I remember the first time I translated the Book of Jonah. One of the projects of a Hebrew language class I took involved the translation of that little Bible book.

In it one discovers a mild profanity, never translated that way that I have found. It happens early so, as you can imagine, most everyone perked up their intellectual ears and paid attention to the details in the story from beginning to end.

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Doré.

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Doré. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everything in it is backwards. The Gentiles come out the heroes. They risk their own lives to save Jonah, who eventually gets thrown overboard at his insistence. The people of Nineveh repent and God forgives them. The prophet Jonah runs away from God. When he finally obeys he gets mad because he preaches so well that the citizens of the Assyrian capital become believers.

When God forgives the people Jonah falls into a depression so deep he wants to die. None of this fits the usual prophetic story.

In a kind of racist rage Jonah sits in the burning sun hoping to see God destroy Nineveh. God takes pity on even the angry prophet and a beanstalk grows overnight, big enough to provide shade.

Now Jonah does not climb the beanstalk, and no giant or gold waits for Jonah to take, but the magical bean grows miraculously.

Sometimes people rush so fast to argue history, doctrine, “correct” interpretation that they miss the story.

Dark humour fills the book, in the storm, the content of the sermon, Jonah choosing misery over his success rather than joy at God’s loving forgiveness.

But come on, light comedy also fills the book. Swallowed by a great fish and sitting in the digestive tract for three days in slime, acid and no oxygen has to make a sensible person either laugh or grimace.

The magically-grown beanstalk big enough to give shade. Fast grow, and big leaves. Can’t you imagine Jonah curled up under a small vine to get out of the sun? Why not a tree? Because a tree would not be funny.

Irony provides humour. The Book of Jonah has irony all through it. The believer runs away and hopes for fire to burn the bad guys up. The bad guys repent and it’s Jonah who gets burned by the sun. On and on…

So people ask, hearing this, do we understand Jonah as an historical figure or a fiction? What a question! That’s funny!

Despite the humour the story’s composition matches other historical accounts. Can the details be exaggerations? Well, we all know that humour teaches where serious education can’t. God knows that, too. So just enjoy the story before you realize it grabs you and shakes sense into you!