Bible as fiction: Jonah

Following a reader’s suggestion, my next story is the book of Jonah.

Coming in, I knew nothing about Jonah except that at some point he gets swallowed by a whale, or rather, a “big fish”.  I also know this is one of those Biblical contradictions that occasionally gets cited, because whales are not fish.  I think that’s silly because taxonomic classifications are about as socially constructed as money.

But what’s even sillier is this story, and I’m pretty sure it’s intentional.  It can be hard to tell without knowing the social context of the authors, but I’ll go ahead and treat it as satire or humor.

Jonah plays the role of an unwilling prophet.  God wants him to go to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and tell them that God has seen their wickedness and will destroy them.  Instead, Jonah flees across the sea.  This is, of course, exceedingly futile, like when a fairytale princess decides to disobey the advice of the kind old hag who tells her to turn right at every prime-numbered fork in the road.  Jonah isn’t very genre-savvy, but let’s roll with it like we do with the princesses.

While he’s on the boat, God sends storms, and all the sailors pray to their respective gods.  Using cleromancy, they determine that Jonah’s god is the one who was angered, so they toss him off the boat.  In an “out of the frying pan” moment, he gets swallowed by a fish.  Three days of tedious poetry later, he escapes to dry land.

Jonah then becomes an incredibly successful doomsday prophet (that’s how you know it’s fiction!).  The entirety of Nineveh repents, and God decides not to destroy them after all.  This understandably upsets Jonah.  As readers, we, too, struggle to see what the point of it all was.

Luckily, God knows we like metaphors, so he put a metaphor in the metaphor so we can understand the metaphor with a metaphor.  The weather is very hot, so God sends a bush to give Jonah shade.  The next day, God withers the bush so Jonah is miserable and angry.  God asks why Jonah should care about the bush when Jonah didn’t have to do anything to grow it.  In case you missed the analogy to Nineveh, God helpfully points it out while waggling his divine eyebrows.  The final line is a remark on the animals of Nineveh; I find this to be delightfully postmodern in its narrative pointlessness.

As a bit of light entertainment, I’ll admit that Jonah is successful.  You could probably make a good comedy out of a doomsday prophet who is mystified by his own unexpected success.  “Don’t they teach critical thinking in schools anymore?”  And then his predictions turn out to be wrong precisely because everyone believed them.  Just sprinkle in a few movie stars, add an unnecessary romantic subplot, make it a sequel to an existing franchise, and we’re ready for Hollywood.  I’d probably skip it though.

As for the point of the story, it occurs to me that part of the point is to characterize God.  At least a few people in the audience believe God is a real entity, so I guess the story allows such people to reflect on God’s wacky personality.  But to me, God is a fictional character, thus his characterization can only serve as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Besides which, God is a character with so many authors that the consistency of his characterization is worse than that of Batman.

The other point of the story is whatever that thing is that God’s waggling his eyebrows about.  Despite God spelling it out with a bush and everything, I still feel like it’s not very obvious, if only because of the lack of cultural context.  My take is that Jonah only cares about himself, and he’d rather God and Nineveh sorted out their absurd business between themselves.  But the fact of the matter is that what happens to other people does affect you, just as the existence of a bush that isn’t yours may still provide you shade.

That sure is an aesop.  But given the story’s outlandish nature, it doesn’t really make me reflect on what it means to care about other people.  Also, I think it might contradict Esther.

I haven’t yet gotten bored, so you may suggest further stories for me to read, sourced from any religious text.

3 thoughts on “Bible as fiction: Jonah

  1. khms December 26, 2015 / 9:25 am

    Just a quick correction here:

    taxonomic classifications are about as socially constructed as money

    No, taxonomic classifications are a lot closer to biological reality than that. However, the names for the classifications are entirely socially constructed.

    Plus, words that sound like classifications aren’t always. See, for example, “vegetable”.

    To quote wikipedia,

    Because the term “fish” is defined negatively, and excludes the tetrapods (i.e., the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) which descend from within the same ancestry, it is paraphyletic, and is not considered a proper grouping in systematic biology.


  2. khms December 26, 2015 / 9:27 am

    Or to put this more succinctly, if fish were a proper taxonomic classification, then whales would actually be fish.


  3. Siggy January 2, 2016 / 4:42 pm

    I would say that what’s doing most of the social construction work is the very idea that taxonomic classification should follow phylogeny. The construction makes a lot of sense today, but of course Jonas would predate the concept of phylogeny.


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