Getting into Jonah by Seeing the Book’s Literary Structures

chiasm_textIn a pair of articles on literary structure and the book of Jonah, Ernst Wendland argues for what makes a chiasm valid, with a test case in the book of Jonah. As our church begins to study Jonah, I share the outlines from his second article. You can find his reflections on chiasms here.

They demonstrate how much the biblical authors, in this case Jonah or another prophet well-acquainted with Jonah, incorporated literary devices to express their arguments. For casual readers of the Bible, these outlines suggest that their are depths untold in the meaning and message of Scripture. For teachers, these are the structures we must find as we seek to understand the author’s original intent.

All the chiastic structures outlined below come from Ernst Wendland’s Text Analysis and Genre of Jonah (pt 2) (JETS 1996). The highlights are my own.

The Overall Structure of Jonah

A. (1:1–3) Yahweh calls Jonah the first time and he flees from Nineveh

B. (1:4–16) A life/death crisis; exhortation by the captain; Jonah’s unwilling message to the pagan sailors of the ship; result: they all repent and pray

C. (1:17) Surprising transition: Yahweh saves Jonah by means of a great fish

D. (2:1–9) Jonah’s response, a pious prayer: thank you—for letting me live

E. (2:10) Instruction: Yahweh’s miraculous object lesson is complete—Jonah is safely delivered

A’. (3:1–3) Yahweh calls Jonah the second time and he travels to Nineveh

B’. (3:4–9) A life/death crisis; Jonah’s unwilling message to the pagan people of the city; exhortation by the king; result: they all repent and pray (an even greater number)

C’. (3:10) Surprising transition: Yahweh saves Nineveh by “repenting” himself

D’. (4:1–4) Jonah’s response, a peeved prayer: please—just let me die

E’. (4:5–9) Instruction: Yahweh’s miraculous object lesson in the plant, worm and wind—Jonah is sorely afflicted

F’ (4:10–11) Conclusion (thematic peak): Yahweh’s last word to Jonah and to every current listener: “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (cf. 2:9)

Four Chiasms in Jonah

In addition to the overall storyline of Jonah, each chapter shows remarkable literary arrangement. Again, following the work of Ernst Wendland, consider how each chapter is structured.

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Reading Jonah

With these structures in mind, you are now better equipped to read this fascinating book. Even more, with these structures in mind, we find more clearly the original emphases. For more the literary structures of Jonah, see

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Reading the Bible Better: What Makes a Valid Chiasm?

chiasm_textStructure is not simply artificial device or literary elegance. It is a key to meaning. Oversight of structure may result in failure to grasp the true theme.
— Ernst Wendland —

This week, I enjoyed participating in my second Simeon Trust workshop. To those who teach the word regularly I can think of few ways to invest three days that will encourage and equip you more in your “Word work.” (You can also find great resources on their website).

At our workshop we focused on Prophetic literature, specifically on the book of Isaiah. Therein, the topic of finding a text’s structure was discussed, which brings us to the point of this post: chiasms.

Chiasms are literary structures that shape the words of Scripture in a X-like manner (hence, chiasm for the Greek letter X [Chi]). That is, chiasms work like a series of concentric circles, with an outer ring (A, A’), an inner ring(s) (B, B’), and an emphasized center (C). For instance, Jonah 1 presents a chiasm, with multiple layers.

A The LORD HURLED a storm (4)

A1 The mariners were afraid and joined YHWH in hurling cargo (5a)
A2 Jonah was unafraid and went down to sleep (5b)

B The captain confronted Jonah with God’s Words (‘Arise, call out …)

C The sailors query Jonah (7–8)

D Jonah identifies himself (9)

E The sailors are exceedingly afraid (10a

10b  X Fleeing the Presence of the LORD = God’s Discipline

E’ The sailors want to know what they can do (11)

D’ Jonah suggests that the sailors drown him – repent? (12)

C’ The sailors try to save him and themselves (13)

B’ The sailors call out to YHWH ‘let us not perish’ (14)

A’ The men HURLED Jonah into the sea – the storm stopped (15)

A1’ The men feared YHWH exceedingly (16)
A2’ Jonah was swallowed by a fish (17)

(For other chiasms see Genesis 1–11Matthew 3:1–4:17; 1 Corinthians 11–14).

While most acknowledge the use of chiasms in Scripture, there is greater disagreement on what designates a true chiasm. Put into the form of a question: How do we know when a passage is truly “chiastic” and not just the literary creation of the interpreter? What validates a chiasm? Continue reading

Reading the Bible Better: Developing a Strategy for Interpreting Scripture

lightFor the four years that I worked on my dissertation, it was my daily effort to read the Bible well. (N.B. This same priority continues to motivate my preaching and writing today too). While my dissertation defended definite atonement, it’s underlying premise was that a better strategy for reading the Bible would produce a more “biblical” doctrine. You’ll have to tell me if my reading is convincing, but the principle is sound—sound doctrine comes from sound exegesis. And sound exegesis comes from sound practices of reading.

Which raises the question: What are sound practices of reading?

Under the illumination of the Spirit, the task of interpretation is hard work. It requires diligent consideration of the biblical text and a willingness to labor to find the shape of the text. Learning the tools (what you might call “reading strategies”) is a vital part of pastoral ministry and should be something all Christians should be willing to grow.

For my part, when I find someone who reads Scripture well, I take note, and when I find those strategies well explained for others to imitate I am doubly encouraged. Such is the kind of approach I found in Ernst Wendland’s 1996 JETS article.

Focusing his attention on the challenge of interpreting Jonah, Wendland, a well-established biblical scholar, has a concise section on how to interpret the Bible. While the language is technical (sorry), his approach is solid and worth the read—especially if you are a pastor or teacher of the Bible. Continue reading