Author: M. K. Klooster
Prof. H. G. L. Peels
Student number: 1167
Type of document:
11th June 2019
Institution: Theological University Apeldoorn
The Literary Genre of the Book of Jonah
An Evaluation of the Genre Classifications of the Book of Jonah and Their
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Introduction .............................................................................................................. 3
1.1 Subject Introduction ............................................................................................................... 3
1.2 Research Questions and Structure ......................................................................................... 3
1.3 Relevance ................................................................................................................................ 4
1.4 Approach and Method ............................................................................................................ 4
Chapter 2: The Characteristics of the Book of Jonah ...................................................................... 5
2.1 Introduction ............................................................................................................................ 5
2.2 Jonah’s Position in the Biblical Canon ..................................................................................... 5
2.3 Date of Composition ............................................................................................................... 5
2.4 Author ..................................................................................................................................... 6
2.5 Literary Structure .................................................................................................................... 7
2.6 Literary Techniques ............................................................................................................... 12
2.7 Character Roles ..................................................................................................................... 14
2.8 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................. 16
Chapter 3: The Book of Jonah as Historical Literature .................................................................. 18
3.1 Introduction .......................................................................................................................... 18
3.2 Historical Accuracy ................................................................................................................ 18
3.3 Improbability ......................................................................................................................... 23
3.4 Tradition ................................................................................................................................ 24
3.5 Jesus’ Testimony ................................................................................................................... 24
3.6 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................. 25
Chapter 4: The Book of Jonah as Imaginative Literature .............................................................. 26
4.1 Introduction .......................................................................................................................... 26
4.2 The Book of Jonah as an Allegory ......................................................................................... 26
4.3 The Book of Jonah as Didactic fiction ................................................................................... 27
4.4 The Book of Jonah as a Midrash ........................................................................................... 29
4.5 The Book of Jonah as a Novella ............................................................................................ 32
4.6 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................. 34
Chapter 5: The Book of Jonah as Humorous Literature ................................................................ 35
5.1 Introduction .......................................................................................................................... 35
5.2 The Relationship Between Irony, Parody, and Satire ........................................................... 35
5.3 The Use of Irony in the Book of Jonah .................................................................................. 35
5.4 The Book of Jonah as a Parody ............................................................................................. 38
5.5 The Book of Jonah as Satire .................................................................................................. 42
5.6 Problems of Irony, Parody, and Satire .................................................................................. 45
5.7 The Book of Jonah as Trauma Literature .............................................................................. 46
5.8 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................. 46
Chapter 6: Discussion .................................................................................................................... 48
Chapter 7: Conclusion ................................................................................................................... 50
Bibliography .................................................................................................................................. 51
Chapter One: Introduction
1.1 Subject Introduction
The story of ‘Jonah and the whale’ has captured the imagination of children, authors, and artists alike
for centuries. In the course of history and especially today, however, people have questioned the
historicity of this particular event. Additionally, most scholars question the historicity of the book of
Jonah as a whole. Surprisingly, this re-evaluation of the literary genre of the book of Jonah usually
does not result from scepticism towards miracles or the historicity of the Bible in general, but from
the reasoned conviction that the author of the Book of Jonah did not intend to write a historical text.
If the author did not write a history, then what did he intend to write? What is the literary genre of
the Book of Jonah?
1.2 Research Questions and Structure
This Bachelor thesis further explores this question by analysing the various candidates that scholars
have proposed for the literary genre of the Book of Jonah. The main research question is as follows:
• Which literary category best fits the genre of the Book of Jonah?
Thus, the following sub-questions are considered:
1. What literary characteristics of Jonah are relevant to the discussion of its genre?
2. To what extent can the Book of Jonah be classified as historical literature?
3. To what extent can the Book of Jonah be classified as imaginative literature?
4. To what extent can the Book of Jonah be classified as humorous literature?
Scholars have proposed various genre classifications for the Book of Jonah. This thesis provides an
overview of the main genres attributed to the book to thus reach a conclusion. Before diving deeper
into the matter of genre, this thesis examines the characteristics of the Book of Jonah itself, thereby
focussing on the features of the book that are relevant to the question of genre. In the main section,
Jonah’s genre classifications are discussed in three main literary categories:
historical, imaginative, and humorous literature.
The third chapter – concerning the classification of historical literature – addresses the matter of
historicity. Chapter 4 – the classification of imaginative literature – focusses on allegory, parable,
mashal, prophetic legend, midrash, novella, and diaspora-novella. The fifth chapter – featuring the
classification of humorous literature – attends to humorous elements such as irony, parody, satire,
and tragedy. The sixth chapter – the discussion – interprets the results of the research conducted in
earlier chapters. In the final chapter, this thesis answers its main research question, then summarises
and reflects on the research.
Despite the vast amount of literature that has been published on the genre of the Book of Jonah, the
subject is nowhere near reaching a consensus. This thesis does not offer the illusion of a solution to
this problem, but it intends to contribute to the discussion by providing a more recent overview of the
various literary genres proposed for the Book of Jonah. This thesis not only aspires to be relevant
theologically, but it also aims to be relevant to the church by reviewing various hermeneutical
approaches to Jonah, thus enriching the understanding of God’s written revelation.
1.4 Approach and Method
This thesis is a systematic literature review, as it collects, evaluates, and synthesises various
perspectives to provide an overview of the current research relevant to the research question.
The nature of this research is descriptive because it intends to describe different views on the genre
of the Book of Jonah rather than proposing one itself. The literature used for this study contains
commentaries, introductions, monographs, and articles from a wide variety of scholars, including
orthodox Protestant, Catholic, liberal, and Jewish theologians and non-theologians from the 19th to
the 21st century. By doing so, this thesis intends to present a representative overview of the
This thesis is written in British English and follows the guidelines of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Chapter 2: The Characteristics of the Book of Jonah
In this chapter, the characteristics of the Book of Jonah paramount to understanding the book’s genre
are examined. First, this chapter discusses general features such as the book’s position in the biblical
canon, its date of composition, and its author. Subsequently, this chapter thoroughly considers the
external and internal literary structure followed by literary techniques, such as suspense, hyperbole,
exaggeration, understatement, surrealism, word repetition, and wordplay. Last, the character roles of
Jonah, God, the Gentiles, and the forces of nature are analysed.
2.2 Jonah’s Position in the Biblical Canon
The Book of Jonah is counted among the twelve Minor Prophets in both the MT (Masoretic Text) and
the LXX (also known as the Septuagint). In the MT, Jonah is in fifth place, preceded by Obadiah and
followed by Micah and Nahum. In the LXX Jonah is the sixth of twelve, preceded by Obadiah and
followed by Nahum. Jonah does not seem to fit well among the Minor Prophets: in contrast to the
other books, Jonah is a narrative about a prophet with only one true – and very brief – prophetic
Jonah’s obedience and miraculous incidents – like the one where Jonah is swallowed by a fish
– have no parallels in the other Minor Prophets.
According to most scholars, the Book of Jonah is
closer to stories of the prophets, particularly the stories of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.
However the Book
of Jonah established its position, the book’s inclusion in the twelve Minor Prophets indicates that the
Israelite community acknowledged its divine inspiration and prophetic character.
2.3 Date of Composition
Most scholars define the terminus a quo
of the composition of the book of Jonah as the postexilic
(after 516 BCE to 70 CE)
or Persian period (516–332). Their main reasons are as follows: the use of
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 4; Haller, Erzählung von Jona, 8; Lessing, Jonah, 53; Wendland, ‘Analysis
and Genre (Part 1)’, 191.
Lessing, Jonah, 53.
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 4; Haller, Erzählung von Jona, 8–9; Lessing, Jonah, 54; Simon and Schramm,
Jonah, xiii; Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 434–35; Wendland, ‘Analysis and Genre (Part 2)’, 388; Zenger and Frevel,
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 206.
The earliest possible date of origin.
Unless stated otherwise, every date in this thesis is BCE, ‘Before the Common Era’.
the vagueness of historical references to Nineveh and its king, in particular;
that ‘may be understood as a protest against a xenophobic mood in the
somewhat self-righteous reforming zeal of those [postexilic] years’;
and the book’s verbal and
thematic parallels to passages in Kings, Jeremiah, Joel, and other books.
However, scholars disagree
on this terminus a quo, and each of the arguments above has been countered.
Sirach’s mention of the ‘Twelve Prophets’ (49:10) indicates the terminus ad quem
of the book’s
composition, as it implies that the book was regarded as Scripture at the beginning of the second
It is disagreed upon whether fourth-century Tobit cites Jonah in Tob. 14:4, 8.
there is no unanimous consensus, most scholars agree that the book was written in the Second Temple
The author of the Book of Jonah is not mentioned in the book. The main character – Jonah, son of
Amittai – is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, which is the only possible reference to a historical period.
According to 2 Kings, he was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II (796–746). If one proposes a
postexilic date of composition, then Jonah, son of Amittai, could not have been the author of his
The issue of authorship is closely related to how the book’s genre is interpreted: in their
search for the genre of the Book of Jonah, scholars attempt to identify why the book was written,
making claims about the author’s role and his intentions in the process.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34–36.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 104; Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34–36.
Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 177.
Good, Irony in Old Testament, 39.
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 209; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 77.
See e.g. Aalders, ‘Problem of Jonah’, 11–12; Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 44–47; Fretheim, The Message of
Jonah, 35–36; Hurvitz, ‘Hebrew and Aramaic in the Biblical Period: The Problems of “Aramaisms”’, 28–33;
Landes, ‘Dating of Jonah’, 100–116; Sasson, Jonah, 11–26; Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 207–9;
Vriezen and Woude, Oud-Israëlitische En Vroeg-Joodse Literatuur, 1:301; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 99.
The latest possible date of origin.
Childs, Introduction, 419; Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xli; Bergey, ‘Jonah, Struggling with YHWH’, 206.
Codex S reads ‘Jonah’ in both verses, while Codex B reads ‘Nahum’ in v.4 and lacks a name in v.8. See, Allen,
Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 17973.
See e.g. Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 104; Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34–36; Landes, ‘Dating of
Jonah’, 115–16; Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xli.
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 206.
See e.g. Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 6; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 41–54; Sasson, Jonah, 331;
Sherwood, ‘Cross-Currents in Jonah’, 54–58; Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 432; Vriezen and Woude, Oud-Israëlitische En
Vroeg-Joodse Literatuur, 1:302.
2.5 Literary Structure
The narrative of Jonah has been called a literary masterpiece, marked by symmetry and balance.
structure of the Book of Jonah is, at first glance, relatively simple: it divides neatly down the middle.
The first two chapters deal with Jonah’s first call, his attempted flight and forced return, and his
response to these events. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with Jonah’s second call, his fruitful ministry in
Nineveh, his reaction to it, and God’s lesson and final question.
This elementary structure analysis
provides a useful parallel between Chapters 1–2 and 3–4, discussed below in Section 2.5.1, External
Structure. ‘external structure’. These parallel chapters are further divided into three parallel
sequences each, which are analysed in Section 2.5.3, Internal Structure.
2.5.1 External Structure
When divided down the middle, the Book of Jonah reveals the following parallel structure:
Table 1: External Structure: A Study in Symmetry
Scene One: Chapters 1–2
Scene Two: Chapters 3–4
1. Word of YHWH to Jonah (1:1)
1. Word of YHWH to Jonah (3:1)
2. Content of the word (1:2)
2. Content of the word (3:2)
3. Response of Jonah (1:3)
3. Response of Jonah (3:3–4a)
4. Report on impending disaster (1:4)
4. Prophecy of impending disaster (3:4b)
5. Response to impending disaster (1:5)
- by the sailors
- by Jonah
5. Response to impending disaster (3:5)
- by the Ninevites
6. Unnamed captain of the ship (1:6)
- efforts to avert disaster by
• words to Jonah
6. Unnamed king of Nineveh (3:6–9)
- efforts to avert disaster by
• words to the Ninevites
7. Sailors and Jonah (1:7–15)
- sailor’s proposal (1:7ab)
- sailor’s action and its result (1:7cd)
- sailor’s question (1:11)
- Jonah’s reply (1:12)
- sailor’s action (1:13)
7. Ninevites and God (3:10)
- Ninevites’ action (3:10ab)
See e.g. Bergey, ‘Jonah, Struggling with YHWH’, 206; Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 10; Lessing, Jonah,
Bergey, ‘Jonah, Struggling with YHWH’, 206–7; Lessing, Jonah, 34; Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, 110–11;
Wendland, ‘Analysis and Genre (Part 2)’, 373–74.
