How is the book of Jonah to be understood? The fact that it contains events of a supernatural character (i.e., the fish) tends to cause some to refer to the work as “parabolic” in nature or an example of “didactic fiction.” Old Testament specialist T. Desmond Alexander took up this issue of the genre of Jonah in an important article: “Jonah and Genre” in the Tyndale Bulletin. In what follows I summarize Alexander’s discussion (in-text pages numbers refer to Alexander’s article).
1. Jonah should not be labeled a “parable”
a. “Parable” is an imprecise term (p. 39)
b. It doesn’t match Old Testament passages usually labeled “parabolic” (Judges 9.8-15; 2 Samuel 12.1-4; 14.6-7; 1 Kings 20.39-40; 2 Kings 14.9).
2. Why was Jonah labeled a parable?
a. A parable has been defined (broadly) as a story with a didactic point. Since Jonah evidences a concern to press home a didactic point it tends to get labeled with the designation “parable.”
b. The use of “parable” was preferred over “didactic fiction” for polemical or pastoral reasons.
3. Key issue is that of authorial intention. What did the author intend—how did he expect his writing to be understood?
4. We need to beware of the fallacy that “all literary works which narrate some historical event must belong to a single genre.” (p. 41) [More below]
5. How do we determine authorial intention? Through the use of textual signals—“generic signals” (p. 42)
6. There are two views: (a) the entire work of Jonah is a result of the author’s imagination; this is what the writer intended his audience to deduce; or (b) the author intended the events underlying the account in Jonah to be seen as really having taken place. (p. 44)
7. View (a): author’s imagination or didactic fiction. What are the “signals” alleged to show this?
a. Historical improbability of the accounts in Jonah. Response…
i. Distinguish between ancient man’s and modern man’s “improbability”
1. Elements of the Kings narrative (1-2 Kings) have miracles and other things certain modern conceptions of the universe find “improbable” but no one denies the authorial intention of these works is leading one to affirm the historical nature of the events in question.
2. Beware of smuggling David Hume into the ancient world. *Note: that’s my wording and thought; not Alexander’s!
b. Jonah shows elements of exaggeration and surprise. Response…
i. This element is itself exaggerated.
ii. Quotes author (Licht) who states: “It should be noted that the wonders in his tale (especially about the fish), which have greatly exercised the imagination of many readers, are told very briefly, in a low key.” (p. 49)
c. Jonah shows dependence on other works (Genesis, 1 Kings, Joel, Jeremiah). Response…
i. There is a difficulty in dating Jonah and the borrowing of material may have gone the other way (i.e., Joel utilizing Jonah’s material).
ii. Even if there use of previous sources this doesn’t settle the genre question.
d. Jonah evidences a symmetrical structure which leads to considering it an “imaginative product.” Response…
i. “This argument, however, must be treated with extreme caution. Our assessment of the historicity of a narrative cannot depend solely upon its structure.” (p. 52)
ii. We recognize that Old Testament authors shaped their narratives by certain literary structures (i.e., chiastic structures).
iii. “At any rate, our present limited know- ledge of narrative writing ought to preclude us from making sweeping statements concerning the relationship between structure and history.” (p. 53)
e. The didactic nature of Jonah shows that it was never intended to be read as history. Response…
i. No disputing that the book is didactic—it intends to teach a moral point.
ii. But it is a false disjunction (an elementary error of logic!) to argue that a writing must be historical in nature or didactic. The writing can be both!
iii. Jonah can be a didactic narrative shaped around historical events.
iv. The didactic constraints determine and shape the form of the narrative.
v. This point is crucial to grasp. Here it is in Alexander’s words:
“Here, however, a quite false distinction is drawn between 'historical' and 'didactic' works; because Jonah is obviously didactic, according to Licht, it cannot be historical. Such a conclusion, however, need not follow; the possibility cannot be ruled out that the author of Jonah may have shaped his didactic narrative around actual historical events.
“Clearly it is the author's intention to make an impact upon the mind of his reader. However, to achieve this it is not merely sufficient for him to narrate an interesting story about a reluctant prophet; rather he must involve his reader in the story to such an extent that by the end of his account the reader too finds him- self being challenged, as Jonah was, by God's concluding remarks. Thus the didactic nature of the book explains best why the author ends his narrative as he does, and why no other information is supplied concerning Jonah's ultimate response.
“This naturally raises an important consideration: does the author's didactic concern influence other parts of the narrative? Could it be, for example, that the king of Nineveh remains anonymous, not because he is fictitious, but because his name has no particular bearing on the author's intended purpose? Similarly, is it not likely that for didactic reasons the author of Jonah deliberately omits any explanation for Jonah's flight until Chapter 4? Had he wished he could certainly have introduced this information earlier (cf. 4:1, 'Is this not what I said when I was still at home?'). Yet this would have obviously taken away from the climax which is reached in Chapter 4. Further speculations are possible. These, however, highlight the fact that didactic constraints may have played an important part in determining the form of the narrative.
“In the light of these observations the possibility arises that some historical details may have been deliberately omitted from the story because of its didactic emphasis. This, however, need not mean that the author had no regard for historical accuracy. Rather it reflects the fact that on occasions didactic considerations may have determined not only how the material was presented but also what was incorporated into the account.” (pp. 54-55)
8. View (b): events underlying the account really took place. What are the textual signals that show this?
a. The narrated historical setting.
i. Author intends to link Jonah with the history of 2 Kings 14.25.
ii. The style of the opening verses is like other recognizable historical narratives (cf. 1 Kings 17.8-9).
· Note: Alexander considers this “signal” that the book is historical as “most important” (p. 56) and of “prime consideration” (p. 57).
b. Seeing Jonah as a historical narrative is the traditional understanding.
i. Viewing “Jonah as fictional is a relatively recent development.” (p. 57)
ii. “Such unanimity cannot be easily dismissed, especially when considering authorial intention. The fact that generations of scholars and writers were convinced that the author of Jonah did not intend to write fiction argues against the modern view that the form or style of the narrative conveys this very impression. Were these earlier generations completely blind to features which we are asked to believe are immediately apparent? Did these earlier writers not live and study in an environment much closer to that of the author of Jonah than we do? And if so, would they not have been more attuned to the generic signals of an ancient narrative? With these factors in mind, we must surely expect good reasons for ignoring or rejecting the traditional appraisal of Jonah.” (pp. 57-58)
c. God is the central character in Jonah—“is it not highly improbable that a Jewish author of the period 780 to 350 BC would have dared create a fictional account with God as a central character?” (p. 58)
9. It is probable that the author of Jonah intended his work to be read as didactic history and not as didactic fiction.