Friday, January 11, 2008

Jonah: history, biography or parable?

I'm starting a study of Jonah with the Men's Inductive Bible Study next week and I have started thinking about what genre it might be. Traditionally, it has been included in the "Minor Prophets", but that is more of a historical accident, since the book contains very little in the way of prophesy. This classification arose because it was grouped with eleven books about or by prophets which could be written on a single scroll. Instead, the book of Jonah contains the story of what a particular prophet did at a particular time. Many would say that the genre of Jonah is obvious on its face: history. But I'd like to look at two other genres that have merit: biography and parable.


Most of us have an intuitive understanding of the history genre. It serves in a way to take us back in time so that we can observe what happened at a particular time and place. In the Old Testament the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles serve as clear examples of the history genre. In those cases the history spanned several generations and covered the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, not a portion of a single man's life as in Jonah. Unlike those texts, there is no evidence that Jonah's author relied on archives or other written sources, but either had access to a witness of these events or some oral tradition.


Perhaps a more likely candidate for a story of one man would be biography. Modern biographies aren't all that different from history or journalism in that they focus on accurate and complete details. Ancient biographies were less concerned about strict accuracy—often they included clearly apocryphal stories that illustrated some personal characteristic of the subject. For instance, one of our prime sources for early Roman emperors, Suetonius's On the Life of the Caesars, includes a number of omens and dreams that seem fairly unlikely. But in either era, biographies attempt to draw out the meaning of their subject's lives and selects details that illustrate that meaning. Ruth, Esther, and sections of other books such as the lives of David, Joshua, Daniel, and Joseph are Biblical examples of biography.


Perhaps a more controversial theory is that Jonah is a parable, or at least is told in the form of an extended parable. Although characters in parables are usually unnamed, Jesus christens one of his protagonists "Lazarus". The introduction and conclusion of Job may be regarded as two halves of a parable as well. The key to identifying the genre is to recognize lesson or point of the story and notice that all details emphasize that point. The other genres tend to include details that would seem extraneous to reason for telling the story. Jonah is notably light on extra detail.

Selecting the parable genre does not mean finding Jonah to be fiction, but it does indicate whether historical accuracy was held sacred by the author. Though we aren't used to this way of thinking, miracles such as living in a whale for three days, increase the odds that a parable is based on reality. The reason is that parables were constructed as simple, everyday stories that an audience could easily grasp so that the hidden, more complex meaning would be more clear. In Jonah, the story of the whale adds little to the deeper meaning and would not have been familiar to intended audience. Even today, we see that the "fish story" element tends to swamp the ultimate meaning in the text. An author starting the story from scratch would probably found some other way to turn Jonah back to Nineveh. A simple solution would be for the sea to become calm as soon as the sailors began to return to shore.

Of course God did not do things that way because the story of the whale becomes the "Sign of Jonah" for Jesus many years later.


Cecilia said...
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Doug Burtenshaw said...

It might help to talk to Jews about what is in their Bible. They have a great sense of humour, and read Jonah as a funny story because the only ratbag on stage is a Jew. The Gentiles are immediately repentent.
Jonah was one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible to be written and was a carefully crafted story reacting to the legalistic excesses which some wanted to impose in the Babylonian exile. Jesus referred to it because people were familiar with it as a story.
To take Jonah literally is simplistic, an abuse of God’s Word, and means that you miss the point.

長光一寛 said...

Thanks for enlightening thesis. God bless you. I'm studying about Jonah, writing a novel about him and trying to complete it. I proposed a theory about how Jonah could survive in the stomach of the great fish in chapter II. Hope you will give a look at it.