Saturday, June 11, 2022

Is the book of Jonah a literary masterpiece?

The ESV Study Bible states, “The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece.” Is it really? Are we really culturally close enough, or linguistically steeped in Hebrew enough, to judge a book like Jonah as a literary masterpiece? What’s the basis for claims like this? By what standard can we judge an ancient Hebrew text to be a literary masterpiece? (The same questions could be asked of New Testament texts also—gospels, epistles, etc.)

My theory is that claims like these come from a starting point of revering the text as God’s word, which perhaps makes people feel compelled to laud the text from a literary standpoint as well. That’s just a theory—I don’t presume to know how people’s minds operate. And to be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the text or make the counter-claim that Jonah’s actually bad literature. But would I be confident to say that it’s good literature? Not really. I’m happy to be agnostic on that. (In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure how to judge any literature as objectively good or bad, although I would at least feel significantly more comfortable doing so with literature of my own native tongue.)

Even though I’m not willing to say whether Jonah is good or bad literature, I would argue that neither assessment is inappropriate or problematic. I don’t mind saying, the book is exceedingly odd from a modern literary standpoint. Its pacing is unusual and it ends very abruptly, without any kind of conclusion one would expect by today’s standards. And this at least makes me less likely to think “literary masterpiece” when I read it. But again, who am I to say?

It seems possible to me that some bookish people put such a premium on literary quality that they couldn’t bring themselves to revere a text that was not “good” literature? But maybe there’s actually an important theological truth on display in the fact that the Bible may sometimes contain “bad” literature. The power of Scripture is not tied to literary eloquence or beauty. It’s the simple fact that it’s the word of the living God, even if it’s sometimes literarily warty from our perspective. Paul himself said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).

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