A high view of Scripture isn’t a literalistic one

Even if the book of Jonah didn’t feature the famous big fish, it wouldn’t take much serious study before you realized that it’s not an historical account. Doug Chaplin cites fourteen facts about the book of Jonah that taken together should really point any thoughtful reader aware of the basics of how literature works away from interpreting the book as historical narrative. The book of Jonah is a great example of how reading Scripture literalistically instead of as literature (“literally”) doesn’t do the text justice.

Nowadays, Jonah is on my short list of favorite books in the entire Bible. But it wasn’t until I realized it wasn’t historical that I began to appreciate it or understand its message and ingenious artistry. I find it highly ironic that once we reject the modernist premium on the historicity of stories, we find that among the Bible’s literary pieces, Jonah is surely among the most similar to modern literary sensibilities in its use of literary styles: as far as I know, its employment of irony and comic exaggeration is almost peerless in ANE literature (although you’ll find good doses of those features in contemporaneous Greco-Roman literature). Its messages of concern for others not like ourselves, the heavy responsibility of being among God’s elect, and the misguidedness of ethnocentrism are among the most “Christian” in the Old Testament.

Yes, those particular lessons could perhaps be drawn out by anyone (mis)taking Jonah as historical narrative. But one other astounding aspect of the book that is not so obvious to an inerrantist expecting accurate history everywhere is the intensely subversive and satirical backbone of the book. As I explained before, Thom Stark points out the sharp contrast between the perspective behind Deuteronomy 20.16-19, in which Yahweh prohibits destroying trees amidst the merciless destruction reserved for untold numbers of humans, and Yahweh’s concluding words in Jonah 4.10-11:

You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

“And also many animals”! The last words of the book! Yet another example of the author’s hilarious sarcasm and sense of irony, the same sense of irony that, as Chaplin notes, depicts Nineveh repenting immediately despite Jonah conveniently neglecting to mention repentance as an option, and that shows Jonah’s displeasure at Nineveh’s repenting in the shadow of adversity — in the same way he had just finished doing (only more willingly than he had done so)! And on and on. This book is a riot — and it’s beautiful. I think I’d actually be disappointed to discover that it actually happened: I appreciate it all the more for seeing its author’s storytelling skills.

If you truly love the Bible and not merely whatever teachings you have been told are within it, then for heaven’s sake, read each selection on its own terms, even when it means entertaining the possibility that those terms in one author might come into conflict with others elsewhere, and even when it means admitting that a juicy miraculous story that is fun to believe really happened never actually did. Loving the Bible means much the same thing as loving other people: enjoying it for what it is, accepting what is imperfect but can’t be changed, and avoiding the temptation to twist it into the shape of our expectations for it.

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  • I remember my liberal, German OT teacher suggesting that we read Jonah as comedy and my mind was opened in much the same way as yours. I think the problem with literalism is that somehow its insistence on historicity makes the text taboo. Instead of asking what the author was trying to say, why he felt the need to do so, and so on, the story’s just there. We can glean theological points from it, but other than that… We leave it alone. Not very exciting.
    Do you know to what extent Jonah is a satirical indictment of the prophetic institution?

    • We can glean theological points from it, but other than that…
      We leave it alone.

      Great point, Arni!

      I certainly wouldn’t claim to know the extent to which Jonah is an
      indictment of the prophetic institution, but Chaplin’s post does point to a
      number of things along those lines. Feel free to fill us in as necessary.
      🙂

  • Keith Reich

    Bravo!

  • Normbv

    In Hebrew literature Man here is “adam” [YHWH inclined] and the beast and animals represent pagan gentiles. There is a mixture of various levels of peoples under consideration in this story. The Sea and the Great Sea monster represents the Gentile world outside of Israel which swallows Jonah as they [Israel] were during the Babylonian exile and then were spit back up. The plant is prophetic of Messiah who provides shade but is killed by the worm and Jonah jealousy represents the attitude of the Jews toward salvation for the Nations. Think of the story of the prodigal son and the older brothers attitude.

    Jon 3:7-8 Let neither man [adam] nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, (8) but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.

    This kind of literature style is not as infrequent as we suppose: think Job and Hosea as examples of theatrical pieces used to present theological objectives.

  • Excellent post. I too only began to really appreciate Jonah when I stopped trying to deal with it as factual history. I see in it love for those who not only are different, but are considered hated enemies. I also see the failure of Israel to fulfill its divine calling vividly illustrated.

    • Indeed, igneousquill! (Welcome, BTW.) Not wanting to be anachronistic, but I
      think that in many ways, Jonah anticipates (or perhaps helps lay the
      groundwork for ) the Christian vision of God and the true intent for His
      “elect”.

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