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Jonah and Genre

    Readers who have misconstrued the genre of Jonah as history have therefore approached it with an erroneous set of expectations and have often tried to force it to fit their expectations. When it is discovered that the book does not fit those expectations, the tendency is often to blame the book, declaring it “untrue” and implying that it is somehow of less significance because it does not describe historical events.

From How to Read the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Permission Granted from Oxford University Press

By Steven McKenzie,
Professor, Rhodes College
August 2005

Genre and Expectation

The key to understanding the message of Jonah is recognizing its genre. "Genre," borrowed from French, is a term used to refer to the type or category of a piece of literature. There are many literary genres. Broadly, there are fiction and non-fiction. But within each of those genres there are other genres or sub-genres. Novel, short story, and science fiction, for instance, are sub-genres of fiction. Biography, instruction manual, and catalogue are sub-genres of non-fiction. Each of these sub-genres in turn may have its own sub-genres. Autobiography, for example, is a sub-genre of biography.

Genre categories are not firm or fixed but are fluid and flexible. Thus, a work might be both short story and science fiction. Also, the line between science and science fiction is not always clear. It is even possible to combine genres that seem mutually exclusive as in the case of science fiction or historical fiction. Additionally, a literary work can incorporate different genres, just as the book of Jonah incorporates the psalm in chapter 2. In modern literature, a novel may include a poem or a letter from one of its characters to another, as occurs frequently in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Discernment of genre is an essential part of the process of communication between author and readers. It provides a literary "frame of reference" within which the reader interprets and makes use of a text. Misconstruing the genre of a piece of literature, therefore, can be disastrous. This is nicely illustrated by the movie Galaxy Quest. [1] In it, a science fiction television series about the cast and crew of a space ship is mistaken by aliens for history or journalism. The aliens draft the crew members, played by Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub, and others, to help them fight a real interplanetary war. The film illustrates how confused someone who read science fiction as history could become. Similarly, imagine the disaster that might ensue if a surgeon took an instruction manual as fiction, or a work of fiction as a medical guidebook? Such scenarios may seem farfetched. Someone as educated as a surgeon would not likely mistake a work of fiction for an instruction manual or vice-versa, at least as long as that surgeon is reading literature from his or her own culture and time period. The potential for confusion increases when a reader confronts literature from an entirely different culture and time—such as the Bible.

Despite the importance of determining a work’s genre, there are no firm rules for doing so. Rarely does a literary work expressly identify its own genre. In fact, the idea of identifying genre as an important step in the study of texts is a relatively recent phenomenon, though ancient readers and authors were certainly aware that they were using or producing different kinds of texts and documents.

Discernment of genre is something readers do subconsciously. It has been compared to speaking a language. It is an interpretive tool that is engrained within culture. People typically learn to speak a language without memorizing its grammatical rules. They "absorb" the language as they grow up in a culture. They can tell if someone makes a grammatical error or is not a native speaker even though they may not be able to describe the grammatical rule that has been broken. People learn to speak their native language first, and then they learn the grammar.

Similarly, people "automatically" recognize the genre of a work produced within their culture even if they cannot explain the process or "rules" by which recognition has occurred. It is an interpretive tool we possess for documents produced within our culture simply by virtue of having been raised in it. We apply it without thinking, without even being aware of what we are doing. Only when we encounter texts from a new genre or a culture with which we are unfamiliar do we become cognizant of the issue.

Genre recognition, like learning a foreign language, is always harder for people outside of the culture of a work. But, just as a language has grammatical rules, so there are guidelines, or better, clues, for determining genre. Sometimes those clues come in the physical form of a literary work. Newspapers, magazines, and books are easily distinguished from one another, even when they are in an unfamiliar language. In the ancient world, there were inscriptions, royal decrees, letters, and other documents that might be distinguished by the way in which they were presented. Unfortunately, such physical differences disappeared in the formation of collected works like the Bible, and readers must now rely on clues within the texts themselves in order to discern genres.

Such clues typically come in the form of features in a text that signal its genre through the use of conventions established within a particular culture or readership. These clues often occur at the beginning or end of the text and lead the reader to certain expectations about its content. For modern American readers, the words "Dateline New York" indicate that they are reading a newspaper article, even if it does not appear in newsprint. The greeting "Dear Sir/Madam" is the typical beginning of a business letter, and we expect it to end with "Sincerely," or the like followed by a signature of some sort. Fairy tales commonly begin "Once upon a time" and end "They lived happily ever after."

The creation of literature has always been, to at least some extent, a creative activity. Theoretically, an author could create a new genre that was unlike any work previously in existence. But if that were to happen, no reader would be able to recognize or understand it. Hence, authors vary or mix genres to creative ends, playing upon the knowledge and expectations of their readers. A business letter that begins "Dear Sir/Madam" would hardly end with "All my love," unless it were part of some kind of publicity or advertising campaign. By the same token, a personal letter between (former) lovers that is written on letterhead rather than personal stationery and that ends, "Sincerely," instead of "Love," may be making a not-too-subtle point about the relationship. Similarly, a fairy tale that begins "Once upon a time" but ends without "They lived happily ever after" does not bode well for the relationship of the couple who are the subject of the story.

These examples illustrate how a text’s genre in and of itself may convey a message. The features of the texts just described do not match conventions that readers in those cultures would expect, or they mix features from different genres, or they mix genres in such a way as to make a point. The message is subtle to the extent that only readers who are intimately familiar with the usual genres and their features are able to pick up the changes.

