Jesus’ use of humour

I’ve written previously about humour, or parody, in the biblical book of Jonah and possibly in the Job narrative, and elsewhere, but I haven’t as yet posted any thoughts about Jesus’ use of humour even though this is where my investigation of biblical humour actually began. So I will correct that now by posting a few thoughts about humour in the sayings and stories of Jesus.

Every culture has a unique style of humour and it is very difficult to translate humour from one language or culture into another; something is almost always ‘lost’ in the translation. As a result, we may miss the humour in Jesus’ words if we do not understand the characteristics of first century Jewish humour, especially when employed as a teaching method. According to some scholars humour was a common feature of teaching of the Second Temple period. For example, Jakob Jónsson wrote that “The literature of the rabbis is of special importance in this connection as it was a common homiletic method in their circles to include comical and humoristic examples in their illustrative teaching and preaching.”[1] Hershey Friedman noted that “The Talmud and the Midrash … frequently make use such hallmarks of humor as sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, humorous questions, etc.”[2] Bruce Longenecker cited several scholars who noted that Jesus’ figures of speech included irony, parody, or satire and “amusingly pithy turns-of-phrase”[3] while some were “wholly comical”[4]. He argued that modern readers might miss the humour in Jesus’ teachings because “in our predominantly print cultures, we have lost our sensitivity to the kinds of structural patterning and rhetorical delivery that was elementary to discourse in the predominantly oral cultures of antiquity”.[5] He quoted Dorothy Sayers: “If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition in the accents of the pulpit … we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time.”[6]

This article deals primarily with Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a form of humour. Not all exaggeration is humorous, but exaggeration was a common feature of Jesus’ teachings and was often humorous. We find two types of exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus:

A. Overstatement: overstating something in order to forcefully bring home a truth.[7] An example of overstatement is in the saying: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30). Readers easily recognise this as an overstatement rather than an imperative to be applied literally. Another example is the saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Jesus is not instructing his disciples to hate the people who are closest to them, but rather, he is overstating a position in order to make a point forcefully: that compared with the love that a disciple must have for him in order to be his disciple, any other expression of love, by contrast, is “hatred”.

B. Hyperbole: this is a gross exaggeration, to the point of unreality.[8] The exaggeration is so obvious a reader is unlikely to take it literally. This type of exaggeration is common to Jewish humour of the Second Temple period, and occurs frequently in Jesus’ teachings. Some examples of hyperbole are:

  1. “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24).[9]
  2. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). This is such a gross exaggeration that some commentators have questioned whether Jesus really said this. The word for “camel” and the word for “rope” have identical spellings in Aramaic (גמלא), so Jesus might have actually said “it’s easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle …”[10] There is a common explanation that “the eye of the needle” was a small door in one of the gates of Jerusalem, and for a camel to get through its driver had to remove all its packs and the camel had to crawl through on its knees. These are interesting ideas, but miss the point that Jesus is using a gross exaggeration to make the claim that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God is impossible! Jesus went on to say: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). The point of the “unreal” exaggeration is that God can do the impossible: he can even save rich people![11]
  3. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) The hyperbole in this story is in the contrast between a tiny speck of dust and a huge splinter (“log”). A speck of dust in the eye is an irritation, but a huge splinter would cause blindness. By contrasting these two situations Jesus points to the stupidity of offering advice to people about sensitive matters when we are blinded ourselves by even bigger personal issues. The message is more effective when stated humorously: in laughing at ourselves we are more open to receiving the truth and to being gently guided to a better way.

An unusual or unreal story-line is an effective use of humour to direct the listener’s attention to the main point[12] and sometimes accompanies hyperbole in Jesus’ stories. For example, the story of the “ten virgins” or bridesmaids (Matthew 25: 1-13) portrays a wedding party which includes five bridesmaids who are unprepared for their role in an event which normally would have been planned with precision. In the culture of Jesus’ immediate audience, weddings were a major event which lasted several days and were planned to the smallest detail possibly months or years ahead. Everyone involved in the wedding knew their role and how to prepare for it. Part of the traditional first century Jewish wedding was a procession at night when the bridal party went to meet the groom. The bridesmaids carried torches for lighting the way and the torches were used as a feature in a “fire dance”. This was a traditional part of every wedding, and the bridesmaids would have learned and practiced the dances well in advance. It was an important part of the celebrations and it’s inconceivable that some detail of it would have been overlooked or forgotten.  Jesus’ audience would immediately have recognised that his story was unrealistic and therefore comical with a main point which came in a “punch line” in verse 13: “keep watch”, or “be prepared”. Something as important as a wedding takes a great deal of preparation, and one would pay attention to every detail to make sure everything went as it should. How much more should they be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of God.

