If the Book of Job were merely some form of ancient drama (i.e. there was no historical figure named Job who went through what the story tells us), and/or if the Book of Jonah were merely a parable with the prophet Jonah (a real historical person used as an icon) merely representing Israel’s incredulity toward their calling to spread the Abrahamic promises to the Gentiles, do you think this would change how you read and interpret these stories? In other words, do you need them to be grounded in actual events for the text to make the same impact on you or do you find the “moral of the story” is the same either way?
Bibliology, Book of Job, Book of Jonah, Genre, Hermeneutics, Inspiration/ Inerrancy, Scripture
Seriously? Some parts of course would be the same. The “moral” probably would be. But is moralizing (sermonizing) all we read scripture for?
Without question, certain aspects of these writings would have to be taken quite differently, depending. One question about Jonah would be HOW early were any Judean folks telling that story. If *they* believed it was factual, or if *they* believed it was mere parable, that could be a very interesting distinction to draw in our understanding of the ancient near east around those centuries. Etc.
@Bill: So you’d say that the reception of the original readership strongly dictates how a document should be read today? Or are you saying that the original readership determines genre in some way?
“…do you think this would change how you read and interpret these stories?”
“…do you need them to be grounded in actual events for the text to make the same impact on you…?”
Regardless of whether or not either of these stories are based on historical figures or events, the task of exegete remains to discern the meaning for the original audience (or as close to it as we can arrive) and what application that meaning has for us today.
Jesus told parables and rarely used names. Even when he named a character, it isn’t certain that the person was historical. Nevertheless his parables clearly have bearing on our understanding of the kingdom of God and what it means to be his disciples.
I suspect any desire I might have to find historical grounding for these narratives derives its origin from a mistaken notion that this would somehow “prove” the validity of the teaching.
No, and this is how I read the book of Job and Jonah, yet I am able to come away from the text with the same understanding as those who insist they were actual events.
Maybe it’s me. You did ask if it would change how *I* read the stories, and I wasn’t trying to speak for anyone else.
But then in your comment back you said “should”. Hhrm? What means this “should”?
Also, I’m not saying anything about genre. I’m telling you what questions _I_ have about the text.
Personally, if all we care about doing with scripture is sum it up into moral lessons, I’d quit reading.
@T.C.: It is very true that some of Jesus’ parables reflect a similar literary form to what we see in Job and Jonah.
@Ryan: It does seem that the overall message is the same either way.
@Bill: I’m not pressing you to speak for others. I am just asking your opinion on the matter. You don’t have to answer, but those were the things that came to mind after reading your comments.
Also, while I would do the same with Scripture if it was only moral lessons, I am not asking this question of all of Scripture, only Job and Jonah. We both acknowledge that (as T.C. mentioned above) Jesus told parables with morals and we still read it as Scripture finding the value of the lessons. So as concerns Job and Jonah I am asking if these two books can be read as something other than history while retaining the same impact.
Job refers to itself as parable several times – e.g. see this search of the 4 months worth of detailed posts I did in 2009. Not to read it as parable is to do violence to the text. The speeches are framed by two strange words: Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn – completely obscured in the KJV translation.
Jonah equally is comedy and parable. Both have profound relationships to the life of Jesus – but only Jonah gets specific mention because it’s the prayer from the belly of the fish that is the critical point. No prayer – no parable – no life in the Anointed. Obedience is more than an intellectual assent to certain doctrines especially when the doctrines are a violent destruction of the story.
@Bob: Thanks for commenting. I will take a look at your posts on Job.
I wrote something similar about Jonah a month and a half ago: http://wp.me/pF1g5-97
No, I don’t think the meaning of each story really changes much at all. As one of my professors often says, it’s not so much about what actually happened, but rather what is the story getting at? In Job’s case, it’s remaining faithful even though everything is taken from you; in Jonah’s, it’s allowing God to be merciful to whomever He desires. Yes, there is more going on than just that, but those seem to be the main points of each story.
I see that you will need to repeat the search for parable using the Google thing. But there is plenty of stuff at the label Job (125 posts!). Your post makes me want to reread it and further refine the translation – but I am socked into psalms for the next year on two other blogs. Maybe later …
For me, they wouldn’t have the same impact. Same moral lesson for someone in Jonah’s position? Sure. But that’s far from the entire impact of Jonah’s book.
If Jonah was historical, then God reached out to the Assyrians in this particular way, and they repented, which is huge. (I understand, the unlikelihood of this is a major argument for its fictiveness, but that’s not the point at the moment, is it?)
Likewise, Job may still tell us the same things about humanity’s response to God’s silence. But if we believe the writer’s heavenly account in chapter 1 was somehow accurately informed, then that provides us with more to go on about God Himself, doesn’t it? (Again, same parenthetical disclaimer as above.)
