Cattle in Sackcloth


**NB: This is a follow-up to my earlier post about teaching the lesson “Fellowship with Those of Other Faiths” in Priesthood Meeting. When I actually taught the lesson, for reasons that have a lot to do with the way that High Priest groups tend to wander, much of it ended up being about the Book of Jonah,


I will admit that I used to have a difficult time believing that a full-sized man—be he Jonah or Geppetto—could be swallowed whole by a “great fish” and then spewed forth alive to pick up life right where he left off. That is just not, in my experience, how things work.

It some point, however, I realized that the whole belly-of-the-whale thing was only the third most ridiculous thing that happens in the Book of Jonah. Much weirder, and much less probable, is the following passage from Chapter 3:

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. (:6-8)

Yeah, that’s right. The cows were required to repent in sackcloth and ashes. When a whale swallows a person, they are at least acting within the general scope whale behavior, which is to swallow stuff. But when a cow fasts and prays and repents wearing a sack, you can be pretty sure that you are in the presence of satire.  And to emphasize the satirical nature of the thing, the final chapter ends with God talking about the cows again: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (4:11)

But even this only the second most ridiculous thing that happens.

By far, the least believable thing that happens in the Book of Jonah is that the entire city of Nineveh—the capital of the Assyrian Empire that destroyed Israel in 720 BCE—universally converted to the Cult of Yahweh (which would have been required to meet any possible definition of “repented” in the context of the Old Testament prophets). This is roughly equivalent to a pair of Mormon missionaries parachuting into Tehran in 2017 and baptizing the entire city, mullahs and all. At the very least, this is the sort of thing that somebody would have noticed.

But everything about the Book of Jonah screams satire: the guy getting eaten by a whale and vomited back on shore, the immediate conversion of Israel’s greatest enemy, the cows, the gourd. All of it screams overstatement and irony.

We have no religious reason not to read it this way. Scripture can come to us in any genre. Job is a poem, and if we don’t read it like a poem, we miss almost everything it is trying to tell us. The story of the Prodigal Son is a parable, and it yields its meaning in the same way that parables do. The Book of Jonah is an excellent example of a Menippean satire—a brief narrative that uses situational humor to make a serious, corrective argument.

Once we give ourselves permission to read it this way, the humor is easy to see, but what is the serious argument? And what does it correct?

To the best of our knowledge, Jonah (like so much of the Old Testament) dates back to the Babylonian captivity. At this time, the city of Nineveh would have been a distant memory to the Jews—something akin to “a long time ago in a galaxy far away”—and a perfect setting for a satirical tale. And we know a few things about what the people of Judah were worried about during this period.

Most of them were worried about re-establishing their covenant with Yahweh—and with demonstrating, at least to themselves, that they were a uniquely chosen people. This rigid separationist impulse gave us the triumphalist texts of Esther and (at least part of) Daniel. And it also found expression in the way that most of the prophets—eighth and sixth century—were framed as people fighting against the influence of foreign people and their foreign gods.

But there were dissenters. There was  something like a BCC crowed in post-exilic Babylon too, and they tended to be universalists—people who studied and respected other cultures and saw the Jews as part of a larger Near-Eastern context. They argued against what we might call “Jewish exceptionalism” and saw God as a unified being who ruled all the world–even though different aspects of him were called by different names. These malcontents apparently produced Job and Proverbs. And they certainly produced Jonah.

This is why it is so important that Jonah be framed as a work of prophecy—because the genre of prophecy is precisely what it satirizes. Nearly every other prophetic work in the Old Testament supports the predominant narrative that the Jews were a uniquely chosen people and that foreign influences would destroy them.

Jonah himself believes this narrative right up until the last chapter, which is why he is so angry that God let Nineveh off the hook. As a character, Jonah understands the world the way that most of the Babylonian exiles understood it. As a book, however, Jonah is profoundly opposed to this narrative. It’s primary purpose is to make the dominant story seem ridiculous—and to make Jonah seem ridiculous for believing it.

