Jonah: Gently Raise The Sacred Satire

I confess I once read Cleon Skousen’s “Thousand Years” books–don’t hold it against me. Specifically, I remember reading his The Fourth Thousand Years and his take on Jonah, where he told the story about a sailor who fell overboard and was swallowed by a whale, but survived, somehow, in its belly, to be released by his fellow whalers after they landed the beast.[1] This episode was then offered up as anecdotal assurance of the historicity of the Jonah story. It was kind of like Thor Heyerdahl meets The Accidental Tourist, a reluctant demonstration of possibility. My favorite part of the story was when the sailor’s skin was bleached from soaking in buckets of whale vomit and he lost huge fistfuls of hair, yet, other than that, he was pretty much good-to-go afterwards. Okay, I thought, so maybe this was something I could believe in with a straight face afterall.

But no need, since I later came across a First Presidency letter suggesting that while they thought Jonah was a real person, they also believed it possible the stories about him in the Bible were more like parables.[2]  At the time this was a welcome hall pass, a parent’s excuse note. But I’ve since changed my mind again. I’m now a firm believer in Jonah’s story: as satire, and a biting one at that.

Here are some of the red flags that the Book of Jonah is an exaggerated satire[3]:

1. Jonah is the only prophet to ever preach to non-Hebrews (actually he’s not called a prophet in his book, but that’s clearly what he’s protrayed as).

2. It’s a narrative, not a typical prophetic book in form.

3. Jonah, God’s prophet, is the only character in his book who fails to obey God.

4. He’s swallowed by a great fish and recites a poorly-timed prayer of thanksgiving to pass the time while inside.

5. God directs the fish to vomit Jonah out on the beach. Fish complies.

6. The whale-vomit-drenched Jonah goes to Nineveh and gives only one, very terse, half-hearted prophesy that doesn’t even mention God or that Nineveh should even repent: Forty days from now Nineveh will be overturned. He climbs up a hill to watch the fireworks.

7. Jonah’s angry after the people repent and God spares them. Even the cattle repent in sackcloth and ashes.

8. At the end, Jonah goes over the deep end when his “shade tree” dies–he’s so angry he wishes to die as a result.

And there’s more, but we don’t have time to consider it all. I think it’s fairly clear that something unusual and comedic is going on in this story.

So, what’s the context here, what’s the satire about? Many scholars believe the Book of Jonah was written during the time of Ezra when the Jews were extraordinarily xenophobic. Jonah apparently dislikes non-Israelites so much he’d rather die than see God love them and have mercy towards them. As one commentator puts it, the humor and exaggeration [in the Book of Jonah] help the [ancient Jewish] audience to perceive … their own [xenophobic] attitudes and the ridiculous lengths to which arrogance and prejudice can lead them. [4]

Aside from any light approaching the Book of Jonah as satire might shed on typical scriptural historicity discussions, I think it makes a case for the truth once revealed to Mark Twain: Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. Straightforward preaching of the word may have a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, but ask yourself this. Has anyone ever nodded off and fallen out of a window while listening to Robert Kirby?


[1] Or maybe that story is in Werner Keller’s, The Bible as History, I can’t remember. Anyway, the best I can say about Skousen’s “Thousand Years” books is that they are historically more reliable than the clumsy Hollywood movie stills sometimes reproduced to illustrate their pages.  As for the sailor/whale story, here’s an article debunking it.

[2] See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints 1890-1930, 283.

[3]  See, for instance, Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, 525-527, and “Jonah” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

[4] See Steven L. McKenzie, “Jonah and Genre in How to Read the Bible, 13.


  1. Has anyone ever nodded off and fallen out of a window while listening to Robert Kirby?

    Not that I know of. However, I personally almost drove off the interstate once because of convulsive laughter. My son was reading aloud about church basketball as an extension of the war in heaven, and he showed me the accompanying drawing depicting the game between the Gadianton 8th ward and Mountain Meadows 3rd. I doubled over with laughter and had to get over to the shoulder. It was a very close call.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    In case anyone missed it, this is a must read re: your scriptural allusion at the end:

    (I agree with the satire angle.)

  3. Ahhh…the Thousand Years series. Good times. I wasn’t familiar with the whaler anecdote – I’ll be putting that one in the back pocket for later.

  4. And, a la Justin’s recent post, here is that page of Mormonism in Transition explicating the First Presidency letter.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    Great post–thanks!

