What type of literature is the Book of Jonah?

My latest discovery is that some people read the book of Jonah in 3 different ways: 1) as an allegory, 2) as a parable, loosely based on the life of a historical man, or 3) as a literal historical account. One such scholar who holds the parable view is Pete Enns who I think would stand up for the Progressive Christian community and is linked with controversy regarding some unorthodox ideas. There are apparently other more mainstream scholars, however, who might hold to the parable view, although I’m still trying to find their work on this.

I’ve felt a bit unnerved by the suggestion that this is not a literal historical account. I’ve never found the big fish story too far-fetched for an incredible awesome God to achieve. The use of hyperbole and careful literary crafting doesn’t undermine the historicity for me.

The suggestion that the story is not literal has led to questions for me like:

  • Why accept the account of Adam or Noah as historical and not Jonah? Or does this give us permission to not take any of it literally?
  • Is the literature written as a historical account or not?
  • Did Jesus favour the literal view of Jonah or did He think it was a parable to point to his death and resurrection?
  • Is Jesus’ use of the ‘sign of Jonah’ symbolism undermined or strengthened if it’s only a parable?

As this is the first time I’ve really looked into differing views on Jonah, I’d be interested to hear any views from people here. Also, I’d be grateful for any signposting to helpful scholarly work.

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Very interesting post, @alison! Your question got me into a number of rabbit holes. Forgive me if my reflections detract in any way!

I first wondered what the difference between allegory and parable was, as my initial thought was that neither of them are necessarily what we would call non-fiction…and typically evangelicals can get uptight about calling stories in the Bible “fiction”. (Sidebar: “fiction” has a later historical etymology)

As I understand it, both allegory and parable are stories told with illustrative purpose. In fact, according to Britannica, a parable is a type of allegory. Here is their definition of allegory:

allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative. Allegory, which encompasses such forms as fable, parable, and apologue, may have meaning on two or more levels that the reader can understand only through an interpretive process.

Perhaps it’s more helpful to then bring in the more modern concept of biography, which seems to more tied to the even more modern notion of “historical accuracy”? When Jesus spoke in parable, he wasn’t necessarily giving a biography of, say, a particular, historical traveller who was mugged on the road to Jericho and passed by by particular, historical religious leaders but not by a particular, historical Samaritan. He, of course, was telling what was most likely a fictional story in order to illustrate a deep truth. (Sidebar #2: myth also has this function, and the creation and flood accounts are often viewed as myth! That is, stories told around an historical event – creation, flood – that convey truth on a level not limited to the historical.)

So… Could Jonah be only allegory? I think it’s unlikely. I agree with you that Jesus’ reference to the “men of Ninevah” who will judge that generation would lose a bit of its gravitas if the “men of Ninevah” were not real people. Or, at least it does to me in my world that values “historical accuracy”(…which, sidebar #3, is a later notion emerging from the rationalism of the Enlightenment). But I also don’t think the story of Jonah loses its truth by being only allegory.

Could Jonah be what we would consider to be biography (that is the story of an historical figure)? Yes. I don’t know if we can “historically confirm” every single part of the story, but he is mentioned as a real person in 2 Kings 14:25 ESV, which is a history book.

Do I believe he could have survived being swallowed by a fish and spat back out? Yes, because like @alison, I believe in a God who can accomplish extraordinary things. Did it literally happen? I’m agnostic on it. I do believe that, at the very least, Jonah experienced a prophetic call, refused to obey it, went somewhere very dark (no doubt psychologically) for a period of time before he re-emerged and went to preach to Ninevah, where the people repented. All the other amazing things that are recorded in that book don’t necessarily have to be literally/historically/actually true because my faith does not rest on them.

I say all this because I do not see this as either-or. Allegory and biography are not opposed to one another. Stories of historical people can (and very often do!) take on metaphorical meanings! People become symbols; lives take on symbolic meaning.

Which leads me to the why thread of this prophet story, for the what and why are interconnected. Recorded stories of historical figures generally have a why. That is, even “historical accuracy” has an agenda. People seek to tell “historically accurate” stories (and, subsequently, demand “literal-ness” of others) for a reason. The story of Jonah would have been recorded and studied by rabbis for a reason. I rather doubt it was so that people could merely know what happened…as if reading a news story. It’s a larger story about God and one prophet’s engagement with him re. a salvation of an enemy.

