consider a meal with a voice of God.

The lying northern prophet, despite his deceit is presented as a true prophet who could accurately represents God’s word. Jonah talks with God to the east of Nineveh. God makes a plant grow over Jonah’s head after he confronts the pagan king. We find a similar scene in 1K19 with Elijah after confronting Ahab and the 400 prophets of Baal. There Elijah wishes for his death but God’s angel rests him and feeds him. This strengthens him to go 40 days and nights, climb a mountain to meet God, and be recommissioned. The Judean prophet likewise retreats to the shade of a tree after confronting King Jeroboam and then agrees to his fateful meal. Whereas the Judean prophet listened to the wrong voice, Jonah neglected to listen to the true word of God. Rather than being condemned to die like the Judean prophet, he wishes for death.

Both stories import a number of elements from the Eden story.

The events leading to the Judean prophet’s meal with the lying northern prophet begin under a tree where the prophet rests. The lying prophet invites him to a (proscribed) meal. The Judean prophet like the woman, repeats God’s proscription, with an added intensifier, like the woman to the snake. The lying prophet, like the snake, distorts God’s word leading to the prophet accepting the meal and thereby dying.

Jonah rejects God’s word. The plant is struck by a worm, which approximates the form of a snake. Jonah becomes aware that he is naked, exposed to the sun, uncovered. Jonah wishes for death. God seeks him out.  Like in the garden, God questions him. The book ends with Jonah banished out to the east of Nineveh.

More notes on meals

On the Judean prophet’s journeys all three meals have an element of a change of mind, the king first want to take the Judean prophet into custody, then he invites him for a meal. The Judean prophet first rejects the lying prophets offer for a meal then accepts it, the lion kills the prophet, seemingly to eat him but then decides otherwise.

During Jonah’s journeys, the three meals are all pictures of rejection. Vomiting is a concrete image of physically rejecting a meal, the Ninevite king rejects eating in contrition, Jonah rejects a meal with God.

These two qualities: changing of mind and rejection, could be characteristic of the kingdoms from which the two journeying prophets originate.

Shared Structure

When the two stories are abutted, they exhibit a 9 point reverse parallel structure. Some parallel elements invite reflection.

  • B elements – In the Old Testament, kings are often metaphorically described as trees. Here we find a king and the plant of Jonah as shriveling
  • C elements – The verb used to describe the worm eating the plant triggers associations with Cain’s murder of Abel. The worm strikes the plant in the field. The lying prophet goes into the field to meet his brother prophet (1K13:30) and lead him to his death.
  • E elements – The Israelite prophet speaks words that lead to a deadly meal. The pagan King speaks words that describes the true repentance of him and his people.
  • F elements – The house of the northern prophet and the belly of the fish are essentially places of death.
  • H elements – Both prophets experience upward movements onto some form of conveyance into a tomb like space.


The footprint left in the book of kings fits the story of Jonah. When placed alongside the story of the journeying Judean prophet, the books function like left and right feet, they obviously serve the same function, they are best exercised collectively, and they clearly belong together.

How did Jonah get displaced? I can only speculate. Alone it serves as a simple story of obedience. It can be read aloud and commented upon in a space that fits comfortably in the typical attention span.

Table 2: Shared structure of the Journeying Prophets

When considered along side the Judean prophet story, it opens lines of inquiry otherwise unavailable. The understanding of the purpose served by the two journeying stories and also the whole arc of the book of Kings is deepened with Jonah in place.

The argument put forth in this paper would be stronger were there evidence of other biblical authors who saw these stories working together as a pair. A later paper will present evidence that Luke fashioned his journey narratives of Jesus in his gospel and Paul in Acts on the ministries of the Judean prophet and Jonah.

Scott Fairbanks is a student of scripture. He lives in Corvallis, OR with his wife and three children.  He has begun maintaining a website to contain his observations on scripture at:

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