  6. Oh, Skousen! I DO remember that little anecdote from Seminary. I remember thinking, “So was Jonah all bleached when he got spat out? No wonder he decided to obey!” As soon as my current projects wind down (an almost impossible thought), I will begin my collaboration on a book with a descendant of Ralph Vary Chamberlain. Chamberlain and his brother (W.H.), with two other professors, resigned from BYU when my great great grandfather, George H. Brimhall, was the president. Evolution was one of the issues. The other was Higher Criticism of the Bible–the mere suggestion that miracles could often be explained by natural phenomena. The guy really responsible for all of the hubbub was a rather narrow fellow (forgive me if you’re descended from him) named Horace Hall Cummings, a self-congratulary idealogue. (I really enjoyed reading his journal wherein he complains that his first wife fails to understand the beauty of polygamy and has revealed herself to be jealous for not accepting his gift on their anniversary. The silly woman was actually upset that he had spent the night with the OTHER wife.) If Cummings could read this blog, he would die all over again. The story of Jonah a parable?? Why, there are probably countless woulda-been prophets’ skeletons in the bellies of big fishes in every ocean of the world. We hear Jonah’s story because he finally repented.

  7. Julie M. Smith says:

    “But he later learned to listen and obey.”

    I’m not entirely sure that that is true, either.

  8. Margaret, those were the days. Unless I’m mistaken, I’ve read a little Chamberlain myself–I remember a little book with a French blue cover, I think, that I found in the stacks in the Harold B. Lee. Something about his life and philosophy perhaps?

    Also reminds me of when I discovered Sidney Sperry’s old manuals after I read Skousen. Sperry was fairly progressive, fairly Protestant in his outlook. I remember being impressed with Sperry facing head on the fact that Rahab was a harlot, not a mere inkeeper, etc. He was not afraid to look the OT in the face, unlike Skousen. Skousen took the lamest approaches possible. Jephtah’s didn’t sacrifice his daughter, just sent her to boarding school–that kind of thing.

    I remember once someone suggested that Skousen was a Mormon Michener; even as a back-handed compliment I thought it was too generous. His books aren’t even good fiction.

    And, I agree that Julie’s right–that lyric is just plain false doctrine.

    A final question: how does Veggie Tales interpret Jonah? Wasn’t there a full-lenght movie version of that?

  9. actually he’s not called a prophet in his book, but that’s clearly what he’s protrayed as

    For further evidence of his prophetic calling, we have these canonized verses:

    Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away.
    But he later learned to listen and obey.
    When we really try, the Lord won’t let us fail:
    That’s what Jonah learned deep down inside the whale.

    Thank you.

  10. Julie M. Smith says:

    “A final question: how does Veggie Tales interpret Jonah? Wasn’t there a full-lenght movie version of that?”

    The final song:

    Jonah was a prophet . . .
    But he really never got it
    Sad but true!

  11. Oh no, not the Veggie Tales! I taught from Jonah this week in Gospel Doctrine. Afterward, a close friend said, “That was such a good lesson! It was nice to hear a discussion on Jonah that showed more thought than the Veggie Tales movie.”

    You tell me: is that a compliment? I’m not sure….

  12. Mark Butler says:

    Who is to say that the Lord cannot or does not write satire into real life, according to our own follies? He can’t make us do just anything, he has to work with what he has. It is like writing a script around a bunch of actors who do not know they are in the middle of a play.

    All sorts of occasional deus ex machina are required to keep the plot on target, and some episodes cannot be written out because they are according to the weaknesses of the participants.

  13. Mark,

    I don’t think there is any reason to think God couldn’t do it. Admitting it is possible, however, does not necessarily make it probable. You have to look back at the story and try to decide the literal truth of the story down to every detail is the most likely explanation. I don’t think Ed’s list is intended to argue that God couldn’t keep someone alive in a whale, but just that there are a bunch of clues that this is probably not what happened and probably not how the book came to be.


    My favorite from your list is number 3:

    3. Jonah, God’s prophet, is the only character in his book who fails to obey God.

    Very fishy.

  14. Regardless of what one thinks of the story’s reality or not — Jonah’s personality, decision-making and temper are all very real human characteristics.

    It might be interesting to compare Jonah a little with Amulek — at least Amulek’s self description of someone who ignored God’s call as long as he could but ended up preaching anyway.

    And yes, the story is very amusing. The shade tree portion of the story is perhaps my favorite part of it all.

  15. Mark Butler says:

    I didn’t say every last detail, Jacob. I think later scribes tend to embellish things quite a bit. I simply mean the basic historicity of the account in the first place.

  16. The great thing about the Book of Jonah is that it ends with a question. It doesn’t say what happens in the end, but asks the listener if he should forgive.

    Always seemed to me more like a thought experiment than a history lesson.

  17. Julie in Austin says:

    Very fishy.


  18. Johnna, great point. I think we’re lucky a later editor didn’t come along and mess with Jonah’s “questionable” ending like an editor likely did with Job’s ending.

