February 24, 2013 0

Episode 23 – Jonah and the Fish and the Plant and the Worm

By in Blog, Podcast


A few months back I said the following during our podcast about wisdom literature:

Read properly, the bible can be quite funny. We’ve picked out a few funny bits along the way, but before too long we’ll look at an entire book that I believe is intended as a dark comedy. You probably won’t be able to guess which one…

The time has come, friends, to reveal which book I was talking about. If you’re familiar with the bible, or even vaguely familiar with popular bible stories and tropes, you might be surprised to discover that the book in question is the one about Jonah, the prophet who done got swallowed by a big fish. Is that the part that’s funny? Well, kinda. Join me for a few minutes and I’ll tell you why I think this story was intended to be a dark comedy.

But first, welcome to BOOK!


This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. We have made great strides in our walk through the Hebrew Bible. In fact, all that remain are a handful of short prophetic books and a few tales from the Babylonian/Persian Exile. Jonah is one of the so-called “minor prophets.” It’s not that he doesn’t matter, but that his book is small and has been collected with several other short works which span Israel’s later history – from the time of the kings up to and throughout the dispersal.

With Jonah we have very little data regarding authorship, historicity, or timeframe. The book of Kings indicates that a prophet named Jonah operated during the reign of Jeroboam II in the 8th century, which would place the events of this story in proximity to the Assyrian conquest of Israel. But the actual writing of the text could have been as late as the 3rd century, after the return of Judah from the exile. This is most likely a tale told and retold throughout the centuries that found a particular written format at a particular historical moment. We’ll see a little later on why the historical backdrop is crucial to interpreting the story of Jonah.

Jonah is a short and very stylized story, told with many puns and a thick coating of that aforementioned dark humor. In modern bibles it’s divided into four chapters, and the story does break nicely into four parts. Not unlike Job, Jonah is a book that contemporary Christians have read in a very specific way, but which warrants a fresh perspective. If you’ve learned about Jonah in church, this is probably what you heard: Jonah was a reluctant missionary. God told him to preach repentance to a city called Nineveh, and he refused to go. So God made a whale swallow Jonah and take him to Nineveh, where he delivered God’s message and the people repented of their sins. The lesson: When God calls you to be a missionary, you might resist, but you can’t run from God.

Well, sure. The story certainly does provide those beats. But there’s something glaring about this reading, something wrong that should be obvious… Did you figure it out? How about this: This is a story about Ancient Israel. There weren’t any missionaries! The modern Christian category of “missionary” may nicely retro-fit to this story, but it’s an anachronistic reading that misses the central tension of the thing. Ancient Jews (like modern Jews) didn’t export their religion to other lands and peoples. They weren’t on a mission to “save” people for their God, in fact they were usually asking God to save them FROM their neighbors. So what we have in Jonah is a bizarre story about Israel’s God asking a prophet to offer a message of hope to the bad guys.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s how the story opens:

[1:1] Now the word of YHWH came to Jonah ben Amittai, saying, [2] “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” [3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish away from the presence of YHWH. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of YHWH.

Note right off the bat that we don’t have any “in the year of” or “during the reign of”, nor do we have any biographical info about Jonah. The story simply begins. This doesn’t mean for certain that the book is not meant to be historical, but it does mean that it’s beside the point. The events and themes of the story are what’s important, not whether it happened or not. (I’m not saying that’s the case with every bible text. We have to pay attention to the literary cues.)

The prophet gets his orders from God, and they are kind of crazy. Go to Nineveh – an Assyrian city in the heart of enemy territory – and call them out for their wickedness. Again, this doesn’t strike Christians as odd because of their mindset of “taking the gospel to the world.” But in national Israel this is the most unexpected thing ever. Sure, prophets frequently ranted against enemy nations, but that always for the benefit of Israel’s kings and citizens. What purpose could God possibly have in sending one of Israel’s prophets to the bad guys’ door?

And so we sympathize with Jonah to a certain degree, and we understand why he hops a boat to Tarshish – a city far away across the Mediterranean Sea – about as far away as an ancient Israelite can imagine going. This, by the way, is already supposed to be funny. YHWH gives Jonah an undesirable task, so he hops a ship thinking he can just move out of God’s jurisdiction. This is the thematic undercurrent of the whole book, not unlike Ezekiel’s throne vision. Is Israel’s God still God outside the borders of the land? The literature insists that he is.

Back to the story. Continuing in verse 4:

[4] But YHWH hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was in danger of breaking up. [5] Then the sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his own god. And they hurled the ship’s cargo into the sea to make it lighter for them. But Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship where he laid down and fell asleep. [6] The captain came and cried, “How can you sleep so soundly? Get up, call out to your god! Maybe the god will regard us, and we will not die.”

