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.
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?
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