To me, it’s a little bit historical biography and a little bit allegory or myth. It communicates something about God, and it communicates something about us humans that makes it all relatable.

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Hi @kathleen, thanks for travelling down some rabbit holes for me :grinning:.

I can see how they look similar, and I find it interesting that the definition you found places parable as a type of allegory, which makes sense.

When I was looking into this concept of Jonah being a parable, I found a distinction demonstrated at an online blog that referenced Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books . Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007.

JONAH AS ALLEGORY
The first school of thought is that the story of Jonah is allegory, with Jonah as the figure that represents Israel, the large fish as the Babylonian world power that swallowed up Israel, Nineveh as the conversion of the Gentiles, and Jonah’s complaint as the objection by the Jews to the inclusion of those Gentiles (Bullock, 52).

JONAH AS PARABLE
The second school of thought and the majority position in modern scholarship is that the story of Jonah is a parable, arguing that the didactic nature of the book stresses the narrowness of nationalism, the universalism of God, or other various ideas that might comply well with a parable format (Bullock, 52)

I think this is why I was feeling unnerved. Of course myths can convey deep truths, and I was worried that allowing Jonah to be such one of these stories, it would open the floodgates to many of the OT stories being merely that. I say merely, because for me it would reduce the entire thread of the salvation story from Gen to Rev to a much lesser tale. I’m still trying to find the words to explain why it would seem a lesser story if half of it was based on “the deep truths of myth” but that’s the reaction I feel.

No, it wouldn’t lose truth, but I think it might reduce significance, perhaps?

Good point! And actually, there is a very carefully crafted purpose in the plot narratives, settings and character of every biblical story. As Tim Mackie (Bible Project) would say, the Biblical writer would be expecting the reader to “hyperlink” to all the significant linked symbolism in other parts of scripture to fully understand the message and impact of the story. So perhaps this helps alleviate my fear of the significance being reduced a little.

Yes I think we can still extract the meaning from the story that the author intended for us regardless of the type of literature it is. Ultimately it’s in the Bible because we are to remember we’re not that different from Jonah, and yet we have a just and merciful God who desires to save not just our enemies but ourselves in our own rebellion.

I’d still prefer it to be historical though :smile:.

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@alison

I am with you on this quote, the historical fact is all these people places literally existed as qualified by other sources outside the bible.

Looking at the parables of Jesus all of them are plausible as an actual event that took place at some point in time.

The non physical Jesus like God is not bound by time, so I choose to look at these as something He knew as fact.

With Jonah all of it is plausable as well,
when a lesson is to be learned about mans struggle to do and understand God and His character, and will.

Since we are a sign driven looking for dramatic get our attention stories the more real the story the more real the influence it has on us.

Yet again we cant discount the thoughtfulness put into the story that became part of a thousand plus year compilation to reveal to us the Almighty God.

Not attempting to rebuttal just sharing insight as I see it.

God bless

Michael

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I am struggling with how to comment on this post. By that, I mean, where do I start? But, don’t get me wrong, welcome to the rabbit hole. It looks like you have taken the red pill :grinning:
For starters, I would fall into the camp of “if Jesus said it, that settles it for me” after all, he is the way, the truth, and the life, the great I AM, he was before Abraham, he is the Alpha and Omega, end of the discussion, yes? Or does it depend on whether Jesus gave history or a Holy Spirit breathed eternal truths to live by? From what I have read about the 400 years that bracket year zero (the birth of Jesus), tho’clock no 6 o’clock news or its equivalent, and as far as I can gather, they (the historians/writers) of that era were not obsessed with first-person interviews or factually accurate written work as we would expect in the 21st century, after all, we live in a world that is in complete agreement about history both past and particularly current events. :rofl:
So how are we to read and understand Scripture today? According to Dr. Tim Mackie and others, the best place to start is with the Hebrew bible, which we call the Old Testament. (In casdon’t are wondering, you don’t need to read and write Hebrew.)
Quick sidebar the Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. Even though it contains all of the books of our OT, they are in a different order see the attached file. Take a few minutes to compare the differences and the similarities. Pay attention to the divisions of the OT, which typically has four, The Pentateuch, history, poetry, and prophets (major and minor), and compare that to the Tanakh, which has three divisions, Torah (the Law), prophets (former and latter), and the writings. Note which books are our of place and that there is no division or category called “history” (I wonder why) in our OT. :grinning:
Smoke this over for a while and consider that there were no bound books (codex) as we know them until the Ancient Romans means that Jesus and his contempories all read from the scrolls that were sown together not randomly but with the guidance and direction of God through the Holy Spirit. This point is key to understanding how God has communicated his message to the world over the 1500 + years of Tanahk. There is ample scholarship to support the idea that the Scriptures are a work of the Holy Spirits in the history of man. We can see this at the seams of the scrolls. A quote from Mackie, “Here’s why these scrolls are so important: they actually preserve for us the technology of scroll making in the very period of the pre-Christian movement and of what the Bible would’ve looked like in Jesus’ synagogue.”
This is getting a little to long, I will stop here and wait on comments. And yes @alison I will get around to Jonah.

