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).

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? (4)

Jonah and Jason

I mentioned earlier that word play is common in the Book of Jonah, and gave an example from the opening verses where Jonah is commissioned to “rise” and go to Nineveh, but instead he “rises” and goes to Tarshish. A series of descents then commence: 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).

There appears to be further word play on Jonah’s name, which means ‘dove’. There is an irony here as the prophet turns out to be ‘flighty’. Gildas Hamel has also pointed out the similarities between Ionas, the Greek form of the Hebrew name יונה Yonah, and Iason the Greek form of Jason[1], and suggested, due to the preponderance of similarities between the Jonah story and the Jason myth, that the author of Jonah plays with one of the variants of the story of Jason.[2]  The Jason motif occurs in the Mediterranean region from as early as the eighth century BCE and was widespread in literature by the fifth century BCE. Hamel lists several parallel motifs in both stories: ‘the names of the heroes, the presence of a dove, the idea of ‘fleeing’ like the wind and causing a storm, the attitude of the sailors, the presence of a sea-monster or dragon threatening the hero or swallowing him, and the form and meaning of the difficult word kikayon.’[3]. The Hebrew word kikayon קיקיון is a famous hapax legomenon in Jonah 4:6ff referring to a fast-growing plant, which later tradition identifies with a type of gourd or ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. This word sounds very much like the kukeon or kukaon in the Jason legend, a brew made of medicinal and dangerous plants, prepared by Medea. The similarity in names could be the result of the plant species in the Jonah story being one of the principal pharmacological plants used in the brew in the Jason story, or a deliberate allusion by the author of Jonah to the Jason story. Jonah goes to sleep under his קיקיון; Medea uses the kukeon  brew to put the serpent or dragon to sleep.   Jonah’s plant also purges him of his anger, in a possible play on the emetic effects of the ricinus plant. If so, it also creates an interesting parallel with the fish ‘vomiting’ Jonah. In one version of the Jason story the hero is vomited out of the mouth of a sea monster.[4]

‘The creator of Jonah appears to be playing in a very conscious manner with some of the elements and motifs of the Greek story, inverting some, laminating others, or fusing them with Hebrew themes on the basis of linguistic or structural similarities’.[5]


[1] Hamel. G., “Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean Context” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought  44. 3 (Summer 1995): 341. Hamel argues that metathesis was common in ancient Greek tradition. The name Iason (Jason) itself was also a metathesis of his own father’s name, Aison.  He further notes other word similarities between the two stories:  ‘Nineveh and Yavan sound similar, as do Yonah the “dove,” Yoniyah the ship, and Ionia the region. 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.’ (7)

[2] Hamel (1995) 1.

[3] Hamel (1995) 3

[4] Hamel (1995) 5

[5] Hamel (1995) 6

Paleo-Hebrew inscription of Jonah and the fish

Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary has just announced a rather startling observation regarding an inscription on an ossuary discovered in Jerusalem that appears to be a stick figure of a man and a fish. Charlesworth argues that the stick figure contains four letters in paleo-Hebrew that spell out the name YONAH (Jonah) —Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh.

If Prof. Charlesworth is right, then the ossuary depicts Jonah being vomited out of the mouth of the fish. “Most likely,” says Charlesworth, “we may comprehend the inscription as reading ‘Jonah.’ And I have no doubt it is a fish.”

James Tabor has posted photographs on his blog, which highlight the possible Hebrew characters.

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