Fokkelman, De Bijbel Literair, 279–86.
This chart is derived from Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, 110–111. The numberings in this design are meaningless
and for the use of reference only. Each marks a section of narrative designated as a ‘unit’. See also, Lessing,
Jonah, 34; Wendland, ‘Analysis and Genre (Part 2)’, 373–74.
- sailor’s prayer (1:14)
- sailor’s action (1:15ab)
- result: disaster averted (1:15c)
- result: disaster averted (3:10cd)
8. Response of the sailors (1:16)
8. Response of Jonah (4:1)
9. YHWH and Jonah (2:1–11)
- YHWH’s action and its result (2:1)
- Jonah’s prayer (2:2–10)
- YHWH’s response and its result
• by word (2:11a)
• by nature: fish (2:11b)
9. YHWH and Jonah (4:2–11)
- Jonah’s prayer (4:2–3)
- YHWH’s question (4:4)
- Jonah’s action (4:5)
- YHWH’s response and its result
• by nature: a plant (4:6abcd)
- Jonah’s response (4:6c)
- YHWH’s response and its result
• by nature: worm (4:7)
sun and wind (4:8abc)
- Jonah’s response (4:8d)
- YHWH’s response (4:9a)
- Jonah’s response (4:9b)
- YHWH’s response (4:10–11)
Source: Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, 110–111.
2.5.2 Symmetry and Asymmetry:
As shown in the chart above, there are striking similarities between both scenes, particularly between
their units. These symmetric features are often enhanced by the repetition of theme, vocabulary, and
syntax. There are also many differences between the units of both scenes. Trible prefers using the
in this matter, instead of asymmetry. She argues that ‘rather than destroying
symmetry, irregularities confirm it; difference enhances similarity’.
According to Landes, the end of
the parallelism at 4:8b serves to heighten the didactic climax of the book by making the ending
independent of the story as a whole.
See Trible for a more thorough discussion of symmetry and asymmetry in this chart: Trible, Rhetorical Criticism,
Trible derives this term from G. A. Smith, who provides this definition: 'an instinctive aversion to absolute
symmetry, which, if it knows not better, will express itself in arbitrary and even violent disturbances of the style
or pattern of the work' (The Early Poetry of Israel in its Physical and Social Origins, London: Oxford University
Press, 1927). Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, 117.
Landes, ‘Jonah: A Māšāl?’, 146–47.
2.5.3 Internal Structure:
The parallel structure of Chapters 1–2 and 3–4 can also be divided into three sequences per part. This
pattern is shown schematically below:
A Jonah’s call (1:1–3)
B In the ship (1:4–16)
C In the fish (2:1–11)
A’ Jonah’s call (3:1–3)
B’ In Nineveh (3:4–10)
C’ Under the qiqayon
Each of these sequences has a unique concentric structure that is explained in detail in the following
22.214.171.124 Sequence A: Jonah’s calling (1:1–3)
Jonah’s flight is the central theme in the literary structure of this sequence:
A Word of YHWH to Jonah:
B Arise, go to Nineveh
C its wickedness has come up before me
D Jonah arises and flees to Tarshish
E from the presence of YHWH
D’ Jonah goes down, finds a ship to Tarshish
C’ Pays the fare, goes down
B’ to go to Tarshish
A’ from the presence of YHWH
The paralleled sections are as follows: the word of YHWH to Jonah – Jonah’s flight from the presence
of YHWH (A-A’). The destination appointed by God, Nineveh – the destination of Jonah’s choice,
Tarshish (B-B’). The wickedness that has come up – Jonah’s descending (C-C’). The centre of the
sequence ‘from the presence of YHWH’ (E) is framed by the repetition ‘to Tarshish’ (D-D’).
Since most scholars agree on the concentric studies of the interior design of the Book of Jonah, and Fokkelman
presents a complete and compact analysis, the content of this paragraph is mainly based on his work. See
Fokkelman, De Bijbel Literair, 279–86; See also Simon, who provides an analysis very similar to Fokkelman’s:
Simon and Schramm, Jonah, 25–33; Cf. Wendland for a slightly different, more detailed analysis: Wendland,
‘Analysis and Genre (Part 2)’, 373–83.
A plant of uncertain identity, probably the Ricinus communis, or castor oil tree. Taylor, Richard, “ ”,
NIDOTTE 3: 921-22.
126.96.36.199 Sequence B: The ship and its crew (1:4–16)
The sailor’s fear is the central theme in the literary structure of this sequence:
A YHWH hurls a great wind on the sea, a mighty tempest on the sea
B the sailors are afraid, cry out to their gods
C Jonah is sleeping
D the captain asks Jonah: call on your God!
E Jonah, who are you? Where are you from?
F Jonah: I serve YHWH
G sailors fear with great fear
F’ Jonah: I’m on the run from YHWH
E’ Jonah, what to do with you?
D’ throw me in the sea!
C’ sailors toil to get Jonah ashore
B’ sailors cry out to JHWH for Jonah’s sake
A’ sailors hurls Jonah in the sea, the sea ceases raging
Ending: sailors fear YHWH with great fear, sacrifices and vows (1:16)
The paralleled sections are as follows: YHWH throws a great wind on the sea – the sailors throw Jonah
in the sea (A-A’). The sailors cry to their Gods – the sailors cry to YHWH (B-B’). Jonah is asleep – the
sailors are toiling (C-C’). The captain asks Jonah to pray – Jonah asks to be thrown overboard (D-D’).
Jonah claims to serve YHWH – Jonah confesses to being on the run for YHWH (E-E’). Central in this
sequence are the sailors, who ‘fear with great fear’ (G). The sailors are afraid because Jonah serves
YHWH ‘who made the sea and the dry land’ but is running away from him (F-F’). While the prophet
moves further away from God, the sailors seem to be drawing nearer to him (1:5, 14, 16).
188.8.131.52 Sequence C: Jonah’s prayer to YHWH (2:1–11)
The literary structure of Sequence C mirrors Jonah’s position: trapped in the belly of the fish – between
swallowing and spitting out – he sings his psalm (A-A’).
A YHWH appoints a fish: Jonah swallowed
B I cried out to YHWH – you answered
C into the deep – the currents about me – waves
I’m banished – will I ever look upon your holy temple?
waters – the deep – seaweed
sunken down – bolts locked
D you brought me up from the pit
D’ YHWH is my God!
C’ my soul was ebbing away, I remembered YHWH
my prayer to your holy temple
praise, sacrifices, and vows
Simon pointes out another parallel, between verses 5 and 15: they cast wares into the sea and they cast Jonah
into the sea. However striking this resemblance may seem, the Hebrew word for ‘cast’ in verse 5 is different
from the word used in both verse 4 and 15. Moreover, it does not fit the chiasm of sequence B. Simon and
Schramm, Jonah, 29.
B’ salvation comes from YHWH!
A’ YHWH commands the fish: Jonah spit out on dry land
The paralleled sections are as follows: Jonah cries out to YHWH, who answers – ‘salvation is from
YHWH’ (B-B’). Jonah uses vivid imagery to describe his distress: waves and the deep, will I ever look
upon your holy temple? – Jonah describes how he will remember YHWH, by praying in his holy temple
and paying sacrifices and vows (C-C’). Jonah paints his salvation ‘you brought me up’ and confesses
‘YHWH is my God’ (D-D’).
184.108.40.206 Sequence A’: Jonah’s second calling (3:1–3a)
The central theme in the structure of this sequence is YHWH’s command to Jonah.
A Word of YHWH to Jonah:
B Arise, go to Nineveh
C and proclaim to it the message I give you
B’ he arises, goes to Nineveh
A’ according to the word of YHWH
While contrasts characterise the structure of sequence A (Jonah's first calling), this sequence shows
Jonah’s changed attitude with a parallel structure: Word of YHWH – word of YHWH (A-A’) and ‘go to
Nineveh’ – goes to Nineveh (B-B’). The command to proclaim YHWH’s message forms the centre of
this sequence (C).
220.127.116.11 Sequence B’: The city and its inhabitants (3:3b–10)
The fifth sequence centres around the king of Nineveh, who rises from his throne and humiliates
A Nineveh is a great city
B Jonah’s proclamation: ‘the city will be overthrown’
C inhabitants trust in God: fasting, sackcloth and ashes
D king rises from his throne, sackcloth and ashes
C’ royal decree: fasting, sackcloth and ashes
B’ king’s proclamation: ‘repent, perhaps God will turn from his anger…’
A’ God spares the city
The paralleled sections are as follows: Nineveh is a great city – God spares the city (A-A’). Jonah’s
proclamation, which is nothing more than a relentless statement – the king’s elaborate proclamation
to fast, atone, and repent (B-B’). The inhabitants fast spontaneously and do penance – the king adds
repenting to their list (C-C’). In the centre is the king, who directs the mass conversion of his people.
18.104.22.168 Sequence C’: Dialogue between YHWH and Jonah (4:1–11)
A Jonah’s anger – a ‘great evil’
B God’s mercy and compassion
C death is better than life – is your anger justified?
D the booth and the qiqayon
E Jonah rejoices with great joy
D’ the worm and the east wind
C’ death is better than life – is your anger justified?
B’ Jonah’s concern for the qiqayon
A’ should I not have concern, the great city, many people and animals?
This scene is framed by Jonah’s anger and God’s compassion (A-A’). Jonah’s anger is caused by God’s
concern for Nineveh – Jonah is concerned about the qiqayon (B-B’). Jonah’s repeated wish to die and
God’s repeated questioning of his justification enhance the contrast between Jonah’s anger and God’s
mercy (C-C’). The emergence and withering of the qiqayon (D-D’) forms an inclusio around Jonah’s
great joy over a tree (E). This joy – sharply contrasted by Jonah’s anger and death wishes – is used by
God to teach Jonah that his anger for God’s mercy and compassion is unjustified. Jonah’s joy over the
qiqayon indicates his answer to God’s rhetorical question in the end.
2.6 Literary Techniques
The author of the Book of Jonah employs various literary techniques to compose the work. Because
these techniques can be important clues for determining the book’s genre, this paragraph discusses
suspense, hyperbole, exaggeration, understatement, surrealism, word repetition, and paronomasia.
When Jonah flees to Tarshish in 1:3, his reason for doing so is thus far unknown. The reader must wait
until 4:2, when Jonah himself explains his flight from YHWH. Until then, the narrator deliberately
withholds this information, building suspense.
Further suspense is added in 1:8–12, as the danger of
shipwreck is most acute, a game of question and answer seems to develop ‘as if the men concerned
were meeting in an oasis’.
The literary technique ‘irony’ is discussed in Chapter 5, which discusses humour.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 59.
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 10; Deurloo, Jona, 12; Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xxiii.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 110.
2.6.2 Hyperbole, Exaggeration, and Understatement
There are plenty of examples of hyperbole in the Book of Jonah. The city of Nineveh is described as
large (1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:11)
. The repeated use of ‘great’ ( ) also suggests a tendency to exaggeration.
YHWH does not send a storm to the sea, but hurls () one (1:4); the worm does not nibble at the
qiqayon, he smites () it (4:7); and not only do the archenemies of the Hebrews, the Assyrians,
repent from their sins and dress in sackcloth, but their animals too.
Further hyperbole can be seen
in the amount of time Jonah is said to have been in the belly of the great fish, namely for ‘three days
and three nights’. According to Marcus, he stayed much longer in the fish, for whenever ‘three nights’
is added to ‘three days’, it indicates a long period of time. Similarly, there are cases of understatement:
while God uses the largest of creatures, a great fish, he also uses the smallest of creatures, a worm.
Jonah’s brief oracle is also a striking understatement. Its five words in Hebrew –
(‘in forty days Nineveh will be overthrown’) – form the shortest prophetic oracle in the Old
Testament while producing the most significant response.
The Book of Jonah abounds with miracles and surrealism in a manner that contrasts miracle stories
elsewhere in the Bible. In the Elijah-Elisha cycle, miracles are usually the climax of the story, whereas
the miracles in Jonah are narrated as if they were the most common thing in the world.
wind and storm (1:4), the calming of the sea (1:15), the great fish (2:1), and the scorching east wind
(4:8) are all natural events and could occur anytime. The fact that they occur at ‘precisely the right
time’ adds to the fantastic character of the story. Additionally, the ship is personified when it is
described as ‘thinking to break up’.