Tanakh v OT.pdf (758.6 KB)

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Thanks, @jimmy and @michael1 for your responses, you’ve both got me thinking.

I’m just learning about all this at the moment which I’m finding really interesting. Good point that the Hebrew scrolls didn’t have a separate ‘history’ section. I hadn’t quite cottoned onto that until now. In terms of understanding the book of Jonah in the order of the Tanakh, I’m just trying to see if the positioning in between Obadiah and Micah help to see the message of Jonah any better. Obadiah ends with God’s promise of deliverance to Israel, and Micah starts with God coming down from the mountain because of Israel’s rebellion. I wonder if that context is to remind us that we are all alike Jonah in our rebellion and need for deliverance. It brings me back to the question though: is the story of Jonah a parable to illustrate this greater message, or is it possible that it’s a historic story (albeit not an objective history in the sense of 21st century historical methodology)?

I have been re-reading ‘Bearing God’s Name - why Sinai still matters’ by Carmen Joy Imes (I would highly recommend this book - it’s probably one of my favourites!) and Chapter 1 is all about the literary crafting of the story of Sinai. Two things have occured to me as I’ve been reading.

1. The literary crafting of the narrative

I have been thinking about Jonah as I read, although it’s not directly related to this book. An example of the literary crafting mentioned by Imes is:

The narrator has selected six representative campsites before Sinai and six after, putting Sinai right in the middle, like Jesus in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. With Sinai deliberately in the centre, our eyes are drawn to it. But this is only the beginning of the literary symmetry.

The itineraries mention “desert” seven times before Sinai and seven times afterward. On the way to Sinai we read about God’s provision of manna and quail (Exodus 16), as well as two requests for water satisfied by a gushing rock (Exodus 17:1-7). After Sinai? The same pattern: one story about manna and quail (Numbers 11) and two requests for water satisfied by a gushing rock (Numbers 20:1-16). We’re told that God provided manna daily in the wilderness as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 16:35) and obviously the people would have needed regular access to water, but the narrator’s selective telling contributes to the literary framing effect that points to Sinai. (emphasis mine)

This really struck me, because I believe the Exodus story is historical (everyone, please don’t take me down any rabbit holes there!!) yet i can see how the story written in the Tanakh has been carefully crafted to highlight the climax of the story in the middle of the narrative. Could not Jonah also be a historical story that is yet been carefully crafted to create a literary framing for the wider message? I’m leaning on this reasoning, because I’ve heard the craftsmanship of Jonah used as an argument against it’s historicity.

2. The retelling of God’s salvation stories to the next generations

He has work to do in the Israelites that can only be done in a state of dislocation, in liminal space. (Ch 1 Leaving Egypt, page 22)

Imes is referring here to the Israelite’s wandering in the wilderness. But it got me thinking that when Jonah was in the belly of the whale - in a state of dislocation - God was able to work in Jonah’s heart enough that when he was spewed up, he was ready to go and preach to Ninevah. These Bible stories are showing us that God works in our lives when we are in liminal spaces and wildernesses. I find it hard to understand how the Bible could give us hypothetical stories that we are meant to read and think “although this didn’t actually happen for those people in the Bible I can take this as a basis to believe God will actually work in my life”. I don’t see why God’s power would only be demonstrated through myth in the past if we’re to believe He’ll do it for real now. I find it more believable if God has already acted for real in the past.

This is the whole basis of oral tradition in Israel’s history, that the stories reveal the wondrous acts of God to boost faith in God’s continuing faithfulness (see Psalm 78). I believe we are to read and retell these Bible stories like Jonah because they are true. They testify to God’s hand of power - his actual power, not mythological versions of it - so that we can trust him for our future. In my mind, a parable is insufficient for this purpose. It’s a good teaching tool, but not always a good faith-building too.

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