I had the honour of presenting a paper to the Fellowship for Biblical Studies in Sydney last week. Due to the coronavirus this was our first online meeting so it created some interesting challenges, and delivering a paper online was a first for me. Unfortunately, I lost my internet connection a couple times during the question and discussion period (some might think I conveniently lost my connection when faced with some tough questions!) so the recording doesn’t include the discussion (and also to protect the privacy of participants who may not have known the discussion was being recorded). However, I welcome feedback, comments and questions, so feel free to comment here or on the YouTube page.
The New Testament doesn’t say much about the prophet Jonah, although the little it does say has made him an important figure in Christianity, his time spent inside the fish prefiguring the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in a saying by Jesus recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two accounts are similar although different so I put them both below with the words they have in common highlighted in red.
MATTHEW 14:39-41; 16:4
But he [Jesus] answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
… 16:4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
When the crowds were increasing, he [Jesus] began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation…32The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
It can be seen that the words in red are common to both Matthew and Luke, but in both accounts they are ‘split’ with different words in between. So which of the two accounts records the actual saying of Jesus? The most likely explanation in my view is that the words in red are the ‘actual’ saying of Jesus and that both Matthew and Luke have copied them from a source which they both accessed. There is a widely held view amongst New Testament scholars (known as the “two source hypothesis”) that when Matthew and Luke were written the writers had two written sources in front of them: one was the gospel of Mark, as large parts of Mark appear word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke; the other was an unknown source which scholars often call ‘Q’ which is an abbreviation of the German word Quelle, or ‘source’. If we compare Matthew and Luke in their entirety we discover that much of these two gospels are identical. If we extract those sections which are identical to Mark the remainder is what scholars call Q. An interesting thing about Q is that it consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative. It appears that at some stage, before Matthew and Luke were written (although possibly after Mark) a document was written which listed many of the sayings of Jesus, and this is what we now call Q. It doesn’t exist any more, or at least it hasn’t been found anywhere. But who knows, maybe it will turn up some day in a monastic library (like some of the best manuscripts available of the New Testament) or in a Judean cave (like the Dead Sea Scrolls). It appears that another very early Christian text called the Didache, or teachings of the apostles, may also have used Q as a source, but that is another discussion to be had.
It would be a reasonable explanation then that the actual saying of Jesus which may have been sourced from Q went like this:
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
The problem is, this leaves the reader to guess what this “sign of Jonah” was. Both Matthew and Luke inserted their own explanations into their accounts. This isn’t uncommon as we see this kind of thing happening quite a bit in ancient texts which quoted from earlier ones. In this case, however, Matthew and Luke provide different explanations for Jesus’ saying. Matthew says the sign would be “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Luke on the other hand says “as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” We don’t have a case of the two writers recording Jesus’ saying differently (and hence one or both of them ‘misquoting’ Jesus) but of them both recording the same saying but inserting their own explanations, and these explanations differed.
The modern reader is still left to wonder what the “sign of Jonah” meant as the two explanations are different. Luke’s explanation isn’t that different from the saying of Jesus as it focussed on the people of Nineveh and their reaction to Jonah’s preaching. But Matthew’s explanation steps right away from this and offers an allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah. It is not surprising that a story as strange as Jonah’s which has a host of unusual features (such as someone surviving inside a fish for three days) would attract an allegorical interpretation, and there is evidence in Rabbinic sources that this method of interpretation was applied from an early time. One interpretation, for example, is that Jonah represents Israel and as he was vomited by the fish so Israel was ‘vomited’ from their land when they went into captivity. Leviticus 18 uses precisely this kind of language to describe the land of Canaan vomiting out its inhabitants (18:25) and threatens the same for Israel if they do not keep the statutes and commandments God has given them: “lest the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).
Jeremiah 51 portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Bel the god of Babylon as sea monsters that have “swallowed up” Israel: “he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Jeremiah use the same word that occurs in Jonah 1:17 for the fish swallowing Jonah (although it uses a different word for vomitting, and “sea monster”), and this may be further evidence that Jonah presents an image of Israel being vomitted out of captivity after being swallowed by the Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should interpret Jonah allegorically, although it seems that some of the early Rabbis and Matthew did to some extent. It could be an allusion by the writer of Jonah to both the Leviticus and Jeremiah texts recalling the experiences of Israel being “spewed” from place to place as they go into exile and then being disgorged again by Babylon.
Matthew’s interpretation is similarly somewhat allegorical and adds another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that this was the original intention or meaning of Jonah, as we have clear evidence in the way the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible (and also in the way some of the Dead Sea Scrolls quote the Hebrew Bible) that later writers often re-interpreted earlier texts, giving them ‘new’ meanings which were appropriate to their own circumstances and relevant to their audiences. So Matthew gives a new meaning to the Jonah story for his audience. He saw a connection to Jesus’ resurrection while Luke apparently didn’t make the same connection. It suggests there is no ‘right’ way to read many of the stories in the Bible. For Matthew there was one way, for Luke another. Perhaps we can learn something from this when we try to make an argument from the Bible; that even the writers of the Bible read earlier biblical books in different ways.