As Sherwood states, ‘The ship, fearing her wrecking, becomes
literally a nervous wreck’.
According to some scholars, the universal repentance of Nineveh and its
animals in just one day after hearing a foreign prophet’s announcement of doom is the greatest
miracle in the book.
The expression in 3:3 includes a ‘divine' superlative, thereby magnifying the city even more. See Joüon and
Muraoka, Grammar, §141.
Sherwood, ‘Cross-Currents in Jonah’, 49–50.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 101–5.
Cf. 1 Kings 17:3, where YHWH commands the ravens to feed Elijah. Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 5;
Deurloo, Jona, 13; Zenger and Frevel, Einleitung, 565–66.
Sasson, Jonah, 340.
Sherwood, ‘Cross-Currents in Jonah’, 50.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 97–100; See also Van Wijk-Bos, ‘The “Overturning” of Nineveh’, 218–38.
2.6.4 Word Repetition
The word (‘big’ or ‘great’) is used 12 times as an adjective and two times as a noun: a ‘great’ city
(1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:11); a ‘great’ wind (1:2); a ‘great’ storm (1:2, 12); the sailors feeling ‘great’ fear (1:10,
16); a ‘great’ fish (2:1); and Jonah expressing ‘great’ anger (4:1) and ‘great’ joy (4:6).
The word ה ָע ָר
(‘evil’) occurs nine times in the book, each having a different nuance: the ‘wickedness’ (of the
Ninevites, 1:2); the ‘misfortune’ (of the sailors, 1:7, 8); the ‘immoral’ way of life (of the Ninevites, 3:10;
4:2); ‘displeasure’ (of Jonah, 4:1); and ‘discomfort’ (of Jonah, 4:6).
More examples of this repetition
can be found.
There are many cases of wordplay in the book. Many scholars have noted the resemblance of the first
part of 'Nineveh' to the Akkadian and Aramaic word for 'fish'. There is also a pun when the sailors ask
Jonah: (’What is your occupation?’). Jonah does not answer, but the reader knows that his
occupation is that of ָא ְל ַמ (‘messenger’) since he is a prophet.
In 3:4, the verb (‘to change or ‘to
overthrow’) can mean that Nineveh will be physically overthrown, but it can also denote a change in
character, as in ‘will be transformed’. Sasson notes that this type of paronomasia – oracle ambiguity
– is fairly common in non-Israelite oracles narratives.
In 3:7, Nineveh’s king orders ( ) that
nobody should taste ( ) anything.
2.7 Character Roles
Whatever the genre of the Book of Jonah, the book presents itself as a prose narrative. To sharpen
any genre definition, this paragraph analyses the main aspects of prose by discussing the roles of the
McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 163; West, ‘Irony in Jonah’, 238; But see Alexander, who rationalises the
supposed hyperboles. Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 47–48.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 139–40; Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 437.
See Magonet, Form and Meaning, 13–19; Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 137–41.
The technical term for ‘wordplay’.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 140–41.
Sasson mentions a famous example: King Croesus inquired at the Oracle of Delphi whether he would be
successful should he attack the Persians. The oracle answered: ‘If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great
empire’. Croesus misinterpreted the double-edged vocabulary, went to war, and destroyed his own empire. See,
Sasson, Jonah, 345–46.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 140-141. These words alliterate in Hebrew.
See also Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 12.
characters employed by the narrator. Doing so reveals much about the narrator and his reasons for
portraying the characters the way he does.
Jonah is the prime focus of the narrator and is, therefore, the only one named in the tale.
to McKenzie, ‘Jonah is a ridiculous character, full of contradictions’. Jonah – the prophet who does not
want to prophesy – is the only person in the book who neither obeys nor repents. He only goes to
Nineveh because fleeing has proven futile. Jonah shows no intention of doing anything beyond the
bare minimum; he reluctantly walks a day’s journey into Nineveh and proclaims the book’s one brief
oracle, which he has altered, according to some.
It is also unclear whether Nineveh will be
‘destroyed’ or ‘changed’. Jonah refuses to extend his message or his visit because, unlike other
prophets, he does not want his audience to listen or repent.
Perhaps this reluctance is why some describe Jonah as an anti-hero.
According to Radday, the book
does not explicitly call him a prophet because the narrator wanted to describe a ‘false prophet’
instead. The author – who needed a name for his main character – found an appropriate one in Jonah,
the son of Amittai, as this name stands in sharp contrast to the main character; his name, Jonah ( ,
‘dove’), symbolises kindness and innocence, while the character does not. Moreover, his patronym is
Amittai (derived from , ‘truth, honesty’), something which seems to be absent in Jonah.
McKenzie remarks that YHWH – according to Jonah, ‘the Lord of the universe’ (1:9) – is revealed to be
an astounding micromanager in the Book of Jonah. He not only commands Jonah (1:1–2; 3:1–2), but
he also personally hurls the wind (1:4), as well as appointing and commanding a great fish (2:1, 11), a
qiqayon (4:6), a worm to attack it (4:7), and a scorching wind to afflict Jonah (4:8). However
extraordinary these actions might seem, they provide important contrast for the story; YHWH, the
God of the universe, cares for and is involved in all creation.
Sasson, Jonah, 340.
According to Marcus, Jonah wrongly proclaims that Nineveh’s destruction will occur in ‘forty days’, which
means ‘a very long time’ in the Bible. Marcus argues that ‘Jonah means, of course, in a little while’. Marcus, From
Balaam to Jonah, 126.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 67; McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 164.
Syrén, ‘Jonah- a Reversed Diasporanovella’, 12.
Radday, ‘Humour in Names’, 75-76. Obviously, this perspective is debatable. Radday assumes that the book is
a product of imagination.
McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 165.
2.7.3 Gentiles: The Sailors and the Ninevites
Although the Gentiles in the book remain anonymous, they are portrayed in great detail. As shown
above, in the structural analysis (units 4–8; sections B-B’), the representation of the sailors mutually
complements and reinforces the portraiture of the Ninevites. Furthermore, the narrator uses the
Hebrew convictions of the captain (1:4) and the king (3:9) as a psychological bridge to clarify and
explain why the Ninevites instantly turn to God when a single foreigner utters the briefest of oracles.
The sailors’ actions also reinforce Jonah’s; centuries of navigational experience should have taught the
sailors to remain in the open sea during a storm, and yet they try to row ashore (1:13). Similarly,
centuries of prophecy should have taught Jonah that escaping from God’s burden is beyond
The Gentiles in the book are also more righteous than Jonah. In contrast, they value
human life (1:5), are more perceptive of YHWH’s nature (1:10), and even make use of Israelite
language and theology (1:14, 16; 3:5–9).
2.7.4 Natural Entities
The Gentiles are not the only characters obedient to God in the Book of Jonah. The animals and forces
of nature also do God’s bidding. God appoints and commands a great storm (1:4), a great fish (2:1,
11), a qiqayon (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a scorching east wind (4:8), and they all obey. When confronted
with Jonah’s threatening message, the animals repent, fast, dress in sackcloth, and pray to God (3:7–
8). According to McKenzie, this behaviour demonstrates the effectiveness of Jonah’s message as well
as his shortcomings; everyone and everything obeys God except Jonah. God’s rhetorical question in
4:11 is an object lesson for Jonah – while Jonah detests the people and animals of Nineveh, YHWH
cares for all creation.
The Book of Jonah is a narrative about a prophet, rather than a book of prophecies. Much remains
unknown about its date of composition and author. The narrative of the Book of Jonah is artfully
constructed with parallel scenes and sequences; the structure of the book can be split at the centre,
thereby creating a meaningful parallel between Chapters 1–2 and 3–4, which can each be further
divided into three parallel sequences. These parallels abound with juxtaposed, centred, or opposed
words, themes, repetitions, synonyms, and antonyms, all reinforcing the literary structure of the book
Sasson, Jonah, 341.
McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 165–66.
as a whole and emphasising specific themes and characters. The literary techniques used in the Book
of Jonah include suspense, hyperbole, exaggeration, understatement, surrealism, word repetition,
and wordplay. The character roles also contribute significantly to the literary nature of the book and
understanding of the author’s intention.
Chapter 3: The Book of Jonah as Historical Literature
For over 2,000 years, most Christians and Jewish theologians and scholars have viewed the Book of
Jonah as an account of historical events. Josephus incorporates the book into his history of the Jewish
people, while the early church even used the story of Jonah as an example to defend the historical
reality of the Jewish scriptures.
In current research, many scholars do not regard the Book of Jonah
as history. This chapter examines the classification of the Book of Jonah as history by reviewing its
advocates’ and opponents’ views on historical probability, miracles, tradition, and Jesus’ testimony in
the New Testament.
3.2 Historical Accuracy
Scholars who regard the Book of Jonah as historical literature identify the main character of the book
as the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25,
thereby positioning the events of
the book in the eighth century. Thus, in the debate regarding the historicity of the Book of Jonah, it is
essential to discuss whether all – alleged – historical notions fit in the eighth century. This paragraph
thoroughly analyses the event of the fish, the size of Nineveh, its population, king, and mass
conversion, the repenting of the animals, and the lack of historical markers.
3.2.1 The Great Fish
Although the miracle of the fish is not historically verifiable, the attempts to ‘scientifically rationalise’
Jonah’s stay in the fish by showing that such an event is compatible with natural law can be evaluated
on their ‘historical accuracy’. According to Simon, there have been some many attempts to reconcile
the miracle with human and cetacean
anatomy and physiology by showing that human beings could
survive in either the stomach or the large throat sack of whales. Some even refer to a report from
Lessing, Jonah, 8; Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 57.
See e.g. Bergey, ‘Jonah, Struggling with YHWH’, 205.
Simon distinguishes between the ‘exegetical rationalisation’ and ‘scientific rationalisation’ of miracles. Simon
and Schramm, Jonah, xvi.
The zoologic order of large aquatic animals, including whales.
to ground these speculations, although the story had been refuted and labelled a ‘sailor’s tale’
by the captain’s wife.
There have also been attempts to ‘exegetically rationalise’ the fish story by understanding the event
According to Day, exegetes from the earlier centuries thought that the whole
incident was merely a dream or that ‘the great fish’ was the name of a ship or public house.
them recognised that the incident of the fish bears a resemblance to the Greek myths of Herakles and
Hesione, and also Perseus and Andromeda.
This similarity leads Day to conclude that a sea monster
tradition, possibly the Canaanite chaos monster tradition, likely lies behind both the Greek myths and
3.2.2 The Size of Nineveh
Twice, Nineveh’s size is described as being ‘great’ in the Book of Jonah (1:2; 3:2). In 3:3, its size is even
larger: ‘Nineveh was an exceedingly great city of three days’ journey’. Assuming one day’s journey to
be 25–40 km, the diameter of Nineveh would have been around 75–120 km. Scholars agree, however,
that cities in ancient Mesopotamia were not this large in either the eighth or the third century. In the
second half of the eighth century, Sennacherib enlarged Nineveh’s diameter from 1.5 to 3.6 km,
rendering a diameter of 75 km in Jonah’s time unlikely.
It thus appears to be an exaggeration, as the
city could be traversed in half an hour.
Scholars have dealt with this inaccuracy in several ways. Some scholars propose a different
interpretation of ‘a three days’ journey’, such that ‘A three days’ journey’ could indicate the time it
took Jonah to proclaim his message in every street. Alternatively, it could designate the time needed
to officially proclaim a message in a city, because the first day would be lost to ‘Eastern’ hospitality,
the second to preaching, and the third to leaving the city.
Or, the ‘three days’ journey’ could describe
how circumscribing it on foot would take three days.
Others argue that not just the actual city is
According to the report, a sailor was swallowed by a large sperm whale and survived in its stomach for one
day and night until his companions extracted him alive from the dead fish the next morning.
Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xvi.
Simon and Schramm, xvi.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 32; See also, Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xv.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 32; See also, Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 15;
Lessing, Jonah, 945.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 33.
The eighth century refers to the time of the prophet Jonah, while the third refers to the date of composition
Smith proposes. Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 208.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34; Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 5.
Paul, Studiebijbel Oude Testament, 332; Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 36–39.
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 208.
meant by ‘Nineveh’, but the entire region or ‘Greater Nineveh’.
Burrows finds the description of
Nineveh as a city of three days’ journey very generous.
