Death in Life: The Book of Jonah and Biblical Tragedy -- By: Branson L. Woodard

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 11:1 (Spring 1990)
Article: Death in Life: The Book of Jonah and Biblical Tragedy
Author: Branson L. Woodard

Death in Life:
The Book of Jonah and Biblical Tragedy

Branson L. Woodard

Literary analysis of the book of Jonah indicates a number of features found in the OT tragedies about Samson and Saul, as well as the tragic narrative of Adam and Eve. Relating Jonah to ancient Hebrew tragedy suggests a broader, more sophisticated expression of the Hebrew tragic vision than current research has shown and strengthens a reading of the book as history. This account of the prophets experiences, moreover, displays impressive use of dramatic irony, which reveals the calamitous dimension of the downfall of a Hebrew protagonist. The recipient of a divine call to missionary service—and of chastisement for his obstinate disregard of Yahwehs grace—Jonah is a tragic figure whose spiritual estrangement throughout the narrative intensifies his death-in-life.

* * *

While biblical and literary scholars continue to debate the authorship, purpose, and structure of various OT narratives, commentary on the book of Jonah retains a certain uniformity, keeping intact one assessment from the mid-sixties:

Controversies over The Book of Jonah have apparently all but ceased. One’s viewpoint on the historicity of the “great fish” (ch. 1:17 [Heb., ch. 2:1]) no longer determines his orthodoxy or heterodoxy, and reference to Matt 12:40 does not provide conclusive proof of the matter. That theological battle has been finished. There is even a remarkable unanimity on the interpretation of the book among Old Testament scholars…. It is agreed that the story is fictional and that the psalm in ch. 2:2–9 (Heb., ch. 2:3–10) is a later insertion.1

Scholarly consensus has its own persuasiveness, of course, partly because dissent must respond well to a number of crucial—and still unresolved—issues: the identity of the author and time of writing, his knowledge of other literature, and particularly the diversity of genres associated with the book of Jonah itself. Early in this century, for example, J. Bewer called it a “prose poem not history,” reasoning that the literary aspects of the book disqualify it from consideration as a factual account.2 More recently, J. Miles has called the book parody,3 while A. Hauser classifies it as caricature, the work of a skillful narrator who uses the element...

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