This will be the only time I post two in one day, but I figured we might as well get started. The first reason I don’t think Jonah is meant to be historical is the highly stylized way it is written. None of these exclude historical writing but when you put them all together the book begins to look a lot less like non-fiction and a lot more like stylized fiction with a purpose (which leads us to the question of genre addressed below).
Rhetorical Devices — there is a reason why Jonah is beloved by children the world over. It really does read like a children’s story, filled with hyperbole & even some personification (remember 9th grade English class?)
Personification: giving animate qualities to inanimate objects, such as emotions, willful actions, etc.
1:5 – The ship “reckoned that it was about to break” or “thought it was about to break”
1:15 – The sea “stopped its rage (or indignation)”
Hyperbole: exaggeration or a use of “extreme terms”
1:2 – Ninevah the great city
1:4 – YHWH hurled a great wind
1:4 – there was a great storm
1:5 – the men hurled the cargo
1:10 – the men were extremely frightened
1:12 – the great storm
1:12 – pick me up and hurl me into the sea
1:15 – so they picked Jonah up, hurled him into the sea
1:16 – the men feared YHWH greatly
1:17 – YHWH appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah
3:2 – Ninevah the great city
3:3 – a great city, a three day’s journey
Speaking of making a great children’s story there is also the curious fact that the fish is originally a boy-fish (1:17/2:1) and then after he swallows Jonah it becomes a girl-fish (2:1/2:2). And then after vomiting Jonah, it is a boy-fish again (2:10/2:11). Perhaps it’s scribal error. Perhaps it’s not significant. But it’s much cooler if the fish gets “pregnant” with Jonah. At least my kids prefer that interpretation.
Genre – All of that points to the question: what type of book is Jonah? If it is a prophetic book, why is it so a-historical? That is to say, why does it look so unlike all of the other prophetic books? The other prophets are situated in historical situations, most often naming the kings they are under as well as the kings they are prophesying against (if that’s in the context of the book). But Jonah contains no dates. None of the men mentioned is named, save Jonah himself, not even the king of Nineveh. Which, by the way, cities don’t usually have kings. It never mentions the historical elephant in the room that oozes out of many of the other prophetic books: the strained relationship between Israel and Assyria given the exile.
While it ignores what we might call “historical details” it gives a lot of what we might call “imaginative details,” like the sailors casting lots, throwing over cargo to save themselves, and the worm eating the castor-oil plant. These are all details without any real prophetic (on the part of Jonah, the prophet) or historical significance. In other words, if you read Jonah side-by-side with any other prophetic text in the Bible you can’t help but sense a bit of a “Once upon a time” feel to it, more like a theological Aesop than a prophetic Isaiah.
The Mystical Descent of Jonah 1–2: You can tell from the beginning of this story that Jonah is going down. Literally. The very first word in the Hebrew after the introductory verse is the word “Arise” (Qum) followed by “Go” (Lekh). It is God speaking to Jonah and they are not requests but commands (or imperatives)“Arise and Go.” That is how the book of Jonah begins. And it’s the only “Up” we’re going to get until 2:6. How does Jonah react to God’s command? He “arises” alright, but he arises to flee. You expect it to say “So Jonah arose and went,” obeying God. But instead you have “But Jonah arose to flee.” And he flees by going down. Jonah’s disobedience leads him down the wrong path, literally. Instead of “arising” Jonah begins to “go down” to escape from God.
Verse 3: Jonah went down (yared) to Joppa
Verse 3: Jonah went down (yared) into the ship
Verse 5: Jonah went down (yared) to the hold of the ship
Verse 5: Jonah was asleep (metaphorically going down) in the hold of the ship. Jonah “went down” to escape from God, but could not (see Psalm 139). In an act of irony, God says, “Oh you want to flee from my presence? To do that you need to go out of creation.” So the story keeps going down.
1:15 – Jonah was thrown into the sea, even further down than the hold of the ship
1:17 – Jonah went “down” into the belly of the fish
2:2 – We enter into poetry here (Jonah’s prayer) and Jonah tells God that the fish has metaphorically taken him all the way down to the “depths of Sheol (hell).”
2:3 – God has cast Jonah down even further than hell (according to ANE cosmology), into “the primeval deep,” into the “heart of the seas”
2:5–6 – Jonah “goes down” all the way to the bottom of the earth until he is “shut out” of creation, the ultimate “going down,” with the “bars of creation shutting him out forever” (the translation “shutting me in” makes no sense in the context).
Then comes the climax. After Jonah, by his own disobedience goes down to Joppa, down to the ship, down to the hold of the ship, down to the ocean, down to the belly of the fish, down to the bottom of the ocean and the “great deep,” down until he is shut out of creation (or at least out of the land of the living), then we have the climactic statement in verse 6: “But You have brought my life up from the pit, O YHWH, my God.”
The first time we go “up” in the story since the opening words. This has been a mystical descent out of creation itself and a sudden re-entry, an “exile” and a critical redemption.
Talk about a powerful few chapters. This is why I think Jesus uses it to relate to himself and his purpose, but we’ll get there. It’s enough to say that this is a powerful point in the text regardless of its historicity. And all of these point to a severe and intentional shaping of the story. In the next post we will look at my second reason for not reading Jonah historically, The Way It Borrows