According to Wolff, the exorbitant
dimensions and other distortions are supposed to prepare the readers for the astonishing events to
3.2.3 The Population of Nineveh
The size of Nineveh is also indicated in the last verse of the book by stating the number of its
inhabitants: ‘more than 120,000 persons that cannot discern between their right and their left hand’
(4:11). This number appears to be more accurate, as the population has been estimated at 300,000
for the Sennacherib period (704–681). According to a stele of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859),
approximately 70,000 people lived in Nimrud, which was half the size of Nineveh.
statements together contribute plausibility to the size of Nineveh’s population in the time of Jonah
(first half of the eighth century). However, further research indicates that the population of Nimrud is
overestimated; in 1979, Wiseman revised his estimate to 18,000 inhabitants.
Most scholars agree,
however, that a population of 120,000 is a reasonable figure for the historical city Nineveh.
Additionally, scholars differ on an interpretation of the meaning behind the relative clause ‘that
cannot discern between their right and their left hand’. In the Old Testament, the expression ‘right
hand’ and ‘left hand’ occurs only five times, often in a figurative sense and always to warn against
deviating to the right or the left – that is, turning aside from divine law and revelation.
It is thus an
expression for a lack of moral and spiritual awareness, but scholars argue as to whom it refers: to
who are naturally unaware of ‘right and wrong’, or to the entire population
of the city.
The latter is the most plausible, as nowhere in the Bible is the expression used to indicate only children
and the word for ‘persons’, , refers to mankind in general.
According to Allen, this phrase means
Although ‘Greater Nineveh’ is nowhere else referred to as ‘Nineveh’, the Hebrew text of Jonah could still refer
to the latter, for Hebrew cannot – contrary to Assyrian – distinguish between ‘Nineveh’, ‘Greater Nineveh’, or
even both, by using prefix and postfix determinatives. Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 38–39.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 83.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 148.
Wolff refers to a study by Wiseman ‘A New Stele of Ashurnasirpal II’ from 1952. Wolff, 175.
Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 41–42 Remarkably enough, many scholars still refer to Wiseman’s first
estimation to support their claim of 120,000 inhabitants.
Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 221–22; Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 82; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah,
175; But cf. Paul, Studiebijbel Oude Testament, 333.
Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 39–40.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 65.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 175.
Wolff, 175; See also Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 83.
that the Ninevites are ‘virtual children compared to the Jews’ and know no better, a theme that is
reflected by Jesus: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what to do’.
3.2.4 The King of Nineveh
If one regards the eighth-century prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, to be the main character, the
reference to the Assyrian king as ‘king of Nineveh’ is an apparent inaccuracy. Although Nineveh was
one of four
royal cities in the first half of the eighth century, it only became the official capital in 705,
under the rule of Sennacherib (705–681). It would be very unusual, however, for a king to decree a
mass conversion (3:6) in Nineveh while ignoring the capital city. According to Ferguson, the northwest
Semitic word for ‘king’, ךלמ, often meant ‘governor’ of a province rather than king of an entire nation.
He argues that a governor of the province of Nineveh was the leader referred to in 3:6, thereby
resolving the problem of the ‘king’ of Nineveh.
According to Smith, the phrase ‘king of Nineveh’ could reflect Assyria’s diminished realm during the
era in which Jonah lived: the mid-eighth century. At this time, the Assyrian empire had almost passed
out of existence and was broken into different areas ruled by a few powerful nobles. The ‘king of
Nineveh’ could thus have been such a ruling noble.
Wolff, who denies the historical intentions of the author, reasons that it is useless to identify the king
of Nineveh with a neo-Assyrian king belonging to the eighth century because Nineveh only became
the capital much later (see above). The narrator includes a king in the scene as an antithetical picture
of Jehoiakim (Jer. 36),
who does the exact opposite when confronted with impending disaster.
3.2.5 The Mass Repentance of the Ninevites
According to the majority of scholars, the instantaneous mass repentance of the Ninevites and their
animals is an improbable event. Among those who defend the probability of this particular event,
Wiseman provides the following arguments.
Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 234–35.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire has had four capitals: Aššur (911–879), Kalhu (879–706), Dur-Sharrukin (706), and
Nineveh (705–612). See e.g. Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 148.
Ferguson, ‘King of Nineveh’, 301–11; Paul, Studiebijbel Oude Testament, 333; But cf. Burrows, ‘Literary
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 198; See also Ferguson, ‘King of Nineveh’, 311.
Also note the striking similarities in vocabulary and theme between Jer. 36:3 and Jonah 3:9–10.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 151; See also Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 15–16.
Wiseman thinks it possible that Nineveh’s king took Jonah’s brief oracle seriously. He maintains that
the Assyrians were already tormented by ominous unfortunate events – which they interpreted as
divine omens – that made them susceptible to divine judgement. He lists the following events: divine
wrath attested by a total solar eclipse or an earthquake, famine accompanied by an epidemic, and the
threat of invasion.
On June 15th, 763 – in the time of Jeroboam II – a total solar eclipse occurred. Wiseman describes the
effects a solar eclipse usually had on the king, the people, animals, and the land, as does Jonah (3:7–
Moreover, he states that in the event of a total solar eclipse, the king would hand over the throne
to a substitute king, who, according to Wiseman, could have been ‘the king of Nineveh’.
Earthquakes were also attributed to divine wrath and reported to the royal court with the
recommendation to observe the rituals ‘so that the gods will cause it to pass away’. This
recommendation is reminiscent of Jonah 3:9. According to Amos 1:1, a major earthquake indeed
happened during the reign of Jeroboam II.
Furthermore, famine and epidemics were interpreted as divine wrath, and they could lead to mass
repentance and mourning in an attempt to avert them. During the reign of Assur-dan III of Assyria in
765, there was a famine, either recurring in or lasting to 759. Wiseman associates the strict policy
enjoined in Jonah 3:7 with an absence of supplies due to natural disasters.
The threat of an enemy invasion rarely affected Nineveh until near its end in 614–612. It has, however,
been suggested that the time of Jeroboam and Jonah coincided with a period of Assyrian weakness.
The famine and total solar eclipse brought about rebellions in various cities until 758. Wiseman
suggests that the ‘evil ways and violence’ in 3:8 refers to this unrest, for Jonah was initially called
because of Nineveh’s ‘wickedness’ (1:2).
However, such an event did not leave its mark anywhere in the Assyrian archives or elsewhere,
the subsequent history of the Assyrians does not show a change in violence or religion.
Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 44; See also Lessing, Jonah, 10–11.
Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 46–47.
This ritual is called šar puhi. See, Wiseman, 46–47.
Wiseman, 44–45, 50–51.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 83; Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 64.
3.2.6 The Repentance of the Animals
Although Herodotus attests the custom of animals participating in mourning, Jonah 3:7–8 states that
they actively repent, pray, refrain from food and drink, and clothed themselves with sackcloth.
repentance of animals is not historically verifiable and belongs to the miracle section of the book, so
it must be evaluated accordingly.
3.2.7 The Lack of Historical Markers
According to several scholars, the Book of Jonah lacks the traditional hallmarks of historical writing.
Several notions are left unspecified; the name and country of the ‘king of Nineveh’ are not indicated.
Moreover, the captain and his crew, each of whom calls on upon his own god, are not ethnically
specified. There is also no mention to the reign of a king in whose days ‘the word of YHWH came to
Jonah’, and the ‘wickedness’ of Nineveh is not made explicit.
The main character, who is identified as the known historical figure ‘Jonah son of Amittai’, is the only
reference mentioned that could be positioned on a timeline. According to 2 Kings 14:25, he was a
prophet during Jeroboam II’s reign (786–746). However, according to some scholars, this identification
was not meant to place the events of the book in the course of history but to characterise its main
Dekker advances another argument against the historicity of the Book of Jonah and remarks that the
book has a ‘great miracle density’. This large accumulation of the most wonderful events – told as if
they were the most common things in the world rather than described as miracles – pleads against its
Fretheim similarly doubts any historicity because of the improbability, adding that in
some improbable occurrences, God’s role is not mentioned: the fasting and repenting of the beasts
(3:8) and the instantaneous and complete conversion of 120,000 (hostile) Assyrians. Of the latter, he
states: ‘One might even ask, from what we know about the relationship between God and human
beings elsewhere in the Bible and from two thousand years of church history, whether such an
occurrence is not impossible’.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 34; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 153.
Cohen, ‘The Parable of Jonah’, 25; Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 5; Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xviii.
Unlike in, e.g., Nah. 3:1–4 where Nineveh is denounced as a ‘blood city’. See Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de
Simon and Schramm, Jonah, xviii; See also, Radday, ‘Humour in Names’, 75–76.
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 4–6; See also Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 12.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 63.
According to Fretheim, the problem that improbabilities present is not that God could not accomplish
these things. He differentiates between what God could do and what he did do. For Fretheim, the
question that needs to be asked is, ‘given the evidence at our disposal, did he, in fact, do these things?’
He acknowledges that improbability cannot be passed off as evidence for lack of historicity and argues
that improbabilities should be interpreted as purposeful exaggerations, thereby falling into place and
contributing to the shaping of the message of the book.
Sasson adds that those
who label Jonah as ‘history’ seek to recreate historically plausible scenarios,
thereby risking equating what is plausible with what actually happened in the past.
Holbert, ‘to ask the historical question of Jonah is to ask the wrong question’.
remarks that the quest for historicity is a modern, Western one. Thus, the modern definition of
‘history’ should be distinguished from the historiographical conventions of the Ancient Near East.
Alexander remarks that because generations of scholars and writers believed that the author of the
Book of Jonah intended to write a history, the majority view – that the style or form of the narrative
indicates the author did not – cannot be sustained.
Feuillet objects that a traditional opinion on the
matter is not binding, as the issue of historicity is not one of dogmatic or moral truth. Additionally,
although the majority of the church fathers seem to have believed in the historicity of Jonah, the topic
was debatable; some still expressed their doubts, including Jerome, Georg of Nyssa, and
3.5 Jesus’ Testimony
Many authors regard Jesus’ testimony in the New Testament as evidence for the historicity of the
Book of Jonah (Mt. 12:39–41; Lk. 11:32). They argue that Jonah must be historical because Jesus refers
to events that are narrated in the book.
According to Lessing, for example, Jesus’ interpretive
See Alexander, Lessing, Wiseman, and others in 3.2 above.
Sasson, Jonah, 327. In historical fiction, ‘historical characters are placed within fictional contexts’, whereas in
fictional history ‘fictitious happenings are set within historical events’.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 59.
Huijgen, Lezen en laten lezen, 172–73; See also Provan, Long, and Longman, Biblical History of Israel, 102–34.
Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 58.
Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 177; Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 13.
See e.g. Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 30; Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 134; Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah,
Jonah, 218; Lessing, Jonah, 10–13.
hermeneutic when referring to the book is typological, and Biblical typology always presupposes
historicity of the type.
Dillard, however, objects that this condition is not necessary, as Jesus could
have referred to the events in his preaching even if it were a parable.
According to Allen, it is ‘quite
possible that Jesus’ reference merely reflects the contemporary view without endorsing it for the
student of the OT’.
Dekker, who rejects the historicity of the Book of Jonah, agrees that Jesus and his hearers regarded
Jonah as a historical character, following the contemporary Jewish exegesis. To him, however, Jonah
remains a type of Jesus and the Ninevites a type of the believers of the last hour.
Feuillet, Christ and the apostles regard the entire Old Testament as prophecy and typology, regardless
of its historicity.
Whether the events Jesus refers to are historical or fictitious, his words do not lose
their power and retain meaning because Christ gives them meaning.
Many scholars have regarded the Book of Jonah as history until today. In recent centuries, however,
a growing number of scholars have denied its historicity. The incident of the fish is reminiscent of the
Canaanite sea monster and Greek myths. The historical accuracy of the size of Nineveh, the size of its
population, the ‘king of Nineveh’, the mass repentance of the Ninevites, and the repentance of
animals has been defended by – mostly conservative – scholars attempting to recreate historically
plausible scenarios. Several scholars have argued that the number of miracles, the absence of God’s
involvement in them, and the common way they are narrated appeal against the historicity of the
Book of Jonah without denying the possibility of miracles altogether.
Overall, the tradition of the church has viewed the book as historical, although there have been
dissenters from the beginning. When Jesus refers to the Book of Jonah and its characters, he uses a
typological hermeneutic, which – according to some – presupposes the historicity of the type. Others
disagreed with this stance and stated that Jesus’ testimony is true regardless of his hermeneutic key
or the historicity of the type. In conclusion, the issue of the historicity of the Book of Jonah is not
agreed upon, although the majority of scholars view the book as fictional.
