The Bible: planning the meaning

The book of Jonah contains some amazing structure, showing the author did more than just write down what happened. He structured a story that carried an unexpected meaning.

730729_13973862Let me explain something of the structure. The book has four chapters. Chapters 1 and 3 parallel each other in interesting ways. The same for chapters 2 and 4.

Many readers, however, tend to skip chapter 4 assuming the meaning of the story was landed by the end of chapter 3.

Let’s take a closer look.

The story in ways is a simple one. Jonah is a prophet of God who is told by God to go to Nineveh. Nineveh is the hated enemy of Jonah’s people and so he refuses, choosing instead to try to run away from God by booking passage on a ship in the other direction.

When a storm rages, the sailors of the ship look for a cause. Jonah admits that his disobedience has probably caused the storm and insists that they throw him overboard. They eventually do and Jonah is rescued when he’s swallowed by a giant fish.

During the three days he’s in the fish, Jonah has time to acknowledge God’s mercy in rescuing him. After he is thrown onto the shore, Jonah goes to Nineveh, preaches the message God gave him, and watches the Ninevites repent.

If we stop there, at the end of chapter 3, the book seems to be a story about how obedience produces good results.

But chapter 4 includes yet another twist, because Jonah sits on a hill outside Nineveh and sulks, hoping God will still destroy the city.

Chapters 1 and 3 both deal with pagans encountering God. In chapter 1, the sailors worship many gods but eventually, after throwing Jonah overboard (very unwillingly, for they fear this God who can whip up such a storm), worship God on the shore because the storm halted. These pagans recognize God’s hand in preserving their lives.

In chapter 3, the Ninevites hear Jonah’s warning and recognize God’s hand. They change their ways, repenting and asking God to relent.

The pagans recognize God’s sovereignty.

In chapters 2 and 4, the story centers more on Jonah’s dialogue with God. In chapter 2, he is grateful for God’s rescue and compares himself to those who cling to worthless idols. According to Jonah, they turn away from God’s love for them while he recognizes that salvation comes from the Lord. These prove to be empty words and Jonah’s attitude is revealed in the final chapter.

In chapter 4, he complains. “I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Then he declares that it would be better to die than see God extend mercy to Jonah’s enemies.

Although, in chapter 2, God does not answer Jonah, he does so in chapter 4.  God first sends a vine to shade Jonah and then sends a worm to kill the vine. God says, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

Jonah declares he’s so angry he wishes he were dead. He cares more for a vine than for the people of a city.

And the story ends with God’s statement. “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?”

Through the parallelism of the chapters, the reader is pushed beyond simply seeing Jonah as the repentant prophet. Instead, the structure shows that our author intended us to focus on God’s nature.

Although Jonah wants to limit God’s compassion to a narrow group of people, the reader is shown that God’s grace and mercy extends to all. Those who recognize God receive his kindness.

Structure gives us the tool to uncover that meaning.

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