Jonah, in other words, is the guy whose mistakes we are supposed to learn from. And his mistakes do not end with trying to avoid God’s command to got to Nineveh. They include things that many of the other prophets in the Old Testament are praised for, such as limiting God’s love to a specific group of people, refusing to interact with people who don’t think like we do, and wishing for the destruction of any child of God.


  1. Eric Facer says:

    Professor Steven L. McKenzie, in his excellent book, “How to Read the Bible,” makes the same point about Jonah being a work of satire/parody with the principal objective of “illustrating in bold relief the stupidity of the attitude that the author perceived in the book’s intended readership,” (p. 19), i.e., the bigotry of the Jews when it came to claiming that God favored them above all others.

    Perhaps the day will come when Correlation and CES will free itself from the cold, dead hand of scriptural literalism and embrace ideas such as genre, culture, and context that afford a much richer reading of the scriptures. At the very least, it would be nice if they deleted from the Children’s Songbook the silly verse in “Follow the Prophet” about Jonah being a prophet worthy of emulation.

    Thanks for the post, Michael.

  2. Every verse of “Follow the Prophet” is silly, Eric.

  3. Eric Facer says:

    APM, I can’t say I disagree with your assessment of that song, though the Jonah verse seems a bit sillier than the rest.

  4. Amanda in France says:

    I hold that the Jonah verse is especially silly because the chorus is easily modified to say “swallow the prophet.” (At least, that’s how we sung it)

    Excellent stuff, as always. I never comment, but I am an avid reader and always look forward to your posts, Michael. And I agree with everyone else in that I wish we could as an institution approach the Scriptures more like this.

  5. Thanks, Michael. I realize that I’ve always written off Jonah because it registers as satire and then I don’t know what to do with it. The path of least resistance is to skip over. It takes a guide to stop and see.

  6. I love the story of Jonah. It’s hilarious, and it’s message is powerful. And also, according to the gospels, Jesus really liked to refer to it. So there’s that.

  7. So if Jonah was satire then should we read Christ using him and his experiences with the Ninevites as a sign of the Savior using the people’s stories to make his message more relatable? I mean Luke 11:29-32 is either a pretty blatant statement of Jonah’s reality or a hyperbolic declaration on the part of the Savior whose purpose is intended to situate himself into a recognizable narrative.

    I can accept either but you really should address that question if you’re going to wholesale cast away an entire story that Jesus uses in his own prophecies.

  8. I don’t read it that way, Alain. Jesus obviously like the story of Jonah and used it himself, but that doesn’t mean he was saying that it’s historical.

  9. JKC, we agree on that assertion. I wasn’t saying it is necessarily historical just because Jesus used it in his teaching. But, the question is, how are we to read:

    “The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”

    Is he speaking in a metaphor here or literally? Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the other story he uses for this declaration, were historical beings. Is the Savior mixing metaphors or is there some other literary / parabolic device in use here. I don’t study the literature and devices as extensively as Michael so these are questions and not declarations on my part.

  10. Alain, I am not sure what you mean by “wholesale cast[ing] away” the story of Jonah. I am doing no such thing. Rather, I am trying to read the story as the original author, in my opinion, intended for it to be read. It is no secret that the Old Testament contains a lot of different genres, and that a fair number of its texts are literature that was written as literature and intended to be read as literature. I happen to think that God can inspire a poet or fiction writer as much as a historian, so I just don’t see any conflict at all in talking about those portions of the OT that were clearly meant to be taken as parables, or poems, or satires in that way. There is absolutely nothing in reading it that way that works against its scriptureness or its divine nature.

    As for Christ citing Jonah, once again, there is no reason that Christ, or any other rabbi at the time, would not refer to a literary text that his audience was familiar with and use it to make a point. General authorities do this all the time in General Conference. They quote Hamlet, or the Brothers Karamazov, or the Prodigal Son, or the Little Engine that Could. And they do not stop to mark it as fictional because its fictionality is part of our shared cultural context. There is no reason to tie ourselves up in knots defending the historicity of stories like Job, Jonah, and Esther, when we can avoid all of the interpretive problems by just acknowledging that the texts in the Hebrew Bible that are clearly marked as artistic compositions are, in fact, artistic compositions and not documents of historical occurrences.