Lessing, Jonah, 10–13; See also Aalders, ‘Problem of Jonah’, 29–30.
Longman III and Dillard, Introduction, 445; See also, Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 62–63.
Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 178.
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 19–21 See also on page 6, where he expresses his view on the
representative roles of the characters of the book.
Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 13.
Dekker, ‘Jona Onder de Profeten?’, 21; Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 13.
Chapter 4: The Book of Jonah as Imaginative Literature
As most scholars do not consider the Book of Jonah to be historical literature, it is necessary to more
closely examine the literary genres they have proposed for Jonah instead. This chapter discusses the
or metaphorical character of the book by analysing the main genre classifications in this
category: allegory, parable, mashal, prophetic legend, midrash, novella, and diaspora-novella.
4.2 The Book of Jonah as an Allegory
The Book of Jonah has been held as an allegory for a long time. Fretheim defines allegory as ‘a type of
literature in which the main terms of the text have a hidden or figurative meaning’.
In the most
common version of this view, Jonah denotes Israel, which only reluctantly undertakes its mission to
the Gentiles, who are represented by Nineveh. Moreover, the swallowing of Jonah by the fish
symbolises the Babylonian exile.
Upholders of this view generally suppose that the fish motif is
dependent on Jer. 51:34, 44.
Other scholars, however, find problems with this interpretation.
To begin, allegories in the Old
Testament (e.g., Ezek. 17; 23; Zech. 11:4–17) are rather brief and unmistakable in their allegorical
nature. Moreover, the audience must realise its allegorical nature at once for it to be effective. Jonah
does not fit this requirement.
Furthermore, if Jonah’s stay in the fish symbolises Israel’s exile in the
Babylonian empire, how is it that Jonah is made to preach against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian
empire, which fell in 612 – before the Babylonian exile even started?
Adding to this debate, Feuillet
notes that the fish is not an instrument of punishment but of deliverance.
dependence on Jer. 51 lacks common vocabulary apart from the use of the verb , ‘to swallow’.
Not to be confused with ‘imaginary’, which means ‘not real’. ‘Imaginative’ covers both ‘metaphorical’ and
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 69.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 89–90; Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 37; Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot,
Le livre de Jonas, 15.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 37.
See e.g. Aalders, ‘Problem of Jonah’, 17–18; Woude, Jona, Nahum, 12.
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 212; Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 436.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 37.
Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 15.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 37.
Finally, according to Stuart, figures in an allegory should be evidently fictional, which is not the case
with Jonah, son of Amittai, who is depicted as a historical figure in 2 Kings 14:25.
In conclusion, some scholars have deemed it improbable that the Book of Jonah is an allegory on a
compositional level. According to Sasson, however, the book allows allegorising (cf. Jesus’ testimony)
and therefore can be considered as an allegory on the interpretive level.
4.3 The Book of Jonah as Didactic fiction
Some scholars focus on the didactic elements of the Book of Jonah. According to Landes, for example,
the didactic intention of the author is shown by a special twofold structural arrangement of the
content and themes, the assignment of paradigmatic functions to several features in the content, and
the frequent employment of questions.
Therefore, scholars describe the book as a parable, a
mashal, or a prophetic legend.
4.3.1 Jonah as a Parable
While allegorical interpretation seeks to find meaning in every detail, parabolic interpretation focuses
on the story as a literary whole, usually discovering one fundamental point.
Most scholars view the
Book of Jonah as a parable, using the word to more or less mean a story with a didactic point.
describes a parable as, ‘a device designed to lead listeners to pronounce judgement on themselves’.
There are several interpretations of the book as a parable. To Cohen, for example, Jonah’s state of
isolation and imprisonment in the belly of the fish – a result of his lack of love and solidarity – and
God’s love shown to the Gentiles and Jonah both teach about love.
According to Allen, Jonah
symbolises a self-centred and self-righteous group of people, just as the Pharisees stand behind the
Sasson lists two interpretations of Jonah as a parable: Jonah reminds Israel of their
mission to the nations and Jonah teaches about the quality of God’s justice.
However, some scholars disagree with this categorisation of the book as a parable. They highlight that
the narrative of Jonah – in comparison to parables known from the Hebrew Bible, rabbinical literature,
Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 436.
Sasson, Jonah, 338; See also Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 181.
Landes, ‘Jonah: A Māšāl?’, 146. See also the second chapter of this thesis.
Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 213.
Good, Irony in Old Testament, 40.
Cohen, ‘The Parable of Jonah’, 26.
Lk. 15:11–32. See, Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 178.
Sasson, Jonah, 235.
and the New Testament gospels – is rather large and compound, and therefore cannot be regarded as
Despite this argument, Allen views the book as a parable, positing that ‘parables can vary
in length and complexity’.
According to Sasson, the concluding verses lack an interpretive key like
other parables: ‘the plant remains a plant in 4:10 and the Ninevites remain Ninevites in 4:11.
reasons that to be interpreted correctly, all parables should be fictional, something Jonah is not.
Childs, who prefers to describe the book as parable-like rather than a parable, remarks that the
prophetic formula in the first verse of the narrative does not resemble a parable at all.
4.3.2 Jonah as a Mashal
Landes characterises the Book of Jonah as a mashal ( ), which is derived from , ‘to be like’, and
means ‘saying’ or ‘proverb’.
In his study, Jonah: A Māšāl?, he distinguishes the mashal from the
parable by showing that not all parables in the Old Testament are referred to as mashal and that,
alternatively, not all meshalim are parables.
The term mashal, he asserts, does not refer to a
particular literary form, but rather to a variety of forms that are shaped to serve a didactic purpose.
He concludes that the Book of Jonah seems to be designed as a mashal in the form of an example
story (Beispielerzählung). Moreover, both the characters of Jonah and God can be seen as a mashal,
representing an object lesson in reproachable and irreproachable conduct, respectively.
However, as Landes admits himself, the book is not called a mashal anywhere, and none of the Old
Testament passages explicitly called meshalim resemble the book of Jonah very closely.
Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 39; Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 37–38; Sasson, Jonah, 235.
Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 178.
Sasson, Jonah, 236; See also, Aalders, ‘Problem of Jonah’, 15; Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 39.
Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 436; See also, Aalders, ‘Problem of Jonah’, 16; Wiseman, ‘Jonah’s Nineveh’, 32;
Alexander, ‘Jonah and Genre’, 39.
Childs, Introduction, 422; See also Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 15; Smith and Page, Amos,
Obadiah, Jonah, 216.
Landes, ‘Jonah: A Māšāl?’, 139; Wilson, Gerald, "", NIDOTTE 2:1134–36.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 38; Landes, ‘Jonah: A Māšāl?’, 150. Landes distinguishes five types
of meshalim in the OT: (1) popular proverbs (e.g. Prov. 10:1; 25:1); (2) satirical taunt poems (e.g. Isa. 14:4b–21;
Mic. 2:4); (3) prophetic-type oracular poems descriptive of weal or woe (e.g. Num. 23:7; 24:3, 15, 20–21, 23);
(4) didactic poems (e.g. Pss. 49:5, 78:2); and (5) allegorizing parabolic fables (e.g. Ezek. 17:3–10, 21:1–4, 24:3–
5). See Landes, 140–146.
4.3.3 Jonah as a Prophetic Legend
Haller, like Landes, characterises the book as a Beispielerzählung, which – as he explains – tells of
something that happens or may happen at any time. What distinguishes it from other types of
comparison are that its varied details offer essential points of comparison with the here and now. He
thus describes the book as ‘eine Beispielererzählung in der Form einer Prophetenlegende,
The purpose of this prophetic legend is to remind a stubborn,
narrowminded, and particularistic people of God’s mercy to the Gentiles.
Wolff, who likewise marks
the didactic character of this prophetic story, similarly supposes a wisdom influence.
Von Rad also
describes the work as a story about a prophet but emphasises that it is distinguished from other
prophetic stories in the Old Testament by its more pronounced didactic nature.
According to Childs, the story is different from a prophetic legend because unlike, for example, 1 Kings
16:29ff, the meaning is not supplied through a redactor’s framework imposed upon the story.
Landes discusses whether the book originates from sapiential or prophetic circles, concluding that the
emphasis on the compassionate YHWH ‘seems to be more at home within prophetic than in other
types of Israelite thinking, whether wisdom, priestly, scribal, or Deuteronomic’.
4.4 The Book of Jonah as a Midrash
Some scholars describe the Book of Jonah as a midrash ( ), which is derived from – ‘seek’ or
‘examine’ – and means ‘study’ or ‘commentary’.
According to Trible, a midrash is a commentary on
a portion of ancient Scripture whose purpose was to adapt it to an immediate situation, usually in the
form of ‘tales which exalted the acts of God’.
Sadun defines it as ‘a story designed to interpret and
elaborate on scripture’.
Several passages have been offered as the basis for the book, of which the
following are discussed: 2 Kings 14:25, Gen. 6–8, Jer. 18:8, and Exod. 34:6.
See also Haller, Erzählung von Jona, 8–9. ‘Es gehört zur Gattung der sogenannten Prophetenlegenden.’ In
English: ‘It belongs to the genre of the so-called prophetic legends’.
‘an example story in the form of a prophetic legend, with sapiental and didactic intentions’
Haller, Erzählung von Jona, 50.
Wolff, ‘Jonabuch’, 854–55.
Rad, Theologie Des Alten Testaments, 301.
Childs, Introduction, 422.
Landes, ‘Jonah: A Māšāl?’, 150.
Denninger, David, “ ַר ְד ִמ”, NIDOTTE 1:989–99.
Trible, ‘Studies’, 163; Cf. Budde, ‘Vermutungen Zum „Midrasch"’, 371.
Sadun, ‘Sometimes, Everyone Lives’, 5.
4.4.1 Jonah as a Midrash on 2 Kings 14:25
Karl Budde was one of the first to name the book a midrash. According to Budde, the Book of Jonah is
an excerpt from the midrash of the book of the kings, mentioned in 2 Chron. 24:27. He understands
the book as a midrash on 2 Kings 14:25, which was, in the midrash of the book of kings, placed after
verse 27. Whereas verses 26–27 portray God’s compassion towards Israel, in Budde’s view, the Book
of Jonah extends this compassion to the Gentiles.
In a recent publication, Lange compares the Book of Jonah with paratextual continuations of ancient
literature, especially the Book of Watchers. Although he does not classify the book as a midrash, he
similarly concludes that Jonah is a paratextual continuation of 2 Kings 14:25.
4.4.2 Jonah as a Midrash on the Flood Story
Sadun views the book as a midrash on the flood story, as the narrative of Jonah shares literary patterns
with the story of Noah in Gen. 6–8. God plans to wipe out a sinful civilisation completely, people and
animals alike, and in preparation, contacts his prophet. That prophet subsequently finds himself
engulfed by massive quantities of water but is saved by God from drowning and finally dropped safely
on dry land. However, whereas Noah follows God’s instructions to the letter and only manages to save
his own family and an ark full of the earth’s animals, the disobedient prophet Jonah’s reluctant
proclamation of judgement resolves the situation without a single life being lost.
There are other textual parallels between the Flood Story and the Book of Jonah, such as the
prominent role of animals in the narratives and in saving the two prophets from the water (fish and
dove). In contrast to the prophetic tradition,
neither Jonah nor Noah argues with God’s decision to
destroy a large number of people; the sins of the people to be punished are unspecified. Furthermore,
God’s complaint against humankind affects animals too (Gen. 6:17; Jonah 4:11). And finally, both texts
use the Hebrew word ‘‘ to describe God’s regret.
Sadun notes that God's reason for sparing Nineveh in Jonah 4:11 is essentially the same as his reason
for never destroying every living thing again in Gen. 8:21; 'Who do not know their right from their left'
and 'for the nature of man's heart is wicked from his youth' both emphasise mankind’s naivety. As a
Budde, ‘Vermutungen Zum „Midrasch"’, 40–41.
Lange, ‘Paratextual Literature’, 201–3.
Sadun, ‘Sometimes, Everyone Lives’, 1.
See, e.g., the verbal refusal of Moses (Exod. 4:10), Isaiah (Isa. 6:5), and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:6).
