[K:NWTS 8/3 (Dec 1993) 19-30]

Narrative and Paradox in Jonah

David Lillegard

Among the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Jonah presents a peculiar challenge to the biblical-theological interpreter. The prophet does not take up the pen himself, as those traditionally named "writing prophets." He has no dream, no oracle to announce. He enacts no didactic drama before his people in order to teach them of their God. He has been named the reluctant prophet because he runs away from his prophetic charge. The name, Jonah Ben-Amittai, is mentioned in relation to the military conquests of king Jeroboam II (2 Kgs. 14:25). Jeroboam was not a particularly praiseworthy leader: "He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord." But "the Lord had made no threat to blot out the name of Israel under heaven," so he fulfilled a promise delivered by Jonah Ben-Amittai to reestablish some lost protective boundaries. The words of this prophet are not given. Nothing more is said of him.

Why do we then find Jonah among the writing prophets? The prophet himself—not his message—is the focus of the narrative. Unlike the earlier prophets, the power of the prophet as word-bearer for YHWH to a particular generation of his chosen people is not the foundation of his ministry. Unlike the later prophets, the power of the word of YHWH to create new spiritual realities, higher worlds of hope and redemption for a shattered nation, is not his focal point. And the paradox, the strangeness of this story, confronts the reader with kerygma.

Jonah begins in an intertextual world. That is to say, in order to find footing in the narrative we must construct a topography from the sparse references given. These references consist of only seven proper names. We have no clear reference to time, as in Isaiah ("In the year that king Uzziah died...," 1:1). Our indicators refer to person and space: YHWH, Jonah BenAmittai, Nineveh, Joppa, Tarshish, Elohim, Sheol. Other than these proper nouns, we travel by relative markers: up, down, in, out, etc. Thus these proper names are the primary means for the construction of a realm of meaning. After the name of the prophet, the city, Nineveh, which the prophet considers his enemy, is the most particular signifier in the topography of the book. The city was founded by the marvelous hunter, Nimrod (Gen. 10:11). It conquered and humiliated Israel (722/21 B.C.). It threatened Judah (cf. Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah), but it was eventually overthrown itself by the Babylonians (612 B.C.). The conjunction of the prophet Jonah and the city of Nineveh places the book in the context of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in its final decline, under the shadow of its conqueror.

A narrative reading of Jonah will accept the text in its own system of referentiality. Most modern criticism divorces the book from its own intertextual referentiality. The desire for univocal or literal origins draws interpretive discussion into the post-exilic historical world, and dismembers the text according to various schemes of evolutionary development. The narrative approach advocated here is not meant to deny the usefulness of such criticism, but I think that something important is lost by denying Jonah the voice of its own referentiality. The author speaks to us assuming a certain knowledge of the scriptures, which he, in turn, assumes we will accept as the reference-points of the narrative. Let us listen to him!

The first loss that is suffered when Jonah is related immediately to either an extralinguistic world (through historical criticism), or to a purified linguistic system (as in structuralism), is that the book's paradoxicality is too easily overcome. Rather than either of these approaches, the paradoxes developed in Jonah ought to be reinforced and extended. For the desire to overcome paradox is an anti-kerygmatic search for either the stability of a non-metaphorical world, or the moral comfort of a world without fundamental dialectical tensions. The first way is the historical approach; the second, the religious. Both miss what Robert Alter sees as the essential project of the ancient Hebrew writers:

The ancient Hebrew writers, as I have already intimated, seek through the process of narrative realization to reveal the enactment of God's purposes in historical events. This enactment, however, is continuously complicated by a perception of two, approximately parallel, dialectical tensions. One is a tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events, or, to translate this opposition into specifically biblical terms, between the divine promise and its ostensible failure to be fulfilled; the other is a tension between God's will, His providential guidance, and human freedom, the refractory character of man.1

I submit that in Jonah both of these dialectical tensions are reversed. It is God who upsets the order of divine providence by saving Israel's enemies. Jonah, on the other hand, desires an orderly, unilateral application of the divine plan: for Israel only is God's mercy. Secondly, Jonah is shown to have no freedom; try as he may, he must fulfill the charge. God, on the other hand, has the freedom to "change" his mind. By invoking, and then reversing these dialectical tensions, Jonah both reinforces the nature of the tensions, and extends them—the only way they can be extended—through paradox.