Didactic humour serves a number of purposes: it is memorable; it is interesting and keeps the audience engaged; it helps to focus on one main point; it makes the listener more receptive to the lesson; it encourages a response. Jesus employed humour frequently and effectively.

[1] Jónsson, J., Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965) p.90

[2] Friedman, H.H., “He Who Sits in Heaven Shall Laugh: Divine Humor in Talmudic Literature” Thalia 1997; 17, 1/2, p.37

[3] Longenecker, B.W., “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15-24, and Beyond” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008) 179-204 p.181, citing R.A. Horsley and N.A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 47.

[4] Longenecker 2008 p.183, citing H. Palmer, “Just Married, Cannot Come”, NovT 18 (1976), pp. 241-57 (248).

[5] Longenecker 2008 p. 184

[6] Longenecker 2008 p.182, citing D. Sayers, The Man Born to be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), p. 26.

[7] Stein, R.H., The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978) p.8

[8] Stein 1978 p.11f

[9] Several of Jesus’ teachings referred to blindness in a humorous or satirical way. For example, “They are blind guides.And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14), is not hyperbole but meets the criteria for humour.

[10] This would make the hyperbole symmetrical but wouldn’t remove it. All early manuscripts and quotations in the church fathers have ‘camel’ not ‘rope’. George M Lamsa’s Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translation has the word ‘rope’ in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair (The New Testament according to the Eastern Text, George M Lamsa, 1940, p.xxiv and note on Matthew 19:24.) Similar sayings in the Babylonian Talmud have “an elephant going through the eye of a needle” (Berakoth, 55b , Baba Mezi’a, 38b).

[11] Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with Pharisaic theology which argued that wealth was a sign of God’s favour (because of righteousness) while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavour (due to sin). This saying turns this theology on its head and reverses the order.

[12] “The shock effect of some stories suggests that their didactic function is to reinvigorate and puzzle the mind.” (Terri Bednarz, Humor-neutics: Analyzing Humor and Humor Functions in the Synoptic Gospels (Fort Worth: Brite Divinity School, 2009). p.137

You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

I recently read an interesting article by Dale Martin in the Journal of Biblical Literature which asked the question “When Did Angels Become Demons?” (JBL 129, no. 4 [2010]: 657-677). Martin analysed six different words in the Hebrew Bible which were translated into δαίμων  or δαιμόνιον in the Greek translations (and then into ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ in English). Martin argues that “Ancient Jews used δαιμόνιον to translate five or six different Hebrew words.  In the ancient Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings … What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations” (662). He analysed other relevant material including 1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Qumran documents and made the point that in these materials “we find no equation of fallen angels with Greek daimons” (670).

Martin commented on Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 (105 in the Hebrew Bible) where the Hebrew שדים shedim (from the same root as shaddai) is translated “demons” in many English versions. The writer noted that ‘in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedim is related to the Assyrian sidu, which referred to the great bull statues in front of the Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word שד originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai”. It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding people, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.’

As an aside, on the connection between shedim and shaddai it’s possible then that when God said to Moses “I was known in the past as אל שדי El Shaddai, but now …” (Exodus 6:3) he was in fact putting an end to the common use of a term for him which could easily be confused with Canaanite gods, and was substituting this for a distinctive name (the tetragrammaton). Poetical books like Job and Psalms (where shaddai occurs again) tend to use archaic language (in the same way that in English archaic terms might be used in poetry but not in conversation), so it’s really not surprising that the writers might employ an archaic name for God like El Shaddai, for no other reason than that it’s “old” and therefore sounds “nice” in poetry. For similar reasons some people tend to use the King James Version because they like the niceness of the archaic language, rather than for its accuracy.

So, coming back to the shedim as ‘demons’, the Greek words occur fairly frequently in the synoptic Gospels and a handful of times in the Fourth Gospel, but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament. There is a small cluster of occurences in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 where Paul argues “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (ESV). The context is a Paul’s answer to a question about “food offered to idols” and it seems pretty clear that he is using δαιμόνιον in the same way the Septuagint translators did as the equivalent of שדים shedim, that is, as a reference to a pagan god.

