Satire or History? (RJS)

Satire or History? (RJS) November 5, 2013

One of the more interesting books of the Old Testament is the book of Jonah. Children from preschool on study this tale. It is short, shorter than most of my posts (a mere four chapters, 1200 words in the NIV – substantially shorter than this post).  It contains foolish disobedience, a great fish, a storm, obedience, repentance, more foolishness … what more could you want in a Sunday School lesson or as material for a sermon series? Even chapter four, although a little less familiar to many, makes for an excellent lesson. No adventure, but a worm, a foolish prophet, and a message from God about the value of people and his compassion.

The book of Jonah deserves the attention it gets. This is an important book in scripture. The question I would like to raise is not one of value, or of the truth of the message, but one of genre. Is the genre of the book of Jonah history or or is it satire?

The arguments I’ve heard for the book of Jonah as history are four-fold.

(1) There is no obvious indication in the book that it is not intended as history.

Many feel that the default position should be history except in the presence of direct and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. The same argument is made for the opening chapters of Genesis and for Job – although I have not heard it made for the Song of Songs.

(2) The book provides details. The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.” It uses the names of real places (Joppa, Nineveh, Tarshish).

If it is story, some ask, why did the author use real places or potentially identifiable people? Jonah of Amittai is mentioned very briefly in 2 Kings 14 although he plays no significant role:

In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

The same argument was raised concerning the book Job, which specifies a location “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job.” And Job is mentioned in formulaic fashion in Ezekial 14. Some will claim that this rootedness in a historical time and location determines the book as history and precludes other options. The plain sense is preferred.

(3) The only reason to doubt Jonah as history is a desire to sidestep the miraculous element. The creator God is certainly capable of the miraculous.

A justifiable reaction against the attempt of many to remove the supernatural from the Bible. Our faith is rooted in the existence of the supernatural and in the reality of the resurrection, of Jesus first and of all in the age to come. But the argument for an all powerful God does  not make this particular book history rather than satire.

(4) Jesus refers to Jonah in his teaching. For some this is the trump that settles the matter.

Matthew 12: 38-41:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 16:1,4 makes a similar, shorter, allusion – a wicked generation will be given only the sign of Jonah.

Luke 11:

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.

The context is the same in each reference. The sign of Jonah is found in the fact that he was in the fish for three days and three nights, and yet was returned to the land of the living, so the Son of Man would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

But it isn’t this simple. The answer to the question of genre is not as easy as these arguments suggest. None of them provide a conclusive argument against the book of Jonah as satire, with a message for the reader even some 2500 years later.

John Walton in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary has some interesting observations placing the book of Jonah in its ancient Near Eastern context. (It is not entirely clear whether Walton views Jonah as history, and if so how much history he sees in the book. The comments here should not be taken as assigning any particular view to Walton himself. Nonetheless his insight into the ancient Near Eastern context is enlightening.) According to Walton:

In current trends within critical scholarship, Jonah is commonly labeled as parody or satire. The former typically lampoons a piece of literature, while the latter targets people (specific or stereotyped categories) or events as Jonah does. Satire can be either an enactment or a written composition in which vice, folly, or incompetence is held up for ridicule. The closer to reality a satire can be, the more effective it is. By definition it targets real people and tries to use the mannerisms and words that they use. Satire exaggerates reality, but is based on reality.

Satire and parody are both known in the ancient world and in the Bible. … In similar ways, most would agree that the book of Jonah wants us to laugh at the prophet’s incongruity and senselessness even as we are appalled by his behavior and attitude. (p. 104)

In many respects this addresses the first two objections listed above. A good satire will be intentionally realistic – and the closer to reality, the more effective. If the book is a satire we should not find a clear indication of this for that would negate the satire (contra argument one) and we should expect to find realistic details placing the story in time and place (contra argument two).

Concerning the fish Walton notes that ancient literature refers to fantastic creatures sent from the gods. The epic of Gilgamesh for example refers to the “Bull of Heaven” sent by Anu.

