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Jonah and genre [long read]

Reading a piece of writing—from instruction manual, to sports page, to Op-Ed piece—according to its genre is something we do so naturally that it seems odd to even talk about it. Indeed, the very phrase “reading according to genre” sounds odd itself, entirely too formal, perhaps suitable for some English or Comparative Literature class, but hardly something that normal people do when reading normal things on an everyday basis. While that is true, to some degree at least, the oddity of the phrasing only underscores the point that we read according to genre so automatically, so intuitively, that we typically don’t even know we are doing it in the first place.

Consider the newspaper. No one expects an Op-Ed piece on the front page, nor a sports column in the classified section (ads, however, can evidently go anywhere!). Why not? Mostly because we know our way around a newspaper, and newspapers have, over the course of time, become structured in certain sorts of ways—with front pages, then pages devoted to sports, cartoons, classifieds, editorials, religion, advice, movies, etc.—all clearly marked and often on completely independent sections. A similar point obtains for letter writing. We know what kind of letter begins with the salutation “Dear Sir or Madam” and how it differs from a letter that begins “Dear Sweetie” or “Hey Joe.” We have been raised in the culture and its language and literature so that we have attained, through formal and informal education, a basic competency—not only in the spoken tongue (linguistic competence) but also in the literary forms (literary competence; see John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament). The same holds true even for newer developments in communication and social media. Emails, too, can begin with “Dear Professor” or “Hi Brent,” and that is enough to signal something of their tone and content. It is clear, too, that both of those emails are more formal than a text message that reads “where r u @? c u soon k?” As for those who prefer their newspapers online, distinct webpages usually keep distinct content…well, distinct. The present editorial, for instance, is not found on the same page as the scholarly entries on biblical figures, places, and the like.

All of this makes good sense, but when we turn to ancient literature like the Bible, all bets are off. The Bible comes from a very different culture and was originally composed in languages other than contemporary English. We cannot read the Bible as if it were a piece of modern literature—that is, read it according to our own literary conventions. But just as a Hebrew or Aramaic letter (cf. Ezra 4:11–22; 5:6–17; 7:11–26) isn’t quite the same as an English business letter, the forms and genres of biblical literature aren’t the same as our own. There is overlap, to be sure, but there are also significant differences, even when there is overlap (Hebrew narrative, for example, tends to be more spare than contemporary English examples); and there are cases where there’s little or no overlap at all (prophetic lawsuits, for example, or apocalyptic literature like that found in Daniel 7–12 or Revelation). A real challenge, then, is coming to grips with the genres used in the Bible—becoming literarily competent in those forms so that we can read “with the grain” and aright, rather than erroneously and anachronistically (to put it rather too simply).

Consider the book of Jonah. It is a short book that, despite its brevity, is remarkably well-known—mostly due to its “big fish” story. At the end of chapter 1, Jonah, who is a most reluctant prophet on the run from God’s call to preach to the dreaded Assyrians, is thrown overboard in the midst of a terrible storm at sea that is caused—so the story goes—by God precisely because of the prophet’s disobedience. As Jonah glugs into the deeps, God appoints a “large fish” to swallow him up. There Jonah lasts for three days, uttering a beautiful if rather ill-timed prayer (because it thanks God for a deliverance that hasn’t yet happened) in chapter 2, before the fish vomits him out—perhaps out of disgust, but evidently right on the road to Nineveh, where he finally takes up his task (though evidently still reluctantly) in chapters 3–4. This is a terribly brief summary of what is a remarkably beautiful and deceptively straightforward book, but it suffices to engage us in the key question: what genre is Jonah?

The fish story has attracted a good bit of attention. “Jonah and the whale” almost serves as a cipher or CliffsNotes kind of summary for the book, despite the facts that (1) the book never calls the animal in question a whale but simply a “fish” or “big fish,” and (2) the fish episode is hardly what the book of Jonah is primarily about. Nevertheless, focus on “the whale” highlights the genre question because many people have stumbled over precisely this point. “No one could live in a whale [or ‘big fish’!], not even one day, let alone three!”—some people say, while some others might insist that, for whatever reason (usually a religious one), they see no problem with the story being “true” or “factual” or “literal.”