    Speaking of Job, this is another book I would love to post about, but will probably pass on since it’s exhaustively covered here. If Jonah is best viewed as satire, I think Job is best viewed as a drama. I’m not saying it was performed like a drama, or that Job didn’t exist, but it appears to be memorialized in a form similar to what we’d consider a drama. A play meant to be read. Not history.

    Perhaps I will post sometime a few thoughts about the Revelation of John as something more like science fiction or horror. Or the creation accounts as ritual narratives. I really think we don’t consider the possible genres of the books (or portions of books) in the scriptures enough when we read them. Knowing the genre informs the reading of the book. If I picked up a parody of a western but knew nothing of the western genre, I’m certain I’d miss 95% of the point.

  19. Julie in Austin says:

    “I really think we don’t consider the possible genres of the books (or portions of books) in the scriptures enough when we read them.”

    Amen and amen.

  20. Ed, Brilliant, that’s what you are! Applause! Applause! Speaking of which, wouldn’t this interpretation make a terrific stage play, or perhaps a movie in the spirit of Monte Python? (“The Life of Brian,” et al.) Well, much more subtle satire than “Brian,” of course. But on the larger issue of satire, those who know about these things report that the tone and general rhetoric of the Old Testament in Hebrew are much sharper, more ironic, even more sarcastic, actually, than in the poetic but clearly WASP King James translation. In fact, many of the exchanges in the New Testament (even in translation) do not sound like the Jesus of Primary lessons, but come across as much more in-your-face rhetoric than we may want to admit. Nu?

  21. Oui, Elouise, I mean si, I mean I dunno.

    On the way back from out of town just listened to my 13 year old son’s collection of Monty Pyton on his I-Pod. John Cleese as Jonah would be fantastic.

    When are we going to hear from you again? Soon I hope.

  22. We sang of a certain Sunday School at scout camp in the 1960’s, a song that has long since passed from polite society, but the verse about Jonah offers some important insights. Here are three variations:

    Jonah was a landsman, so runs the Bible tale
    He took a steerage passage on a transatlantic whale
    Jonah in the belly of the whale felt quite compressed
    So he pushed a little button and the whale did the rest

    Jonah was a sailorman, so runs the Bible tale
    He took a little voyage on a transatlantic whale
    He didn’t like the cruise, said swimmin’ was the best
    So he pushed a little button and the whale did the rest

    Jonah was a sailor, so goes the ancient tale.
    He crossed the mighty ocean in the steerage of a whale.
    But Jonah, he was seasick and the whale, he was oppressed–
    So, Jonah pushed a button and the whale, he did the rest.

  23. Here’s a slight variation on a Jonah song I picked up at T&S (it’s been a hit in my ward, in part because it can be repeated in front of all audiences, unlike the verse for Hosea):

    Jonah was a prophet, swallowed by a whale,
    when he was on board, the ship just could not sail.

    So they tossed him over, next thing Jonah knew,
    Nineveh repented, the prophet did so too.

    Swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet,
    swallow the prophet, will he get away?

    Swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet,
    swallow the prophet, he’ll find a way.

  24. Stirling, if I do a post on Hosea, will you do a comment “solo” of his verses? I’m really in suspense since I can’t think of that many relevant words that rhyme with “prostitute”: Beirut, grapefruit, pursuit, pollute, recruit, LDS Institute, refute, birthday suit, repute, pantsuit, Ute. Any others?

  25. Ed, I got some heat from my wife last Sunday when I repeated only the warm-up part of the Hosea song within earshot of her parents. So, though I’m now additionally sensitive to offending others, I think within a context that shows the song is just reprising the actual text, I could post it –with a couple of verb alterations.

    As you write your post, you might consider your own “Follow-the-prophet” derivation. The one I learned in church starts with:
    “Hosea was a prophet, a bachelor in his day,
    the Lord said marry Gomer, though she was getting laid…”

  26. Walter Eddy says:


    Is that not Chamberlin, not Chamberlain?


  27. Jona was ate by a fish, was digested, died and faced hell as his reward for turning away from his duty. When he decided to tell the people that they would live only if they repented, GOD resurected him and gave him a new life. JESUS offers us this same life. What will we do with it? Hopefully better things than JONA.


  1. […] Jaime and I were doing our scripture study this morning, and we’re reading Jonah. Jonah is an interesting dude (though there is some speculation that he is not a real person, but a fictional character designed to portray a message). The Lord calls him to go to Nineveh and call the city to repentance. What does Jonah do? He goes the other way, buying passage on a boat to Tarshish (a city far away, with some speculation that it could have been in modern day Spain). While on the sea, a storm causes the crew members of the boat to pray to their gods and cast lots to see who caused the evil that brought the storm on them. The lot fell on Jonah. And he tells them their story. He realizes the storm was a message from God, as the fish later when he gets swallowed up. […]

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