Jonah, Satire and Literal Interpretation

Recently, Revelife featured a post discussing just how literally Christians ought to take all parts of scripture.  If Christians take the gospels as literal but the opening verses of Genesis as metaphorical, is that a problem?  Will it eventually lead to the undoing of faith?  A specific example the author drew on was the story of Jonah, which features the unlikely event of a man being swallowed by a giant fish and living in the fish’s digestive tract for three days before being vomited up on land.

(There is actually a well-known complication with this fish.  The Hebrew term used when the fish swallowed Jonah was masculine, but the term used for the fish that threw him up is female.  Hence, Rabbinic literature is full of the suggestion that Jonah actually went on a much longer journey than is made explicit.)

Some of the commentators on the post observed that if God can create the world and raise the dead, the miracles of Jonah are easy enough to believe.  I grant that this is true, but I don’t believe Jonah asks to be believed or rejected as literal history.  I think the more familiar we become with the Hebrew Bible the more apparent it will become that Jonah presents itself as a satirical morality play, rather than a typical prophetic diatribe or historical narrative.  As Walter Brueggemann observes, the book is a “dryly humorous and larger-than-life” portrayal of Jonah’s complaint, “What is going on here?”  He also draws attention to one of the central features of the Hebrew text, the repetitive use of the term gādôl – “Big!”

The best test of an interpretive framework is to read the text through its eyes and see if it accounts for illumines more than it passes over.  When Jonah is read as a satire, with intentionally crafted elements of irony, mockery and dry humor.  The point of Jonah as a satire is a mockery directly of those Jews of the time who reduced God to being a merely tribal deity and indirectly of all who would try to reject God’s acceptance of those who do not deserve it.

When read this way, several elements of the story jump out.  Jonah is a racist, of course, but he’s a foolish and inconsistent racist.  He will not go preach to the Ninevites on the off-chance they would repent and be saved, but on a merchant vessel filled with pagans “each praying to his own deity,” he is willing to be killed so the storm will abate and they will not die.  “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm.”  Not only do they throw him in the sea, and thus live, but they offer a sacrifice to Yahweh and make vows to him!  Jonah bought tickets to Tarsus to avoid preaching to pagans, and in the process made a shipload of converts!  He is the best and worst anti-prophet ever.  (And how did they manage to make a burnt offering on a ship at sail in the first place?)  It is ridiculous and ironic, but that is exactly the point.

Something similar happens when Jonah arrives at Nineveh for his prophetic task.  Nineveh is a massive city, the capital of the idolatrous pagan world, akin to Las Vegas.  The text tells us that “a visit took required three days.”  How much longer would a prophetic ministry take?  But “on the first day,” Jonah delivered an eight-word sermon, which made no reference to God or repentance, and “the Ninevites believed God.”  They declared a fast and put on sackcloth (a common symbol of repentance).  When the king heard, he exchanged his robes for sackcloth and covered himself in dust.  He decreed that every man and animal would fast and be covered in sackcloth.

Yes, the cattle were dressed in sackcloth to show their repentance.

The city repented more thoroughly and effectively than the Jewish nation ever did.  That is ridiculous and ironic, which is exactly the point.  And all this from an eight-word sermon: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  That’s some anointed preaching.  Even so, God’s final words in the book (to his ironically unrepentant prophet) make it clear that the Ninevites are not especially insightful: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

The reader is left to draw his own conclusions.

To my reading, nothing is lost and much perspective is gained when we view Jonah as an inspired, satirical morality play, written to counteract a particularly tribalistic strain within Israel’s tradition.


One response to “Jonah, Satire and Literal Interpretation

  1. I think this is a great analysis! Well done!

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