The Bull of Heaven is particularly interesting in that it is sent in response to the hubris of the hero with the intention of teaching him a lesson. Jonah likewise acted against deity (by fleeing) and was subsequently confronted by a cosmic creature ordained by deity. In Gilgamesh the Bull of Heaven is not symbolic or allegorical. It is considered real, but as a supernatural creature would not be classed alongside any standard list of zoological specimens. A similar understanding may be possible for the fish in Jonah. (p. 105)

If the book is satire it will use the forms of the time – and this would include the cosmic creature ordained by deity. This is an accepted form of the day and age. Contra argument three, the reason to see the fish as a cosmic creature comes not from a desire to remove the miraculous but from the appreciation of the forms common in ancient Near Eastern literature.

Walton also comments on the length of time, three days and three nights.

A person is considered truly dead after three days in the grave or netherworld. In the Descent of Inanna the goddess goes down into the nether world and tells her servant that is she has not returned in three days, she should lament for he and make petitions to the gods for her return. With this idea in mind, Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish in the realm of death indicates that Jonah is at the threshold of death. (p. 109)

The idea of Jonah on the threshold of death also comes in his prayer in chapter 2. The sign of Jonah refers to this return from death after three days in the fish. Certainly there is no other way in which Jesus is justly compared with the foolish, selfish, and superficial prophet Jonah. Something greater than Jonah is here is quite the understatement.

I will also note that as Christians we celebrate the crucifixion on Good Friday (the preparation day before the Sabbath) and the resurrection on Sunday morning (very early in the morning on the first day of the week) so we don’t exactly attach great literal significance to the three nights in the heart of the earth. Why then, we insist that the story of Jonah must be history for the allusion to be valid I am not sure.  John notes a special Sabbath and thus would likely have three nights, but the church through the centuries has not chosen this chronology, but rather the Friday to Sunday observance.

Chapter four of the book really nails the genre as satire (or parody) in my opinion.

3:10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

4:1-3 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Walton notes that this description of God is practically creedal in the Old Testament … gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Yet Jonah takes it as a negative. God doesn’t do what any “good” God should and wipe out the Ninevites destroying their city. Really, God’s compassion is reason to wish for death? As satire the focus is on the attitude of Jonah, and perhaps by extension all those who prefer to delight in God’s wrath and judgment (on others of course) rather than his mercy and compassion.

What do you think?  What is the genre of Jonah and how does your view of genre impact the message you take from the story?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rick

    I don’t have a problem with it being a different genre than historical, but how does Walton deal with Jonah’s father being mentioned, and Jonah being placed in a historical context as well

    “He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.”
    For me, a prophet having an impact on a king of Israel is somewhat significant.

  • RJS4DQ


    I don’t think the reference in 2 Kings is part of the satire. So Jonah of 2 Kings had an influence on the king, because “The Lord had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them.” God is compassionate and merciful.

    Perhaps the book of Jonah as satire used the bit character from 2 Kings as the example and this setting is particularly appropriate. Satire, to be good, should be realistic in the forms of the day.

  • Rick

    I didn’t mean to imply that 2 K was part of the satire.

    “Perhaps the book of Jonah as satire used the bit character from 2 Kings as the example and this setting is particularly appropriate. Satire, to be good, should be realistic in the forms of the day.”
    Sounds possible. Thanks. And good post by the way.

  • jhurshman

    From my perspective, Jesus’s reference to Jonah isn’t the home run argument for historicity some make it out to be.

    I could reference any number of figures I don’t consider historical and still apply them to my current experience, so long as the figures in question are well-known to my audience.

    For instance, if I were telling someone that, like Frodo, I am carrying a burden that seems to get heavier and heavier, neither I nor my hearer should be understood to believe that The Lord of the Rings is a history text. The same would be true if my reference was to a folk figure like Paul Bunyan or a biblical one like the Good Samaritan.

    In that sort of scenario, there is no requirement or expectation that I will explicitly make clear that the figure is non-historical. Therefore, it would be essentially impossible for someone to examine my statement alone, extracted from its culture, and determine whether the shared reference is to a historical figure or a non-historical one. And of course that distinction is wholly irrelevant to what I would be trying to communicate.

    So was Jesus’s reference to Jonah more like a reference to Abraham Lincoln, or more like a reference to Paul Bunyan?