This brings me to a really interesting use of the word in James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (ESV. The NIV has “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”) James quotes the shema – the creed of Israel and the foundation of Jewish monotheism – “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But his next statement is puzzling: “it is good that you believe that, but the demons also believe, and shudder”. Christian commentators sometimes interpret James as meaning that the demoniacs, or demon-possessed, also believe but this doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is a perfectly good word for “demon-possessed” in Greek (δαιμονίζομαι) and Mark and Matthew both use it.

But what if James is using “demon” in the same way that Paul and the Septuagint translators did? His meaning would then be “You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the pagan gods believe that!” In other words James is playing a clever trick with the shema and saying that even the gods of the nations believe the creed of Israel, that there is one god, and therefore doctrinal distinctives are not enough to make believers stand out from the crowd. He introduced this line by saying ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ For James it is not what one believes (faith) that matters but what one does (works) that makes them distinctive.

But doesn’t this make James contradict himself? “You believe that there is one God – even the pagan gods believe that.” Exactly! James is using humour, an ironic twist, to make his point. Much of this letter seems to be commentary or reworking of Jesus’ sermon on the mount so it’s not surprising that James used the same kind of humour which was also typical of many of Jesus’ sayings and stories. However, it would be odd if this was the only use of humour in the book. Indeed, I think we find confirmation of it in a smattering of other places in the letter of James where we find a kind of humorous irony. For example:

  • “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (1:23-24)
  • ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’ (2:15-16)

I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth further exploration.

Jonah – parody of a prophet (6)

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


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).

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (5)

Jonah – the most successful prophet

There is a comic element to our prophet: he has an inflated perception of his own abilities as a prophet. Jonah fled to Tarshish because he ‘knew’ that that the LORD would ‘repent’ or ‘relent’ of his intention to destroy Nineveh if the people of the city turned from their evil. In effect, Jonah was convinced that his prophetic message would result in sufficient numbers of people repenting that God would change his mind, even though no other prophet in Israel’s history had been so successful. Perhaps that is why he ventured only one day’s journey into a city three days journey in breadth[1]:  he was so confident of his prophetic skills that even a half-hearted effort would be enough to get a result. Then the king repents, and commands a massive reformation, even though he hears only a second-hand account of Jonah’s message. Jonah’s five words of preaching, delivered half-heartedly and reaching their destination indirectly, are the catalyst for a national conversion on a previously unheard of scale; even the cattle repent. In five words Jonah did what Isaiah and Jeremiah never did. This is Biblical comedy at its best.

What was it in Jonah’s five-word prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no ‘thus says the LORD; no call for repentance; 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. [2] 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, in what is possibly the most surreal line in the book.[3] The unrealistic description of animals repenting, integrated into the unrealistic account of the Ninevites’ repentance, further alerts us to the presence of humour or parody in the story. A further reference to the animals in Nineveh at the end of the book (‘And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ 4:11) makes best sense if it is understood as a jocular allusion to the earlier ‘repentance’ of the cattle. If the (sinful) cattle of Nineveh can ‘repent’ then why shouldn’t God take pity on them? In what may be another interesting word play the ship in which Jonah was fleeing from the LORD ‘thought it was going to founder’ (the literal rendering of the Hebrew[4]  חשבה להשבר). It seems that repenting animals and thinking ships are part of the plot to ridicule the prophet.

[1] We are meant to take note of the juxtaposition:

‘Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,

three days’ journey in breadth.

Jonah began to go into the city,

going a day’s journey.’ (3:3-4)

[2] Moberly, R. W. L. “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168,  156

[3]Miles, who reads the Jonah story as a parody, understands by this that ‘the Ninevites, dressing their animals in sackcloth and forcing them to fast, have been foolish in their repentance.’ [Miles, J.A., “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan. 1975), pp 168-181 (University of Pennsylvania Press) 180]. There could also be a double entendre with an implication that the Ninevites had engaged in bestiality and the animals were therefore involved in the Ninevites’ sin and needed to repent.

[4] Shemesh, Y., “And many Beasts (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah” in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Vol. 10 Article 6 2012, 14n. Another scholar who has noted the personification of the ship is Holbert  who puns on the ‘thinking ship’. (Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81, 65)

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (3)

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, Arise (קוּם qum), go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evilhas come up before me.” 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” [1].  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.

[1] 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