A Short Story about a Conflicted Prophet

JonahI’ve been thinking about Jonah. If you want to understand Jonah, think of it as a short story. A short story can be read in an hour but remembered for a lifetime—which certainly fits Jonah. Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard.  I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.

If one asks what message the author of the Jonah story was intending to convey, there are many possible answers. The problem of deciding which of these understandings might be right attaches to the Jonah scroll in a distinctive way because of its distinctive nature, as a short story. The nature of a story is not to tell you what you are supposed to get from it.

The observation has been applied to the book of Jonah that understanding what a great man is saying is made easier if you know what he was opposing. And we don’t know what the answer is. Accepting the usual critical view that it was composed in Judah in the Persian period doesn’t help, because widely divergent understandings of its background and aim have been held within that framework. The narrator of the story doesn’t articulate its implications. The story is content to raise questions and not answer them. It works on us by making us think. Its closing with a question symbolizes its approach.

Leaving interpretation to the people listening to the story leaves them free to bring ideas or assumptions or questions from outside it and see how it illumines them. For instance, people may read the scroll on the assumption that Jonah stands for Israel as a people, or that he stands for the individual Judahite, or that he is a type of Christ.

Within the scroll itself, there are three key themes. First, the story is about God’s relationship with a great and violent city. God is prepared to act against it for its waywardness but glad to remit its punishment if it turns from its waywardness.  (It’s often been said that the message of Jonah is that Israel should be more open to other peoples, but there’s no reason to think that the average Israelite was more xenophobic than the average Christian, or that the average Prophet would object to the idea of Nineveh repenting and finding Yahweh’s forgiveness. One has to be wary of anti-Judaic inclinations finding expression in this understanding.)

The story is about the sort of person God is. He’s insistent on his moral authority but also characterized by grace and compassion, and he’s capable of being flexible about his intentions in interaction with nations over which he is sovereign. The story portrays Yahweh’s manifold involvement with nature (the storm, the fish, the animals, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. The theodicy question presupposed by Jonah is “Are God’s compassionate actions just?” Jonah’s problem is that Yahweh doesn’t fulfill his declarations of judgment on the great oppressor (Assyria, Babylon, Persia). The people of God have to hold onto the reality of both God’s judgment and God’s compassion, and both God’s sovereignty and God’s flexibility.

The story is about the kind of person a prophet can be. Prophets can be resistant to their vocation yet also willing to do what God says; they can be quite conflicted people; they can be simultaneously knowledgeable and slow on the uptake. Prophets need not to take themselves too seriously, and people in general need not to take them too seriously.