I’ve been collecting the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series for some time. I’ve found it to be an excellent resource for theological reading of Scripture. I started working my way through the commentary on Jonah by Philip Carey.
The Brazos Theological Commentaries are not meant to be “technical” books. Their purpose is to provide “theological” commentary — that is, to read the texts as uniquely documents for the Church, the community called out by Christ. This sort of “theological hermeneutic” is what the Church Fathers practiced. Scripture, for them, was the testimony of and to the living Christ.
Theological reading is a practice that at various times has been muffled by historical noise. The riches of scripture often took a back seat, for example, to the stuffiness of high Scholasticism, the astringency of scholastic Calvinism, the supposedly neutral posture of modern Biblical criticism, and the wooden literalism of evangelical fundamentalism. But the word of the Lord, of course, never returns void (Is. 55:11), and so the Spirit has ever remained living and active wherever scripture has been read in and by and through the Church.
A great benefit of theological interpretation in our times is its ability to absorb the insights of contemporary knowledge and scholarship without losing the theological and spiritual meaning — the truth — of the text. Indeed, from the perspective of a Christological theological hermeneutic, a greater understanding of a text’s historical and cultural provenance often leads to deeper insights into how the Spirit has given and is giving the text to the Church.
Such is the case, as Phillip Cary shows in his commentary, with the text of Jonah. Evangelical fundamentalist readings of Jonah inevitably focus in the “historicity” of the narrative. Contemporary scholars outside evangelical fundamentalist circles have long recognized that the Biblical text of Jonah almost certainly is a sort of parable and not a “historical” narrative in any modern sense of the word “history.”
True, this is in part because of incredulity at the possibility of a giant fish swallowing a human being and then vomiting him up alive days later. Let’s be honest: with respect to any fish or whale or other sea creature known to modern science, this is simply impossible as a matter of basic anatomy and physiology. At the very least, then, this aspect of the text discloses a miracle. For Christians, of course, miracles can happen: Exhibit A is the Resurrection. If this were the only basis for wondering about what sort of genre Jonah represents, we’d do well to suspend judgment.
There are, however, other reasons. What we know historically and archaeologically of Nineveh during the period during which Jonah prophesied (see 2 Kings 14:25-27) doesn’t at all match the description of Nineveh’s size, influence, it’s “king” and other details in the text of Jonah. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of a mass repentance and turning to the God of Israel in Nineveh at any time (Jonah 3:1-10). The text of Jonah itself likely was composed during the postexilic period and not contemporaneously with the events described. Taken together with the mytho-poetic elements (the giant fish, the gourd and worm (Jonah 4:1-11)), the text seems to present us with something other than “simple” history.
Of course, none of this “proves” the genre is some sort of parable. Some argue that Jesus’ references to Jonah in the Gospels of Matthew (12:40, 16:4) and Luke (11:30, 32) require that the entire book of Jonah be essentially “literal” and “historical.” Perhaps, but this sort of inter-textual hermeneutic is tricky. Certainly Jesus is not making general propositional statements about “historicity,” which is a uniquely modern concern. The references in Matthew are simply citing a commonly known and shared Jewish text. The eschatological statements in Luke 11 are interesting and may give us pause, but only if those sayings are read as “literal” blueprints of what will happen at the Last Judgment — a very dubious hermeneutical move when it comes to Jesus’ frequent use of metaphors and parables for events that, scripturally and in the tradition, finally remain a mystery yet to be fully revealed.
Yet to recognize the genre of “parable” is not necessarily to make a comprehensive judgment about the “historicity” of the parable’s characters and events. For example, consider the “I cannot tell a lie” parable of George Washington and the cherry tree. Historians agree that the event described never happened. Nevertheless, George Washington was a real person who was known for his strength of character and integrity, and so the parable conveys truth (not lies, and not “errors”) about Washington and about how we too should live.
We could think of a text like Jonah in a similar way. There was a real prophet named Jonah son of Amittai (again, cf. 2 Kings 14), and he may well have preached to non-Jews associated with the city of Nineveh and its environs, and his preaching may indeed have been accompanied by marvelous or miraculous signs, and some of those people may in fact have repented, and perhaps we’ll meet some of those people at the Last Judgment. These underlying truths are conveyed to us in the form of a parable, the Biblical text of Jonah, first created for the Jews returning from Babylonian exile, intended by its creators not as a “literal history” of Nineveh, but as an encouragement and challenge for the returnees. And here is where Cary’s commentary picks up:
Nineveh would be instantly recognizable to the original readers of this story as the capital of Assyria. Although a great and and ancient empire, Assyria was relatively weak in the first half of the eighth century, when Jonah son of Amittai was active during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. It underwent a resurgence under Tiglath-pileser III, who began to regin over Assyria a year or so after Jeroboam’s death. Within a quarter-century Samaria had fallen to Assyria, which carried off the people of Israel into exile, from which they never returned. It is after this, near the beginning of the next century, that Nineveh becomes becomes the capital of Assyria under Sennacherib. It remained the capital throughout the seventh century, until it was destroyed by Medes and the Babylonians in612 BC. It was never rebuilt. It’s demise marks the beginning of the new Babylonian Empire, which becomes the nemesis of the southern kingdom, eventually conquering Jerusalem at the beginning of the sixth century, assaulting it again and destroying it in 587 BC, and carrying off the Judeans into exile, from which they eventually returned about half a century later, beginning in 539 BC.
The book of Jonah is almost certainly written with these returning exiles in mind, for whom the destruction of both Israel and Nineveh is old news but the future of Judah and Babylon is still an open question. Anachronistically, Nineveh is the city to which the prophet is sent in the book of Jonah, even though the time of Johnah it is not yet the capital of Assyria. The important point is that it is the capital known to the book’s original readers, who may have been hazy about which city was the capital of Assyria uring the reign of Jeroboam II in the early eighth century but who knew all about Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire when it was destroyed for good near the end of the seventh century.
Thus the book of Jonah is not a historical report about the activity of the prophet in the time of Jeroboam to the parable written for returning Judean exiles about what might have been – and indeed out what could still happen, depending on how the original readers, the Judeans coming back to their homeland in the sixth century, handle their equivalent of Jonah’s situation at the end of the book. To turn the story into a historical account of the prophet being sent to the city that is not yet the capital of Assyria would disrupt the parallel on which the whole book is based. For what the book of Jonah aims to get us thinking about is the situation faced by the Judeans with respect to Babylon, the capital of the empire that has swallowed up Judah, as it is illuminated by the situation of Johnah with respect to Nineveh, the capital of the empire that swallowed up Israel. It is a book about the suffering of the chosen people and what that has to do with the salvation of the Gentiles.
And this also is a central point we are to take from reading Jonah today — as well as the use to which Jesus put the text in his teachings in Matthew and Luke. As the Church, we claim to be followers of Jesus, the people of God, engaged in God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption. Why then are we often suffering? Can the Church, marked by the cross, really make a difference against the powerful “city” of this world? How are we to relate to people outside our walls? Will the readiness of “heathens” to repent and follow God’s way of faith and love judge us and reveal us to be stingy and self-righteous? Or are we ready and willing to participate fully in God’s generous initiative of redemption?