  • Phil Smith

    “For instance, if I were telling someone that, like Frodo, I am carrying a burden that seems to get heavier and heavier, neither I nor my hearer should be understood to believe that The Lord of the Rings is a history text”

    This is the analysis I also use. Jesus’ reference to a literary figure does not historicise that figure.

    Jonah (the book*) makes sense as a piece of art (theater, prosaic Comedy.. whatever). I see no reason to posit historicity in the first place anyway.

    *That’s not to say there wasn’t a noteworthy historical person called Jonah who was important to the Jews (2 Kings).

  • Andrew Bossardet

    I agree that Jonah is a satirical parable. Jonah is a comically flawed character, and Assyria/Nineveh makes a great foil for the tragically stubborn Israel/Judah. It also helps resolve the “three days” tension which exists in Biblical interpretation. The argument which persuaded me was that Jonah, like so many parables of Jesus, ends on a question. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary (and use of John Walton’s material) on Job and now Jonah as well.

  • Michael Mercer

    This is one of those places where I have parted ways with my evangelical/fundamentalist background. In Bible college our “study” of Jonah was devoted wholly to apologetics – proving its historicity, and even citing examples of people who had actually been swallowed by whales to show it was feasible. They missed the story and the delightful telling of it. What’s really at stake here? Nothing. Why can’t God use “historical fiction” or “short story” or “satire” to teach truth? Why would we want to constrain the Creator in his creativity? That, to me, is more problematic and insulting to God than suggesting a story like Jonah must be true in every historical detail.

  • This I think is one of the unintended consequences of Evangelicals focusing on inerrancy. For many It is either right and true as history, and by that they mean everything, or all of scripture is in jeopardy. I just don’t get why holding to scripture as ‘authoritative’ doesn’t get us to basically the same place without the problems that inerrancy brings.

    There is no reason why we need to see Jonah as history to see it as valuable.

  • Phil Miller

    I remember listening to a podcast of a sermon that Shane Hipps gave while he was at Mars Hill a few years ago about this very thing. It cover much of the same ground RJS does, but it’s, of course, coming from a more homiletic stance. Worth listening if you’re interested:

  • Chris Crawford

    I think Jonah is satire, and it’s helped me to take that idea even one step farther – Jonah is “black comedy”. Like Fargo or The Trouble With Harry. Black comedy is like anti-humor, where you are meant to find humor in things that are not funny in and of themselves.

    In The Trouble With Harry, for example, the story is about a community that finds a dead man. When they find evidence that one of their own is responsible, they bury him to hide their neighbor from the consequences. When they find evidence to the contrary, they dig him up and plan to call the authorities. This happens over and over again as they investigate. Of course, the point of the story has nothing to do with the dead man, it’s about the reaction of the community itself.

    Jonah is the same way. The “Great Prophet of God” is the only one who resists God in the story; pagan sailors and evil Ninevites both obey God and urge Jonah to do the same. The book even ends on a dark note as Jonah sulks and is chastised by God. Honestly, I think the Coen brothers might be the right ones to to make an honest Jonah movie.

  • Jeff Martin

    The story of Jonah is funny. Most commentators agree. The interesting
    thing about this is that different people see different punch lines. But let me just highlight some of the funny things. But they are not so much funny as in Ha! Ha! Funny, but in the sense of, “Oh wait, he’s talking about me funny.”

    Jonah is running away from God. Where is he going to go? He creates his own means of escape and hides in its belly only to be found out and tossed overboard. And just as he is, a revival happens on the ship that he just abruptly left. The heathen sailors immediately repent and make vows and offer sacrifices. God creates a means of rescue from a dumb fish where Jonah sits in the belly for 3 days. The fish does what the Lord commands as opposed to Jonah who does not.

    Then Jonah preaches to Nineveh (the name for Nineveh comes from the word
    for fish), which is described as full of people who do not know their left hand
    from their right. A bunch of rock headed people, like dumb animals. He preaches
    with hardly any effort, has poor skills as a preacher, and voila! The most
    successful revival ever recorded! The people are so ignorant of what God wants they even clothe the animals with sackcloth and ashes! On top of that
    Jonah acts like he has rocks in his head. He gets miraculously rescued twice by a fish and a plant and is so thankful knowing he did not deserve it, yet he was saved. But when others who do not deserve it in his mind are spared he gets really angry and desires to die.

