Narrative :: Jonah: Introduction Notes on ch: 1 2 3 4
Study Notes on Jonah (including Hebrew narrative) by Tim Bulkeley
From the East window of the Chapel
Lincoln College, Oxford
"an implausibly toothsome whale ejecting Jonah (and glad to be rid of him it seems)."
"Warning: if a congregation has no conception of spiritual humour, if it has no sense of irony and has quite failed to discover the secret of laughter, it is perhaps better to let [Jonah] lie; for here the laughter never lets up." (Mishkotte, 422)
Cartoon from the Caleb Project
The humorous nature of the story of Jonah is evidently apparent to many lay readers of translations. The emphasis on the more outlandish elements in popular retellings of the story, and puns about "whales of a story" or "fishy tales" are clear evidence of this. Technically two different types of humour are dominant in Jonah.
The first is satire:
Through jarring juxtapositions: God's prophet flees God's presence, but then acknowledges Adonai as maker of sea and dry land (1:9), this happens just before the sailors drop him into the sea.
Through strange reversals: These pagan sailors will try a spot of prayer, while chucking the cargo overboard, Jonah merely sleeps. While the erstwhile pagan sailors are making good their conversion above (1:16), the pious but errant prophet, in the belly of the fish, is condemning those who "forsake their true loyalty" (2:8).
Through the exaggeration of parody:
Jonah's whole prayer in ch.2 is a model of self-serving arrogance. Jonah's
selfless self-sacrifice (1:12, cf. 4:3, 8, 9) is thwarted by God's "provision"
of a huge fish (1:17), though after three days this creature "vomits"
the hapless and almost hopeless messenger up onto dry land (2:10).
The exaggerated repentance rituals of the Ninevites and their king (3:7-8) are surely not merely "grotesque" (Wolff, 1986, 84) but also satirise Hebrew customs and sincerity.
Irony and satire, as the definition of satire suggests, are closely related. Wolff (1986, 84-85) claims that, by the end of the book, Adonai God's efforts to convert his prophet are pure irony. At the least they have a kinder tone, though Jonah was not overjoyed when the bush wilted! Jonah's extreme self-pity and exaggerated grief over a bush suggest that even if Adonai is above satire, the narrator is not.
But then Adonai cares for all his creatures, even Nineveh and its animals, even Jonah the rebel Hebrew prophet.
© Tim Bulkeley, 2003