The last-mentioned term is both instructive and problematic. “Literal,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is derived from Old French literal and, before that, Latin litterālis, both of which have to do with “letter.” So, the first main meaning in OED for “literal” is “[o]f or pertaining to letters of the alphabet; of the nature of letters, alphabetical.” From this first meaning, OED moves to the second main meaning: “Of a translation, version, transcript, etc.: Representing the very words of the original; verbally exact.” On first blush, this second meaning seems to approximate what some people seem to mean when they ask about the “literal truth” of the Bible or a story like Jonah or the “big fish story” in Jonah. However, note that the definition in OED has nothing to do with history or “facticity” per se; instead, the matter is entirely one of words and verbal exactness, not precision in terms of history or events.

The third meaning of “literal” in OED, the one concerned with the use of the term in theological discourse, makes the same point: “Pertaining to the ‘letter’ (of Scripture); the distinctive epithet of that sense or interpretation (of a text) which is obtained by taking its words in their natural or customary meaning, and applying the ordinary rules of grammar; opposed to mystical, allegorical, etc.” The earliest attested instance of this meaning according to OED stems from 1382, in John Wycliffe’s introductory comment on the Bible (Prol. 43), that Holy Scripture has four understandings: “literal, allegorik, moral, and anagogik.” Interestingly enough, Wycliffe goes on to argue that the meanings that are most instructive for people of faith are the allegorical, moral, and anagogical (or heavenly), not the literal. This helps to explain OED’s further statements regarding this third meaning of “literal”:

b. Hence, by extension, applied to the etymological or the relatively primary sense of a word, or to the sense expressed by the actual wording of a passage, as distinguished from any metaphorical or merely suggested meaning. [emphasis added]

This can then be used to describe people:

c. Of persons: Apt to take literally what is spoken figuratively or with humorous exaggeration or irony; prosaic, matter-of-fact or writings of various sorts:

d. Of composition: Free from figures of speech, exaggeration, or allusion even in a negative sort of way:

e. literal-minded adj. having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things. Hence literal-mindedness.

To sum up to this point, reading “literally” is primarily about the words on the page; according to some people, “literal” readings are not the most instructive, even for readers who are interested in matters of belief or faith; in fact, “literal-minded” readers are apt to mistake or misinterpret some of the most important aspects of literature—the “literal” letters (or words) on the page themselves! Returning to Jonah now, the question is how do the letters and words on the page speak to the question of the book’s genre? This is a crucial question because we don’t want to mistake Jonah’s “sports page” for its “religion section” in a “literal-minded” sort of way. So, what genre is Jonah? What kind of literature is it?

First, Jonah is a narrative—a story, comparable to other narrative sections of the Bible such as those found in Genesis or Judges. Second, it is a short story, comparable to other short stories also found in the Bible (e.g., Ruth, Esther, or the Joseph story in Genesis 37–50). Third, it is a prophetic short story, which is to say it is a story involving a prophet as the main character. One might compare the stories about Elijah and Elisha, perhaps, in 1 Kings 17–2 Kings 5 which are further examples of “prophetic literature” (see David L. Petersen’s The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction). None of this, however, speaks to Jonah’s overall force or tenor or purpose—that is, is the book of Jonah fiction or nonfiction? And what is its point?

Here is where reading “according to genre” is tricky (see Steven L. McKenzie’s How to Read the Bible). As mentioned earlier, genre is so routinely learned and practiced by members of a culture that recognizing and interpreting genres is almost automatic if not subconscious. That is why we often read ancient genres as if they are modern ones—we are simply intuiting what they must be in light of our own cultural “genre-genes.” But this is also what makes reading ancient genres difficult—not only did the ancients have different genres that we don’t have, even those genres we share with the ancients often differed in antiquity (see above). Moreover, literature typically doesn’t broadcast its genre. It just is the genre it is, and competent readers know as much. When we don’t know a genre type or if we are unsure whether it is coterminous with our own examples—both of which are situations we regularly encounter when reading ancient literature—we must rely on clues to help us determine the genre.