    Me thinks this might be a bit more than just about Jonah. 2 Kings 14:23-27 – 23 Jeroboam II did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. But he recovered territories of Israel just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai. For the Lord saw the bitter suffering of everyone in Israel, and that there was no one in Israel, slave or free, to help them. And because the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel completely, he used Jeroboam II, the son of Jehoash, to save them.

    I hope this is starting to begin to become clearer now. You see Jonah, as any true prophet of God, lived in Israel where things spiritually were not that good, but their economy was great! In fact Jonah and Israel understood the concept of God’s grace on people who did not deserve it before the fish incident.

    In Christ it is always yes and Amen. The one who came back to life asks you to participate in these life giving moments with people who you hate. How quickly we forget our previous state of affairs when someone else was in charge of our lives, BUT…if you choose to not participate with God do you have a right to be angry? Angry at God? Angry at other people? I want you to remember how many times God has had mercy and grace on you today, I want you to think about those times where you created your own ship to escape and had to experience a near death experience to re orient yourself towards God. Pray to God and tell him, “Lord it seems the way you want to go is not the way I want to go, but I trust you, because of what you did for me. Help me to love because you first loved me. Who am I to say where I would be if I grew up in another culture or country or family?

  • Norman

    Satire may not be the best description of the Literary Genre Jonah embraces IMO. From my perspective it uses well known and consistently used Jewish metaphors to tell story and to put forth its intended points. It uses the Turbulent Sea, Great sea creature, the land and Beast as major players. It recognizes the Sea as the Gentile world surrounding “Israel the Land” and being swallowed by the Great Sea creature portraying Israel’s exile into the world. Therefore the story is very likely a commentary/editorial of sorts upon Israel as the priest to the world and their effect or lack of desire to have effect upon the Nations as God has called them to.

    The Nineveh experience of repentance that illustrates the power that God provides for those seeking him is interesting because it uses the word “aw-dawm” for man which typically connotes man seeking God. Also the term “beast” is often used to reflect more of a Pagan human nature and it denotes them both as putting on sackcloth and calling out to God. Animals don’t call out to God except in Jewish literature where they illustrate Gentiles whom are not fully God fearers.

    Jonah 3:8 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.

    To me this is clearly a story that illustrates the plight of Israel in exile and her responsibility to fulfill God’s priestly intention for her. Jonah himself plays the conflicted role of Israel that was not pleased with God’s call to this endeavor. He is representing the extreme Nationalistic isolationist view of Israel that wanted to retain their peculiar people relationship with God. This vividly illustrates the conflict within Judaism of two camps of thought that was at odds with each other. Christ and Paul followed after God’s instruction while apostate Israel continued to resist that calling in that period.

    It’s interesting that Paul an apostle to the Gentiles takes a similar boat ride with comparable happenings on his way to Rome. He was cast into the Sea and went on to teach the Gentiles as well after being delivered.

  • AHH

    If I recall correctly, there is also the issue that, at the time of the Jonah in 2 Kings, Nineveh was not a great city by any stretch. So to pair that Jonah with the great city Nineveh in a story is a major anachronism. Seems somewhere I read a possible reason why this bit player from centuries too early was used in this particular satire, but I can’t bring it to mind now.

    I have tended to think of “parable” as a good description of the genre myself (with the added advantage of it being a genre anyone has to admit is used in Scripture), but “satire” also works.

  • I did a textual study on Jonah a while back, and noticed a few things about his prayer in chapter two. First, it is devoid of any references to Jonah’s specific situation; the mere references to the deep are not enough, because they are used as synonyms for death, very common in biblical psalms. Second, the references to the temple come right out of nowhere. Jonah’s desire to see it again is irrelevant to the rest of the story. Third, the overall format of Jonah’s prayer is similar to Psalm 5, when held side by side. They hit the same points in the same order. The ‘prayer’ has too much going on to be something he literally spoke in a hurry while in the guts of a whale. It was added later for thematic reasons. For me, this was the beginning of why I started to look at Jonah as a satire. There’s more than that, but it was just the first step.

