[Excerpted from John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 1988), pp. 42-43, 55-59, 105.]
The book of Jonah places a parable not only against the entire prophetic tradition but against the very heart of the Bible itself. But, note well, against the Bible WITHIN the Bible. I shall summarize the story in the four main points: the call, the mission, the message, and the anger of Jonah. In each of the drama’s four acts what happens is the exact opposite of what one expects in a story from the prophetic tradition.
First, the call of Jonah: When the prophet Isaiah is called to prophecy he is eager and willing for that high destiny. In Isaiah 6:8-9: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ And he said, ‘Go.’” … Whether diffident or confident… the prophet must respond to his call with obedience. This is the tradition. But what of Jonah’s call to prophecy? “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord“ (1:1-3). God commands him to go east by land. Jonah goes west by sea. A strange prophet, this.
Second, the mission: God succeeds in getting Jonah going in the right direction by having him thrown overboard in a storm, thrown, it should be noted, by pagan sailors who know enough to realize that one cannot “flee from the presence of the Lord“ (1:10). Then comes the next indignity for the recalcitrant prophet. “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights“ (1:17). And debate has raged for generations over what precise species of Mediterranean fish is large enough to swallow prophets without basic structural damage to them, all the while completely ignoring the delicious satire of the whole proceedings. This satire of the disobedient prophet continues with his ignominious arrival in the Persian Gulf: “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land“ (2:10).
Third, the message: God now starts all over again with Jonah. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you“ (3:2). When he arrives there and delivers his message, that “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!“ (3:4), the result is the most magnificent repentance in the whole history of the prophetic tradition. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed the fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them“ (3:5). Even the King: “he rose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes“ (3:6). A supreme satiric thrust is still to come. The repentance extends even to the beasts. “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God“ (3:7-8).
Finally, the anger of Jonah, a concluding irony: God decides not to punish Nineveh after all. This gives Jonah a somewhat belated excuse for his initial refusal to obey the prophetic call. “I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (4:2). So Jonah sits out in the desert, pouting, both because his prophecy of destruction has not come true (as if the purpose of prophecy was accuracy rather than repentance) and because the plant that has been shading him is withering. Then the final sentence, with God speaking: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11). …
[Summary:] The hearer expects prophets to obey God, and pagans such as the Ninevites, especially, to disobey God. But the speaker tells a story in which a prophet disobeys and the Ninevites obey beyond all belief.
Myth establishes world.… Parable subverts world. … To live in parable means to dwell in the tension of myth and parable. But a parable is not an anti-myth, and it must be carefully distinguished from such. It is a story deliberately calculated to show the limitations of myth, to shatter world so that its relativity becomes apparent. It does not, as parable, replace one myth with another. Like satire, parable keeps us humble by reminding us of limit. …
[A] useful distinction might be between mythical religion, or religion that gives one the final word about “reality“ and thereby excludes the authentic experience of mystery, and parabolic religion, a religion that continually and deliberately subverts final words about “reality“ and thereby introduces the possibility of transcendence. Which do we prefer, comfort or courage? It may be necessary to make a choice.