Jonah is the odd man out among the prophets. Lined up against Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and the rest, he would easily stand out as “not like the others”. His book is not a collection of oracles or symbolic actions; it is a didactic narrative. It is not a sympathetic portrayal either. Instead the book of Jonah is a satire about a man who was neither an obedient nor a compassionate prophet. Unlike the others who carried out some of the unusual commands of the Lord (see: Jer. 27:1-3; Eze. 5:1-4; Hos. 1:1-3) he was disobedient, judgmental, biased, and sour. In fact, unlike his peers he was not even sent to Israel; he was sent to Nineveh the persecuting pagans of his day.
To discover the point of why such an inept candidate for the office of prophet has even wound up in the Bible, we're going to look at the book of Jonah from a literary perspective today. First we must define the difference between a narrative and a story because although it is comfortable to say, the “story of Jonah” the literary pieces of this book make it more than that. A story is fictional (sometimes we say something is a "true story", but stories don't necessarily have to be true). When we use the term "narrative", especially in association with the Bible, we mean not only is it true, but there is Truth in the account. Biblical narratives are not only entertaining as far as a “story” goes; they also contain Truth concerning God, Truth concerning humankind, Truth concerning history... and so on. Like a good story, a narrative has elements which drive it forward and teach us that Truth.
What makes for a good "story"? I think we are all familiar with these components: plot, conflict, danger, interesting characters, climax, suspense... etc. All of these elements are in the book of Jonah, but with a few ironic twists. The narrative unfolds as follows: 1:1-3 Jonah's call and disobedience; 1:4-6 God's response and the sailors' peril; 1:7-10 The culprit is identified; 1:11-16 The solution and its unexpected consequences; 1:17-2:10 A strange prayer from the belly of a fish; 3:1-3 The second call and Jonah's obedience; 3:4-5 Instant success in Nineveh; 3:6-9 The royal response; 3:10 The Divine response; 4:1-4 Jonah's outburst; and 4:5-11 An ironic instruction in Divine pity (from Jonah by F. W. Golka). When reading Jonah take careful note of repeated words, the geographical movement of Jonah, the contrasts of the characters (Jonah’s behavior as compared to the Ninevites’ actions for example), and the catalysts that move one scene on to the next. The literary elements of this book force us to look at Jonah not God, a surprising twist since so many of his fellow prophets do exactly the opposite. This becomes even more glaring when we try to find Jonah’s message to the great city of Nineveh. It’s barely identifiable because it’s so brief! So the focus of Jonah is definitely not on the message, nor the Message Maker, but the messenger.
Looking at some of the literary highlights makes this quite clear. In chapter 1 size and movement take precedence. Nineveh is a “great” city and Jonah is swallowed by a “great” fish. Jonah is told to go east and he takes a ship west. Most importantly the pagans seem to fear God more than Jonah does! The highlights of chapter 2 include Jonah’s “fish story” and the prayer of his repentance. Although eloquent, it still has a touch of pride (See how good I am Lord? I’m repenting!). Chapter 3 includes more movement after the Lord gives Jonah a second chance, the ever so brief prophetic sermon and the remarkable (although historically brief) success of Jonah’s ministry. In chapter 4 Jonah becomes the pouting prophet and in an ironic twist God uses a plant to show Jonah his lack of compassion (Jonah is more concerned about a plant, than people). Jonah’s biggest problem was not so much that the Ninevites repented, although that did bother him, it was that God accepted them when they repented! He wasn’t supposed to do that- THEY were NOT the CHOSEN PEOPLE.
So what is the main point of this prophetic narrative? It is not just to illustrate God’s compassion for all people. It is not to teach us that it is better to obey God than to disobey Him. And many preachers and teachers take it to one of those conclusions. But the point of Jonah is not either of those altruistic exhortations. It is to make us take a good look at ourselves, our immediate surroundings and the people we can have an impact on and ask, “Am I acting like Jonah?”
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 10/15/2017