Something’s a little fishy about Jonah.
(And the crowd groans).
It’s a strange book, so different from the other eleven minor prophets (all 12 of the minor prophet books were on the same scroll, leaving many scholars to see them all as a single literary work). If you didn’t grow up in church or watching Veggie Tales, go read Jonah right now. It’s an awesome story that’ll take you less than ten minutes to read. But there are a number of peculiar things about this story:
Some peculiar features to Jonah:
-A prophet (Israel’s prosecuting attorney) is sent to “prosecute” another country. Prophets are not missionaries, and yet Jonah is asked to be one.
-A prophet says “no” to God (rather uncommon).
-Jonah tries to run away from God (funny).
-Jonah heads towards “Tarshish.” Although this was a real place in Spain, it’s also a phrase that can mean “the ends of the earth,” or “the middle of nowhere,” just like we might say: “he’s going to Timbuktu.” It’s a real city in the middle Mali but it’s also idiomatic for going nowhere.
-Pagan sailors are more noble than Jonah, and start worshipping the God of Israel.
-The Assyrian animals wear sackcloth as a sign of repentance (imagine a cow wearing a burlap sack)
-Jonah gets mad at God for not nuking Assyria.
-And of course, the elephant (whale) in the room: Jonah gets swallowed by a large fish.
It’s this last detail that draws so much attention, positive and negative, to the book.
Historical Nerd-Fest For One Minute: Fundamentalist vs Modernism
One of the biggest debates about Jonah is whether or not this event actually happened in history. As rationalism and anti-supernaturalism grew, lots of people started to doubt the miraculous, like the virgin birth, healings, resurrection, and deity of Jesus, the divine inspiration of the Bible, creationism, and yes, the swallowing and survival of Jonah. The doubters were called “Modernists.” “Fundamentalist” Christianity sought to defend itself from modernist/liberal perspectives, in some cases quite compellingly so. But the fundamentalists also made the same mistake as the modernists, that is, applying modern scientific questions and categories in ancient texts, instead of letting the biblical authors speak for themselves.
What Hath the Onion to do with Jonah?
I wonder if one potential resolution to the Jonah dilemma is that we’re reading the book wrongly. Both liberals and fundamentalists got the GENRE wrong. What if Jonah is satire?
I read the instruction manual to my tv differently than a love letter from my fiancé, differently from Harry Potter. Genre is really important to knowing how to read something.
Everyone reading The Onion, or the brilliant The Babylon Bee, knows that it is satire (well, almost everyone). Technically speaking, sat·ire is the ridicule of vice or folly for the purpose of correction. The genre uses humor and ridicule for the purpose of correcting people (God and the prophets and Paul use it ALL THE TIME).
In short, I think the book of Jonah is meant to satirically critique a kind of selfish nationalism that hates its surrounding nations, an ethnocentrism displayed by some Israelites like Jonah, who want to see the outside world burn. Jonah is literature that critiques *some* forms of patriotism, the kind of patriotism that pridefully puts others down. Jonah is a blistering attack on self-centered religious and cultural perspectives that are unconcerned about their unbelieving community (shots fired).
I find it fascinating to think of Jonah as a Babylon Bee or as an Onion article. Headline might look like: “Local Prophet Tries to Run From God: Gets Swallowed By Big Fish.” Or something like “Local Prophet Mad That God Loves Assyrians Too.” Set in this context, it makes Jonah that much more thought-provoking.
Conclusion: Did Jonah historically happen?
There’s no reason why it couldn’t have, from a Christian perspective. We believe in a God who became man and rose from the dead. So keeping the rebellious Jonah alive in a fish isn’t any big challenge for God. Also, from a satirical perspective, the closer to reality the satire is, the more effective it is, in terms of mannerisms, real people, and real words. Satire is exaggerated reality, but is still based on reality.
But, from my perspective, the answer to the historical question really isn’t that important. Did Jesus’ stories about the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep or the Good Samaritan or the Hidden Treasure historically happen? It doesn’t matter. The stories have a teaching function, just like Jonah does. And sometimes, the more ironic and satirical and crazy and humerous the story, the more likely we’ll internalize it.