The book of Jonah consists of only four chapters. Each chapter is a discrete scene, with its own beginning and ending. The book can also be seen as a structure of doubling, namely, an AbaB form. The two capital letters are juxtaposed with the two small case letters to indicate that chapters one and four are the places where inner character is revealed in a deeper manner. The anguished decisions of the sailors in chapter one, and the mind of the prophet (and of God) finally revealed in chapter four are the pivotal events of the book. Chapters two and three are not thus unimportant. They not only develop their own itinerary, but also inform their doubles. This process of informing by repetition has been cited in support of the unity of the book as well.2 This structure of double repetition will be followed in our interpretation of the text. First, chapters one and three will be treated, then chapters two and four.

Chapter one begins with the call of the prophet. This call is hardly distinguished from the message to be delivered. It is stated that the word of the Lord came, and juxtaposed to this fact is the word. It is a message of condemnation: "Go to the great city of Nineveh, go now and denounce it, for its wickedness stares me in the face." A literal rendition reveals more sharply the suddenness, the violence of the call: "Get up! Go to Nineveh, the great city! And cry out against her, for their wickedness has risen up before me!" In this translation, the force of the two verbs ("rise" and "get up") emphasizes how radical is the response of Jonah which follows; indeed, is juxtaposed to this word of the Lord. He gets up. The verb (qom) is repeated, but in the past tense now, since it is the narrator who speaks. And then it is related, without further comment, that Jonah has gotten up not to obey, but to flee to Tarshish, to flee "from before YHWH." Like the wickedness of the Ninevites, Jonah is before the Lord, as if he too had risen to that terrifying place. And he flees! He goes down to Joppa, to begin that horrible descent from the face of YHWH which eventually finds him at the bottom of the sea. 

Chapter one is a descent. Jonah goes down (jared) to Joppa; he pays his fare on a ship bound for Tarshish, the geographical antipode of Nineveh. He then goes down into the ship. At this point the reason for his departure is given again, in reinforcement, that he was fleeing from before the face of YHWH. Verse three is thus enveloped with this phrase, a picture of Jonah enveloped in the hold of the ship, for what reason we do not as yet know. And then the word that follows is again YHWH: "And YHWH threw a great wind [or breath, or storm] upon the sea." Once more the style is abrupt and without comment. As the sea grows wild and the sailors grow frantic and call for help, Jonah has done the very opposite: "but Jonah had gone down (jared) to the lower parts of the ship and he lay down and fell deeply asleep (jaradam)." The verbal repetition in vv. 4 and 5 is striking, and the technique continues to reinforce Jonah's descent. But another theme now begins to arise, when this technique is used to link the sailors to what Jonah's response ought to be, in contrast to his strange behavior. Also, the captain goes to Jonah in a mock calling scene that repeats verse 1: "Get up! (qom) Call on your gods! (qara)." Verse 6 will be echoed as well by the king of Nineveh when he deliberates aloud with his "Who knows?" in 3:9.

Now when the storm is raging, the sailors continue their frantic efforts in contrast to the inert Jonah. YHWH throws the wind on the sea; the sailors throw cargo into the sea; soon they will throw Jonah into the sea. But Jonah's whole response is contained in only two answers to the sailors' anxious questions. He is, in fact, asked eight questions, and it is evidence of the sailors' fear and agitation versus Jonah's bizarre detachment that he only responds to two. The sailors leave no avenue untried in quest for survival. They are equally perservering in their commitment to the well-being of their passenger. They first lighten the ship, rightly valuing life over profit. They cry out to their gods, they cast lots, searching for the cause of their misfortunes. The lot falls on Jonah. The sailors now inquire for the reason, as if the lot could somehow be mistaken. Moreover, the narrator interjects to tell us that the sailors already knew what Jonah was up to. They are all the more frightened by the prophet's theologically impeccable response to one of the five questions they fire at him. The sea grows rougher. They turn to Jonah again, now asking what they ought to do, implicitly accepting his authority, and his god, over their own. His reply is astonishingly calm; he merely tells them to throw him into the sea. Again they try to avoid the now inevitable. They try to row to land. And then, even as they are giving up hope, they cry out (qara) to YHWH (for they know his name now), and their profession of repentance and plea for mercy is all the more poignant in comparison with the laconic and resigned prophet. In the end, all turns out well for the sailors. They are saved from the storm, and they offer sacrifices to YHWH. They fear YHWH with a great fear.

