Lesson 33: “Sharing the Gospel with the World” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings: Jonah and bits of Micah (2:12-13; 4:1-7, 11-13; 5:2-4, 7-8; 6:6-8; 7:18-20)

In addition to their content, these readings provide an occasion to talk about how varied (or not so varied) the Bible as a collection can be. Mormons tend not to think much about the different genres of biblical texts, nor about why such differences might matter for the practical applications we take away from the texts. Put bluntly, what happens when we read Jonah as a satire about prophets rather than as a “straight” story about a prophet? And what difference does it make that Micah repeats a few verses from Isaiah, more or less verbatim? (Or is it the other way around, and we’re assuming that the “major” prophet is the source for the “minor” one? So confusing.)

For me, putting aside the fishiness of Jonah’s most famous narrative element, the key to reading this book as a satire appears in chapter 3. Jonah finally goes to Nineveh, walks three days to get to the center of the city, utters one sentence that isn’t even a call to repentance, upon which the king orders the entire city—including the animals—to go in sackcloth and ashes.

Point one: when, in the history of ever, did people listen to prophets so instantly and so universally? Even 4th Nephi depicts a gradual process of conversion, and it’s already an outlier, by a lot.

Point two: Nineveh (which had probably been destroyed anyway when Jonah was written) was one of the capitals of Assyria, which had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom and come mighty close to doing the same in the south. This story is like a (non-Vichy) French prophet walking into Berlin ca. 1942, saying “this city is about to be destroyed,” and then finding that the entire city, including the Rottweilers and German Shepherds, decides to abandon Nazism and, like, give back Paris. Said prophet then gets mad that the Germans repented because he really wanted God to lay waste to the entire place.

Point three: the image of the Ninevite animals going in sackcloth and ashes may be the funniest moment in the Hebrew scriptures. I suggest using this week’s Sunday School class to debate questions of animal sentience and moral accountability. Do we need to include our household pets in family scripture study and FHE? What about hamsters? Goldfish? The ant farm? The truly righteous can dig into Leviticus and hash out the whole bit about cloven hooves and animals who chew the cud. Now that we don’t have High Priests’ groups anymore, the Church needs a venue for this sort of Very Important Discussion—which is, I guess, why God invented the internet (*shudder*).

So, if Jonah *is* satire, what’s the point? I’d ask the class and see what they come up with. My own two cents: the manual gets the big picture right by seeing Jonah as a story about God’s universal love for humanity. What comes more clearly into focus when you see Jonah as a satire is the way that thinking of prophets as part of a team (or, worse yet, *our* team) is a category error. I mean, don’t we all love it when President Oaks just OWNS those terrible people in The World™, and wouldn’t it be awful to lose the smug satisfaction that emanates from how nicely their constitutive wrongness perpetually reflects on us? Loaded questions, yes, but I think that getting past our tribalism is far from easy, and maybe the goad of a good satire can awaken the necessary discomfort.

Jonah also cuts usefully against our tendency to treat prophets and other church leaders as the be-all and end-all of Righteous Purity. If God can achieve unheard-of things with a guy like Jonah, who delivers his message like a petulant teenager who REALLY doesn’t want to talk in sacrament meeting, then it’s ok if our leaders occasionally act like petulant teenagers. Well, maybe not ok, but at least survivable, in that the Gospel message can transcend their shortcomings. Being a prophet isn’t about being a great person we all look up to; it’s about bearing God’s message, and we’re in trouble the minute the person starts to matter more to us than the message.

Jonah doesn’t challenge us much when it’s just a nice fish story. I mean, who among us would be dumb enough to run away from God? (Ok, most of us…) But as satire, it indicts us on several levels. It reminds us that God loves everyone, especially the people we love to hate. (Even Oaks!) It reminds us that God can call us to repentance through unlikely sources, and in surprising ways (even Oaks!). It reminds us that the gospel message can break through the static (or howling feedback) occasioned by the humanity of the messengers.

