Jonah: An Extreme Story Told Twice
To think of Jonah as little more than a simple morality story – or, worse still, as a straightforward retelling of an historical event – is to risk missing some of the most important points of the book. It is much more than a simple story meant for the enjoyment of children, nor is it a chapter in a history textbook. Instead, Jonah is theological – its purpose is to teach us about God. It is also a detailed, complex piece of prophetic narrative, and when we take the time to read it for what it is, we find that it works on a number of levels (often all at once).
Two elements to the book of Jonah that are easy to miss at first glance are its peculiar narrative structure and its clear use of hyperbole.
A Story Twice Told – The Structure of Jonah
We don’t know who the author of the book is, or when it was written, but the structure of the book helps to inform us that the purpose of the book is not just to fill in gaps in the historical record, but to teach. Some amount of license has clearly been taken in the telling of the story (did Jonah really take the time to compose classical Hebrew poetry while in the belly of a fish?), indicating that the book was carefully composed with a clear purpose and intent.
Jonah is a book with two clear and easily divided halves, and these two halves work together in close parallel. The first part of the book begins with a prophetic call (“Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it…’” [1:1-2]), and the second part of the book begins with another, nearly identical call (“Then the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you…’” [3:1-2]).
These two callings of Jonah initiate two distinct stories, each with its own setting, its own cast of characters, and its own unique complications, but in many ways we are meant to see that Jonah is living through the same story twice. In the first half Jonah encounters pagan sailors and a pagan ship captain; in the second half Jonah encounters a pagan city with a pagan king. In the first half God sends a “great wind” (1:4), in the second, it is a “scorching east wind” (4:8). In the first half God sends a great fish (1:17), in the second half He sends a tiny worm (4:7).
The book’s overall structure revolves around these two nearly identical calls, urging Jonah to “arise,” and “go,” but the outcomes of the two calls could hardly be more different.
If we take a great step back in order to gain a much broader look, the Bible as a whole works in much the same way. In Scripture we find the same story (the story of Israel), being broadly told twice, first in the Old Testament, and then again in the New Testament. The first story sees God raising up a “chosen people” and calling them to a certain mission and a certain purpose: to reveal God a lost people. This first story really ends up being a chronicling of failure, marked at the end by the people being “swallowed up” by foreign nations, and sent into exile, only to return, injured and uncertain about where the story will go next.
The second story sees God calling a new people – centered on the calling of a new “Chosen One”. In this “retelling” the purpose of the call is the same – blessed to be a blessing – but the outcome is far different! In the second call the message to those outside of the original call are indeed brought in and delivered from judgment, even as the one originally called (Israel) looks on in disgust.
This, broadly speaking, is the Bible’s “metanarrative” – and it just so happens to be the story being told in Jonah, as well, but on a smaller scale. The fact that Jonah is divided into these two halves is a clue that the book is much more than a simple morality story, akin to Aesop’s Fables. It shows us that Jonah is, among other things, a prophetic description of the work of God, in and through Israel.
The Great Prophet – Jonah and Hyperbole
The other element revealed at the beginning of the book that should help to guide our reading of Jonah is the liberal use of hyperbole. This is a book that never makes any attempt at subtlety, but ensures that every element is exceptionally large or extreme, whether big (such as the fish) or tiny (such as the worm).
The superlative description of the city of Nineveh as “that great city” in 1:3 is but a herald of things to come. Jonah is a book packed full of extreme language. Everything Jonah encounters, every emotion felt by the characters, it seems, is larger than life. There is the “great city” of Nineveh, of course (1:2, 3:2, 3:3, 4:11), then there is a “great wind” (1:4), a “great tempest” (1:12), and a “great fish” (1:17). It even occurs in several places that are not obvious in some translations. The Hebrew word for “great” (gadol) occurs again and again in the story, even in places that it may be hidden to non-Hebrew readers. When the sailors are described as “exceedingly afraid”, they are really filled with “great fear” (gadol yare [1:10 and 1:16]). When Jonah’s true feelings are made known in chapter 4, he sees God’s mercy as a “great evil” (4:1), but after God shows similar mercy to Jonah by providing him shelter, Jonah’s mood changes and he is filled, instead, with “great gladness” (4:6).
The author of Jonah makes no attempt to infuse his account with subtlety or realism. It is big and bold and brash and mostly explicit in its messaging. In this way it seems to serve a purpose similar to modern day political satire, taking well known characters or tropes and then putting them into a situation that either exposes their obvious hypocrisy (as with Jonah) or in which their behavior represents a reversal of the reader’s expectations (as with the faithful responses of the sailors and the Ninevites). It wears its message on its sleeve, drawing you in with its captivating story, but then striking you with its obvious implications to your own life and the life (particularly for an Israelite) of your people.