Chapter three begins exactly where chapter one began. The word of YHWH comes again to Jonah. The message is the same, except that the wickedness of the great city is not mentioned, and Jonah is told to cry to her, not against her. This slight softening of the message is a clue to the response it will receive, and it is to be added to the clue we have already been given in the sailors' response to the word of YHWH. This time Jonah gets up (qom) and goes (halek: neither up nor down, just 'go'). The narrator tells us something about the city in v. 3: "Now Nineveh was a great city to God, a visit of three days." These three days are right away important because Jonah, when he arrives, only begins his mission into the city before he turns away again from his calling. He begins to go into the city, a journey of one day. He speaks five words (in the Hebrew text), and then he turns around and goes outside the city to sulk. "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" is all it takes for the Ninevites to turn in the most extravagant repentance. They declare a fast immediately. When the news (the word) reaches the king, he rises (qom) from his throne, takes off his robe and sits down in the dust in sackcloth. The decree is issued that all, man and beast alike, should put on sackcloth and ashes. All should fast, taking neither food nor drink. All should call (qara) on God, and give up their evil ways (raq'a). Like the captain, the king says, "Who knows?" And God, seeing this, relents of the evil (raq'a) he had planned against them, for they turned from their evil (raq'a).

In chapter three Jonah only speaks five words. He says even less than he does in chapter one. The other characters act extravagantly, and the process of their turning is quick: the people act, the king acts, the king speaks. The suddenness and the extravagance of their actions have been foreshadowed in a way by the anguished actions of the sailors. In this way, chapter one is the stronger of the two. The narrator has given us the psychological detail that can carry over into chapter three and make it flow into the narrative imagination more easily. The logic of these two chapters now looks clear: Jonah's mission is a success. The people to whom he is sent respond to the word of YHWH, and they respond by turning from evil to worship the living God. He is the most successful of prophets, evidently beyond what he himself would want. And this is the point: Jonah has not wanted any of this success.

The further difficulty with Jonah's mission, besides its extravagant success, is that the paradigm is applied to the wrong people. The theme of God's providential care being attached to repentance through confrontation with the prophetic word or kerygma is a theme attached to Israel. Yet here is the prophet of Israel turning away from the face of YHWH, running away from him, while the heathen and the enemies of Israel are turning towards him, and away from evil. Jonah's descent in chapter one is mirrored by the antithetical ascent of the sailors toward repentance and faith, and love for their fellow man. In chapter three, Jonah's paltry beginnings at obedience spark a massive act of repentance.

In the second pair, chapters two and four, two brief acts of YHWH envelop an extended lyric utterance from Jonah, and Jonah and YHWH enter into a dialogue of speech and action. The two brief acts refer to the fish in chapter three. YHWH sends the fish. He speaks to the fish and it vomits Jonah up onto dry land. These actions are introduced as perfunctorily as the actions of the laconic Jonah. The sailors throw Jonah overboard, and the fish is sent to swallow him up. He is in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. This figure cannot but resonate with that expression of greatness for the great city Nineveh, the city of the three day journey. The word "great" (gadol) is repeated many times in the book, and it emphasizes the dramatic character of the events portrayed.

In the belly of the fish Jonah prays to God. It is noteworthy that only Jonah prays to God (palal). He does this twice, here in chapter two and also in chapter four, when he complains about YHWH's mercy to Nineveh. When the sailors and the Ninevites address God, they cry out to him, but Jonah merely prays, even in the belly of the fish. The prayer is itself in the form of a psalm; in fact, it is a pastiche of psalms of deliverance. One recognizes formulae that are almost cliches in the psalter. A recent critic has identified "the most flagrant borrowings:" v.3 (2 in English versions) = Ps. 18:7; 120: 1 (identical); v. 4 (3) = Ps. 24:2; 42:8 (identical); v. 5 (4) = Ps. 31:23 (identical); v. 6 (5) = Ps. 18:5; 69:2 (identical); v. 7 (6) = Ps. 30:4; v. 8 (7) = Ps. 107:5; 42:5; 88:3; 5:8; v. 9 (8) = Ps. 31; 7, 9 (identical); v. 10 (9) = Ps. 42:5; 3:9 (identical).3 Only two verses have no identical phrases borrowed from other psalms, and these two verses also have equivalent counterparts. 

There is a double irony in this psalm. First, it is ironical that the form of the psalm of deliverance, with its apocalyptic imagery of Sheol, the pit, the deep, the psalmist sinking into the floods—that all this lyric energeia—which is used to transport the suffering psalmist into an apocalyptic realm—is here almost a literal description of a man sinking into the sea. The imagery is never referential in this sense in the Psalms, yet here Jonah is actually put into the sea. The sea itself is a "lower abyss," whose bottom borders on Sheol. It is a place of primordial combat with spiritual forces in the mythology of the Near East, and the biblical imagery exploits this conception both in the Psalms and in the apocalyptic literature.4 The narrative of Jonah puts the hero in this element, and it is both natural that he should use this imagery, and strange that the images are now, paradoxically, natural.

