The prophetic word in the Book of Jonah is not what Jonah says, but his story.
The Book of Jonah draws me in like the light bulb on the front porch that attracts the moths throughout the night. You can sense that when you notice that I have written about this book twice in my blog (see Who Has the Last Word in Jonah? and When Was Jonah Saved?).
It fascinates me because for one, it is a very short work, but dense, very dense in meaning. And for a second reason. It is an odd book to find in the prophetic corpus.
Most prophetic books in the Old Testament are heavy on the words that the prophet declared to the people of Israel. You find scattered biographical details in the texts (like the story of Jeremiah’s imprisonment or the death of Ezekiel’s wife), but no sustained narrative that tells the story of the prophet’s life. What is of central importance are the words from God that the prophet is commissioned to deliver.
But in Jonah, the message he delivers is just one sentence: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). That’s it. No further elaboration. No poetic embellishment. No hopeful promise. If we understand prophecy as a word from God, how did Jonah make it into the collection of the 12 prophets? He seems a very minor prophet indeed.
Story as Prophecy
The Book of Jonah forces us to expand our understanding of prophecy. The word of the Lord to Israel does not always consist of just spoken words coming out of the prophet’s mouth. The word of the Lord may also be the prophet’s story. In fact, the prophecy declared in the Book of Jonah is the short story of Jonah itself.
In this respect, I like to see the Book of Jonah as analogous to the parables Jesus teaches. They, too, are short stories. I once heard a Bible teacher describe the parable of the prodigal son as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. The story is the vehicle for revelation.
Even though I don’t regard the Book of Jonah as a historical account–and I don’t–I have no less respect for it as scripture. Jonah was certainly a real historical figure. He makes another appearance in 2 Kings 14:25.
But there are too many improbabilities in the story that tax our credulity if we regard it as a historical account. I offer two examples: the improbability of a man remaining alive for three days in the belly of a fish and the description of the city of Nineveh as a three-day walk across in breadth. Archaeologists tell us this is a far exaggeration over the real city.
Those improbabilities do not trouble me at all, because the word of the Lord that comes to us in this story is contained in the story itself. And if we listen attentively to the story, we find the Book of Jonah to be one of the most powerful expressions of the compassionate love of God for sinful humanity in all of the Bible.
When Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have the distinct impression that Jesus knows the Book of Jonah intimately. He has absorbed its message into his own very being. Jesus is at one with the author of the book.
The Prominence of Narrative in the Bible
All this should remind us that a huge part of the Bible consists of narrative, narratives about individuals and narratives about peoples and nations. It has been customary to call the first five books of the Bible the Law of Moses. But if you study those books attentively, you find narrative has just as dominant position in the Torah as do legal, ritual, and moral injunctions.
The same is true of the gospels. Yes, they contain large blocks of Jesus’ teaching. But that teaching is embedded in narratives, narratives that tell the story of Jesus and his acts. This is a striking feature of the canonical gospels when we compare them to a non-canonical gospel like the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a collection of sayings, but sayings lifted out of their context.
This also suggests for me that there can be something revelatory about the narratives of our own lives. If we are given the prophetic gift of insight, we can perceive the way that God is at work in the many twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But most of us are not given that prophetic gift, and so we turn to the prophets of the Bible for the insight they can provide us.
Yet we have that strange prophecy in the prophet Joel that the apostle Peter claims is fulfilled on Pentecost. It goes:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
This passage suggests that prophecy is not to be an elitist gift, but a universal gift. And we hope that someday it will be.