Sadun, ‘Sometimes, Everyone Lives’, 5–10; See also Lessing, who counts no less than 17 cases of resonance
with Gen. 6–8 in the Book of Jonah. Lessing, Jonah, 38–48.
midrash, the Book of Jonah examines the meaning of God’s promise at the end of the flood to never
again destroy every living thing (Gen. 8:21). The Book of Jonah reaches the complete opposite of the
flood’s total destruction in Nineveh’s total pardon, thereby asserting that in a post-flood world, God’s
promise and mercy extend to the wicked as well.
4.4.3 Jonah as a Midrash on Jeremiah 18:8
Others consider Jer. 18:8 to be the target of the Book of Jonah as a midrash:
And if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on
it the disaster I had planned. (Jer. 18:8 New International Version)
Jonah 3:9–10 bears a striking resemblance to this verse in theme and vocabulary. Wright – who
categorises the Book of Jonah the same as the writings of the Prodigal son (Lk. 15:11–31) – describes
the book as a midrash on, among other passages, Jer. 18:8. In this view, the Book of Jonah – especially
Chapter 3 – is a homiletic midrash, a sermon, which further develops its target’s theme on the
conditionality of prophecy.
4.4.4 Jonah as a Midrash on Exodus 34:6
Trible argues that Jonah is a midrash based on the declaration of God’s mercy in Exod. 34:6 (cf. Jonah
The midrash is a narrative with a historical core embellished by imagination – a legend. The
historical core consists of the geographical locations referenced and the prophet Jonah. The story ‘may
have grown out of some incident in the life of the prophet embellished considerably by mythological
and folk-tale motifs’.
4.4.5 Objections to Jonah as Midrash
Some scholars disagree upon the midrashic character of the Book of Jonah. Feuillet remarks that Jonah
foreshadows midrashic literature and therefore cannot be designated a midrash.
Wright notes that
if the word midrash is being used in its strict sense, one would expect a few more allusions to the
Sadun, ‘Sometimes, Everyone Lives’, 10.
Wright, The Literary Genre Midrash, 100–102; Woude, Jona, Nahum, 14; See also Alexander, ‘Jonah and
Genre’, 375; Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 16–17; Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, 211.
Trible, ‘Studies’, 168.
Feuillet, Robert, and Chifflot, Le livre de Jonas, 18.
particular text on which Jonah is supposed to be based.
For Day, the Book of Jonah is dependent on
various sources, but it cannot be said to be a specific midrash on one of them.
Wolff believes the
term ‘midrash’ does not sufficiently account for the story’s ‘artistic form’.
Burrows, who wonders if
the word midrash had the same meaning for the Chronicler and the rabbis, concludes that ‘the
category of midrash, though perhaps applicable in some sense and to some degree, is not sufficiently
precise, or perhaps not well enough understood by some of those who use it’.
4.5 The Book of Jonah as a Novella
Some scholars characterise the Book of Jonah as a novella.
According to Wolff, for example, the
novella is the most appropriate genre classification for the book because a number of characteristics
of the novella apply to the story of Jonah exactly. For example, the story features a limited sequence
of events, crossed through by surprises, that is brought to a conclusion in light of an opening incident;
the frequent occurrence of the unexpected also preserves the tension that spans the book. As in a
drama, the sequence of scenes is not strictly chronological; it presents the use of flashbacks where
the progress of the narrative permitted no further delay, or where this flashback seemed to serve a
useful explanatory function (1:5b, 10b; 2:1; 3:6; 4:5). Other characteristics include change of place
(1:3; 2:10), the main group of actors remain unchanged, all individual scenes are directed towards the
conclusion of the series of events,
and the didactic motive is veiled by concentrating on the narrative
and avoiding an explicit application or moral.
Defined as a novella in these terms, the Book of Jonah
fits this literary form and can be compared with Job, Ruth, and Esther.
4.5.1 The Book of Jonah as a Reversed Diaspora-Novella
Syrén compares the Book of Jonah with books such as Daniel, Esther, Judith, and the Joseph-story in
Genesis. He designates their literary genre as diaspora-novella, by which he means a story or drama
that enacts itself – in most cases – in the immediate environment of a foreign court. The diaspora-
Wright, The Literary Genre Midrash, 102.
Day, ‘Problems Interpretation of Jonah’, 38.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 81.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 88–89.
McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 163; Syrén, ‘Jonah - a Reversed Diaspora-novella’; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah,
85; Wolff, Studien zum Jonabuch, 30–58.
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 82.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 91; Wolff, Studien zum Jonabuch, 52; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 84–85 However,
Wolff acknowledges the didactic features of the book and consequently calls the book an ‘ironically didactic
Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 82; See also, Woude, Jona, Nahum, 12.
novella is characterised by the crucial role of the king; atmosphere, suspension, and local colour;
forces of good and evil forming the highlight of the narrative; the ‘goodies’, whose existence is initially
under threat, prevailing; and Jews facing threats and pressures in foreign lands.
Syrén discovers in Jonah ‘a similarly imaginative mind’ at work as in the diaspora-novella and
recognises several similarities between Jonah and the other books. For example, the book features a
symmetrical structure (see Esther); Jonah’s name is retrieved from an earlier context in another book
(similar to Daniel; see e.g. Ezek. 14:14); a locale outside Israel is essential for the plot (see all other
stories except Judith); impending disaster is averted until salvation is secured. Other parallels include
vocabulary (see e.g. Jonah 1:6, Esther 1:8, and Dan. 1:3), themes of moves and countermoves,
inclusion of animals among the king’s subjects (see Dan. 2:38 and Jonah 3:7–8), and fruitful and
universal fasting and repent of both humans and animals (see Judith 4:10–12 and Jonah 3:7–8).
Syrén also finds discrepancies between the Book of Jonah and the set of stories he focusses on: Jonah’s
antagonist or counterpart is not easily identifiable (where is the Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman,
or Holofernes of the story?); the threatened people are not the Jews but the foreign sailors and
Ninevites, while the following salvation is for non-Jews only; and the Jewish focal figure of the Book
of Jonah, Jonah himself, is nothing like the Jewish heroes in the other stories.
These discrepancies lead Syrén to describe the Book of Jonah as a reversed diaspora-novella. He calls
Jonah – the focal figure – an anti-hero, as he reverses the role of the hero in other stories. God is the
antagonist of the story, who threatens and sets the terms for salvation, and who later withdraws the
threat. The king of Nineveh, the foreign king, is the object of imminent destruction rather than its
According to Syrén, the Book of Jonah as a reversed diaspora-novella poses this –
theologically loaded – question: why should only Jews be threatened with destruction – not the evil,
4.5.2 Objections to Jonah as Novella
Some scholars, while agreeing that the Book of Jonah is a novella, are not entirely contented with this
genre characterisation. Burrows remarks, for example, that although the classification as a novella is
E.g., the Nile in the Joseph-cycle, the Babylonian magi in Daniel, and the royal harem in Esther. Contrastingly,
the story of Judith reflects a collective memory of foreign invasions into the promised land. See, Syrén, ‘Jonah -
a Reversed Diaspora-novella’, 8.
a satisfactory description of a literary form, it ignores the distinctive characteristics of the book of
McKenzie similarly states that the recognition of Jonah’s genre as didactic novella does not
address the lesson the book aims to teach.
This chapter has discussed several imaginative genre classifications of the Book of Jonah. The view
that the Book of Jonah is an allegory – signifying both the Babylonian exile and the narrow-mindedness
of Israel – has been suggested for a long time, but it is rarely promoted today because the book does
not seem to resemble other allegories. Some scholars have focused on the didactic character of Jonah
and designated the book as a parable, mashal, or prophetic legend reminding Israel of the universal
implications of YHWH’s compassion or the error of their ways. However, scholars have illustrated the
differences between Jonah and the other books in these categories, concluding that the Book of Jonah
needs further classification.
Some scholars have regarded the book as a midrash on 2 Kings 14:25, Gen. 6–8, Jer. 18:8, or Exod.
34:6, generally viewing the book’s purpose as showing that God’s mercy and compassion extend to
the Gentiles as well. However, according to other scholars, the designation ‘midrash’ does not indicate
much and antedates the rabbinic midrashic literature. By focussing on the narrative layer of the book,
some scholars have classified Jonah as a novella without a clear purpose. One author designated the
work a reversed diaspora-novella, which shows that Jews and Gentiles alike share in YHWH’s miracles
and salvation. However, although many scholars have agreed that the book, in some sense, is a
novella, they objected that the term does not do justice to the distinctive characteristics of Jonah.
In conclusion, the Book of Jonah is regarded as imaginative literature in various ways. Most scholars
argued that the author, in one way or another, intended to show narrowminded Jews the universality
of God’s mercy.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 91.
McKenzie, ‘The Genre of Jonah’, 163.
Chapter 5: The Book of Jonah as Humorous Literature
While most scholars recognise the use of humorous elements – such as irony, parody, and satire – in
the Book of Jonah, few scholars describe the book’s genre in terms of humour. This chapter first
examines the relationship between irony, parody, and satire. Second, it analyses the literary technique
irony and the genres parody and satire. In each of these sections, the term to be discussed is first
defined. Finally, the Book of Jonah as ‘tragic laughter’ is discussed.
5.2 The Relationship Between Irony, Parody, and Satire
According to most scholars, irony, parody, and satire are present in the Book of Jonah. However,
scholars often mean the same when discussing the use of irony, parody, or satire in the book.
Therefore, the relationship between these three terms must be discussed. First, irony is a literary style
often employed by the literary genres of parody and satire. Satire is the broadest literary category, for
it can employ – among other techniques – both irony and parody. While these three modes have many
characteristics in common, the distinctive mark of irony is incongruity, while the distinctive mark of
parody is the antithetical imitation of a precursor text, and the distinctive mark of satire is criticism.
5.3 The Use of Irony in the Book of Jonah
Many scholars recognise the use of the literary technique irony in the Book of Jonah. Before discussing
irony, the term itself must be defined.
5.3.1 Defining Irony
The term ‘irony’ is derived from the Greek εἰρωνείᾱ, which is an abstraction of εἴρων, the word used
to designate one of the stock characters in the earliest Greek comedies. The εἴρων poses as less than
he is, while his antagonist, the ἀλαζών, is an imposter that sees himself as greater than he is. The
comedy lies in watching the imposter exposed and deflated by the machinations of the ironical man.
Interestingly, according to Wolff, the book contains all three comic modes: the prevailing comic mode is satire
in Jonah 1, grotesqueness in Jonah 2, and irony and parody (cf. Jer. 36) in Jonah 3 and 4. Wolff, Obadiah and
Jonah, 84–85; See also Fretheim, ‘Jonah and Theodicy’, 233.
The content of this paragraph is derived from Sections 5.3, 5.4, and 5.5 of this thesis.
Because it is often employed by both parody and satire, irony is discussed in a separate section.
Irony, thus, begins in conflict marked by the perception of the distance between pretence and
However, scholars find it difficult to define irony comprehensively. Good, for example, asserts that
‘Irony, like love, is more readily recognised than defined’.
Fretheim and Lessing both propose that
‘irony is (1) a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that which is stated,
or (2) an event or statement occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what would be
The irony in Jonah is of the second category, which Lessing calls ‘situational irony’.
Most authors agree that the basis for irony is the perception and statement of incongruity.
intensify these incongruities, the ironist has an arsenal of techniques at his disposal, including
understatement, ridicule, absurdity, parody, exaggeration, and humour.
5.3.2 Examples of Irony in Jonah
Scholars have discovered many examples of irony in the Book of Jonah. These examples can be divided
into three groups.
The first group of ironies relates to what one would expect of Jonah as a prophet of God.
1. Jonah abandons the task YHWH calls him to do (1:3).
2. Jonah sleeps during the storm while the heathens pray (1:5).
3. The pagan captain has to urge a believing Israelite – Jonah – to pray (1:6).
4. Jonah remains unrepentant, despite continuous divine efforts, while sailors (1:16) and the
Ninevites (3:5–9) repent, believe, and are saved.
5. Jonah’s anger over the salvation of Nineveh (4:1) occurs precisely when YHWH turns his wrath
6. Jonah does not wish to allow God to be true to himself (4:2).
Good, Irony in Old Testament, 13–14.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 51–52; Lessing, Jonah, 23.
Lessing, Jonah, 23.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 51–52; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 30–32; Lessing, Jonah, 23; West, ‘Irony
in Jonah’, 236–37.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 51–52; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 31.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 53–55; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 39–55; Lessing, Jonah, 24–26; West,
‘Irony in Jonah’, 237–41.
Another set of ironies relates to incongruities in Jonah’s actions in relationship to each other, as well
as in relationship to the results one would expect from his actions.