Turning to Micah, the manual cherry-picks a bit, omitting the harsher moments of judgment like, well, all of chapter 3, which is full of vituperation for unjust judges and profit-mongering prophets before culminating in a prophecy that Jerusalem and its temple will be destroyed. In 1:5 Micah brutally compares the temple to one of the idolatrous “high places,” in keeping with his broader message that holy only is as holy does. The manual does include a classic statement of this latter sentiment, in 6:6-8, which says that religious practice is pointless unless the practitioners do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

The textual overlap between Micah 4:1-4 and Isaiah 2:2-4 gives the class an opportunity to discuss the messy process that gave us the Bible. Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries, which makes the overlap even harder to understand than if one came later than the other. Which is the original, and which the copy? Who is replaying whose greatest hits? It could be interesting to compare how the placement of the repeated verses in different contexts yields different meanings. I’d spend some time on that, unless the conversation about the moral capacities of hamsters has taken over the class, as it is almost certain to do. (The question “Should I attend Sunday School?” sometimes overlaps uncomfortably with “Should I read the comments?”)

The bit from Micah 5 is in there because Matthew 2:6 reads it as a prophecy of Jesus’ birthplace. Resistant as I am to letting the obvious Christian interpretation stand as the only interpretation of Hebrew texts, I’d challenge the class to think about what this prophecy might have meant to folks living in 8th century BCE Judah, who lived through a destructive Assyrian invasion. Send class members back to 1 Kings 16-19 for background. Ditto with the passage from Micah 2: we want to read it as predicting the latter-day gathering of Israel, but it was spoken by a man who lived through the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the near-destruction of the Southern. In a similar vein, Micah 7 contains words of hope coming from a man who had many causes to be deeply bummed. How do we find hope in bleak moments?

I’d put 6:6-8 at the center of the discussion, because it cuts down to essentials. Going to sacrament meeting or reading scriptures or attending the temple are all good things to do, but if you’re not seeking justice, being kind, and trying to walk humbly with God, none of it counts for anything.

Related BCC content:

bccedwardsnow, “Jonah: Gently Raise the Sacred Satire”

Michael Austin, “Cattle in Sackcloth”

Comments

  1. I feel like all of my personal scripture study with Biblical footnotes and a religious studies degree has failed me, because while I have long believed Jonah is an untrue/myth/carciature, I had never thought of it as satire.

    This idea that God is calling for us to have the humility to abandon the “smug satisfaction” of being chosen / righteous people is … well, I love it. Thank you.

  2. Great post, Jason.

    Recognizing Jonah as satire puts an additional dimension into Jesus constantly identifying his own prophesied death and resurrection with Jonah and telling his followers that the only sign that God would give the religious establishment was the sign of the prophet Jonah.

  3. Say more, JKC.

  4. Who among us would be dumb enough to run away from God?

    That kinda goes to the point of Jonah, right. Jonah conceives as God as the God of Israel, thus running away from Israel would be running away from God. It is a view that perhaps is more in line with, if you will excuse the phrase, “pagan” conceptions of that different places and peoples had different gods.

  5. Well, I think it points to Jesus’s incisive sense of humor and his standing against hypocrisy and pride that his response to questions from the religious authorities about proof of his divine authority is a reference to a story that’s basically a send-up of prophets and of tribalism. It’s almost like he’s deliberately poking fun at them. And you can see, if that’s how his followers took it, why they didn’t understand it as a serious prophecy of his resurrection.

    But then the kicker is that he then he goes and makes it actually real by dying and resurrecting after three days. He takes story that’s basically an extended joke, and he says “yeah, that’s me, I’m like Jonah,” but then literalizes it (by analogy of tomb=fish anyway). He redeems the joke and turns into something that’s still a great joke, but now is also a sign of the holiest thing God has done. It’s self-deprecating but also an indictment of his hearers and also a metaphor of how God redeems our works and I just think that’s so cool.

  6. Resurrection as practical joke: I love it!

  7. Teaching this lesson this Sunday, so paying attention.
    For Jonah in particular I’m thinking that all the meat is in the over-the-top elements (the satire, in other words). Starting with using a “prophet” as the protagonist. If Jonah were a reluctant missionary story I’d react in a “been there, done that” manner. I have about 24 months of personal stories to forget. But an Old Testament prophet!? The charge to go to Nineveh is like his day job. That’s what OT prophets DO. So now it gets interesting.

  8. I am teaching this lesson straight. I believe the truth of the Bible version and will teach it so.

  9. Not a Cougar says:

    I need a recording of Samuel L. Jackson reading Micah 5:10-15:

    10 And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots:

    11 And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strong holds:

    12 And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thine hand; and thou shalt have no more soothsayers:

    13 Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands.