*MY* point is that it DOES change things. If the writer was only telling a parable, then I’m tempted to assume the writer was simply inventing things about God. On the other extreme, if the account is “literal”, then Theology (properly defined) starts its work from a much more confident vantage point.
The “should” is probably somewhere in between the extremes, naturally.
But my point is – again – I don’t think you can say that it’s all the same.
What kills me is the over-emphasis (by seminarians, typically) on “meaning”. We get “the main points” and it still preaches. Excuse me, but aaaarrrrgggghhhh.
The text is far too tied to the [congregatio-political needs of the] pulpit.
Nevertheless, “meaning” ain’t always the same irregardless of facthood. If the Holocaust hadn’t actually happened, would anti-semitism today have the same hateful meaning that it does? Yes and no, right? So, again I say, yes and no.
Bill’s comment raises two important questions about reading:
1. re Jonah – does God reach out to Assyrians and do Assyrians repent
2. re Job – how do heavenly accounts work and where do they take place
re 1. the answer is yes and yes but not ‘repent’ the way we might think – the tension in justice and violence in world cities is ongoing
re 2. the beni elohim and ha-satan, God’s kids and the accuser. It seems to me we fit both roles quite well.
Job’s situation is exactly as described in Deuteronomy 28 – Job 1 and 2 follow the curses in sequence showing literary dependence refuting a conditional view of grace in covenant. (Post here from July 2009 links this to other major theological issues like resurrection.)
I happen to think Jonah just might very well be a real story but don’t press me on it as I’m just sayin…. I mean after all, if Jesus referred to him as a real person, shouldn’t we?
Of course nobody would dispute that Jonah himself was a historical personal prophet, eh (II Kings 14.25)?
I also think there are more literary/theological linkages than someone above suggested in re. to Jonah. Think of how Jonah ends, as a question. And think of how this open-endeness then might relate to themes later picked up and developed in re. to the Gentiles somewhere else like in Acts 10.
I do agree though that Job fits within the ‘suffering-servant motif’ of Moses and Isaiah’s Messiah (and then of course the antitype, Jesus).
I think the way Jesus “received” and understood these texts should be our model for understanding them. Did he understand Jonah’s story as a parable, and his prophetic ministry as parabolic? If Job is simply a ‘drama’ meaning decoupled from salvation-history, then why not see Moses as ‘drama’ in the same way; since both fulfill the ‘pre-figure’ typological THE historical anti-typical figured suffering servant, Jesus. So I would say Yes, it would change the way I understand how God works (concursus Dei) through His people in HIs salvation history.
Jonah being real doesn’t make the whole story historical, and Jesus speaking of Jonah AS IF the fish-thing was historical, doesn’t make it historical. But Jesus’ model is still one way of talking about Jonah that I think we “should” follow.
If the Story of Jonah is a parable, I can accept that. Bob’s interp/applications are intriguing. There are many ways forward here, possibly.
But to most folks, unless you say “It’s a parable” right up front, then the historicity of the story absolutely does change the impact of the story.
I can deal with it not being literal, as much as that may be the case.
What I can’t stand this idea that “it doesn’t matter”.
Whether something was materially actual, does, literally, MATTER.
Sorry, Brian – I think I’m now over my rant quota for the month. 😉
@Brian F.: Do we have to interpret Jesus’ allusion to Jonah as meaning he saw him as a historical person?
@Bobby: I guess my question to Brian F. would be the same for you. Do we have to see Jesus’ reference to Jonah as verification that Jesus thought of him as a historical person? If Jesus understood them to be historical then that throws another factor into the equation.
Unambiguously, no, on all counts.
Brian, two or three years ago I began to think that Job was best read as a drama because it has the feel of a play with the characters speaking past each other rather than to each other. It does not affect my ability to read it as truth but my rather traditional congregation thought I was abandoning my conviction that the Bible was “the inspired word of God.” I still think it’s the best way to understand the book, but I don’t preach it that way because it requires too much by way of defense and explanation.
@Clayton: I can see how for some people this would be very problematic to hear in a sermon. It is hard for some to go from 0-60 in this subject.
I believe that Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs all belong in the same genre and wisdom book collection.
In a nut shell they have the same editorial influences in the beginning and end of the books. They also address the current foolish wisdom movement of the day and equate true wisdom in “Fearing God”
Jonah also has elements of much later editorial content in it – it’s repetitive themes of going down into the depths… and going up into the heavens is an interesting one and must be taken note of.
I believe its vital that we understand the true nature of the books we read for it is only in doing so, we can then truly understand what is being said. For instance – how often do we pick and choose Scriptures out of Job…saying this is what the Bible says – Yet at the end of Job we read- “You and your friends have not spoken what is true about me”… therefore we need to be careful of what we say the Bible is really saying.
