What’s the Genre of the Book of Jonah?

The genre of the book of Jonah has been a hotly contested issue. For many it is simple: Jesus refers to Jonah and therefore it must be an historical account (see Matt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:16, 29-32). Walter Moberly offers an interesting case for an alternative reading in his Old Testament Theology. He notes three aspects which he says point in a different direction.

  • “First is the repeated use of the adjective ‘big’ (gādōl), which comes a total of twelve times: Nineveh is a big city, YHWH sends a big wind such that there is a big storm, sailors fear YHWH with a big fear, and a big fish swallows Jonah . . . this is a story in which big things happen.”
  • “Second, and correspondingly, the story line consistently has a larger-than-life dimension to it. Jonah is given the hardest conceivable assignment (the original Mission Impossible): he is to go to the capital of Assyria, the greatest earthly power in his world, and a power that had no reason to heed Israelite prophets. Jonah is a most uncompromising prophet; although it is common for prophets to respond to God’s call with an expression of inadequacy and difference, Jonah surpasses them all by saying nothing and just running away: when told to go east, he catches a boat to the west. While on the boat, Jonah is more heedless and less prayerful than the non-Israelite sailors, yet these sailors are awed by Jonah’s testimony about YHWH, respond readily to God, and even (apparently) convert to Israel’s faith. . . [he] goes to Nineveh [and] finds a city that is astonishingly large. He enters, goes a short way, and preaches what is arguably the shortest sermon on record (in 3:4), five words in Hebrew. . . . this address is surely subversive of his commission. Nothing is said about sin or repentance, and ‘forty days’ is the Hebrew idiom for an indefinite period of time and thereby would imply ‘no hurry’; existential urgency would only be conveyed by Jonah’s specifying ‘three days,’ the Hebrew idiom for an indefinite short period of time. [Moberly notes that the LXX reads “three days.”] . . . Jonah achieves the greatest success [such that] everyone in Nineveh from the king downward turns to God, so much so that even their livestock are to be included in the acts of repentance.”
  • “The final indicative feature is that the story concludes with a rhetorical question, which functions as a punch line. We are told no more about Jonah, because once the punch line is reached the unfolding narrative sequence no longer matters in its own right: the story serves the punch line. Although God’s final rhetorical question about His compassion is put to Jonah, it is presumably the reader/hearer who is meant to go away and ponder the appropriate response. If the reader’s imagination is concerned with what happened next to Jonah rather than with the nature of the divine compassion, then the reader has failed to get the point.” (185-87)

This is an impressive case. Moberly deals with the citations of Jesus as well as the “evidence for a historical Jonah, the eighth-century prophet mentioned in Kings” but to go into those discussions would go longer than I wanted for this post. I just wanted the reader to be aware that he’s aware of those issues and does attempt an answer to them.

It’s something to think about. By the way, I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Moberly this past week. It was fortunate that I happened to be reading his book. He was delightful to talk to though we only had a short time to speak.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to What’s the Genre of the Book of Jonah?

  1. Dwight Gingrich says:

    I think we’ve interacted here before on the question of the historicity of Jonah :-), so I’ll keep my thoughts today brief.

    I think Moberly’s insights are important and useful for helping us focus on the theological purpose of Jonah, but I think they say little about the question of the historicity of Jonah. Rather, I think they simply demonstrate that we have a big God who is actively involved in the unfolding of history, that from God’s perspective history is intrinsically a theological matter, and that the author of the book of Jonah was a literary master who crafted the book to emphasize the theological message that God wanted to convey.

    Similar criticisms are often leveled against the Gospels, given their theological agendas, and similar defenses are reasonably given. And, as has often been noted, Acts ends with similar unanswered historical questions, again for theological reasons. Literary craft and theological purpose do not preclude historicity. I suspect that most people might not be wrestling with this question of the historicity of Jonah at all if 19th-century higher critics with their anti-supernatural biases hadn’t reacted to the sight Jonah surviving a ride in a big fish!

    For me, Jesus’ specific prophecy that the men of Nineveh will someday rise up in judgment against the people of Jesus’ own generation *because they repented at the preaching of Jonah* clinches the historicity of the story of Jonah.

    But thanks so much for all your many posts that keep introducing me to so many fascinating books and authors! 🙂


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