Is Jonah Historical? The Way It Borrows (Part 3 of 5)

Another reason I am suspicious of reading Jonah historically is because it borrows from other books of the Bible in interesting ways. Now, it’s hard to find any narrative in the Bible that does not shape itself after other themes and archetypal events and characters. But Jonah is even more explicit. And in ways that seem to make less sense if it is supposed to be historical.

The Prayer of Psalms: The most obvious intertextual clue is that the poem of Jonah 2 is actually just a pastiche of Psalms, all stitched together to make a coherent prayer for Jonah in the belly of the fish. Here is a list of verbatim uses of the Psalms in Jonah 2:

Jonah 2:3a=Psalm 18:7; 30:3; 118:5; 120:1
Jonah 2:3b=Psalm 130:2
Jonah 2:4b=Psalm 42:8b
Jonah 2:5a=Psalm 31:23a
Jonah 2:6a=Psalm 18:5; 69:2
Jonah 2:8a=Psalm 142:4; 143:4
Jonah 2:8b=Psalm 5:8b; 18:7
Jonah 2:9a=Psalm 31:7a
Jonah 2:10a=Psalm 42:5b; 50:14; 66:13
Jonah 2:10b=Psalm 3:9

The rhetorical effect of this provides a structure of introspection, as many of the Psalms do, but also of identifying with Israel as a whole. This seems to tell us that the story is about Israel, not Jonah. If anything, it’s metonymy. (remember college English class?)

Jonah & Joshua: There are also very interesting parallels between Jonah and many of the battle narratives of Joshua, but particularly 10:1–27. Read in light of the characters and themes of Joshua 10:1–27, the story of Jonah makes another damning point about Israel. But this connection takes us too far down the academic road. For more on this connection see Among the Prophets by Philip Davies.

Jonah & (Re)Creation: The one intertextual clue we cannot ignore is that Jonah is a new creation. Now, this theme is certainly not new. The Flood (Noah as a new Adam) and the Exodus (Moses as a new Adam) are both shaped by the creation story of Genesis 1–3. However, in Jonah, the author is not just hinting at new creation but makes things very explicit.

First, the “great fish” is a symbol of the Rahab/Leviathan creature found in the poetic passages that refer to the chaos of pre-creation in books like Job, the Psalms, and 2 Isaiah (40–55). Specifically, in Job 3:8 and Job 9:13, 26:12, you find the Hebrew words “Leviathan” and “Rahab” but in the Greek translation, you find “great fish.” Considering how similar Job and Jonah are in their style, it is not surprising that the “great fish” shows up here in Jonah to represent an undoing of creation, specifically Jonah’s undoing.

This is even more explicit in the great fish vomiting up Jonah onto “dry land,” especially considering the formulaic response of Jonah to the sailors in the previous chapter: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah is being re-created after being in exile, cast far away from the Temple of the Lord (2:4, 7). Again, this sounds too much like the story of Israel to be a coincidence.

Given the pastiche of Psalms in the prayer of Jonah (chapter 2) and the undoing of creation by way of exile (again see the language of exile in 2:4) along with the start of a new creation that envisions Temple worship, the story seems to find its place as a post-exilic story about Israel more so than about a prophet named Jonah getting swallowed by a great fish after he refuses to prophesy against the “king” of Nineveh.

This seems more like a parable for Israel after the exile than a historical book, especially because I can’t find any history in it. But I can certainly find several points that would make sense in a post-exilic setting.

So to those points we will head next.

3 responses to “Is Jonah Historical? The Way It Borrows (Part 3 of 5)

  1. You know I’m on a similar wavelength regarding biblical literalism/historicism/fundamentalism, so don’t read these comments as an attempt to prove you wrong, but rather as a way to sharpen our mutual thinking.

    1. You make a case that because of the “borrowing”, the book of Jonah is less likely to be non-fiction/more likely to be a parable. What if it is a biography? Or an autobiography? The LSD/alcohol influenced writing of Hunter S. Thompson are no less historical, though they are fantastic and obtuse and sometimes even incomprehensible. There is significant “borrowing” in his work. Anne LaMott’s or Annie Dillard’s work are non-fiction “tales” which meld biography, history, poetry, photography and parable. I wonder if this might be a more helpful view, not just for the book of Jonah, but Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, or portions of the Gospels for that matter (equally bizarre stories).

    2. Identifying the lens through which history/biography are told is immensely helpful. Thus, your identification of the exile as the primary worldview out of which Jonah’s story comes is an essential move. Still, just because there is a worldview (and there always is) and/or a particular lens through which the information is viewed doesn’t mean a story is fictional. Biographies of JFK were written and read through the lens of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was discussed using filters from the lives of the Founding Fathers. The legend might be the story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the nugget of truth in the legend is that Washington understood himself and was understood by peers as an upright and honest person. So why does such a legend become almost factual? Nobody wants to lose that small, but very important fact which undergirds our national self-understanding. So this begs the question: what is/are the nuggets of fact in the Jonah story that can be gleaned/discerned?

    This is a very big pile of blather! You’ve really made me think and it’s not even 8AM yet! Keep up the good thinking!

    • I would never take your thoughts as an attack unless you started talking about my mom.

      I completely agree. I don’t biography is a likely candidate for the genre since it doesn’t really “end” but I understand your point about borrowing and merging genres in a work. I think almost every biblical account borrows from other biblical (and even non-biblical) accounts but to me Jonah just “feels” different, than, say, Hosea, Jeremiah, or even the narratives of Samuel-Kings/Chronicles (which are very intentionally shaped).

      So, I agree that all history is shaped. It’s helpful for us to know the agenda of the DtrH and the agenda of Jeremiah and his followers. But in those cases it seems like the agenda is to tell the historical story according to their agenda but in Jonah, there doesn’t seem to be any history that is being shaped. I guess I just don’t see any “historical anchor” to hang my hat on (to mix metaphors).

      And finally, I don’t think any of my reasons are very good if standing alone. It’s only when I read them according to all of these that the story’s a-historicity seems apparent.

      Does that make sense?

  2. This post leaves open this important point: The Gospels do the same thing, but we don’t deny the historicity of Jesus and his miracles. There are plenty of important symbolic meanings in what Jesus did, but we still believe he did those things. Rich symbolism doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t historical. This entire world we live in is symbolic of greater spiritual things, but our experiences are real.

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