Authors can use genre just as effectively and creatively as they can word choice, sentence structure, allusion, and a host of other features of language and writing. In so doing, an author plays upon the reader’s expectations. This means that there is, by necessity, circularity or give and take between a text’s genre and its content, to which readers must be sensitive. Just as one must properly discern a text’s genre in order to understand it, at least in the way intended by its author, so it is also up to readers to recognize subtle variations in genre employed by an author if they are to profit fully from a text.

Our previous treatment of Jonah illustrates the importance of the discernment of genre for interpretation of the Bible. As we have seen, Jonah, like many literary works, does not identify its genre but leaves it to the reader to discern. Still, the book gives significant clues about how it was meant to be read. Readers who have misconstrued the genre of Jonah as history have therefore approached it with an erroneous set of expectations and have often tried to force it to fit their expectations. When it is discovered that the book does not fit those expectations, the tendency is often to blame the book, declaring it "untrue" and implying that it is somehow of less significance because it does not describe historical events. It is important to recognize, therefore, that the problem in the interpretation of Jonah does not lie with the book itself but with its readers—readers, who fail to discern its genre from internal clues and thereby fail to appreciate its true nature and purpose. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that Jonah is an ancient piece of literature from a foreign culture and written in a foreign language.

This problem of failing to discern a book’s genre goes beyond Jonah to much of the literature in the Bible. Fortunately, biblical scholarship has long been aware of the importance of properly discerning a work’s genre and has recently made crucial insights about various genres present in the Bible that allow for a more precise understanding of their nature.


The treatment of Jonah earlier in this introduction was basically a form-critical one. We began with matters of Form or structure. Because we were interested in discerning the genre and purpose of the book as a whole, there was no question about its extent, i.e., where it began and where it ended. We did have to consider the question of whether the psalm in Jonah 2 was an original part of the book and this involved form-critical issues, specifically having to do with the original setting of the psalm which appeared to be a poem of thanksgiving for rescue from near death that was adopted—not entirely appropriately—for Jonah’s predicament.

While the extent of the book was not an issue, its beginning and ending proved to be extremely important form critically because of the uniqueness of each of the prophetic books. They indicated that there was something different about Jonah. An outline and survey of the book’s content further confirmed its uniqueness among the prophets as a narrative with a plot rather than a collection of oracles. The outline of the book alone led to the recognition that its plot revolves around the interaction between Jonah and the other characters in the story. Further examination of its contents showed that the interaction of God with Jonah is the focus of the book.

On the basis of these form-critical observations, we were able to make a determination about Jonah’s genre. Determination of the book’s genre is the key to its interpretation. It is not a historical narrative but a fictional story. Biblical scholars generally characterize the book as a "novella." This is a kind of short story in which a series of episodes involving the same set of characters leads to a conclusion or resolution of a problem that has arisen. [2] Other examples of novellas in the Bible, to which Jonah might be compared, include the books of Esther and Ruth and the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50.

The unhistorical nature of certain details in Jonah, such as those concerning Nineveh, suggests that its setting was considerably removed from the eighth century when the story is set. A number of late linguistic features in the book indicate a date in the post-exilic period (around 400 bce). This date fits well with the themes of Yahweh’s universal dominion and concern for all people, which surface in Jonah and which became especially pointed issues of debate in the post-exilic period. These matters loom large in other biblical books from this period, such as Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. Jonah was likely written to contribute to this theological debate.

Determining that Jonah’s genre is not history frees us to examine the question of the story’s intent and purpose, which is the main objective of interpretation and the focus of our form-critical analysis of Jonah. Jonah’s intent must be inferred from the book’s content, as there is no place in it that articulates the author’s purpose in writing. The many exaggerations and ridiculous elements in the story are good indications that the story was not intended to be read as a historical novel or biography. Rather, these features, along with the stereotypical nature of its characters (or caricatures) lead to the reasonable deduction that the story was intended as a satire or parody. The concluding interview between God and Jonah, especially the question with which the book ends, further indicates that its purpose was didactic—Jonah was intended to serve as an object lesson, illustrating in bold relief the stupidity of the attitude that the author perceived in the book’s intended readership.

The book of Jonah furnishes a paradigm example of the importance of identifying the genre of a piece of biblical literature for properly appreciating its intent and of form criticism as a tool for genre identification. Each reader of a given text makes an assumption about the genre of that text. The reader then adjusts that assumption in the course of reading according to the signals in the text and the reader’s familiarity with literary and cultural conventions. Since the book of Jonah does not expressly identify its genre, the assumption that it is history has no special claim to correctness or legitimacy at the outset. Its genre must be adduced from its content.

The attempt to read Jonah as history gives priority to an assumption about its genre over its actual content. A historical reading ignores or struggles to explain the clear exaggerations, caricatures, and ridiculous features that are essential to the nature of the story as satirical fiction. Worst of all, the historical reading of Jonah is monolithic and runs the risk of missing the book’s richness. It misleads the reader into focusing on relatively insignificant details—such as whether a man could live in a whale for three days—and missing its main point—the stupidity of bigotry. Ironically, religiously conservative commentators who advocate the historical veracity of the story, [3] may actually cause problems for the faith of readers who observe features in the story that conflict with what they expect from a historical account. Recognition that the story is satirical allows the reader to perceive truth in its message about prejudice apart from the question of historical accuracy.