5 Principles for reading Jonah

I am going to try and do a new blog series where I share literary principles that are specific to each book. It will be a bi-weekly(ish) post focusing on a book or part of a book. My hope is that these exercises will help us practice and become more confident with reading some of the more inaccessible or obscure texts in the Bible.

This week, let’s take a look at Jonah.

Principle 1: DON’T be distracted by the fish.

What is the first thing that most people focus on in the story of Jonah? That mysterious human-swallowing fish–which, by the way, has probably derailed 100% of all Bible studies on Jonah. Yes, it is quite fantastic, open to interpretation, but literarily irrelevant.

The author doesn’t seem interested in the fish. I think this is intentional. He uses the least amount of words possible to tell us that it happened, only mentioning the the length of time, but ties no further narrative value to it. If you examine the prayer Jonah prays, chapter 3, or 4, the fish, the ocean, and the sailors are not mentioned ever again. You would think that such an extraordinary event would have significance or meaning but the details only serve to bring Jonah from point A to point B.

And if the story is virtually the same with or without the fish detail, why include it? Glad you asked.

Principle 2: DON’T skip the poetic prayer.

So the fish swallows Jonah. Swims around for 3 days and 3 nights. And then vomits him on dry land. What happened in between, Jonah? What was it like? Did you see a little wooden boy? Tell us! What? Oh, you prayed? You’re going to just recite a prayer? No other details? Ok…

The author includes a recited prayer in chapter 2 of Jonah. While Jonah is mostly a prose narrative, it briefly breaks genre and transforms into Hebrew poetry. Now, this is significant. In the Old Testament, embedding poetry in a prose narrative is a literary tool that communicates emphasis.

For example, in Exodus, the first 14 chapters narrates how Moses engages Pharoah and Egypt in order to free the Israelites. But chapter 15, the author includes a song. The weird thing is the song recaps what the author has already explained through prose. Why the redundancy of information in a different genre? Emphasis. Significance.

Jonah includes a prayer because the prayer is significant to the theme of the story and to his development as a character.

What is the prayer about? Answer: “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (2:9).

The subject matter is not arbitrary. It foreshadows a central motif further developed in the second half of the story.

Now, keep in mind that Jonah is a prophet of the Lord. He is not learning something new but recounting what he already knows to be true about God. He is not having an epiphany or learning a new lesson. Rather, he is doing two things. First, I imagine his circumstance was dire which is why he cries out of sheer desperation. Instead of explaining what Jonah was feeling through narrative, the author chooses a poetic style to dramatize and add emphasis. But secondly, the subject matter in the prayer is meant to be contrasted with the events ahead. I think it’s brilliant. At the heart of Jonah is the theme of divine mercy for the disobedient. Jonah, disobedient in his own way, experiences this individually in the belly of the fish. Soon, a whole city will encounter this idea.

Principle 3: The lesson is in the dialogue.

In any given story, an author typically has many choices to make when it comes to progressing a story. A common decision is whether to narrate or to write dialogue. In the Old Testament, there are several places where years and decades are passing by and the reader might not know it. But when you include dialogue, you are literarily slowing down the pace of the story to a crawl. Usually, when someone utters a word, it is describing a singular event in history that took place in mere seconds. This is probably conventional but let’s apply this principle to Jonah.

Look at 1:6,

What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps this God will give us a thought, that we may not perish.

What intrigues me about this piece of dialogue from the ship’s captain is the last part. What a primal statement that perhaps all human beings have thought at some point in their lives. Does God give us a thought? Does God care about our fate? I believe that this is the central question the narrative of Jonah tries to answer. And we only have to look at 3:9 where the King of Ninevah repeats the motif in a question, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

And it’s not just about what is spoken but what is not spoken. Look at 3:4,

Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!

The brevity of Jonah’s prophecy is quite stark. No detail is given. No reason for such a fierce consequence. But the message gets through and the Ninevites respond with repentance. We are never told in the story why the Ninevites were the epitome of evil. We do not the city’s history, relationship to Jonah and Israel, their culture, belief systems, or anything else. And I think this is important because all of that would detract from the point of the story. The point isn’t the gravity of evil but the gravity of repentance.

Principle 4: Read what is not there: Purposeful omission.

Why does Jonah run? Weirdly, the author never tells us until the very end. But most of us mistakingly prescribe the reason prior to reading the ending. We read God’s command in 1:2, consider it to be a heavy task and then assume that the reason that Jonah is “fleeing” from God is fear. It’s not fear. It’s anger. And it changes the whole story.

If you read the whole story, Jonah doesn’t fear anything. He is the prophet of God. He doesn’t fear getting tossed in the sea–he suggests it. He expresses perfect coherency in the belly of the fish. He doesn’t stutter out of nervousness when speaking divine judgment–he levies God’s judgment with brevity and clarity.

Why does he flee? Look at 3:10 and then read 4:1.

Every character other than Jonah has one thing on their mind, “Does God care about me? Will he not let me perish?” But not Jonah. Jonah has a Ph.D. on the subject matter; he’s been through all 36 gates of Shaolin. No, he is pissed off precisely because God cares so much. Jonah knows that God prescribes salvation and relents destruction.

But here is the fascinating part. The author omits the reason intending for us to misunderstand Jonah. Why? To doubly emphasize the true flaw in Jonah’s theology. Jonah does not have an issue with a sovereign God who brings salvation in this story. He has a problem with sheer grace. It is why he flees in the first place. And his story is meant to teach us an incredible lesson about the extent of God’s love and mercy for people, even the Ninevites of the world.

Principle 5: Meditate on the last question.

The story ends with a question:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

The last principle is one of reflection. I believe the last chapter between Jonah and God leaves us with plenty to rummage about. What Jonah wrestles with is something, perhaps, we all deal with on some level. We live in a fallen world. Has God who is sovereign in all ways abandoned us to ourselves? How does he engage with the Nineveh’s of today?

Do we really understand the God of the Bible? We have so many concepts of who He is. The sheer absurdity of trying to cohere the brokenness of this world with a good, loving God leaves us bewildered. And yet, I continue to seek the Lord. I trust in his character, his word, and most importantly, His Son, Jesus.

Let me know your thoughts. Would love your feedback.




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