I taught the book of Jonah for a semester at the college level (it was a Bible Study Methods class [under Ray Lubeck’s supervision who did his PhD diss on Jonah]). That means that I am an authority, and thus what I say goes . . . no questions (I just like to lecture) 😉 🙂 .
Actually it does matter if Jonah and his preaching were historical; since Jesus doesn’t just refer to Jonah’s time in the fish but also his preaching to Nineveh (which presupposes the whole story of Jonah . . . i.e. his transportation to Nineveh etc.). If the story of Jonah is a “parable” (that sounds like our friend, Borg’s style), then Jesus’ understanding was mistaken; which would call into question His person.
@Bill, my point in noting the historicity of Jonah was just that; to note the historicity of Jonah. But I do think the historicity of Jonah matters, if it’s a parable then why not interpret the whole TaNaKh as a parable?
@Brian, so yeah, I mean there’s no doubt that Jonah was a historical prophet of Israel (pace my II Kings 14 ref.). I guess my question is “why” folks would assert that Jonah is a parable? The burden of proof on those who would take that approach; since all of the places (setting), peoples (characters), etc. are real, physical places.
The only reason people have problems with its historicity is because its got a fish swallowing a man and spitting him up on the shore of the destination that God had originally intended for him (what about Balaam’s ass?). The patchwork of various references in Jonah’s prayer (in chptr 2), most being ref. to the Psalter, should not suggest the non-historicity of Jonah (i.e. the product of redactors); instead it should signal that Jonah’s (as a Prophet of Yahweh, so the II Kings 14.25 ref) prayers themselves are rote and artificial. This is evidenced by the message he proclaims to the Ninevites; it’s different than the one that Yahweh said to deliver (just do a word study on “overthrown”), which illustrates that Jonah wasn’t really repentant as his “prayer” would seem to suggest.
The question I want to ask if Jonah is a real historical story – why does the following minor prophet speak forth a gloating prophecy / song about the destruction of Nineveh.
Nahum is 150yrs later, things change quickly (just think of Judges).
@Bobby: I’m not convinced that Jesus’ reference to Jonah demands that he thought of him as a real historical figure, though it seems likely. He could make reference to Jonah in a similar way to say if I started talking about Huckleberry Finn. Is this more likely than that Jesus thought he was a real person? Probably not, but I don’t see one view as having a great advantage over another.
While the fish is one of the things that has caused people to ponder if it is a historical account, so the “conversion” and even the description of Ninevah. I am sure many find the structure of the narrative as hinting toward something different that say 1-2 Samuel or 1-2 Chronicles.
@Brian & @Bobby: Actually, the most we can get from the Gospels is that Jesus *spoke* of Jonah as a real person. What Jesus (or any other Palestinian Jew of his day) actually *thought* of Jonah, that’s a whole other question. In other words, the Huck Finn analogy is apt, and Jesus may or may not have understood the Jonah Story as Parable.
Still, that Jesus spoke this way means that perhaps we should do the same. At least sometimes. Disclaimers (or not) notwithstanding.
@Bill: This is a good insight. We can only speculate Jesus’ mindset here.
I don’t understand your point on what Jesus thought about the historicity of Jonah (given II Kings); you must mean the book itself.
But my question still remains, why would we think of Jonah as parable? Neither you nor Bill has addressed that. While that may or may not change my herm approach to Jonah, why would someone even suggest that Jonah is a parable? Why not then suggest that the whole OT is myth based on such logic?
What do you mean with your I/II Sam/Chron ref?
@Bobby: Yes, I mean the Book of Jonah, not the person mentioned in 1/2Sam-1/2Chron.
I didn’t say that I hold the position that it is a parable, merely that I don’t think Jesus’ statements prevent it.
Brian, thanks for clarifying. I didn’t say you said that; I’m contending with those who do. And I’d like to know “why” they feel the need to label Jonah a parable and not Micah or any of the other “essays” that make up “The Book of the Twelve?” They need to be seen as a unit, if Jonah is a parable why not Malachi etc.?
@Bobby: I’m going to assume that Jonah would be put in this category because of things like the fish and the Assyrian mission. There may be some literary characteristics (e.g. the continual mention of “descent”) that give the narrative a fixed feel. Maybe Bob can speak to that.
Well, Beloved, you have prompted me to write about Jonah and the first chapter is here. It is to put it bluntly chock full of signs. I have been careful in my translation of recurring words and I anticipate several more. I also posted a bit of doggerel in the prior post on the sire which will tell you something of where I am expecting to get to. I hope to do more with the alliteration in the Hebrew.
whoops – sire = site – O my fingers!
I understand the usage of “down” in Jonah as a literary device, but again, based on that kind of logic all of Scripture as narrative can be decoupled from “history” in a way that with a proper understanding of Concursus Dei, it should not.
