There are several features which help us to identify humour in Biblical texts. One of these features alone may not be sufficient to enable us to positively identify humour, but when they appear in clusters we can be confident that something is going on and the text should not be read as straight narrative or taken too seriously. The Book of Jonah, in my view, contains such clusters and I’d like to explore some of these identifying features.
Wordplays are common enough in Biblical Hebrew, but in Jonah they seem to be making some deliberate contrasts between what we might expect of a typical prophet and what we actually find in the prophet Jonah. We come across the first of many wordplays in the opening lines:
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise (קוּם qum), go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evilhas come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose (וַיָּקָם same root – qum) to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
Then there is something not right about our key character. Right from the start we see that something is wrong: prophets are meant to be the servants of God. The Deuteronomic history refers to “my servants the prophets” and in 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah is specifically mentioned as “his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet”. We frequently find prophets raising objections to their calling, from Moses on (“I cannot speak”; “I am too young”, etc), but Jonah does more than object – he hears the imperative to “rise” and rises to go in the opposite direction!
Prophets are the LORD’s spokespeople. That’s what prophets do: they speak. The Hebrew word for “prophet” is נָבִיא navi from a root (נָבָא nava) which literally means “to cause to bubble up, hence to pour forth words abundantly”. But Jonah does precious little speaking. In fact, there are only five words (in Hebrew) of prophecy (עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת׃): “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In this story the prophet has to be pressed into speaking! When God speaks to him he says nothing. When the storms begins he says nothing. When the sailors cry out to their gods Jonah says nothing. When the captain of the ship tells Jonah he should cry out to his god Jonah is again silent. Then the sailors cast lots to determine on whose account this misfortune has happened and when the lot falls to Jonah they demand of him to tell them who he is and why this misfortune has come. At last Jonah speaks! He is a reluctant prophet indeed, hardly one whose words bubble up and pour out in abundance.
There is an interesting chiasmus in the words of the prophet throughout the book. The prophet speaks seven times:
A. I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (1:9)
B. Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you. (1:12)
C. Jonah prayed to the LORD … you brought up my life from the pit … When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord … (2:2ff)
D. Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (3:4)
C. And he prayed to the LORD … please take my life from me … (4:2-3)
B. It is better for me to die than to live. (4:8)
A. Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die. (4:9)
The central climax is the five-words prophecy. On either side of it Jonah prays, although the two prayers are remarkably different: the first is a psalm of thansgiving for his life which has been spared, and the second is a complaint, asking that God would take his life. The second and second-last sayings relate to Jonah dying: the first time he says his death would enable the sailors to live and his death would be better for them; and the second time he complains that he would rather die because the Ninevites now live, and his death would be better for him! The first and last statements also stand in stark contrast. In the first he fears God; in the last he is angry with God. The first words of this prophet are fine, but his final words are the antithesis of what we would expect from a man of God.
The third feature in this cluster is surrealism. Several things don’t ring true, most notably the stories of the fish and the gourd, but also the description of the breadth of Nineveh as “three days journey” (Nineveh was, in fact, only 5kms in diameter). Then there is the dramatic and unrealistic response to Jonah’s preaching and the conversion of the Ninevites. What was it in Jonah’s five-words prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no “thus says the LORD”; no call for repentence; no offer of hope; and no reason is given for their impending destruction. This was described by one writer as “the most startlingly effective human communication in the whole Bible” . Jonah’s five words led to what is virtually a model repentance by everyone in Nineveh without exception. Even the cattle fast and put on sackcloth!
This cluster of unusual features suggests to me that what we have is a clever story which is not meant to be taken literally or even too seriously. The message of the Book of Jonah is a serious one, but the intended message is not the folk-tale itself but the underlying point the writer is making in his comical portrayal of the prophet. More about that to come.
 R. W. L. Moberly “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168, p. 156