A Review of Jonah: Beyond the Tale of the Whale by Dr Mark Yarbrough

“Those who like this kind of book will find this to be the kind of book they like.” – Abraham Lincoln

This year, a new president was installed at the seminary I attended, Dallas Theological Seminary, the sixth to hold this position in its almost one hundred year history. Best wishes for your success, Dr Mark Yarbrough. In one press release introducing Dr Yarbrough, it was mentioned that he just released a book on the biblical book of Jonah titled Jonah: Beyond the Tale of the Whale. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020)

Jonah has been an interest of mine for some time. I have opinions concerning its complicated contents and I hope to do a series on it on my blog. So, I bought a copy.

Before going into the actual analysis in the book, I am compelled to observe what this book does in the “Dallas” scheme of things. This book came out very recently. The cover titles Dr Yarbrough as President of Dallas Theological Seminary, even though he was inaugurated just in August. His appointment was announced in April or May, so it seems to me that this book was published at this time to introduce him and his pastoral self to the DTS family, to give them a good feeling about him.

And they should feel good and comfortable with the contents of this book. It has the Dallas “style”. The jacket blurb contains recommendations of the book from several DTS “Superstars”. He quotes from The Bible Knowledge Commentary (A DTS published two-volume commentary on the whole Bible. It’s very good for the “layman” and the sermon-prepping pastor but to see it quoted in a book is unusual.) The section on Jonah was written by Dr John Hannah, a very popular Professor at DTS. One endnote sends the reader to soniclight.com, the website of Dr Tom Constable, another popular DTS professor. He has the obligatory “Prof” story (a story of interaction with Dr Howard Hendricks (1924-2013), AKA “Prof”). And for the very traditional, when he quotes a song or hymn (Ya gotta quote a hymn. It’s in the rules.), they were all written before 1900. Thank you, Second Great Awakening, for your great hymns. Surprisingly, he only quotes from one of the previous presidents of the Seminary, Dr Donald Campbell. I feel confident that Dr Charles “Chuck” Swindoll – who is the Dallas-man expositor par excellence – has a book on Jonah. I’m also confident that it is very quotable. I also notice that Dr Swindoll, always good for a good book blurb, is not quoted in the four pages of book blurbs introducing the book.

As for the book itself, this is popularly written. A couple times he dips into the Hebrew language (kinda obligatory for a “Dallas” book) but I think he avoids the technical information-dense writing which Dallas students are prone to have. His intention is to have a practical book. Rather than your stereo-typical “three points and a poem”, the book’s 14 quick read chapters are one point and sometimes a poem. The thirteenth chapter reviews the previous chapters as a run-through summary of the book of Jonah with each of the points in their place. As a teaching book, I think the format and the summary are well done. The fact that it has 14 chapters also shows the intent that this book be used by churches and Sunday Schools to fit in one quarter of the year.

Each chapter “sets the stage” with an illustration from Yarbrough’s life. Typically, these illustrations involve his family. I once read a book on writing sermons in which the author talked about the tension of using family as sermon illustrations without considering the feelings of said illustrations. They could feel put on the spot or embarrassed or even shamed. His solution was to pay some agreed amount of money to the “illustration”. If Dr Yarbrough has this kind of arrangement with his family, he owes them a boatload of cash.

Having set the stage, he quotes the text of Jonah, explains it and then applies it with the point which he calls a “Growth Indicator” (If you are growing spiritually, you will be doing this). As I said, this strikes me as an effective teaching format.

I would not call this book an exposition, however. Whatever hard work of translating, research, exegesis and analysis Dr Yarbrough did leading up to his writing, he does not synthesize the Book of Jonah in the book. There is no “big picture” outline and more than a few details in Jonah are brushed over or ignored completely; they do not fit into the teaching purpose for Dr Yarbrough’s book.

I would call this book a “Meditation” on Jonah, the theme of the Meditation being, “Jonah is a selfish dolt whose every action or reaction serves as an anti-example of what you should be doing”. This theme strikes me as loaded with “big splash” potential for a “practical” book but also as an easy and superficial take on the story of Jonah.