1. Jonah flees from YHWH (1:3) and yet confesses that he worships YHWH (1:9).
2. Jonah recognises that YHWH sent the storm due to his disobedience (1:12), yet this
recognition results in no repentance on his part.
3. Jonah’s preaching is met with overwhelming success (3:5–10) despite the great wickedness of
the city and the meagreness of his reluctant efforts (3:3–4).
4. Jonah is joyful over the gift of extra shade (4:6) amid his twice expressed wish for death (4:3,
5. Jonah wishes for death (4:3, 8) upon his success as a prophet.
6. Jonah is angered to the point of death over the destruction of an unimportant plant (4:8).
The third group of ironies concerns the incongruities between reality and Jonah’s inner thoughts,
expressed in his prayer of thanksgiving in Jonah 2.
1. YHWH delivers Jonah by means of the great fish (2:1) despite his lack of proper fear and
worship (shown by the sailors in 1:5, 10, 16) or faith and repentance (shown by the Ninevites
2. Jonah reacts with praise and thanksgiving for his own deliverance (2:10) despite his lack of
repentance, standing in sharp contrast to his reaction to the deliverance of Ninevites who did
3. Jonah confesses that ‘salvation belongs to YHWH’ (2:10), which contrasts starkly with his
actions that indicate that his attitude was that ‘salvation belongs to me; I get to decide who
gets saved and who gets damned’!
4. Jonah contrasts himself to those who have ‘forsaken’ their true loyalty (2:8b) but has fled
himself to get away from the word of YHWH (1:3), and yet incongruously turns to YHWH for
action when encountering difficulties (2:4b, 7).
5. Jonah first offers to give his life (1:12, 15) but throughout the psalm (2:3–10) he thanks YHWH
for saving his life.
In addition to these three groups of irony, many techniques are employed in the book to intensify the
irony in Jonah – such as, for example, exaggeration, ridicule, and understatement, which have already
been mentioned in this thesis.
See Chapter 2 in particular.
In conclusion, the Book of Jonah abounds with incongruities between Jonah and the expectations on
him as a prophet of God, Jonah’s actions in relationship with each other, and the relationship between
Jonah’s actions and their expected results. The psalm of thanksgiving in Jonah 2 also contains ironic
elements, while the irony throughout the entire book is intensified by other techniques.
5.3.3 The Purpose of Irony in Jonah
All scholars discussed in this paragraph agree that irony is generally used in literature as a vehicle of
With the exception of West, they concur that the irony in Jonah is employed by satire.
Therefore, the purpose of irony is discussed in alignment with the purpose of satire. West, however,
is hesitant to characterise the Book of Jonah as satire, and she instead defines the book as a ‘short
story’. Regarding the purpose of irony, she argues that the author uses ironic identification of the
audience to draw post-exilic Israel’s attention away from pitying herself to a greater pity: the love and
concern of God for all humankind.
5.4 The Book of Jonah as a Parody
Some scholars recognise parodic elements in the Book of Jonah. Few of them, however, designate the
book as a parody.
Before discussing whether the Book of Jonah can be considered a parody, the
term itself must be defined.
5.4.1 Defining Modern Parody
Capturing the modern, common usage of the word, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘parody’ as
A composition in prose or verse in which the characteristic turns of thought and phrase in an
author or class of authors are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous,
especially by applying them to ludicrously inappropriate subjects, an imitation of a work more
or less closely modelled on the original, but so turned as to produce a ridiculous effect.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 51; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 30; Lessing, Jonah, 23; See also West’ list
of irony’s major characteristics. West, ‘Irony in Jonah’, 235–37.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 52, 72.; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 40–41; Lessing, Jonah, 26.
West, ‘Irony in Jonah’, 241.
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 277–310; Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 93–160.
OED, s.v. ‘parody’.
In his study of parody in the Hebrew Bible, Kynes
extracts four requirements for parody from the
1. Allusion: parody must respond to a previous text or texts, which he refers to as ‘precursor’.
2. Antithesis: parody is, in some respect, antithetical to its precursor.
3. Subversion: parody is an open disagreement, wherein the author intends to undermine the
authority of the original.
4. Humour: parody involves humour.
5.4.2 Objections to the Modern Definition of Parody
Kynes has several objections to the last two requirements for parody. The term’s etymology and
diachronic development demonstrate the versatility of the literary technique. First, the term is derived
from the Greek words παρωδία, in which the word for ‘song’ (φδή) is preceded by the prefix παρά,
which means ‘besides’ or ‘counter’. The Greek term could thus mean both accord and admiration and
contrast and ridicule.
Second, the examination of the diachronic development of ‘parody’ shows
that it did not become connected to the witty ridicule of its precursor until the eighteenth century
Third, select parodies across literary history have parodied their precursors not to ridicule them
but to ‘hold them up as standards by which to judge contemporary moral degeneracy’. Finally, the
overlap between satire and parody has resulted in the assumption that parody must subvert the
original, while the overlap between irony and parody has contributed to the idea that parody requires
5.4.3 Kynes’ Four Types of Parody
Kynes’ objections to the common definition of parody lead him to argue that, while the incongruence
between parodies and their precursor are often humorous, the mood of parodies can be serious.
Moreover, while parodies can subvert their precursors’ authority to ridicule them, they may instead
use the precursor as a weapon to criticise the contemporary world.
Therefore, the authority lies
with either the parody or its precursor. Kynes demonstrates these possibilities in the following chart:
This thesis discusses only two authors who regard the Book of Jonah as a parody, namely Marcus and Kynes.
As Kynes provides the most detailed analysis of the genre characteristics, this thesis focuses on his definition of
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 280–82; Cf. Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 19–22.
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 283.
Kynes, 290–92; See also Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 19–20.
Table 2. Four types of parody
(precursor as ‘target’)
(precursor as ‘weapon’)
Source: Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies into Swords, and Your Parodied Books into Spears’, 292.
All four types of parody meet the two essential criteria: imitation and antithesis. Kynes suggests that
Song of Sol. 7:1–10 could be ‘ridiculing’ parody, Ps. 29 ‘rejecting’ parody, Job 7:17–18 ‘reaffirming’
parody, and the Book of Jonah ‘respecting’ parody.
5.4.4 Jonah as ‘Respecting’ Parody
Kynes views the Book of Jonah as ‘respecting’ parody because he believes it employs humour without
attempting to subvert the precursor. However, some interpreters who read the book as a parody
consider it to be both humorous and subversive towards prophetic tradition, which would suggest
that Jonah is a ‘ridiculing’ parody belonging to the first quadrant. Miles, for example, claims that the
book is a parody, rather than a satire, because the book’s target is not Jewish life but Hebrew letters.
According to him, the book targets Hebrew scripture and those who take it too seriously.
Furthermore, Miles traces elements of parody in the Book of Jonah through five stereotype prophetic
scenes, which Kynes adopts:
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 294–306; Syrén’s ‘reversed diaspora-novella’ essentially qualifies the
requirements to be designated a ‘rejecting’ parody. See also 4.51 of this thesis. Syrén, ‘Jonah - a Reversed
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 300; Miles, ‘Laughing at the Bible’, 170.
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 301; Miles, ‘Laughing at the Bible’, 170–181. Within these five prophetic scenes,
more examples of parody can be found.
Table 3. Five scenes of parody in the Book of Jonah
Call to prophecy
Humble reluctance expressed
in lack of eloquence (e.g. Exod.
4:10; Judg. 6:15; Isa. 6:5; Jer.
Sails in the opposite direction,
silence, buys out vocation
Sign (storm at sea)
Awed obedience (e.g. Judg.
6:22; Isa. 6:8)
Psalm of thanksgiving
Water imagery used
metaphorically (e.g. Ps. 130)
Water imagery used literally
Rejection of prophet by king
Prophetic word is lengthy,
impassioned, and ignored (e.g.
Exod. 5:1–11; 1 Kings 22:13–
One sentence, undirected, no
Prayer for death because
message was not heeded
(Num. 11:10-15; 1 Kings 19:4;
Prayer for death because
message is heeded
Source: Kynes, 301; Miles, ‘Laughing at the Bible’, 170–81.
The third element, the psalm of thanksgiving, however, suggests that Jonah is not only a parody of
prophetic narrative but also of psalmic language. Additionally, Berlin claims that if the Book of Jonah
were a parody of the prophetic writings – which were treated with ‘utmost seriousness throughout
the rest of the Bible’ – it would never have come to be included among the prophetic books
Kynes attempts to reconcile these two contrasting positions by arguing, first, that the parody of
psalmic language contributes to the general parodic tone of the book. Contradicting Berlin, Kynes
maintains that the prophetic tradition is respected rather than ridiculed by suggesting that Jonah,
when he responds to God’s call by running in the opposite direction, is ‘the butt of the joke’ rather
than the prophets in the precursor texts, who obeyed as they should.
Berlin, ‘Rejoinder to John Miles’, 227.
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 301–2.
Concludingly, Kynes claims that Jonah as a ‘respecting’ parody does not mock the prophetic tradition
but builds on it by respectfully using ‘the prophetic texts it parodies as a standard by which to criticise
the unrepentance and disobedience of its readers’.
5.5 The Book of Jonah as Satire
Several scholars consider the Book of Jonah to be satire or contain satiric elements.
To analyse satire
in the Book of Jonah, a testable definition must be developed.
5.5.1 Defining Satire
Scholars find it challenging to define satire comprehensively. According to Wolff, satire is biting
derision with the purpose of annihilation.
Burrows and Van der Woude define satire as ‘a caricature
Kynes asserts that satire often uses parody and distinguishes between parody and satire,
explaining that ‘parody's target is ‘intramural’ – or another text – while satire addresses an
‘extramural’ target, which is a concern outside the text, whether social or moral’.
The Oxford English
Dictionary offers the following definition of ‘satire’:
A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony,
exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as
a form of social or political commentary.
Recognising most of these elements, Marcus and Holbert both provide a detailed analysis of the
characteristics of satire. Marcus lists various requirements a text must meet to be classified as a satire;
the text must have a target, either directly or indirectly, that is the object of attack and should abound
with the essential features of satire. These features embody a mixture
of unbelievable elements
(distortions, grotesqueries, fantastic situations, and absurdities), ironies, ridicule, parody, and
rhetorical features. These techniques must dominate a work by being its essence to be distinguished
from works only containing satire.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 95–105; Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 59–81; Lessing, Jonah, 18–
29; Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 93–159.
Wolff, Studien Zum Jonabuch, 84.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 96; Woude, Jona, Nahum, 12–13.
Kynes, ‘Beat Your Parodies’, 287.
OED, s.v. ‘satire’.
Marcus argues that ‘satire’ is derived from the Latin word satura, which means ‘full’ or ‘mixture full of
different things’. Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 93.
Holbert also recognises the need for further clarification of the term ‘satire’ before it can be applied
to Jonah. His analysis of the characteristics of satire leads him to the following conclusions:
1. Satire is humour based on the fantastic, the grotesque, and the absurd.
2. Satire has a definite target, which must be familiar enough to make the assault meaningful
3. Satire is characterised by an indirect attack. The charge comes from the flanks rather than
4. Satire pillories inferior excesses; hypocrisy is one classic and familiar example.
5. Satire is usually external in viewpoint. The actions of the character or the overt effects of the
satirised idea are emphasised rather than any inner thoughts.
Marcus’ criteria of ‘unbelievable elements’, ‘target’, and ‘ridicule’ respectively correspond to (1), (2)
and (4). Contrary to (3) however, Marcus argues that satire may attack its target directly. He does not
discuss whether the viewpoint of satire should be external or internal, although he seems to assume
the former, agreeing with (5).
5.5.2 Verifying Satire in Jonah
Holbert’s five characteristics, combined with Marcus’ criteria, provide a base for verifying the
assertion that the Book of Jonah is satire:
1: The Book of Jonah contains distortions, grotesqueries, fantastic elements, irony, and parody, as
It also contains ‘rhetorical features’, by which Marcus means rhetorical techniques
such as symmetry, repetition, chiasmi, and paronomasia.
2: Scholars who view the book as satire consider the prophet Jonah himself to be its target because of
his name or the way he is ridiculed, particularly in the first two chapters.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 60–62; With the exception of the first, Lessing lists the same
characteristics as Holbert. It is not clear how they arrived at this definition, for neither refers to a source. See
Lessing, Jonah, 19.
