Text Analysis And The Genre Of Jonah (Part 1) -- By: Ernst R. Wendland

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 39:2 (Jun 1996)
Article: Text Analysis And The Genre Of Jonah (Part 1)
Author: Ernst R. Wendland


Text Analysis And The Genre Of Jonah (Part 1)

Ernst R. Wendland*

I. Introduction: Jonah As A Generic Crux Interpretum

The little book of Jonah confronts Bible commentators and critics alike with a rather large hermeneutical crux. This problem does not directly concern certain constituent passages (though there are also several difficulties in this regard) but rather the text as a whole: How are we to interpret it? The answer to this question is dependent upon how we respond to another, related query: What literary genre does the book of Jonah exhibit or exemplify? That question will be addressed in the following section. But why all the fuss? Is it not obvious to even the most unsophisticated reader that the text is a simple story? Maybe so—but the answer becomes increasingly cloudy the more one reads in commentaries, scholarly essays, text notes, Bible guides, and other studies that deal with this book. Here one discovers a wide range of opinion expressed with regard to the literary classification of Jonah—from symbolical allegory to historical biography and just about everything else in between. 1

Then when one starts to examine this work more carefully some of the reasons for the diversity of opinion concerning genre categorization become apparent. First of all, the book seems to begin like a normal prophetic discourse: “And the word of Yahweh came unto Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying” (1:1; cf. Mic 1:1). But instead of a largely poetic, oracular pronouncement from the Lord, we have in the case of Jonah a narrative about the Lord—that is, concerning his dealings with a prophet and two isolated groups of pagans. Thus on the surface the text is really a prophetic narrative such as we have in the book of Kings (e.g. Elijah, 1 Kings 17–18; this is also suggested by the form of the Hebrew verb). 2 But instead of obeying the command of God as is usually the case in such accounts (e.g. 1 Kgs 17:10), we hear that Jonah does just the opposite: He runs away from the Lord’s commission. Then there is

* Ernst Wendland is an associate translation consultant for the United Bible Societies at Lusaka Translation Center (UBS), P.O. Box 310091, Chelstone 15301, Lusaka, Zambia.

the part about the big fish swallowing Jonah (1:17) and later about a miraculously growing plant that shelters him (4:6). Such e...

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