READ JONAH ONE
Last week you did the hard work of studying the literary style of the book of Jonah. It’s a tricky one, and a topic on which many scholars hold differing views. Today, I’d like to give you a summary of the three main views, and tell you which I find most compelling.
The majority of Evangelical teachers hold firmly to the position that the book of Jonah is a historical and prophetic book. This means that the events in the book really took place just as they were recorded, and that the true narrative told in the book of Jonah was meant to serve as a warning to the nation of Israel. The historical/prophetic genre choice is supported by contextual information that we have about Jonah. If you look for Jonah’s name elsewhere in the Bible you’ll find it in II Kings, which tells us that Jonah ministered God’s word to King Jeroboam II. The words he speaks to the king reference national borders and give us an approximate date for when Jonah would be ministering as a prophet. These sorts of references to time and place indicate that the Scriptures teach that Jonah is a real person living in a real time, making the book historical.
Additionally, the book has a clear lesson for Jonah and for the nation of Israel: God is faithful, even when we don’t want Him to be. This is a lesson that the nation of Israel learned over and over throughout the Scriptures. Though we don’t know who wrote the book of Jonah, it is obvious that they are writing this story to share the lesson that Jonah learned (and, if the book was written by Jonah, we can understand that he is sharing his own humbling lesson of God’s faithfulness). This is what makes the book prophetic.
Others believe that the book is allegorical. This interpretation started with Medieval Jewish interpreters who primarily believed that the book is not historical but serves to illustrate a spiritual reality. Many believe that Jonah’s story illustrates the spiritual journey of the nation of Israel. One example of this kind of interpretation reads the book this way:
Jonah = the nation of Israel
His flight to Tarshish = Israel’s neglect of God’s calling on their lives before the Exile
The sea = the world politics at the time, unstable and tempestuous
The storm = Israel’s Exile
The whale = God’s deliverance
Those who view the book as allegory read the story as historically untrue but bursting with spiritual meaning. Very often, the primary reason for interpreting the book of Jonah allegorically is because the events in the book seem unrealistic or humanly impossible.
Parables, like those taught by Jesus in His earthly ministry, are stories that take elements from this world to teach a spiritual lesson or moral. Remember the parable of the sower? The seed represents people who hear the word, the sower is the one who proclaims the word, and the ground represents three different responses to the Word of God. Similarly, some interpret Jonah as a parable. While the events in the book could have taken place, it is inconsequential as to whether or not they actually happened. The events in the book are not the point. The point is the moral of the story, or the tale of God’s faithfulness.
I don’t find the view of Jonah as a parable to be particularly compelling, mostly because most parables state upfront that they are a parable (IE: “Then Jesus spoke to them in a parable saying …”) and they are overt in teaching the moral of the story. The book of Jonah does neither.
I find the allegorical interpretation mildly compelling since the book is prophetic in nature. However, when I look back through the Old Testament and see the countless stories of miraculous or “humanly impossible” stories that it lays out for us – including those in specifically historical books – I don’t have the same objections to the book of Jonah as others may. I think about the parting of the Red Sea and the raising of Lazarus from the dead and I just don’t struggle to believe that if God can do those things that he can also cause a fish to swallow a man whole and vomit him up again according to His will. That is just not a theological struggle for me.
Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, here is the main thing we each need to take away from this part of our study: God is able, and He is faithful. When I think back on how many generations have had to preserve the Word of God – often at great personal cost – I am reminded that God keeps His Word for His people. It has persevered through time and place and He has preserved it for you and me to study. So no matter where you fall in your literary genre interpretation, we believe that God is able and that He is faithful.
PRAY & REFLECT
Thank God for His faithfulness to preserve His Word for you and for me. Ask Him to settle in your heart a trust in His faithfulness – now and always.
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