What Holbert means by the externality of satire is that it ‘tends to concentrate on the act itself rather than
on the psychology of the individuals who commit the act’. Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 61–62;
Marcus, in his description of Jonah as target, seems to be concentrating on Jonah’s actions. Marcus, From
Balaam to Jonah, 96.
See Sections 2.6, 2.7, 5.2, and 5.3 of this thesis in particular. See also Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 97–136.
Marcus, 137–141; See also Sections 2.5 and 2.6 of this thesis.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 62–75; Lessing, Jonah, 26–27; Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 95–
96; Sasson, Jonah, 332; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 84; Wolff, Studien zum Jonabuch, 78,88. Their main
arguments have already been portrayed in Section 2.7.2. of this thesis.
3: According to Holbert, the attack on the prophet Jonah is indirect: Jonah is never called a prophet in
the story, but it is indirectly evident that he is one: YHWH calls to him precisely like other prophets
and sends him on a mission on behalf of the divine word. The author thus uses the eighth-century
Jonah as a ‘typical prophet of salvation’ to criticise the prophets of his own day indirectly.
4: Holbert also recognises hypocrisy in Jonah’s behaviour. For example, while the sailors have
undergone a lasting conversion to belief in YHWH, Jonah – his prophet – flees from him and continues
However, according to Burrows, ‘Jonah was no hypocrite’. His impulsive effort to run
away from God and his bitter complaint at the success of his mission instead suggest that he was
5: The Book of Jonah does not mention Jonah’s thoughts, only his actions. According to Burrows,
Jonah’s behaviour revealed that ‘he was essentially self-centred, self-righteous, and self-willed’. His
true character is only discovered in his interaction with the sympathetic sailors and Ninevites.
Therefore, according to some scholars, the Book of Jonah seems to meet Holbert’s characteristics and
Marcus’ criteria to be considered a satire.
5.5.3 The Purpose of Satire in Jonah
Scholars who regard the Book of Jonah as a satire differ on the purpose of that satire. Burrows
identifies the whole book as satire directed towards a party of returned exiles who were ‘extreme
advocates of zealous conservatism and rigid exclusiveness, dedicated to the preservation of the ways
of the fathers and the purity of their own Hebrew descent (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 13:1–3, 25–38)’.
Holbert, Jonah is an attack on Hebrew prophetic hypocrisy. Moreover, he claims that ‘the group or
groups the author had in mind cannot be identified specifically’.
According to Fretheim, the satire
is a reaction to the nationalistic reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Another issue of the book’s audience, who were experiencing difficulty accepting God’s mercy
towards such great evil – the Assyrians – is theodicy.
Similarly, Ackerman regards divine justice as
the primary issue of the satire.
According to Lessing, the purpose of the satire is to expose the
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 63, 70.
Holbert, 69; For more hypocrisy, see Sections 2.5. and 5.2 of this thesis.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 97.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 70.
Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 105.
Holbert, ‘Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh’, 75.
Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, 34; Fretheim, ‘Jonah and Theodicy’, 227–28.
Ackerman, ‘Satire and Symbolism’, 245.
audience, to restore the audience to repentance, and to remind God’s people of their mission.
interprets the satire’s purpose as ‘not to propose some theological statement for our consideration,
but to expose absurdity by irony and satire’. The author leaves the reader to determine whether
Jonah’s or God’s absurdity is exposed, although he favours the former.
Marcus – while considering its main character Jonah as the book’s only target – refutes the five
scholars usually suggest for the Book of Jonah: universalism,
and the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy.
Marcus’s argues that the book does not advocate a message but rather satirises the prophet himself;
Jonah is satirised for his disobedience, hypocrisy, and self-concern, which is thought to be unfitting
for a prophet.
Although he describes Jonah as the target of the satire, Marcus deems it ‘likely that
Jonah represents a type of prophet’. Disobedient and hypocritical prophets are then criticised by the
author to express that there has been a fall from proper standards and behaviour, as well as an implied
wish that the proper standards be restored.
In conclusion, the Book of Jonah appears to satisfy all the criteria to be qualified as satire. Scholars
have not agreed, however, if Jonah is the satire’s only target or if he represents a group targeted by
the author. Nor have they agreed on what the satire’s purpose is.
5.6 Problems of Irony, Parody, and Satire
is audience-oriented, the satirist depends on his hearer or reader for recognition,
and therefore risks misunderstanding; the reader may fail to recognise satire or instead recognise it
where the author did not intend.
Marcus recognises three problems that satire poses for modern
Lessing, Jonah, 26.
Good, Irony in Old Testament, 31–32, 54–55.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 147–48; See also Magonet, Form and Meaning, 85–112.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 148–49; Against Burrows, ‘Literary Category’, 105.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 149–50; Against Lessing, Jonah, 26.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 150–52; Against Berlin, ‘Rejoinder to John Miles’, 231; Burrows, ‘Literary
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 153; Against Trible, ‘Studies’, 256, 261.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 156; Against Ackerman, ‘Satire and Symbolism’, 240–45; Fretheim, ‘Jonah
and Theodicy’, 228–29.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 156–59, 170.
Because they are often employed by satire, the statements about satire in this paragraph also apply to irony
Fretheim, ‘Jonah and Theodicy’, 52; Good, Irony in Old Testament, 32.
First, satire does not automatically reveal its true purpose and can, therefore, be taken on
two levels (the real and the apparent). Furthermore, the first audience, for whom the satire was
written, were best able to comprehend the author’s intention, while later readers may not recognise
– the meanings of – the events and names mentioned. Last, satire’s targets are not always recoverable;
the book does not disclose whether Jonah himself is the target or whether he represents a position,
belief, or ideology opposed by the author.
5.7 The Book of Jonah as Trauma Literature
Claassens identifies the book as trauma literature. She argues that the Book of Jonah is ‘no laughing
matter’ because of the many traumatic events in the story: the planned destruction of Nineveh and
its many inhabitants, the reference to the hearers’ archenemy, and the near drowning of the sailors
and Jonah, who describes his encounter with death in terms of having descended to Sheol (2:3).
As mentioned previously, the book also contains many comedic elements, which Claassens recognises.
She reconciles the traumatic and comedic elements by reading the latter through a lens of ‘tragic
laughter’. Claassens defines tragic laughter as ‘laughter that emerges in a context of trauma, which
interrupts the system and state of oppression, and creatively attests to hope, resistance, and protest
in the face of the shattering of language and traditional frameworks of thought and belief’.
transforming tragedy into comedy, tragic laughter enables the survival of the human spirit.
According to Claassens, the Book of Jonah as trauma literature employs tragic laughter to make sense
of the traumatic memories of exile and its aftermath, which had derailed the lives of the people of
This chapter discussed humour in the Book of Jonah. Scholars have recognised many examples of
irony, parody, and satire in the book. Irony is a literary style, while parody and satire are literary
genres, and satire often employs irony and parody. Therefore, all scholars essentially agreed on the
satirical character of the book. Incongruity, the basis for irony, is well attested throughout the book.
According to Kynes, the Book of Jonah is a ‘respecting’ parody, meaning it imitates precursor texts
antithetically, without subverting them, to use them as a weapon for criticising the contemporary
See also Miles, ‘Laughing at the Bible’, 168–69.
Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah, 147.
Claassens, ‘Rethinking Humour in Jonah’, 656–57.
Claassens, 657–58, 671.
world. Marcus argued that not Jewish’ life, but instead Hebrew letters are the target of parody,
regarding the book as a ‘ridiculing’ parody. Many scholars viewed Jonah as a satire, although they did
not agree on its target or purpose. Scholars proposed that the purpose of the Book of Jonah concerns
God’s mercy towards the Gentiles. Some viewed the prophet Jonah as the target, while others
believed he represented a position, belief, or ideology opposed by the author. One view regarded the
book as trauma literature, using tragic laughter to deal with the traumatic memories of the Assyrians
Chapter 6: Discussion
This thesis intended to answer the main research question, ‘Which literary category best fits the genre
of the Book of Jonah?’ It demonstrates the literary quality of the Book of Jonah, the problems posed
by a historical view, the various genre classifications that have been proposed for the book, and the
book’s satirical elements. The majority of scholars agree that the book intends to teach the universal
scope of God’s mercy. To answer the main research question, I offer my opinion on the literary genre
of the Book of Jonah in this chapter.
Although I realise that the matter of historicity is both complex and delicate, I believe the author of
the Book of Jonah did not mean to write history; the events narrated in Jonah seem historically
inaccurate. The arguments conservative scholars use to maintain the historicity by recreating
historically plausible scenarios have not convinced me. Rather, I find them forced and uncompelling.
Nor do I think that historicity affects the authority of Jesus’ testimony; Jesus’ words are true because
he gives them meaning, regardless of the historical accuracy of the texts he references. Additionally, I
regard the matter of historicity irrelevant to determining the book’s genre because even if the book
was historical, it does not resemble other passages of the Old Testament that are generally considered
historical as well. Moreover, the genre classification ‘historical’ does not cover all the distinctive
characteristics of the book, such as its intertextual relations, humour, and didacticity, for example.
I agree with the authors who reject the Book of Jonah as an allegory, midrash, parable, or mashal, as
the book differs too greatly from the characteristics associated with these genres, as mentioned in
Chapter 4. I do, however, acknowledge the representative role of the characters, the existence of
intertextual relationships, and the didactic character of the book. Agreeing with – among others –
Wolff, I would characterise the book’s literary form as a didactic novella, although a more descriptive
definition is required.
The designation ‘didactic novella’ disregards one of the distinctive characteristics of the Book of Jonah:
humour. The book abounds with distortions, grotesqueries, fantastic situations, absurdities, ridicule,
irony, and parody. As a ‘respecting’ parody, which imitates precursor texts antithetically, the Book of
Jonah preserves intertextuality. By employing, among other techniques, irony and parody to criticise
Jonah and what he represents, the book is a satire, thereby preserving the notion of
Multiple purposes and lessons for the Book of Jonah have been suggested. I am inclined to agree with
the majority’s view that the book, in one way or another, intends to remind its Jewish audience of the
universal scope of God’s compassion and criticise their reluctance to propagate this compassion to
the Gentiles. This is, of course, not the only lesson the book conveys, but in my opinion, it is the most
In conclusion, the genre of the Book of Jonah is an extraordinarily complex issue because the book
presents the characteristics of many genres. As explained before and in my opinion, it has didactic
elements and meets the requirements to be classified as both a novella and a satire. I consider
‘didactic, satiric novella’ to be an adequate genre definition for the Book of Jonah. Therefore, the
literary categories ‘satire’ and ‘didactic novella’ best fit the genre of the Book of Jonah.
While collecting, evaluating, and synthesising the various views on the literary genre of Jonah to
provide an overview of the current research, new questions have been raised that are relevant to the
discussion of the genre of the book but could not have been discussed in detail in this thesis.
Therefore, I think that further research is needed to determine, for example, the relationship between
the purpose and genre of the Book of Jonah and the relationship between the genres ‘satire’ and
Chapter 7: Conclusion
This last chapter, the conclusion, discusses the relevancy of the answers to the main research
question, ‘Which literary category best fits the genre of the Book of Jonah?’
Chapter 2 identified the literary characteristics relevant to the genre discussion around the Book of
Jonah. By analysing the structure, various literary techniques, and character roles of the Book of Jonah,
this thesis has shown that the author constructed the book very artfully to invigorate its purpose.
Chapter 3 discussed the issue of historicity and presented the various arguments scholars have
produced to accept or reject the historical character of the Book of Jonah, including (alleged) historical
inaccuracy, improbability, and the testimony of Jesus and tradition. The majority of scholars rejected
Chapter 4 analysed the various imaginative genre classifications of the Book of Jonah. Scholars have
viewed the book as an allegory, parable, mashal, prophetic legend, midrash, novella, or reversed
diaspora-novella. Most scholars argued that the author intended to show God’s universalistic mercy
to nationalistic Jews.
Chapter 5 discussed the use of humour in the Book of Jonah. Many scholars have recognised the use
of irony, parody, and satire in the book, leading some to characterise it as satire. However, they did
not agree on the book’s purpose or the target of these humoristic elements.
In Chapter 6, the author of this thesis expressed his perspective on the literary genre of Jonah. He
concluded that, regardless of its historicity, the book is best described as ‘a didactic, satiric novella’.
By doing so, he argued that ‘satire’ and ‘didactic novella’ are the literary categories that best fit with
the genre of the Book of Jonah.
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