  • AHH

    I could reference any number of figures I don’t consider historical and still apply them to my current experience, so long as the figures in question are well-known to my audience.
    [Snip reference to Frodo]
    I agree, and of course one can use the same logic with Paul’s mentions of Adam. There may be other reasons in terms of the theology Paul sketches that might incline some to favor the historicity of Adam, but the mere fact that Paul calls on the familiar story to make a point does not decide the matter.

  • Rick

    Interesting. thanks.

  • Matt Miles

    I have no problem with seeing the book of Jonah as a satire, except for one concept I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Satire as we know it (though many modern writers lose sight of this) utilizes exaggeration to the extreme (I think of A Modest Proposal as the best example of this). Did ancient satire forgo this, making the technique a relatively recent invention? Or was there exaggeration in there modern readers don’t catch because we see it as something else? Jonah’s anger at the end would seem to be the extreme a satirical tale would build up to, but would the ancient audience have recognized it as such?

  • Matt Miles

    I asked this somewhere else already, but is the book exaggerated enough to be satirical (or as you put it “black comedy”)? If so, what is the “dead man” in the book of Jonah?

  • Daniel

    Why is it necessary to see it as either/or? Couldn’t it be historical and satire with a lot of bite, because it is funny and true?

  • Jordan Balint

    I just wrote a paper on Jonah and the JPS commentary calls it a compassionate satire. We are supposed to see the irony but still be sympathetic to the character as he represents a common sense of strict justice.

    As to the historical elements, it is interesting that places are named, but important details like the name of the King are left out. Usually in historical texts this would be named, suggesting that’s not what is going on in Jonah.

  • Adam Murray

    Maybe be an interesting discussion for RJS to engender would draw on Fr. Robert Capon’s hermeneutic of History. His answer to the question would be: yes!

  • Chris Crawford

    I believe so. Jonah is that generation’s prophet – the great man of God of his time. The sailors of his day were much like the sailors of any day, prone to foulness, nastiness and violence, and very much abject to the pagan gods of the day. Ninevah was the capitol of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, at a time when one’s power was thought to be evidence of the power of their gods. The contrast here is stark; the most Godly vs. the most Godless, where the latter are the ones who show deference to God’s will.

    The “dead man” would represent the obvious story that stands as setting for the intended message. In Jonah, this is God sending Jonah to Ninevah. The intended message is man’s reluctance to do God’s will when he has problems with God’s merciful nature, and that what God wills happens regardless of our own personal wishes.

  • Rick Presley

    Probably. Jonah is upset because Yahweh saves the mortal enemies of Israel, his home nation. Jonah didn’t want Yahweh to be merciful to the heathen, so when he is, God asks him the rhetorical question, “If you’re getting so worked up over a gourd, why shouldn’t I get worked up over thousands of innocents?” The final hyperbolic contrast alone, i think qualifies the book as satire. But yes, the counterpoints exist throughout the book:
    God said go East by land, Jonah went west by sea
    God said preach repentance, Jonah preaches condemnation
    God says “be a prophet to the Gentiles” but Jonah wants to be a prophet to Israel
    God cares about a city but Jonah cares about a gourd

  • AHH

    There is at least some exaggeration, some of which certain translations that are uncomfortable with figurative language fudge around.
    — Nineveh is described as such a big city that it takes 3 days to walk across it.
    — The repentence of Nineveh is so complete that even the animals get clothed in sackcloth.

  • Rebecca Erwin

    That is the way I have always understood it. To remind myself that God doesn’t work according to my plan, my justice. I am only the messenger, he makes the decisions.

  • Patrick

    The logic that the book of Jonah reporting Jonah as a spiritual baby is evidence of satirical genre is flawed, IMO.

    The entire biblical text ridicules “Gods People” the Jews in the same manner, they are constantly being reprimanded, belittled and threatened with judgement from Torah to Matthew 24.

