Jonah – parody of a prophet (6)

The Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Conclusion

The cluster of unusual features which I’ve mentioned in previous posts suggests 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 may be 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. It is almost certain that the story contains humour, irony, satire and parody. But would it be reasonable to categorise the whole book as satire or parody?

Some scholars lean toward a classification of the book of Jonah as satire [1]. Marcus identifies the characteristics of satire and states that ‘a text may be identified as a satire if it has a target which is the object of attack, either directly or indirectly, and has a preponderance of the essential attributes of satire’, including a mixture of unbelievable elements, ironies, ridicule, parody, and rhetorical features. [2] He argues that these elements must not simply be present in the text, but must dominate it and constitute the essence of the work. In the book of Jonah the prophet is made to appear ridiculous insofar as he acts in ways which are contrary to those expected of a prophet. For example, Jonah is told to rise up and preach but flees in disobedience to the commandment of God to go to Nineveh, beginning a series of descents [3]; during the storm Jonah sleeps while the pagan sailors acknowledge the God of Israel; and he is upset over the repentance of the Ninevites which spares the city from destruction, but grieves for the demise of a plant. Nogalski concludes from this behaviour that ‘The portrayal of Jonah deliberately inverts the typical expected obedience of a prophet.’ [4] Feinberg emphasises the hyperbolic quality of satire and notes that satire is a ‘playfully critical distortion of the familiar’ [5] Frye argues that there are two essentials to satire: first, that the wit and humour are founded on fantasy or on a sense of the grotesque or absurd; and second, that there is an object of the attack [6]. I have demonstrated in earlier posts how Jonah meets these criteria.

For the book of Jonah to function as parody it would need to mimic the style of another writer or genre, in a humorous or satirical way. Hamel has suggested that due to the similarities with the Jason and the Argonauts Greek legend that an element of mockery of the Greeks is part of the Jonah story and reflects Jewish resistance to, and fascination with, Hellenistic culture.[7] He argues that:

Phonetically as well as mythopoetically, it appears that the author of the book of Jonah is playing with a variant or variants of Jason’s adventures as told in Greek and other languages, selecting some of its motifs or sounds and refashioning them for altogether different purposes, all the while with a view to entertain. The author has manipulated a myth, which had become alien and reelaborated parts of it in order to reflect on and reinforce his own cultural values. [8]

The similarities with the Jason legend, while impressive, are probably insufficient to conclude that the book of Jonah is mimicking the genre of Greek epic literature. Nor do the Greeks appear to be the primary target. The suggestion that the book of Jonah is a parody relies on the existence of the other Biblical prophetic books and the prophets which it mimics.

We also need to determine what purpose satire or parody would achieve in this context, and identify the target of the parody. There are several possible targets. Jonah is portrayed as weak, hypocritical, and a kind of anti-hero. Possibly, as Marcus notes, beneath these satires ‘there lies the unspoken wish of what the proper behavior [of a prophet] should be’[9]. Perhaps then the book is an anti-prophetic satire aimed at prophets in general; but what role would such a parody play as part of The Book of the Twelve? Alternatively, the narrator may be targeting his Jewish readers and their exclusivist attitudes [10], perhaps as a polemic against the exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah[11]. Allen prefers the view that the book of Jonah may have been authored by the wisdom teachers ‘who challenged self-righteous Israel with the devastating book of Job’ and similarly perhaps ‘produced the little book of Jonah as another shock for a self-centred community’[12]. Another possibility is that the book of Jonah parodies the prophet in an effort to raise questions about the rival claims of justice and mercy and Israel’s relationship to God.

The prophet seems to be trapped in a dilemma which goes to the core of Israel’s basic tenets of faith. Jonah is caught between two extreme ideas: God’s justice and anger in response to Israel’s failures; and, God’s infinite patience and compassion. This dilemma is one of the themes of Jonah’s literary context as part of The Book of the Twelve. Commenting on this dilemma Watts writes: ‘The Twelve struggles with whether God has changed. Joel 2:12-14 and Jonah 4:2 cite Exodus 34:6 (see also Deut 7:9). This is the basic dogma being tested.’[13] It is noteworthy that Nahum also quotes Exodus 34:6 and is the only other book in The Twelve to mention Nineveh. Nahum’s quotation emphasises the justice and severity of God; Jonah emphasises his mercy and compassion. Both Books allude in significantly different ways to the self-revelation of God’s attributes in Exodus 34:  Jonah extracts from the Exodus text those characteristics of God which best fit his theme of a merciful and relenting God: ‘you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (4:2); by contrast, Nahum draws different characteristics of God from the Exodus text: ‘a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty’ (1:2-3). The way the two Books deal with this Exodus text highlights what appears to be a deliberate contrast in the collection of The Twelve. ‘Nahum and Jonah are like two sides of a coin when read together … like two parts of a broken pot that are only whole when they are brought together … Together they explore the nature of God’s mercy and vengeance, and how they relate to each other.’[14]

In my view, the book of Jonah is possibly one of the best examples of humour and comic in the Hebrew Bible, containing a cluster of elements including irony, satire, surrealism, and parody. While parodying Hellenistic legends, or at least drawing on this genre for inspiration, the primary target of the book is either the hypocrisy of some prophets, or, more likely, the self-centred and exclusivist theology of the post-exilic period.


