Before we dive into the Book of Jonah, we need to understand what we are reading, in other words, the literary genre. Why? Simply put, you read a newspaper differently than a novel. You read poetry different than history. It is good to understand what the literary genre of Jonah is because there are many different literary types in the OT, including laments, love songs, parables, apocalypses, and histories. Jonah is generally included with the so-called “Minor Prophets” such as Joel, Obadiah and Micah, so perhaps it straight-up prophecy?
The opening of the book is classic: “This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1; also again in 3:1). This is the classic introduction of a prophetic work. Consider the Book of Micah that immediately follows Jonah in your Bible. Micah is seven chapters of his poetic word oracles, speeches and accounts of visons. But Jonah is not a collection of poetic word, visions, etc. It is a narrative.
The Book of Jonah is really the story about the prophet himself. In that way, the book is more like the accounts of Elijah and Elisha in the Book of Kings. Yet those prophets are part of a larger story about the kings and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. There is no book of the Bible like Jonah – a book – a whole book, about a prophet. It can certainly be labeled as a narrative, perhaps a prophetic narrative.
But Jonah is certainly not like your typical prophet who appears as the great mediator of God’s Word, his power and glory – speaking truth to power, fearless of the costs. True that Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah showed some reluctance about their calling, but Jonah outright refuses and runs away. Jonah is hardly the hero. There are echoes of other prophets. Some scholars point to the author’s reference to Elijah (Jonah 4:4,8), Joel (3:9, 4:2) and Jeremiah (3:9-10). but the narrative trajectory is different than stories about other prophets. Where prophetic books point to fulfillment of the divine oracles, the Book of Jonah seems to have the intent to show how the divine oracle was not fulfilled.
If the accounts of Elijah and Elisha are “prophetic narratives” then Jonah is certainly another take on the category.
The Book of Jonah also shares some attributes with other OT narratives: collective punishment as was meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet at the same time the book has recurring elements of surprise and hyperbole – features common to parables. The behavior of the prodigal’s father and of the vineyard owner is not what we would expect under the circumstances. The debt which the unforgiving servant owed was incredibly large, and the commending of the dishonest steward is a bit shocking. All this seems to suggest that the author is less concerned with recounting a historical event, but rather with grabbing the attention of his Jewish audience so that they rethink their understanding of the nature of God and their attitude toward the gentiles. Attention grabbing, surprise and even shock is the nature of parables.
Long story told short, consider the parable of the unforgiving servant. It tells of one who is forgiven a huge sum only to deny forgiveness to a colleague over an inconsequential debt. Jonah too is a sinner saved by divine grace, who will not allow that gentile sinners may be recipients of the compassion to which Jonah himself owes his own life. Granted that the Book of Jonah is longer and far more complex than the typical parable but is has a strong sense of parable about it.
The Book of Jonah has a bit of satire about it. Far from the hero, Jonah appears a ridiculous figure who is difficult to defend. He is moody, impulsive, uncharitable and pits himself against the very will of God, only to be cut down to size and exposed as self-centered and self-righteous. A scripture scholar, Tim Mackie, compares it to a Saturday Night Live skit. And as with SNL skits, there is something behind the skit to which it points. It is easy to see how behind Jonah must stand a group of people as surely as the Pharisees may well stand behind the prodigal’s son older brother (Lk. 15:25–32). The story as a whole is directed to that behind-the-scenes group.
Certainly, the Book of Jonah is laid out in a narrative form, but all parables resemble narrative. And some parables have a historical basis. Behind the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) lies 2 Chr. 28:15. Behind the parable of the gold coins (Luke 19:11–27) lies the visit of Archelaus to Rome to obtain and confirm his succession to King Herod. In each case an underlying event has been used as raw material for the creation of something new and contemporary, not the recitation of history.
There are scholars who argue for the historicity of the Book of Jonah – and such was the case going back to the Church’s patristic age (3rd and 4th century). The arguments lean toward a literal understanding of Scripture in all cases and the fact that Jonah was a historical figure. Perhaps a surprise to you, but Jonah is indeed a real character of history who appears in 2 Kings 14:25.
23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah, son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel, began his forty-one-year reign in Samaria. 24 He did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not desist from any of the sins which Jeroboam, son of Nebat, had caused Israel to commit. 25 He restored the boundaries of Israel from Labo-of-Hamath to the sea of the Arabah, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had prophesied through his servant, the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher. (2 Kings 14:23-25)
…and how is that important you ask?
All those kings are kings of the northern tribes who broke away from Judea, Jerusalem, and the Throne of David. The very mention of Jonah’s name recalls a prophet of “the other side” with a very nationalistic agenda as well as religious, who is prophesizing the expansion of the Northern Kingdom’s territory. While hearers from Judea would accept the divine revelation through Jonah (and the expansion did in fact happen at the expense of Judea) – but there would be a natural resentment. And so, from the beginning there is a tension between the prophet they are likely to condemn and want to ignore, and the divine Word they are called to hear. It shares that same patina with the parable of the Good Samaritan – a natural resentment to the fact that he is a Samaritan but caught in the tension that he is the one whom Jesus praises.
And there are allegorical features to the Book of Jonah – but then other parables have allegorical features. For example, even his name itself: Jonah, son of Amittai. Or more literally translated, “dove, son of faithfulness.” “Dove” has been considered a symbol for the people Israel. And so, the name is allegorical and satirical at the same moment as Jonah is hardly faithful in the story – which may well just be the point about the people of Israel. In addition, Jonah’s stay in the fish, in light of Jeremiah 51:34-44, is the period of punishment in exile when Babylon swallowed Israel. There are also scholars who disagree with those allegorical assignments. But, nonetheless interesting.
This post began with “Before we dive into the Book of Jonah, we need to understand what we are reading, in other words, the literary genre.” What do you think? I lean toward a prophetic parable in narrative form with allegorical details. In other words, the Book of Jonah stands alone, one of a kind.
Big picture: the Book of Jonah, like all books of the Bible, is meant to reveal the character of God – and to reveal where we stand vis-à-vis the light of that revelation.