How Genre Influences Preaching Jonah

 |  October 4, 2019

The genre of the Book of Jonah is certainly unlike most of the other Minor Prophets. While the contents of most Minor Prophets focus on what the prophet said, the content of Jonah focuses on what the prophet did, or more accurately, what God did with and through the prophet. In other words, the Book of Jonah is more of a narrative to be studied than an oracle to be interpreted. Having said that, of course, the question is then raised as to what kind of narrative Jonah is.

As any reader of this blog series might guess, modern genre pronouncements about Jonah have tended toward describing the book as non-factual. Interestingly, some proponents of the non-factual view have actually suggested that preaching and teaching the Book of Jonah as something other than historical narrative is actually helpful for the faith of those listening to the sermon because it removes the distraction of wondering if a man could really survive in the belly of a fish or if a city could really experience such a comprehensive revival. This kind of reasoning, of course, does not sit well with conservative preachers and teachers who rely on the veracity of the story as a key ingredient for establishing the authority of the story.

In any case, the variety of modern suggestions for understanding the genre of Jonah generally include one or more of the following:

  1. The book is a Midrash, or commentary on another part of Scripture or a biblical theme (such as God’s mercy), designed to drive home a key point or application. As such, the commentary found in Jonah would be considered secondary to the target Scripture or theme and so embellishing or fabricating the details of the commentary would be acceptable. If Jonah is a Midrash, then the preacher would be instructed to focus on the key ideas of the book without worrying about its authenticity. Conservative preachers will have difficulty finding a way to incorporate this kind of thinking into their view of the nature and purpose and preaching.
  1. The book is an allegory, designed to recount the story of Israel itself, a nation that lost its way in terms of its national mission but was either recommissioned by God or somehow found its way back to being a people of purpose who were ready to serve neighboring nations. The themes of such a genre-based treatment of the book are certainly welcome but do not seem to match up with the actual history and sentiment of the nation.
  1. The book is a work of didactic fiction. Whether one might prefer to call Jonah a novella, a short story, or even a parable, the point of this category is that the book simply is not true, even if the book has didactic value. Proponents suggest that the value of the book as either a general call to repentance or an anti-nationalist tale overcomes the lack of historicity.

Given the above, the larger question about the genre of Jonah boils down to this: is it fiction or history? Perhaps playing on the “didactic fiction” designation noted above, some conservative scholars have called Jonah a “didactic history” or a “prophetic narrative,” indicating that the story obviously has worth for application but is also, in fact, true. Either one of these descriptions would serve well as a way to describe the genre of the book.

What is meant by these genre descriptions was summed up well in the words of my former professor, Dr. Billy K. Smith, “…the Book of Jonah is a skillfully written narrative recounting a series of actual events from the life of the prophet Jonah. Its purpose is to instruct God’s people more fully in the character of their God, particularly his mercy as it operates in relation to repentance.”[1]NAC, Vol. 19B, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, p. 219.

Suggestions for Study, Preaching, and Teaching the Book of Jonah

Given the veracity of the Book of Jonah, I would offer the following basic suggestions for studying, teaching, and preaching the book:

  1. Study the larger discussion about the genre of this book. What is said in the context of discussing non-factual forms might be of value to you in adding to your understanding of the literary features—and thus the theology—of the book.
  1. Have no fear about pointing out the great acts of God. If the Son of God could quiet the Sea of Galilee with a word, could not God the Father sustain the prophet in the “great fish” for three days? If 3,000 could be saved on the Day of Pentecost, could not Nineveh also repent? Challenge your hearers to trust in God’s ability to meet their needs.
  1. Do not forget the attention that Jesus gave this book in Matthew 12 and Luke 11. Jesus referenced the story of Jonah in a straightforwardly historical manner.
  1. Emphasize the importance of Jonah as a serious story that deals with personal obedience and even our responsibility to be “on-mission” for God. In my own preaching, I have emphasized that we must let Jonah grow beyond the happy little kindergarten Sunday School story, complete with flannel-graph characters. We need to let this story “grow up” and be a serious word about loving God, obeying God, and serving God.

Ed Scott is Professor of Christian Studies and Accreditation Liaison at the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Florida.

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