Forget the Fish!

Sennacherib as Prisoners from Lachish are broughtI am traveling quite a bit this term – so this is a repost of one of my favorites. We need to read the Bible as the authoritative message of God, but this doesn’t mean that “traditional” readings are always correct. The authority is in the intent and the message. The genre of a book is important. The book of Jonah is fascinating – but it isn’t history. The point isn’t to dismiss the book or to identify “error” in the Bible, but to correctly identify the genre and purpose of the book. In the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary John Walton has some interesting observations on the book of Jonah in its ancient Near Eastern context.

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)

Good satire will be intentionally realistic – and the closer to reality, the more effective. Thus, if the book is a satire we should not find a clear indication of this for that would negate the satire and we should expect to find realistic details placing the story in time and place. Apparent history is not proof that the book should be considered historical.

Forget the fish! God can work the miraculous. This is assumed in Jonah, but it isn’t the point of the story. The fish has only a bit swim on part. Focus instead on divine mercy and compassion.

Satire or A Powerful Parable? But is satire really the appropriate classification for the genre of Jonah? Walter Moberly in Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture suggests that a more appropriate classification may be something close to “parable.” The book is short (shorter than most of my posts including this one) and contains memorable elements designed to get those who read or hear the story thinking. It is “an exploration and portrayal of moral and theological issues in memorable narrative rather than abstract form.” (p. 187) The story of Jonah isn’t simple history and was never intended to be read as history. Focusing on the identity of the big fish or the size of Nineveh is a colossal exercise in missing the point. Rather:

My thesis is that the story of Jonah can well be read as probing of this basic perennial problem within Jewish and Christian (and other) faiths: religious language that on one level appears simple and straightforward is in fact harder to understand and appropriate than it initially appears. (p. 182)

Jonah contains elements of satire, but we need to dig down to the message behind the imagery. According to Moberly, the issue in focus is the nature of divine mercy or compassion. The author may want us to laugh at Jonah, but he also wants us to think about Jonah’s problem.

Assyrian Royal Lion Hunt 1Jonah receives mercy. The outline of the book is simple. When commanded to go to Nineveh, a true powerhouse, Jonah turns and runs away. After a storm and a sacrifice (Jonah), Jonah prays for mercy from God and it is granted. A big fish swallows up Jonah and vomits him out onto dry land.

While in the fish Jonah prays (chapter 2):

In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.

Jonah disobeyed God. He repented and was met by the Lord with divine mercy and compassion.

The Ninevites receive mercy. Jonah then goes to Nineveh and preaches “what is arguably the shortest sermon on record,” five words in the Hebrew translated using eight words in the NIV “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Lo and behold the Ninevites repent and in magnificent style! They all donned sackcloth and fasted, from the king to the lowest in the land, and the fast included even the animals.

Apart from the intriguing inclusion of the livestock, the Ninevite’s repentance looks to be a model in every way, as it consists of fasting, prayer, rejection of sinful behavior, and lack of presumption upon God. In response to all this, God rescinds the threatened judgment upon the Ninevites, who become a paradigmatic example of divine mercy. (p. 186)

The Prisoners from LachishThe Ninevites (like Jonah) deserved death. No Israelite would doubt this at all. They were a mighty conquering nation that wreaked destruction on Israel and Judah. We don’t know for sure when the book of Jonah was written. It is set earlier than the Assyrian conquest of Judah, which failed to conquer Jerusalem but stomped over much of the rest of the country in the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37). The image at the top of the post along with the one here are from the relief in the palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh depicting the defeat of Lachish (2 Kings 18, 2 Chron. 32, Isaiah 36-37, Jeremiah 34). This relief is now displayed in the British Museum. The bearded prisoners are Judeans from Lachish. (Another room in the palace contained impressive reliefs of a royal lion hunt, also now in the British Museum.)

The consensus of scholars is that Jonah was written during the exile or later. If so the audience would know of the Assyrian conquest. Yet, the hated Ninevites (like Jonah) received mercy.

Divine Mercy as an Attribute of God. With this setup in Chapters 1-3 we are led to ponder Jonah’s reaction and God’s response in Chapter 4.

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. (4:2-3)

In this complaint Jonah quotes Exodus 34:6 (The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness) and probably refers as well to the sentiment in Jeremiah 18:8 (but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it).

[Exodus 34:6-7] is an account of the nature of God, from God’s lips, spoken to Moses as privileged recipient. As the fullest statement about the divine nature in the whole Bible, it is located in the context of the aftermath of Israel’s breaking the recently made covenant by sinning with the golden calf (Exod. 32), even while they were still at the mountain of God. (p. 192)

Jonah knows that God is merciful. He is a beneficiary of God’s mercy and compassion – both personally and as an Israelite.

As part of the collection of the 12 minor prophets, the author of Jonah could also have in mind Joel 2:13-14. Joel includes the quote of Exodus 34:6 in a call for Judah to repent and follows it with a response that resembles the response of the king of Nineveh in Jonah 3:9 “who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him.” Moberly notes:

When one takes seriously the imaginative world of Jonah 3-4 in the light of Joel 2:13-14, it means that the king of Nineveh is portrayed as having excellent theological insight, trusting and not presuming upon God. It becomes an element in the exemplary nature of Ninevite repentance. It also means that the king of Nineveh is portrayed as having better theological understanding than Jonah. The Ninevite construes divine mercy rightly in both word and action, while Jonah knows only enough to become upset. (p. 195)

Chapter four continues with Jonah sulking. God provides a plant to provide shade, supplementing the shelter Jonah had built. When a worm is sent to destroy the plant, Jonah gets angry. God responds:

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?

It isn’t entirely clear why Jonah is angered by divine mercy for the Ninevites. Moberly runs through several possibilities although none of them seem to quite hit the mark. What is clear is that Jonah selfishly cares for himself; “he wants to restrict divine mercy to the elect and does not want to see Israel’s enemies (or gentiles, or sinners …) receive what Israel receives. ” (p. 207)

Assyrian Royal Lion Hunt 2There is more. Some who read the text as history take the reference to a hundred and twenty thousand who can’t tell their right hand from their left to indicate that the population is far greater. There are a hundred and twenty thousand children plus adults. But Moberly doesn’t see an obscure indirect census as the intent of the author. Rather the Ninevites are being described as ignorant children. The most powerful nation in the world of the time … as ignorant children.

YHWH’s point is that the insight of wisdom, to which Israel has access in torah, should engender toward those who lack it not arrogance or disdain but rather compassion. The way in which the Gospels overturn conventional assumptions about power and importance, and present knowledge of God’s priorities as a reason for active compassion toward others, stands in strong continuity with this. (p. 208)

Certainly God doesn’t spare Nineveh because of the Assyrian might and wealth. He spares Nineveh because the people, though ignorant as children, turn and repent. God has compassion on them.

In the concluding line God directs Jonah, and in succession us, to rethink what divine mercy and compassion mean. A pursuit well worth our time as it is part of the very nature of God.

Does this outline of Jonah emphasizing divine compassion and mercy make sense?

If not, where do you disagree? How would you read the book?

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

If you would like to comment please see Forget the Fish Already! at Jesus Creed.

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