Good satire or parody can be hard to detect. The better it is, the more likely it is that someone will take it seriously and won’t get the joke. I well remember when I was a much younger man having a conversation with a good mate about the clichés that were used in church prayers far too often. Between us we came up with an impressive list of all the prayer-clichés we could think of. A few days later my mate’s church had a social function in the church hall and my friend was called on to say grace before dinner. Being young, brash, and a bit of a smart-arse, my friend decided to have some fun while having a pointed poke at what had become a traditional, yet irrelevant style of prayer. He made use of every one of those clichés in a rather lengthy parody of grace before dinner. Later that evening an elderly lady came to him and said “I’ve been a member of this church for forty years, and that was the loveliest prayer I’ve ever heard!” That’s a sign of truly clever parody – people will be divided as to whether it is serious (and in this case pious), or is making a joke at the expense of those who take it seriously.
The royal court scene in Jonah 3 in my view is a case of clever satire (and parody), which commentaries have traditionally interpreted very seriously (while missing the humour, and, therefore, the real point of the story). It must have been the briefest evangelistic campaign in history (Jonah preached for only one day in a city which normally took three days to cross), consisting of just five words (in Hebrew, a few more in English): עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Remarkably, the people responded to this short message by repenting, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). It’s remarkable for several reasons: Jonah was unheard of in Nineveh, and had only just arrived; being from Israel his message would suggest that the god of tiny Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Nineveh and the mighty Assyrian empire; the five-word message gave no details and no call to repent or opportunity to avert the disaster. News of this reached the king, who immediately responded in much the same way as his people. His response was even more remarkable because he only heard the message second-hand, and was in a much better position to evaluate the likelihood that an unknown preacher from some backwater would know the fate of a great city like Nineveh, soon to be the most powerful city in the world. This is all so astoundingly unlikely the initial readers or listeners of this story would almost certainly have recognised it as humorous.
So the king decided to issue a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth. The problem with this is that everyone had already decided to do just that! His decree would therefore be meaningless, simply ratifying what the masses had already decided. It would confirm that the king wasn’t in control, and that the mob made the rules. Nineveh wasn’t a democracy, and wasn’t about to become one, so the king issued a different decree:
“By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.” (3:8)
The royal decree affirmed what the masses had already decided, but the king extended it to livestock as well! The animals even had to repent from their evil ways and cry out to God! The writer is having a joke at the king’s expense. He makes him out to be powerless – if he can’t rule his own people at least he can issue decrees to dumb cattle. The writer of Jonah has a final punchline right at the end of the book, where God is discussing with the prophet whether or not he should save Nineveh, because, after all, it was a big city with a lot of (dumb) people (because they couldn’t tell one hand from the other) but with “many cattle” (who were smart enough to cry out to God and to repent!) (4:11).
But there’s a twist in the story. When the king issues his decree he adds “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). In the words of one biblical scholar, this is “a piece of rather sophisticated theology” . The Ninevite king demonstrated an apparent awareness of Hebrew scripture, or at least the theological issues which gave rise to or came out of those texts, because he uses the specific language of several texts in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Chronicles and frames it as a question in an almost identical way to the book of Joel. Is the writer implying that the Ninevite king was familiar with all these biblical texts? The idea is comical, which may very well be the point of the ridiculousness of the allusions.
In using these texts in the way he does, the writer simultaneously ridicules the foreigner and makes his question the central issue of the story. The king would certainly have been unaware of one or other of these texts, yet the writer puts words into his mouth with which the reader or listener would have been familiar, implying that he was aware of the theological discussion about these texts. This is a story-telling device which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is ridiculed on the one hand, but makes profound statements about God on the other. Naaman, a Syrian military commander, was humiliated by the prophet Elisha, but teaches the king of Israel a valuable lesson at the same time (2 Kings 5). It’s a clever device. It’s easy to ridicule a foreigner, but then to have sophisticated theological truths come from their mouths is akin to saying “See, these stupid idol-worshippers get it, why don’t you?” The audience is first softened by the humour, and in doing so the writer/speaker prepares them to be more receptive to the hard-hitting message that follows.
 Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.London: SPCK, 1965, p.50
James McGrath has a great picture of Jonah on his blog, together with an interesting post about the identity of Sheol. I definitely agree that the book of Jonah should be read with a sense of humour!
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 . 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.  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 ; 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.’  Feinberg emphasises the hyperbolic quality of satire and notes that satire is a ‘playfully critical distortion of the familiar’  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 . 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. 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. 
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’. 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 , perhaps as a polemic against the exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah. 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’. 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.’ 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.’
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.
 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].
 Marcus (1995) 9
 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).
 Nogalski, J., Redactional Processes in the Book of the Twelve (New York: Walter de Gruyter) 1993, 263
 L. Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames: Iowa State University Press) 1967, cited in Holbert (1981) 61
 N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1967, 224, cited in Holbert (1981) 60
 Hamel (1995) 10
 Hamel (1995) 7
 Marcus (1995 ) 170
 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.
 Allen (1976) 191
 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
 Young, I., The Alan Crown lecture: “What Use is Nahum?” 17 May 2011, Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney (not published).
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: 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.  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. 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 חשבה להשבר). It seems that repenting animals and thinking ships are part of the plot to ridicule the prophet.
 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)
 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
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.
 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)