Narrative :: Jonah: Introduction Notes on ch: 1 2 3 4
Study Notes on Jonah (including Hebrew narrative) by Tim Bulkeley
While the book of Jonah is found among the prophetic books in all canonical traditions, many would say in terms of content it is more similar to the prophetic legends of 1 & 2 Kings (indeed the Elijah cycle, after a brief introduction, begins with the same words).
Jonah contains a variety of forms of speech like those found in the prophetic books, but in different proportions. In Jonah narrative dominates and oracle is almost absent, in the other books the reverse is true.
However, though the prophetic books are largely lacking in overt narrative, and do not present themselves as narrative texts in the way Jonah does they have in fact been read in ways which treats them almost as narrative. Bulkeley compares readings of Amos in Hayes and in the Anchor Bible series. Although both books have similar aims, and though both were written at the same time their reconstructions of the "life of Amos" are very different, and each goes far beyond the very limited information provided by the text of the book. Both commentaries read Amos as if it were a story about Amos the prophet. House has proposed reading Zephaniah as a "prophetic drama", though most readers find little in the text to suggest this!
Whatever, our conclusion about the genre of other prophetic books, or of Jonah, there is no evidence that this book was ever regarded as fitting elsewhere in the canon than here. When we read Jonah as a biblical text, we read it in the context of the prophets.
Clearly the ending is in large measure determinative. Equally evidently the difference of opinion between Adonai and his absconding unwilling servant, the prophet Jonah, is crucial to a reading of the book as a whole.
Miskotte (423) provides interesting comments on this relationship that lead us towards our own flawed attachment to God.
"Jonah blustered about godless Nineveh, until he was sent there; then he preferred to go in the opposite direction. Then in his resistance he became ridiculous. And God became great, pathetically or offensively great - or simply superabundant in his love; God glorified himself in the very antithesis to himself, namely the disloyal, the cowardly, the absconding church."
In his alternation between comment on Jonah (the character) and the church Mishkotte suggests what I believe is the "right" way to read Jonah. That is ancient Hebrew readers were invited to identify with this famous prophet from the past (2 Kgs 14:25) and yet to laugh at his pathetic antics. Contemporary Jews and Christians are likewise invited to identify and learn.
"When God lets us know that he is concerned with us in these depths where we are ungenuine or only half genuine, when the Word overwhelms us, then we too will share in his truthfulness by faith in the truthfulness of his work." (Miskotte, 426)
As you will have seen from my presentation and heard in my comments here and there it seems to me we must hear the story of Jonah, and hear it as a Jew from some not-very-well-defined time after the exile might have heard it.
We come with our baggage of somewhat triumphalist theology, and we hear the King of the universe call to his prophet. Like those earlier hearers we need to be sure of Nineveh's guilt and the justice of punishment - references to the holocaust in commenting Jonah will help many of us here. As we listen we find the Master of the Universe himself undermining our notions of power and sovereignty, and demanding that we recognise these in God's power and grace to forgive even Nineveh.
Like Jesus' parables one cannot understand Jonah without becoming Jonah, it is when we condemn ourselves in ridiculing this slapstick clown of a prophet that we have heard the word of Adonai through the book of his servant Jonah.
© Tim Bulkeley, 2003