[1] Including Holbert [Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81] and Marcus [Marcus, D., “From Balaam to Jonah – Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible” Brown Judaic Studies 301  (Atlanta: Scholars Press) 1995].

[2] Marcus (1995) 9

[3] Jonah first ‘went down (ירד) to Joppa’ (1:3), then we find he ‘had gone down (ירד) into the hold of the vessel’ (1:5), and eventually he ‘sank (ירד) to the base of the mountains’ (2:6).

[4] Nogalski, J., Redactional Processes in the Book of the Twelve (New York: Walter de Gruyter) 1993, 263

[5] L. Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames: Iowa State University Press) 1967, cited in Holbert (1981) 61

[6] N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1967, 224, cited in Holbert (1981) 60

[7] Hamel (1995) 10

[8] Hamel (1995) 7

[9] Marcus (1995 ) 170

[10] Redditt, P., Introduction to the Prophets (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 2008, 262 ‘The narrator satirizes his hero to expose the moral failure of his readers, who themselves held exclusivist sentiments’.

[11] Simundsen [Simundson, D. J., Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2005 pp253-262, 260] and Allen (1976) 188 both mention the anti-Ezra/Nehemiah interpretation but say it has fallen into disfavour.

[12] Allen (1976) 191

[13] Watts J. D. W., “A Frame for the Book of the Twelve: Hosea 1-3 and Malachi” in James D. Nogalski and Marvin A. Sweeney (eds) Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2000 pp 209-218) 214

[14] Young, I., The Alan Crown lecture: “What Use is Nahum?” 17 May 2011, Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney (not published).

6 comments on “Jonah – parody of a prophet (6)

  1. Deb Hurn says:

    Stephen, to the series of descents in the first half of Jonah, you can also add Jonah ‘sinking’ into sleep, ירדם… and the captain saying “What’s with you ‘sinking’ נרדם ?” 🙂 Jonah has gone down as far as he can go (for now) and not only that, he ‘falls’ asleep.

  2. This is a really great post, Stephen, and I look forward to reading more on your blog!

    I just wanted to comment quickly, if I may, on Deb’s linguistic observation. This may indeed be a pun on the word ירד (“go down”), which appears slightly earlier within the same verse, but it’s not actually from the same root. The root of וירדם in 1:5 and נרדם in 1:6 is actually ר.ד.מ, not י.ר.ד. The noun for “deep sleep” is תרדמה (cf: Gen 2:21, 1 Sam 26:12, etc).

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks Simon. I got the impression that there were several word plays in Jonah, although I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Do any other puns in Jonah come to your mind?

  3. Stephen Cook says:

    I like what Billy Kangas writes here:

    The Bible is a conversation. Some books seem to be responses to other books. Even within some books it seems that one section was written in response to another, or is offered as a balance or corrective.

    One interesting example of this kind of inter-canonical dialog is found through the book of Jonah. Many scholars have argued that the book of Jonah represents a critique of Israelite prophecy as a whole.

    In many ways he best demonstrates what a false prophet looks like rather then a true prophet. Consider the following.

    He is uncritically PRO- ISRAEL
    He is reluctant
    He is disobedient to a direct mission from God
    He whines about discomfort
    He would rather fail and see the Lord kill his enemies then see God’s mercy against the Ninivites
    He is difficult to even talk to

    I think of Jonah as more of a comedy or satire then a serious prophetic text. Through it’s pages there is truth presented in spite of the prophet rather then through him. It’s like an ancient article from the Onion.

    In Jonah God is the real hero, NOT the prophet.

  4. John Bliss says:

    The book of Jonah is a contrast between disobedience and obedience. Jonah was the only Old Testament prophet who refused outright to obey his God. His prayer while in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:8) revealed his complete lack of empathy in comparison to Abram haggling with the Lord for the deliverance of any righteous souls in Sodom & Gommorah. Ironically, Jonah was willing to sacrifice himself to save the idolatrous sailors, but only so his death at their hands would be a good excuse to avoid his commission. The idolatrous sailors were more mindful of Jonah’s life than Jesus’ own people were for his.(Matt 27:25.) “Let his blood be on us and our children.” Jonah 4:10-11 also reveals the patience and lovingkindness of God with Jonah.

    There are many other contrasts that can be drawn between jonah and Jesus. In the final analysis:

    With Jonah it was MY will be done.
    With Jesus it was THY will be done.

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