    14 And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee: so will I destroy thy cities.

    15 And I will execute vengeance in anger and fury upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.

  10. Kris, If the book of Jonah is satire and not history, then the “truth of the Bible version” is not a literal interpretation of the events recounted. Implicitly insisting that one reading of the book is “the Bible version” may be arrogantly presumptuous. Were I teaching this lesson, I think I would acknowledge both readings and ask what we can learn from each. Is there some good reason not to do that? It might even be good to include a short discussion of what satire is and how it can teach truth.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, thanks. I especially enjoyed the parable of the French and the Nazis…

  12. Kris’s statement, turned into a question, might be the perfect opening. In my Ward and class, if I just ask “What is the ‘Bible version’?” the answers and cross-answers might well expand until somebody calls time. It’s a delight to sit in a group of people all of whom could teach the same class, many of whom have done so on a prior cycle, and some of whom are reading columns like this one before class.

  13. Eric Facer says:

    Carolyn, Steven McKenzie’s book, “How to Read the Bible,” has an excellent chapter on Jonah and genre where he underscores the numerous satirical elements in this story. Here is a small sample:

    • “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew, suggesting that Jonah was somewhat flighty and unstable, like a bird. His father’s name, “Amittai,” derives from the Hebrew root meaning “truth” or “faithfulness.” The irony is apparent: the “son of truth” is “flying away” from God.

    • The frequent use of the word “great” throughout the book (“great wind,” “great storm,” great fish” is a mark of hyperbole, gross exaggeration highlighting the farcical nature of the story.

    • The original Hebrew uses two slightly different words for “fish,” one masculine (Jonah 2:1) and one feminine (Jonah 2:2). This is another nonsensical feature of this tall tale, which adds to the comedy: a fish that changes gender (yes, I know, there are certain species of fish that do that, but I’m pretty sure the Old Testament writers were unaware of this).

    Another interesting observation by McKenzie is that the Book of Jonah is one of only two books in the Bible that ends with a question, the other being the Book of Nahum. But the question at the end of Jonah is unique in that it is both rhetorical and didactic: “[S]hould I not care about Nieveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who not know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals?” it is designed to teach the theological lesson highlighted by Jason—God cares for all his people and all of creation, and he doesn’t countenance bigotry. And while the question is directed at Jonah, it is really intended for each one of us.

  14. My favorite Jonah story is the chapter from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in the Seaman’s Chapter (Chapter 9). I especially recommend the audio version from Naxos read by William Hootkins.

  15. PS: Just found a fascinating clip on YouTube with Orson Welles as the Preacher.

  16. Glad to see someone else take up Jonah as satire. I’ve been pushing that for a while including at BYU’s Sperry Symposium (in part 4). FWIW, I had to submit the entire paper ahead of time, and the BYU and BYUH reviewers agreed with me that this *is* a “literal reading” of Jonah.

    The problem with modern readers who reject that is that, as Elder Widtsoe says, we no longer recognize ancient genres and genre markers in the Bible , and assume “history” as the default genre of scripture. Our “straight biblical truth” is often a misreading.

    I write and speak a lot about this stuff, and although BCC invited me to blog on on OT this year, my material never quite seems to merit any sidebar or other links.

  17. Eric Facer says:

    Ben, your work merits links on every website, both Mormon and non-Mormon, that deal with issues of scriptural interpretation. It is always exceptional.

  18. I agree, Ben, and I apologize for the omission.

  19. Thanks for your thoughts, Jason. I’m teaching this lesson this Sunday so this is valuable. I’m a bit hung up on thinking of Jonah as satire, though. I guess I’m just not understanding who it is meant to criticize. I thought satire criticized someone *in* the story, but I can only understand Jonah as satire if it’s criticizing the audience, the reader. Am I missing something about what satire is and does? Re: Jonah specifically, are we, the readers, meant to feel stupid for thinking the way a message is delivered matters? That acceptance of a message is all in God’s hands, and as long as it’s delivered, no matter how robotically, God will do the rest? I’m feeling dull here, but I’m just not sure what exactly is being criticized in the story of Jonah, other than the idea that God needs a perfect vessel for delivering his message, that one is obvious enough, but it doesn’t need to be satire for that criticism to come through. Or does it?

