Irony in Jonah

Author: Eli T. Evans Contributor to Bible Study Magazine

In this four-part article series, we’ll look at the book of Jonah with four techniques in mind: 1. irony 2. hyperbole 3. reversal & 4. wordplay.

Irony exists in the gaps, between what we are told and what we are meant to understand; between our expectations and what actually happens; between what a character knows and what the narrative reveals. If you say my green plaid shirt looks good on me, implying that it does not, you are being ironic. When a restaurant burns down, it’s merely unfortunate; when the fire house burns down, it’s ironic because we would never expect that to happen.

The Bible is custom-built for irony, since whenever God appears in the narrative, gaps in knowledge are inevitable. After all, He knows everything.

Jonah hinges on several “situational” ironies, where characters play against type: We expect a prophet to obey God, but he doesn’t. We expect pagan sailors and Ninevites to be unrepentant swine, but they aren’t. We (may) expect God to destroy disobedient Jonah, the pagan sailors, or the wicked Ninevites, but—surprise!—he doesn’t.

The book also makes frequent use of “dramatic” irony. As the story unfolds, the narrator shares details with us that Jonah, the sailors, and the Ninevites cannot possibly know. This larger perspective enables us to grasp the import of a character’s words and deeds better than he himself does. The author even turns those same tables on his audience. What motivates Jonah’s disobedience (1:1–3)? The author could tell us then and there, but instead he leaves us to wonder.

We know that the Lord sends a storm in response to Jonah’s disobedience (1:4). We assume Jonah also knows this. But the sailors? The story leaves them out of the loop, which makes their attempts at dealing with the situation all the more poignant. The captain gives Jonah the same command as the Lord: “Get up and cry out!” (1:6). We (and Jonah) can appreciate the irony; the captain cannot. Jonah leaves his shipmates to cast lots (1:7) to learn what we (and he) already know. Jonah’s confession of faith (1:9) is also ironic: Does he really fear the Lord? His actions say otherwise. Once the sailors are fully apprised of the situation, they respond in genuine fear and hurl Jonah overboard (1:10–16).

In another context, Jonah’s psalm (2:2–9) might read as sincere repentance, but here the irony is thick. First, Jonah complains about being sent away from God’s presence (2:2–6) as if that weren’t precisely his goal when he set sail for Tarshish (1:3, 10). Next, he accuses God of casting him down (2:3)—technically correct, but hardly the whole story. Then he claims that when he “fainted away” he remembered the Lord and prayed (2:7). At this point, that’s true, but earlier when he “slumbered” in the ship, the captain had to force him to get up and pray (1:6). Finally, he insinuates that idolaters cannot be saved, whereas he, an Israelite with privileged access to the temple and proper sacrificial worship, will never forget the Lord (2:8–9). Wait. Wasn’t it the sailors who showed a healthy respect for God’s power, which Jonah had disregarded?

Once in Nineveh, Jonah (finally) proclaims God’s message. The Ninevites—unaware of everything that has transpired thus far—are left to figure out how they should react. Once again contrary to type, they do. The king says, “Who knows? This god1 may relent … so that we may not perish” (3:9, author’s translation), oblivious to the fact that he is repeating almost verbatim what the captain had said earlier in 1:6: “Perhaps this god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (ESV).

So far we’ve been invited to judge Jonah’s actions without knowing his motives. As chapter 4 reveals, he is neither a villain nor a clown, but a man grappling with a morally serious question: How can God’s justice be reconciled with His mercy? The Ninevites are violently evil (1:2, 3:8). It’s reasonable to assume that they deserve destruction and that God intends to let them have it. Yet Jonah knows something about God’s character that we should also know: “The LORD, the LORD, [is] a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exod 34:6–7 ESV; compare Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2).

Jonah has staked out the position that mercy and justice are incompatible (at least for Nineveh), a position he seems ready to defend to the death—literally (4:3, 9; compare 1:12). Here God employs “Socratic” irony, asking if Jonah’s anger is warranted (4:4, 9). The point of the question is not to discover what God already knows (!) but to prompt both Jonah and the reader to reconsider their assumptions. God’s final question is left for us to answer: Should our enemies receive cold hard justice for their sins, while we receive grace and mercy? Or shouldn’t God take pity on all who repent?

Types of Irony: An Exercise

Read Matt 27:27–29. What is ironic about the soldiers hailing Jesus as “King of the Jews”? What types of irony are demonstrated?

Verbal Irony: A character says one thing, but means something else, often the exact opposite. “How the king of Israel has honored himself today!” (2 Sam 6:20).

Sarcasm: Verbal irony that packs a punch. “Shout louder! Surely he is a god!” (1 Kgs 18:27).

Dramatic Irony: We the audience are privy to details that characters in the story aren’t. “Consider my servant Job … a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8).

Situational Irony: Something happens that is contrary to a character’s plan, or the reader’s expectation. “So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai” (Esth 7:10).

Socratic Irony: Named after Greek philosopher Socrates, who liked to ask questions to which he already knew the answer. “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9).

Poetic Justice: A character gets what he deserves. Not technically irony, but the two often work together. Haman’s execution is poetic justice; that he’s hung on his own gallows is irony.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 6