N is for Novellas

The term novella is clearly a modern genre of literature, and yet this term is used by some scholars to refer to the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther. The Joseph narrative (Genesis 37‒50), the narrative elements of the Book of Job (Job 1‒2 and 42:7‒17) and Daniel 1‒6 are also seen as being part of the same genre. Other writings which belong to the Apocrypha, such as Judith, Tobit and Susanna are also similar, see [1]. Lawrence Mills [1] helpfully points out that these stories are united to some extent by ‘the theme of innocents abroad’. In this sense whether the term novella is appropriate or not, there is evidence in terms of content to suggest that they belong to the same category.

There is, however, more that unites these stories than just the lone ‘Jewish’ protagonist facing the problem of how to cope with diverse challenges posed by Gentiles. There is often a sense of parody to these stories. This is sometimes seen in the use of these stories, for example, the book of Esther is used during the Jewish feast of Purim in a manner that is closer to a pantomime performance than a period drama. More often than not, religious readings of these books tend to suppress what is very likely deliberate humour and exaggeration. In this post we don’t have time to explore this fully. Instead we will briefly consider the book of Jonah as an example. Various oddities in the story will be highlighted and in conclusion the significance of these strange narrative elements will be outlined.

If possible pause here and read the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah and jot down all the things that stand out as odd.

Here is a list of some of the strange things mentioned in Jonah:

  • Jonah’s response at the start of the story seems nothing less than theatrical (Jonah 1:3).
  • All the Gentiles seem very godly compared to Jonah. This includes the god-fearing sailors (Jonah 1:14) and the entire 120,000 population of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
  • There is no getting away from the fact that someone being swallowed by a fish and surviving for three days and three nights is highly implausible (Jonah 1:17).
  • The story indirectly implies that the fish coughs Jonah up near Nineveh, but this city is several hundred miles from the sea (Jonah 2:10‒3:2).
  • Nineveh is said to be so large that it takes three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3).
  • Even the livestock wear sackcloth in the story (Jonah 3:5).
  • The plant that shades Jonah grows with fairy-tale speed (Jonah 4:6) only to be matched by its rapid demise because of a very hungry caterpillar (Jonah 4:7).

There is every reason to think that this story is a literary fiction, based on these exaggerations and oddities. Rather than its fictional nature being a problem there is a clear intent at instruction and a challenge for self-reflection. For example, there seems to be a deliberate contrast between God-fearing Gentiles and a prophet who knows his Scriptures—Jonah’s prayer is a complex restatement of many verses from The Psalms—but he has no care for the Gentiles. There is also a theological tension between the mercy dealt out by God and the punishment desired by the Prophet. A final puzzle is that the audience of the book of Jonah would have known that Nineveh was destroyed utterly by the Babylonians centuries earlier.

The fact that this book might be a fiction or a satire of a real prophet (see 2 Kings 14:25) does not prevent it having religious value. On the contrary, it means that it functions much like a parable. The reader is challenged to think about the character of God and about their own character. Interestingly the broad teaching of the book of Jonah is broadly the same whether we see at a parable or as a serious historical account.

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314-330, in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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