So what further “genre clues” do we get from Jonah? One is the highly artificial nature of the book, by which I mean the evidence that shows the book has been carefully constructed, especially around closely similar and repeating structures (see Phyllis Trible’s Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah for an extensive discussion; more briefly, you can see my essay “Jonah’s Sailors and Their Lot Casting: A Rhetorical-Critical Observation” in the journal Biblica, 2010). Jonah is no quickly jotted down eyewitness account of some event in the Iron Age; it is a carefully crafted work of literature—a literary artifice.

McKenzie has argued that a number of clues in Jonah point to its genre and overall purpose as being one of satire. He highlights elements of humor, exaggeration, irony, even ridicule. For example, Jonah is more an “anti-prophet” than a prophet: he does anything and everything he can do to escape delivering God’s word to Nineveh. To cite different humorous elements: In 1:4, the ship is personified—it thinks about breaking up (NRSV: “threatened to break up”). Meanwhile, in the midst of this “perfect storm,” Jonah is napping! The sailors come off looking far more righteous than Jonah, as do the Ninevites later in the book. Another odd, if not humorous, element concerns the big fish: in 1:17 and 2:10 the fish that swallows Jonah is a masculine noun (Hebrew dāg), but in 2:1 it is a feminine noun (dāgāh)! It is highly unlikely that Jonah’s “whale” was some sort of reef fish, like the clownfish or parrotfish, that can change gender, nor would ancient Israelites have known of hermaphroditic fish. The switch could be some sort of scribal error in the textual tradition, but according to McKenzie, it may be a genre clue as well.

More could be said in support of McKenzie’s interpretation of Jonah as satire. Regardless, there are other good reasons not to read Jonah as a straightforward historical narrative. Key historical details are left out of the story, there are chronological problems in fixing the prophet and the city of Nineveh as described in the story into the history of Assyria as we now know it, and there are even geographical problems with several of the details (e.g., Jonah going to Joppa rather than Tyre, the vast size of Nineveh, and so on).

The end result of these considerations, according to McKenzie, is that Jonah is not “history but satire or parody, a ridiculous story that makes a serious point” (p. 13). To read Jonah as history is to mis-read according to genre—to mistake its real genre and therefore to “misconstrue its primary message” (p. 2), which for McKenzie has to do with the stupidity of prejudice, hatred, arrogance, and bigotry toward others (in this case, the Assyrians). That is a serious message indeed, far more significant and relevant than debating whether or not it is possible to survive under sea for three days prior to the invention of submarines. Whether or not the latter could happen is quite another question—perhaps a live question for some people—but it is not a question that the book of Jonah is primarily interested in answering. To reduce the book of Jonah to that kind of scientific (or historical) question is to make a serious category error: an error of genre, a mistake of misreading. It is to be “literal-minded” in the worst way, taking “literally what is spoken figuratively or with humorous exaggeration or irony” or adopting “a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things” (OED). It may also be an attempt to evade or escape (like Jonah!) from what may be the primary point of the book since bigotry, prejudice, and hatred are very real, very live problems in our time, no less than in antiquity. Finally, Jonah’s “lessons” on these topics are as real via satire as they are via science—more real, in fact. As the Roman poet Horace said about satires long ago: “What are you laughing at? Change the name and you are the subject of the story” (Satires 1.1.69–70).

Featured image credit: “Jonah and the Whale”, Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles). Public domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recent Comments


    The story was making the point that nobody can ignore or deny YHWH’s call to act. Taking it literally misses that point.

    Nobody back then thought it possible to live inside a fish for any length of time: the story was deliberately over the top so that it could be universal.

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