The second irony is in Jonah's use of the psalm of deliverance which has no mention of repentance when repentance is needed. The sailors were saved by their obedience; now Jonah is saved by reciting formulae. There is even a proud condemnation of the disobedient in vv. 9-10 (8-9). Further, the psalm is given as a prayer, but it refers to an accomplished deliverance. The technique is common in the Psalms, but the psalms of deliverance are not framed as in Jonah. The technique of proleptic praise (v. 3[2]), looks forward to an accomplished redemption, by praising and announcing it in the first verse. But in Jonah the entire song is sung before the deliverance comes. The form of a song of worship, used to recount the mighty acts of God, is part of a liturgical memory for Israel. In this sense, the irony is that Jonah uses a collective form for an individual action. This utterance is thus very much like the other confessions Jonah makes: they are formulae, in stark contrast to the emotional and personal cries of the sailors and the Ninevites.

In chapter four, Jonah is angry because of the Ninevites' response to his condemnation: "But it was displeasing (y'rach) to Jonah with a great displeasure (racha g'dola)" (v. 1). The repetition of the word "evil" (racha), which occurs three times each in both chapters one and three, is juxtaposed with similar root (rach’ch). The evil from which the Ninevites had turned away toward their own salvation, is now attached to Jonah. This is the first time that the narrator intervenes to tell us anything about the inner state of the prophet. It is also the first time that the prophet speaks about his actions. The long-awaited disclosure comes across as an "I told you so." "And he prayed to YHWH, and he said, 'O YHWH, was not this my word while I was still at my home? On account of this I was quick to flee to Tarshish . . ."' (v. 2). At home, his "word" was opposed to the "word" of YHWH which came to him. Finally we are told of his strange actions. But this "I told you so" is followed by another traditional formula, the formula of praise for the chesed, the covenantal faithfulness of the Lord.

Jonathan Magonet offers a suggestive parallel to v. 2 in Joel 2:13-14a.5 The passage in Joel even combines the chesed formula with the "who knows?" question we have seen in Jonah. The prophet now speaks: "And rend your heart, not your garments, and turn unto YHWH your God; for he is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repenteth of the evil. Who knoweth whether he will not turn and repent" (Joel 2:13-14a). But Jonah is not comforted and encouraged by the chesed of YHWH. He is sure that YHWH will repent of the evil he has promised against Nineveh. This assurance is a kind of extravagant belief in the covenant mercy of YHWH: Jonah is sure that the mercy will extend to anyone to whom YHWH sends a word, even those outside the covenant. The "who knows?" potentiality is oddly enough a certainty for Jonah. Jonah is not only opposed to the pagans with whom he comes in contact, he is also opposed to the prophetic tradition, which speaks oracles of doom against Israel's enemies, never once fearing that they will turn and be forgiven.

The remainder of chapter four is a dialogue of words and action between YHWH and Jonah. In this respect, it parallels the dialogic action between YHWH, the storm and the sailors, and the strange dialogue between YHWH, the fish and Jonah. YHWH causes the elements of creation to "speak" to Jonah, and he responds. Jonah's actions are by now typical: he flees, and he encloses himself. He goes out to a place east of the city and there he builds a booth (suqqot). With the biblical tradition in mind, the booth is an important part of the festival liturgical life of Israel. The feast of booths, Sukkot, is the festival of the last harvest of the year. The booths symbolize the nation's experience in the desert. This forty years of wandering was a judgment on an entire generation. In the writing prophets the final apocalyptic judgment is sometimes referred to as a harvest, as it is in the gospels. Also, the final scene in Ezekiel is one where the remnant of Israel are in the desert, a camp surrounded by their enemies, when the army of YHWH comes down suddenly to usher in the new era with an apocalyptic blow. Is this what Jonah is hoping for here, a lone Israelite in the desert, as he sits and waits to see what YHWH will do to Nineveh? 

