Hyperbole in Jonah

Author: Eli T. Evans

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How do stories work? What techniques do authors use to get their point across? And how can we recognize them? In a previous post, we looked at irony in Jonah. In this second installment, we’ll look at another technique: hyperbole.

I often edit my digital snapshots to enhance the contrast: darks get darker, lights get lighter. Sometimes the photo has not captured reality all that well. The mountain may have been stunning, but the photo looks flat and dull. Other times, the photo captures reality too well, obscuring the picture’s focal point with extraneous detail. Increasing the contrast takes care of either problem: Faint details drop out and what remains is clearer.

Hyperbole is the literary way to dial the contrast settings to maximum. Subtlety is traded for impact, and what remains is a story that evokes strong feelings. When events and characters are larger-than-life, our reactions to them are similarly oversized. The Bible is well-suited for hyperbole because its main object is incomparable: No exaggeration imaginable could ever do justice to God’s attributes. Whenever God acts, the scale is necessarily extreme.

The setting, plot, and characters of Jonah are all extreme. Just about everything in the story is “great” (גדול, gadol): the city (1:2; 3:2–3); the wind (1:4); the storm (1:4, 12); the sailors’ fear (1:10, 16); the fish (2:1); and finally, Jonah’s anger over God’s forgiveness and his happiness for the shade plant (4:1, 6).

Jonah is commanded to witness to a group of non-Israelite pagans (1:1–3)—but these aren’t just any pagans. The Assyrians were widely held to be the most savage and bloodthirsty race ever—the ancient equivalent of Darth Vader’s empire, only with bows and chariots. Instead of approaching these stormtroopers, Jonah opts to head for the hills, and then some.

If you were to draw a map of the known world at the time, Tarshish would be dangling off the western edge. He may as well have been headed for Antarctica. Not to mention that Tarshish is in the exact opposite direction that God told him to go.

During the storm, Jonah doesn’t just take a nap. He goes into something like a coma, sleeping so heavily that he doesn’t notice the ship shivering her timbers—literally, “thinking about breaking apart” (1:4). The verb used for Jonah’s slumber is also used (in noun form) to describe the “deep sleep” that God anesthetized Adam with when he removed his rib to create Eve (Gen 2:21).

Once overboard, Jonah finds himself in the innards of a humongous fish, desperately praying to save his own skin. Jonah’s prayer is cast in melodramatic terms: He wasn’t just cast into the sea, but down to the very bowels of the earth (2:1, 6). He wasn’t merely almost drowned, but surrounded by the deep, boxed in by waters, swirled about by floods, entangled in seaweed, swept down to the lowest of the low places—the “pit” (2:6).

After being vomited on shore, Jonah makes the trip from the Mediterranean to Nineveh, situated in modern-day Iraq. The narrative doesn’t say so, but this is a long journey overland, several weeks at least. Jonah finds Nineveh an “exceedingly great” city, so large it would take three days to cross it—a truly godlike scale. He ventures a third of the way in preaching fire and brimstone (3:4) while omitting God’s stated reason for the coming destruction.

“Who knows?” the Ninevite king wonders. “Maybe this god will relent” (3:9). No doubt this sounded outlandish to Israelite readers. Assyrians repent? Not in this lifetime! But repent they do, in grand fashion. The royal decree requiring both people and livestock to fast in sackcloth and ashes has the distinct ring of farce—a comedic drama (3:7–8). Imagine running out into the field to put sackcloth and ashes on sheep and cattle! (Chickens?) This exercise underscores not only pagan ignorance of God’s requirements (which they can hardly be blamed for, since Jonah didn’t tell them) but their grasp of the enormity of God’s wrath: Fearing they will be utterly destroyed, the Ninevites decide to utterly repent.

In the meantime, Jonah’s attitude deteriorates. While he began the story with a protest, he ends it with a tantrum. Jonah was probably a sensitive and intelligent man—there is a certain dignity to his decision to be cast overboard (1:12)—but also at this point in the story his attitude is more befitting a petulant child than a prophet of God. His mood swings are extreme; both his anger and his joy are gadol, overblown. God’s rehetorical interrogation brings needed perspective: Why should he spare the trifling weed Jonah is sitting under but slaughter “more than 120,000 souls” who don’t know good from evil (4:11)? The absurdity of the question provides its own answer.

In Jonah, everything is blown out of proportion, especially God’s grace. Therein lies the greatest hyperbole of all, and the point: The LORD is God Most High, and yet He cares even for the lowest of the low. If even Assyrians can repent and obey, then how much more should God’s chosen people? Indeed, this is how Jesus reads the story, saying that at judgment day the Ninevites will stand to accuse those who have rejected Him (Matt 12:41). As strange as it may sound, salvation comes not through ethnicity or proper religious practices, but a sincere fear of the LORD and the (absurd) hope that He will accept repentance from sinners, showing utter forgiveness where utter destruction is deserved.

Hyperbole in the New Testament: An Exercise

Read Matthew 18:24–35. Jesus says the servant owes the king 10,000 talents, a truly staggering figure—more than the annual tax revenue for the entire Roman empire at the time.

  1. Why would Jesus use such an outlandish sum to illustrate His point?
  2. Read verses 28–30. Would you agree that the servant’s reaction is an instance of hyperbole? Why or why not?

Read Matthew 5:27–30. Some people read this entire section (Matt 5–7) as Christ using hyperbole to elaborate on his main point, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20 ESV). Do you think so? Why or why not?

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 1