It lends itself to perpetual glancing askance at and judging of Jonah, which I think is the wrong way to approach the Scriptures. I have written before of the “good old impetuous Peter, always sticking his foot in his mouth” commitment of some writings. I think it would be harsh to call Yarbrough’s book eisegesis, but to approach any biblical book with a “theme” in mind short circuits some deep wrestling with the text (not for the author, who I presume has spent a lot of time and hard work preparing, but for those who use the book for their Bible Study).

For example, Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 seems to be rich in OT theology (and contains a statement of what I believe is the central lesson of the Book). But, Yarbrough’s book is a meditation on “Jonah is a selfish dolt who is an anti-example” so the details of the prayer are rushed through to reach the conclusion that Jonah didn’t really mean any of the prayer. He was just spewing clichés. And the “Growing Indicator” is one should “confess sin rather than pious words of religiosity” (p.97)

It also lends itself to the speculative “God was trying to do such and such but Jonah did otherwise” type of argumentation, where “such and such” comes from the imagination of the meditator and not the Book of Jonah. There are a few examples of that in the book.

I read a magazine article talking about a passage from one of the Gospels in which, after quoting the passage, the author said “What do you think Jesus was thinking? I like to think Jesus was thinking …” and the rest of the article was him expounding on what he “liked to think” Jesus was thinking. “This article is no longer based on Scripture” is my thinking. This is why I think it’s important to distinguish between an exposition and a meditation. Not that meditation is illegitimate but it’s a different animal than an exposition. A meditation is a guided tour based in the author’s “sanctified imagination”. Its value is based on the trustworthiness of the author. For myself, I am seldom willing to just “let my mind go” and enjoy the ride of someone else’s imagination.

So, do I like this book or not? Well, as a meditation I think there are some thought-provoking points which he makes. Since it seems to be written and formatted to help the Bible Study leader go through the Book of Jonah, I also think it is a good book for that purpose but I hope it would not be used as a stand-alone resource for their study. There is really more to learn in the Book of Jonah and the character of Jonah far more three-dimensional than this book allows.

Finally, I want to bring up one part of one chapter which concerned me (chapter 2, Do as I say not as I do pp 35-48) not to quibble about his explanation of the Book of Jonah but what it seems to reflect of the attitude of Dr Yarbrough and what attitudes are being instilled in the readers. In the first chapter of Jonah, Jonah received his call, he disobediently got on a boat and the boat set sail. When the storm hit, in the middle of the sailors’ frantic actions, the text says that Jonah was asleep (“The Hebrew word means deep sleep”, Dr Yarbrough correctly observes but (Okay. One quibble) it also can mean entranced as in Jonah as a prophet could have been in a trance-like state while communicating with God.) It’s an important part of the story and one has to deal with it. Dr Yarbrough, after making due hay about the ridiculousness of Jonah being asleep during a life-threatening storm, tries to hypothesize about how it was he was asleep in a huge storm. “I don’t have a formal degree in counseling”, he writes, “But one of the telltale signs of depression is when someone sleeps – a lot.” (p. 40)

Having put out the possibility that Jonah was depressed, he calls depression an “escape” and the opposite of being “on point”. He further describes depression-induced sleep as “laziness” “foolishness” and a “lack of attention” (all p. 40). Speaking as not-Jonah who has suffered from depression, all this is quite “leadership” focused in its action-demanding and empathy-less stereotype and I believe it’s not very charitable to those who suffer from depression. The answer is seldom as easy as a “God’s children are to be sober-minded, alert, and on-duty” (p. 40) scolding.

In the Church, there is always a tension about mental problems/Counseling, divided between those who consider psychological damage as damage which can be professionally treated and those who think psychological issues are sin and counseling is just someone trying to blame-shift responsibility for their own sin. Dr Yarbrough’s take here seems to land towards this second end of the spectrum and I wonder how Dr Yarbrough’s example here will play out in the Seminary’s Counseling courses.

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