A storm threatens to destroy the boat, and the pagan sailors are terrified. They call out to their gods while Jonah takes a nap in the cabin. Then the sailors cast lots to determine whose god is responsible, and the lot falls to Jonah. Jonah Identifies himself as a “Hebrew,” a worshiper of YHWH, “who made the sea and the dry land,” and he tells them why he is fleeing from Israel. The sailors are alarmed, and so at Jonah’s suggestion they hurl him overboard and the storm subsides. The pagan mariners then rejoice and give offerings to Israel’s God. The first scene ends with a loud and rather familiar message: The “righteousness” of pagans enemies is once again greater than that of an Israelite protagonist. This theme will only get louder as the story continues.

You probably know what happens next. A whale – or rather a “great fish” – swallows Jonah. And since modern readings of Jonah have tended to be serious and heavy-handed, the episode with the fish has been regarded with the same severity and defended as one of history’s great miracles. I think this really misses the point of a text that is clearly designed to be over-the-top and funny. There’s also a pun we miss in English. The Semitic word for “fish” is nun, and a reasonable translation of the name Nineveh is then, “The Fish Place.” Jonah refuses to go to the Fish City, so God – according to verse 17 – “appointed” a fish to come and get him.

Chapter two finds Jonah in the belly of the fish, praying a prayer to YHWH. Now, this prayer is highly regarded today by Christians for its lofty words and pious confessions, but I’m going to suggest that it’s actually supposed to be a parody of religious gobbledygook and a hilarious indictment of Jonah’s arrogance and xenophobia. All you have to do is read the prayer in context and allow the final verse of the chapter to be the punchline of the joke. Let’s begin in verse 7:

[7] When my life was fainting away, I remembered YHWH,
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

[10] And YHWH commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land.

Now tell me that’s not supposed to be funny! Jonah goes on and on about how religious he is, how he has access to God in his Temple, and how vain and pointless the worship of the pagans is. The fish can’t take it anymore, so it vomits Jonah out onto the shore. I might be wrong, but I think that’s the funniest joke in the bible.

So Jonah, defeated and still reluctant, heads off to Nineveh. And here’s what happens, chapter three verse four:

[4] Jonah went immediately into the city, a day’s journey. And he cried out, “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!” [5] And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, every last one of them.

Fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes were common ancient customs associated with mourning and loss. The King of Nineveh decrees that everyone – men, women, children, even animals – participate in a citywide fast to indicate their repentance. God notices their display and relents from his plan to “overthrow” the city. Disaster averted, point made, happy ending. And yet, the book doesn’t end here. There’s one more chapter…

In chapter four, Jonah throws a little hissy fit. Verse 1:

[4:1] But this displeased Jonah greatly, and he was angry. [2] He prayed to YHWH and said, “O YHWH! Isn’t this exactly what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish, because I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster. [3] And so, O YHWH, go ahead and take my life from me, for I would rather die than live.”

Instead of leaping for joy at the amazing thing he just witnessed, Jonah is angry: “I KNEW you were gonna pull something like this, God!” It’s really quite remarkable. And if we insist on reading him as the original “missionary,” we’ve got to wonder why he’s such a bigoted jackass. If, however, we read the book as a satire on Israel’s xenophobic, holier-than-thou view of itself over against its pagan neighbors, the story opens up for us.

The final scene of the book is rather quiet and mundane compared with the rest of the story. Jonah goes outside the city and sits in the hot sun to pout. God “appoints” a plant to grow and shade him, which pleases Jonah. God then “appoints” a worm to eat the plant, which displeases the prophet. The book closes as God puts these questions to Jonah:

[9] God said to Jonah, “Are you really so deeply grieved about that plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “So deeply that I want to die.” [10] And YHWH said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. [11] And so should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?”

In a speech reminiscent of the book of Job, God points out the absurdity of Jonah’s selfish prejudice. He wept over the death of a plant because it offered him shade at no cost to himself. But the deaths of 120,000 Ninevites wouldn’t have brought a tear to his eye because, according to Jonah’s worldview, they are just foreigners, enemies, fully deserving the wrath of God just for not being born in Israel.

The details on exactly why God was angry with Nineveh and what he planned to do about it are vague, but they’re also not the point. From the perspective of the author (and of Jonah), the shocker is that God is even paying attention to pagans in the first place. The book of Ruth gave us a story about a pagan in Israel who experienced God’s blessing. Ezekiel gave displaced exiles the hopeful message that God’s jurisdiction extended beyond Israel’s borders. Now Jonah goes even further, insisting that this same God cares deeply about the fates not just of Israelites residing in foreign lands, nor of foreigners who happen to reside in Israel, but of actual foreigners living in foreign lands.

This kind of message would not likely have been found in Israel prior to the Exile. But their experiences in Babylon and later in Persia forced serious reevaluation of everything Israel thought they believed about God and their enemies. Pagans were no longer the bad guys living in far off cities. They were often still regarded as enemies, but they were also neighbors and colleagues. Stories like Jonah reflect the anthropological evolution of Israel while asking some very potent questions about her God. It’s a super funny book, but also one that runs surprisingly deep and offers a challenge that is still challenging on our side of history.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kreep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, crackle, frackle, spackle and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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