    In the Hebrew, Isaiah uses language you won’t hear your mother use describing them as whores, etc.

    Peter comes over as a dunce in Mark. Most commentaries see this fact as evidence of authenticity, so why is it different with Jonah?

    If Jesus juxtaposed Jonah’s death 3 days and nights in the belly of the great fish with His physical death pre resurrection, if one is myth, isn’t the other literarily?

    Why would Jesus describe the “men of Nineveh” judging the 30 AD generation if they didn’t repent after Jonah evangelized them? Was their repentance and subsequent judgment also satire?

    Is the queen of the south satire? Jesus used her the same way in those judgment passages. If Jonah wasn’t dead in the fish for 3 days, why isn’t she said to be a myth?

  • Camassia

    I had a similar thought when I read Jonah recently, but hypothesized it the other way around: the prayer existed first and the story of the fish-swallowing was extrapolated from it. (I admit to being influenced by the way some of my peers extrapolate literally from song lyrics, e.g., the urban legend that “In the Air Tonight” was about an actual drowning.) It’s interesting that Jesus’ reference to Jonah actually is talking about being in ‘the belly of Sheol’ as the prayer says and thus renders the fish superfluous.

  • attytjj466

    Jonah as satire seems appropriate. The force of the book is even stronger when read that way.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Therefore the story is very likely a commentary/editorial of sorts upon Israel as the priest to the world and their effect or lack of desire to have effect upon the Nations as God has called them to.”

    This is an important part of the message – the reluctance, even refusal of Israel (represented by Jonah) to believe that God would be gracious to outsiders. This is one of the signs of Jonah that Jesus refers to (big fish etc are beside the point). If we include the next few verses from the passage quoted in the post we read:

    “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” Matthew 12:42-45

    This is the other side of the coin in the sign of Jonah parable. Not only will God extend grace to the whole world (even if this upsets Israel), Israel itself needs to be careful because the openness of those outside can act to condemn Israel and leave her effectively outside, or worse. Jonah’s big sulk illustrates this well, and with a kind of black humour.

  • Michael Mercer

    As has been said, Patrick, one can just as effectively use a traditional or fictional character to make one’s point. Jesus ministered in a culture that knew all these stories. Whether they thought of them as strictly historical is really beside the point.

  • scotmcknight

    I’ve not weighed in here… The singular feature of Jonah for me is it’s scathing and relentless critique of Jonah, the prophet. There is nothing like this in all the Bible, OT or NT. Jonah comes off as lacking sufficient courage even to be a prophet and then a depressed pinhead when Gentiles turn to YHWH. At some level it is comedy, or perhaps satirical or laughable tragedy. That there is no record whatsoever of Nineveh’s repentance, combined with the big fish story, not to mention the caricature of a prophet have led me to see this as satire, as having at least fictional elements enveloping a historical figure.

  • Norman

    This story kind of reminds one of the jealous older brother in the prodigal son parable. Or other parables in which the tenants are not happy with their master or even his son. These are recurring themes found in Genesis starting with Cain and Abel regarding jealousy.

  • FredClark

    Jesus also alludes to the story of Jonah in some of his own parables. The older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son clearly borrows from chapter 4 of Jonah. I don’t think this means we’re supposed to read that parable as history.

    I think people get lulled into applying the pattern of the other books of the prophets to Jonah, where that pattern clearly doesn’t fit. The prophet in Joel is Joel. The prophet in Amos is Amos, etc. But the prophet in the book of Jonah is not Jonah, but rather the anonymous, vicious wit who wrote this story featuring Jonah as its antihero and punchline.

    I’ve seen some of the folks arguing that Jonah is history also arguing that Jonah was the author of this book– ignoring that the narrative includes scenes that Jonah did not witness (the repentance of the sailors after tossing Jonah overboard, for example).

    The debate isn’t between whether it’s a satire or a history. The debate is between whether it is a sharp, hilarious, pointed satire or a bumbling, absurd and incoherent history. I don’t understand how the latter amounts to a “high view” of scripture.