I’ll have to come and read what you have to say. Have you ever read Ray Lubeck’s dissertation on strategies for reading Jonah? I have.
@Bob: Thanks for the link. I have gone over to read and comment.
@Bobby: As far as literary structure is concerned I will let those more keen to such things in the Hebrew language speak to it. I’d have to give more time to the Book of the Twelve to see if there are any obvious departures that would cause me to think one way or another.
Job does seem to have more going for it in the area of ahistorical since it is so dialogical. It reads like a play or drama. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t based on a real human life, but the real human life may be beyond the point of beyond recovery if it happened that way.
I don’t understand why it necessary to know Hebrew to have an opinion about the literary structure. The point on the “Book” is that its a coherent unit of thought for Israel within the canon (and then of course becomes a bigger unit of thought for the church within the NT canon).
I simply saying that I have spent a lot of time with Jonah, and those well versed in its structure (who know the Hebrew etc); and their conclusion isn’t to think that Jonah represents a parable because it engages literary strategies to make its point intratextually (within the Book of the Twelve). The whole Bible uses literary strategies (within historical narratives etc).
Again, I don’t understand what you’re saying with Job on “beyond recovery;” to me this whole discussion is an issue that comes back to the fears promoted by redaction criticism. Of course canon criticism can also fall prey to this, by seeing scripture “as” Literature and constitutive of its own “narrative world;” w/o the further need of correlation between what it communicates and the concrete reality of the history that it portends to speak from.
@Bobby: It may be “fears promoted by redaction criticism”, but the questions, critiques, insights have already been brought to the text. Yes, we can ignore them by pointing out that in the canonical context they are both “Scripture” and therefore useful to the church either way. That being said, for many this is still something being pondered and there are likely just as many Hebrew Bible scholars who feel that Jonah and Job are something like drama and/or parable, for various reasons, as there are that do not.
The comments above show that some have either pondered this approach or actually hold to it.
As to Job I am saying we have no way to get “behind” the text to verify or deny whether or not Job is a real person and his story happened in history. The way Job is written is more dramatic than say Chronicles, so it is of a different type of genre (it does fall amongst the poetic books). All we have is the text as it is which doesn’t read like a historical account, per se, but neither can we say that it wasn’t written based on actual events.
Is this a trick science question like suppose there wasn’t a “Sun” or merely philosophical fodder which we all enjoy?
@Nancy: Um, it’s not intended to be. Does it seem like one?
I spent the day with Jonah – it’s not an easy read. I was quite angry with myself by the end of the day, afraid of oversimplifying or being choked by my own straight-jacket. But I ploughed through and posted my translation on of chapter 2. 3 and 4 will follow in the next two days – both drafted.
Re reading strategies, I just decided to do it myself – step 1. I have a library of commentaries available nearby but I didn’t want to read them first. Some 35 or so years ago I read Jacques Ellul’s The Judgment of Jonah – a fine little treatise.
@Bob: Awesome, thanks. I’ll stop by to read.
I came to the opinion that the Book of Job was a powerful parable on my own. It gave me greater freedom to understand God’s message in it when I did so. It took away all the nagging questions, such as why God and Satan would be sitting around in some celestial Starbucks chatting about who was “the man”. Also God slaughtering all those kids, just to win a bet.
Jonah for me borders on a parable. It certainly has a strong message also. The ending where he is pouting on the hill, applies to us today very strongly. i.e. Why should Hitler go to heaven if he comes to Christ, when I have have never done bad things, etc.
The God I know has the power to do all things in scripture word for word, but can also use word pictures to illustrate the same messages.
As human beings we try to find logical, practical answers to the stories and teaching throughout the Bible. We are usually using our human resources and trying to interpret “spiritual things” with mere intellect. We say to ourselves and others, “There must be rational explanation for else this is just a story, a parable if you will”.
Maybe there are spiritual explanations that defy human logic. Unless you say there is no spiritual aspect to mankind. Did Moses merely make up all of his stories in Genesis, Exodus, etc? Or was he divinely inspired? Did Jonah really get swallowed? However if we rely upon physicists and science they tell us E=MC2 and the universe was created in a Big Bang. They have not yet come up with a good explanation for what caused that Big Bang or what part of the universe it started in.
If these are questions mankind will never be able to answer maybe there is a spiritual answer that does not require an understanding of math, or physics.
I believe in God and I believe in the Bible. I believe as a Christian that God knows the answers to these questions which I have no idea how to explain. I do not know how to explain resurrections or healing miracles done by modern day prayers. Angels at car accidents or in the hospital room of a dying patient who recovers after some miraculous visitation. I have found an explanation that makes sense to me. God knows the answers to all these questions and will let me know the answers to the questions when He is ready to do so. Not on my time schedule though. On His time schedule.
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