  11. I remember in my Freshman BYU English class the teacher had a lesson about how the Book of Jonah is a satire. She would read verses from the King James English and say “Picture that. Isn’t that funny?”, and we’d all give her blank stares. It just wasn’t funny. She then went over how the book fit the technical definition of a satire, and we granted her that it might fit some technical definition of satire, but that was probably more of an accident than anything else. It’s not like we (the students) thought that she was doing some sacrilegious with the idea that Jonah is a satire, it was more that this felt like one more way in which English majors make themselves feel so smart and high falutin; by transposing lame ideas onto works to make themselves feel smarter than everyone else.
    Then a few years ago I read a blog post that explained that Jonah is an Old Testament version of the Dilbert character Topper. No matter what anyone accomplishes Topper accomplished it better or more in some way. No matter how good a missionary you were, Jonah can top you. It’s like Brian Regan’s I walked on the Moon. After understanding this I had to admit that perhaps my English teacher was right.
    I figure that someone wrote this hilarious book called Jonah, and all of the scribes loved it. So they kept with all of their other papers; which were the scriptures. Then one day, when handing down the scribes papers from one generation to the next, someone forgets to tell the new guys that Jonah is a joke; and the new guys assume that it’s scripture.
    What I would like is more insight into: if Jonah isn’t historical then how does that reconcile with Jesus saying “the sign of Jonah”?

  12. jader3rd, the fact that it’s satire doesn’t mean that it isn’t scripture and that it was only included with the scriptures as a mistake. God can inspire his prophets to speak through satire as well as through history. The fact that it’s satire doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a joke or that it doesn’t carry a profound spiritual message about cultural pride.

    Alain, I don’t think we need to worry about putting a label (metaphorical, literal, parabolic/literary)on Jesus’ use of Jonah to recognize that he was using the cultural context of his time. Like Mike said, GAs refer to fiction in GC all the time. Jesus was making a pop-culture reference. We can leave it at that.

  13. Re “the sign of Jonah,” I don’t understand how that’s inconsistent with Jonah being satire, so I guess I don’t understand the question about the need to reconcile them.

  14. Sorry Michael, I was voicing how some might view your approach to Jonah. I don’t see it as throwing away the message or the story myself, but I’m sure most conservative Mormons who thought about it would. I agree with JKC, in fact I too figured if this is satire then how appropriate that Jesus would make a pop-cultural reference as he was cajoling the rigid Jews to overcome their blindness.

  15. I don’t think that just because someone wrote the story down as satire, that that would rule out that Jonah was a historical person. Think about all the satire written about 45. None of the written satire means that Pres. trump is not a real historical person. What if someone wrote some great satire about Trump and the Republican Party, that teaches a wonderful moral lesson about how not to run a country. Then for some reason, most of the books from our time are lost, except for this wonderful moral lesson. That still does not mean that Trump never existed or that he was not at some point a president of the US. It just means that we do not have to take all details as seriously as we do if it was written as history. And personally, I would rather not have to worry about how one’s gets the cows to cooperate with being dressed in sack cloth.

    Why does it have to be either/or, and not both/and.

  16. To Alain’s point, what if Jonah’s story is a tale of what might have been, like Alma returning against the odds to Ammonihah.

  17. Amy, I don’t think anyone is saying that Jonah is definitively not a historical person. Michael’s point is that the Book of Jonah is satirical, not historical. I don’t think he’s saying anything more than that.

  18. I have no issue with Christ referring to Jonah. He refers to Jonah in the same way he refers to Job when telling Joseph Smith that he is not yet like Job in D&C 121:10. He is making a point using a commonly known reference. For Job it was suffering like Joseph was suffering. For Jonah it was for being pricks like Jonah was.

    I don’t have any issues considering Jonah or Job as fictional. Esther, I never considered and would have to reread and think about.

    I have a harder time with people calling Adam and Eve fictional, though I do believe most of it is allegorical. We have so much tied into Adam being an actual prophet who will one day return to meet Christ at Adam ondi Ahmen, that I can’t quite let go of him being historical in some sense.

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