  • David Willgren

    I think your point is a good one. But I am curious of what you do with the part of Jesus reference that says that “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah” I would guess that if you said that the elves would stand up at the second coming of Christ, people would either think you were joking or were mad, since it implies that you in fact refer to these characters of the Lord of the Rings as real, historical beings. Or do I miss your point?


  • jhurshman

    That is a good question, and I see a couple ways to go with it. I don’t know for sure that either of these approaches have linguistic/cultural justification in the first century Aramaic/Greek context.

    One approach is to read “will” as “would”: “The men of Nineveh would stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” That change marks the described event as being counter-factual and is closer to what we would say in English in that context.

    Another approach is to see Jesus’s statement about the men of Nineveh as akin to me saying: “Just like Frodo, I am bearing a great burden and I don’t know if I can keep going… But I know that if I make it through, King Aragorn will kneel to honor me.” The first part of my statement is explicitly marked as an analogy, but the second part is not. In fact, marking it as analogy (“I know that it will be worth it, just like for Frodo when Aragorn knelt before him”) would seem awkward and unnecessary. So I am describing something which is phrased as if it were a factual prediction, but is in fact continuing the analogy.

  • David Willgren

    Thank you for you interesting response. I would 😉 say that your first approach is not linguistically likely. the tense used is clearly future indicative (ἀναστήσονται, will/shall stand, as well as κατακρινοῦσιν, will/shall condemn), and the aorist is used when speaking about their repent (μετενόησαν). Luk 11:32 has the exact same wording as Matt 12:41.

    As for your second approach, for the sake of the argument, what would you say that Jesus message is, then? When he claims that men from Nineveh shall stand in judgement and condemn this generation, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, what is the point? The main analogy seems to me to be between Jona and nineveh on one hand, and Jesus and this generation on the other. That is, that this generation should have all the more reason to repent, as Jesus is “greater than Jonah”. Would it have the same effect if the audience knew that the Jonah story was a satire? I am not sure. But one additional question would be: is it possible that Jesus and his generation read Jonah as an historical account, although it is a satire, that is, that they were wrong?


  • jhurshman

    I’d say Jesus is making precisely the same point regardless of whether a) Jonah is historical, b) Jonah is non-historical and Jesus and the audience know it, c) Jonah is non-historical and Jesus knows it, but the audience doesn’t, or d) Jonah is non-historical and neither Jesus nor the audience knows it.

    The structure of Jesus’s argument rests on the common knowledge of the Jonah/Nineveh story, not on whether it is a satire or a historical account.

    Jonah’s historicity or lack thereof doesn’t impact the point: The men of Nineveh (either in the story or in history) repented when Jonah preached to them. Jesus is greater than Jonah (either the story character or the historical figure), so his hearers have even greater reason to repent.

    Whether the point has greater rhetorical force if it is about a historical account as opposed to a fictional one of some kind is a good question, but my feeling is that it doesn’t make a lot of difference.

    Either way, it’s not clear that the threatened judgment by the Ninevites is intended by Jesus to be literal, even if he thinks of the Jonah/Nineveh story as historical. It doesn’t seem like Jesus’s warning is meant to teach that the people of Nineveh will actually be in a position to pass judgment on Jesus’s hearers at the last day.

  • Preston Garrison

    It occurred to me recently that “inerrancy” took the focus off of the one who inspired Scripture and put it on the book itself. As soon as you’re committed to inerrancy you have to worry about whether a fish could swallow a man whole and whether hares really chew the cud. If the focus is on God communicating something, the question becomes what is He saying, regardless of the genre that was used.

  • Razorface

    Can anyone recommend a good book on the history of the “inerrancy doctrine” in the Christian church?

  • Nathan

    3 of the 4 reasons could easily be misapplied to a movie made in the 1980’s set in the city of New York, then somehow preserved for a couple thousand years.

    I just don’t know why it would matter if it is history or not.

    Whether you believe it to be a historical account or satire, I’d assume that the text isn’t being deployed in any demonstrably different way if you compared the children’s Sunday School class of your average “liberal” Episcopal church with a SBC church in the same town.

    The history question, when it comes to how most churches use/teach this text, is really a piece of “dog whistle” theology used to signal a certain posture or location in our social religious discourse.

    Just my nickel…