Whether or not Jonah is expecting an apocalyptic judgment, he sits in his booth while YHWH engages in a dialogue with him. "Is it right for you to be angry?" says YHWH in vv. 4 and 9. This phrase is a response to Jonah's "now YHWH, take now my life from me, for my death would be better than my life!" This is the petition of his prayer, after he has revealed the reason for his disobedience (v. 3). He repeats the substance of this petition to himself in v. 8, which is the occasion for the repetition of YHWH's question. Meanwhile, YHWH has provided a blessing, the vine for shade, and has taken it away. YHWH also sends a scorching east wind to torment Jonah. The verb usually translated "provide" occurs once in chapter two, when YHWH "provides" the fish. It occurs three times in chapter four, when YHWH "provides," in turn, the vine, the worm and the wind. It can also simply mean "to send." Each of the things YHWH sends to Jonah provokes a response. In chapter four, the narrator intrudes into Jonah's heart and tells us his response to the vine and its loss in terms of how he feels, as well as by means of an interior voice.

In chapter two, Jonah's response is formulaic. In chapter four, his answer to the provisions of YHWH is volatile and contingent. When at last we are led into Jonah's heart, we are shown how it changes. In contrast to the Jonah we only knew from the outside, who spoke in the timelessness of formulae, this Jonah is supremely mutable. He responds according to the changing conditions of his world, not according to law or tradition. Now the scene is prepared for YHWH to make his point. The vine sprang up in a night and died in a night, and Jonah responded to this change. Should not YHWH tend to the great city of Nineveh and respond to her changes? Jonah was concerned; he showed compassion (chus, the root for the noun chesed) for the vine. Should not YHWH be concerned, show compassion for Nineveh, the great city of 120,000 souls? And these people and beasts, who demonstrated such an extravagant repentance, do not know their right hand from their left. Jonah knows all the right thing to say.

Jonah is led through the steps of a change of heart by an object lesson. But at the end, we are left hanging, like the word of the Lord when Jonah fled. We are not given a response to this final word. Does he have a word in his heart? We are not told. It is left to us. We are simply left with the paradox of the thing. Jonathan Magonet offers four antitheses after his study of the book which formulate the thematics of Jonah: (1) knowledge of God / disobedience of man; (2) particularism / universalism; (3) traditional teaching / new experience; (4) the power of God / the freedom of man.6 I believe that the first and the fourth, and the second and the third, can be combined. In this way, the book reduces to the double paradox I have spoken of above. Thus the knowledge and power of God are in opposition to the disobedience and freedom of man, and the particularism of the traditional teaching is opposed to the universalism of the new experience which confronts Jonah and, at the end, us. To return to Alter's twin paradoxes, Jonah reverses expectations by reversing the terms of the usual paradox. The man who knows God is the disobedient one, the one who tries to thwart God's purposes in the world. But the plan of God in the world is also reversed. Instead of chesed for his covenant people, YHWH's chesed is lavished on the enemies of Israel.

The book of Jonah accomplishes its purposes through evocation of its own relationship to the world of biblical prophecy. The fact that this relationship is paradoxical does not destroy these relationships, except in ways that kerygma destroys all expectations: in order to evoke the "beyond" of them. The freedom of God is opposed here to the fixity of human traditions, to which Jonah is attached. Indeed, the paradoxical nature of Jonah is peculiarly suited to the paradoxical nature of that era on the threshold between two ages of prophecy. Jonah stands between the period of exclusive covenantal prophecy, where the message to the nation looked forward to her restoration, and the universalism of the later prophets, who looked forward, like Jeremiah, to a new covenant.7 On the way to this new world, the chosen people pass through the tragic destruction of Israel. This Jonah cannot accept. Thus he flees. Yet the word of YHWH pursues him and drags him reluctantly toward the future.

"Ship-mates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet!" So speaks Father Mapple to the sailors in Moby Dick. And his final word is: "But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is sure delight . . . "8 In the judgment there is repentance, and in the suffering there is joy. That is the paradox Father Mapple discovers. His interpretation of the story does what I have been trying to do: it extends the paradox of it. What I have striven to avoid is an interpretation that solves the paradox, that reduces the story to a dull repetition of moral or psychological or historical explication. Father Mapple does not explain, he thunders!


1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 33.

2. Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 423.

3. Robert Couffignal, "Le Psaume de Jonas (Jonas 2,2-10). Une Catabase Biblique." Biblica 71/4 (1990): 542-552, especially p.545.

4. Xavier Leon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology (New York: Seabury, 1973), vide "Sea".

5. Jonathan Magonet, Form and Meaning in Jonah (Sheffield: Almond, 1983), 77.

6. Ibid., p. 90.

7. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 189-90.

8. Herman Mellville, Moby Dick (New York: Hendricks House, 1952), 40, 47.

Seattle, Washington