  20. Jonah appears to satirize Israelite ethnocentrism. Everybody and everything (the sailors, the wind and waves, the fish, the Assyrians, the Assyrian animals) in the story obeys God except the Israelite prophet, while the story culminates in an argument that God loves the (wicked destructive empire of) Assyria just as much as Israel.

  21. Emily: thanks for your comment. As I see it, satire is a moralistic genre aimed at correcting some fault in its audience. (In our current context, “satire” often simply means “parody,” which dilutes the concept of satire.) Satire can be witty and light, in the manner of Horace, or caustic and despairing, in the manner of Juvenal. Those are Roman categories, not exactly applicable to Hebrew texts, but I’d put Jonah in the former category. It aims to correct its readers’ overly high estimation of prophets, but also their narrow tribalism, through the speed and totality of Ninevite repentance (which far exceeds anything Israel ever managed, notwithstanding special “chosen people” status).

    Does that clear things up at all?

  22. Oh, I missed Ben’s comment, which explains things very well.

  23. Excerpt from my lesson outline (from 9/2/18:

    I read Jonah as satire because I think it is correct (the way it was written, the way it was intended) but more importantly because I find the message in the exaggeration. There are a whole slew of over-the-top elements to the story, and the message is in them

    a. Jonah is a prophet mentioned in 2 Kings.
    This is out of time and place–the time of 2 Kings is nowhere near the time when Nineveh is relevant. But the story needs a prophet to make it extreme. Crying repentance to a wayward people is an Old Testament prophet’s day job (cf Micah), but Jonah runs.
    So what does this teach? That nobody is above the law, nobody is beyond sin (fear (running away), pettiness (four words to cry repentance?), misanthropy (I wanted them to die)), and ultimately nobody is beyond grace.

    b. Nineveh is the enemy.
    About the worst possible place to send Jonah. And it is told as bigger than it could possibly be (“three days across” is bigger than the biggest cities we know even today). Sending Jonah to Nineveh is analogous to sending a Jewish rabbi to preach repentance to the Third Reich.
    So what does this teach? That we are talking about your worst fears, your greatest enemy, the one you think “Lord, anybody else, but not him.” And ultimately that nobody is beyond grace.

    c. Jonah preaches four words (in Hebrew): “Forty days Nineveh changes.” And the whole city–king, people, animals–immediately repents and converts.
    The smallest possible performance by Jonah leads to the greatest and really unbelievable outcome. (And Jonah knew it all along.)
    So what does this teach? That grace is disproportionate to works.

  24. That looks great!

  25. Jason – thanks for your reply. I’m afraid my familiarity with satire comes from late-night TV rather than Greek or Roman literature :) If I understand your explanation correctly then satire is always a critique of the audience.
    Ben S – thanks for that very nice distillation of the meaning of the story.
    christiankimball – I especially like the points you brought out in point a. The failings of a prophet won’t be easy to discuss in Sunday School.

  26. Emily U: re the “failings of a prophet” — in the doing, my class ‘got it’ that using a prophet in the story made it into an “everyman” story. If it could happen to him, it could happen to me. I like to think that was original intent.

  27. I’m teaching this lesson on Sunday. I thought I might point out that the number three indicates perfection and completion, and so when the author writes that it takes three days to cross Nineveh, and yet Jonah only walked for one day and then gave his announcement, it was obvious that he was not completely or perfectly fulfilling his assignment.

    “Grace is disproportionate to works.” Christian Kimball, I must mention that! Thanks for putting it so succinctly. :-)

    I also found a fascinating article about parallels in Jonah to the life, suffering, and death of Christ when I Googled the BYU Studies Old Testament lessons for this lesson. I’ll be mentioning a few of the parallels as well, along with mentioning that the story is a satire.

  28. Wait, so he was supposed to walk from one end of the city past the center and out to the other end of the city and then deliver his message instead of just delivering it in the middle of town? I don’t know. Seems like a stretch.

  29. Well, maybe it’s a stretch, but why else would the author include the details of the numbers? Why not just write that the city was exceedingly great and Jonah went into it to preach?

  30. Because details like that make a good story.

  31. We had the lesson this Sunday previous where it was opined by a class member that the fish was really a whale and Jonah went down “the wrong pipe”. Jonah resided near the lungs for three days when he was coughed up, rather than barfed up.

  32. Awesome. But what I really want to know is if I need to be inviting the whale to FHE.

  33. Definitely invite the whale, Jason.

  34. Oh, there was never any question of that. Melvillean FHE!