Eli T. Evans
How do stories work?
What techniques do authors use to get their point across? And how can we recognize them?
Previously, we looked at the use of irony and hyperbole in Jonah. Today, we look at reversal.
One of the things that makes everyday experience frustrating is that the sequence of events doesn’t have much rhyme or reason. It just is, without any of the things that make a good story so satisfying like foreshadowing, balance and proportion. In a word, what everyday experience lacks is symmetry.
Stories, on the other hand, are satisfying because all the pieces fit together. It’s not just a random sequence of events, it’s a plot. Playwright Anton Chekov advised that you shouldn’t show a gun in act one of a play unless somebody shoots it in act two. That way, every detail of the plot has a parallel later on that answers it.
Jonah’s plot breaks neatly into two episodes: “Jonah and the Great Fish” (chs 1–2) and “Jonah in Nineveh” (chs 3–4). The first episode is the better known of the two, which is too bad, because if you stop reading halfway through you’ll miss the other side of the story.
The parallel structure of the two episodes creates a tension between expectation and surprise: Which parts of the second episode will parallel the first? Which reversed? You don’t know. The suspense keeps you reading, and guessing to the end.
There are more than a few surprises. In the first three verses, the plot zips back and forth like a ping pong ball. Will Jonah go to Nineveh or won’t he? He won’t (1:1–3), but given a second chance, he does (3:1–3)—reversing his previous disobedience. In the first episode, the ignorant sailors must (tediously) figure out what is causing their destruction and what to do about it, but in the second episode, the Ninevites already know because Jonah has told them. In chapter two, Jonah prays and receives no answer, other than to be unceremoniously vomited ashore. In chapter four, he prays again and this time receives an answer (though not the one he was looking for). In the first episode, Jonah is very nearly killed and begs for salvation. In the second, he is alive and well—and bitter about it. At the beginning of the book, Jonah has a problem with God, challenging Him to respond to his defiance. By the end, the situation is reversed: God has a problem with Jonah, challenging him (and us) to respond to His questions.
But the biggest reversal in Jonah is the fact that God said He would destroy the Ninevites, but didn’t. Not that God is variable in His intentions. Rather, as Jeremiah puts it: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (Jer 18:7–8 NIV).
Fortunately, the principle holds not just for nations but for individuals as well: “ ‘For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ declares the Sovereign Lord. ‘Repent and live!’ ” (Ezek 18:30 NIV). Or as Jesus said, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10 NIV).
Symmetry, Parallelism and Reversal: An Exercise
(1) In Genesis 3:1–3, both Eve and the Serpent repeat God’s command to abstain from the forbidden fruit (Gen 2:16). Is the repetition verbatim, or has something changed? What changed? What was left out? What was added? What does the difference (or lack thereof) mean?
(2) Find as many symmetries as you can in the story of Joseph (Gen 37–50). Here are some to get you started: Joseph interprets his own dreams, and the dreams of others. Joseph is endowed with gifts and status by authority figures (e.g., his father, Potiphar, Pharaoh and God). Which elements are parallels, and which are reversals? Why?
Symmetry: In a literary sense, a perception of balance, proportion and harmony that is due to each element of the story having a corresponding element that resolves or answers it.
Parallel: A symmetry where two (or more) elements are roughly equivalent. Jacob works for Laban seven years and is given Leah as a wife. He then works another seven years for Rachel (Gen 29:16–30).
Reversal: A parallel where two (or more) elements oppose one another. Jesus descends to earth as a poor and lowly carpenter’s son, but ascends as the glorious ruler of the cosmos.