The trouble with outlining a narrative is that an outline often ruins the story for the reader. Stories are supposed to be enjoyed by reading the story, not by scanning an outline. Biblical stories are ruined by outlining them in the same way that literary classics are destroyed by reading Cliff Notes. Since “the book of Jonah is a model of literary artistry”[ref][contentblock id=5 img=html.png]197[/ref] I am hesitant to provide any sort of outline which may ruin this well-crafted story. It is “one of the masterpieces of biblical literature”[ref][contentblock id=4 img=html.png]51[/ref] and so any outline that reveals the ending of the story before it is read should come with a spoiler alert.
I could, of course, provide an outline such as those found in the typical commentary on Jonah. Here is an example which I have used in the past:
Jonah 1: Jonah Running From God
Jonah 2: Jonah Running Into God
Jonah 3: Jonah Running With God
Jonah 4: Jonah Trying to Run God
This outline has a nice repetition of words and names, but it does little to explain the plotline of the story. In fact, such a structure may actually confuse the plotline, thereby obscuring the message of the book of Jonah. A more detailed outline, which shows the beauty of the book, is as follows:
I. A Hebrew Sinner Saved (1:1–2:11)
A. Jonah’s disobedience (1:1-3)
B. Jonah’s punishment (1:4-16)
C. Jonah’s rescue (1:17–2:11).
1. God’s grace (1:17)
2. Jonah’s praise (2:1-10)
3. God’s last word (2:11)
II. Heathen Sinners Saved (3:1–4:11)
A. Jonah’s obedience (3:1-4)
B. Nineveh’s repentance (3:5-9)
C. Jonah’s rebuke (3:10–4:11)
1. God’s grace (3:10)
2. Jonah’s plaint (4:1-3)
3. God’s last word (4:4-11)[ref][contentblock id=5 img=html.png]200[/ref]
This outline is better than the first, but gives away too much of the story too quickly, and is begging to move away from approaching Jonah as a story, and into the realm of treating Jonah as a text to be dissected and analyzed.
To understand the story of Jonah, you must approach it as you would any other story—by reading it. For the story to have its proper effect, the reader must ask the questions raised in the text, wrestle with the issues at their proper time, and watch how the plot develops and is resolved.
So the following outline goes back to the simpler structure of the first outline while avoiding the complexity and plot spoilers of the second. Rather than provide an actual “outline” with main points and sub points, I will use the more conventional method of organizing stories: I will lay out the story in Acts. Since the book of Jonah is a story, it is preferable to talk about the “Acts of Jonah” rather than the outline.
Act 1: Jonah’s Death Wish
Act 2: Jonah’s Self-Righteous Prayer
Act 3: Jonah’s Second Chance
Act 4: Jonah’s Argument with God[ref][contentblock id=7 img=html.png]810[/ref]
These four Acts do not reveal the plotline of the story, and provide little more than a skeletal structure upon which the plotline hangs. They still provide a structure, but rather than spoil the storyline of Jonah, they (hopefully) draw the reader in to experience the twists and turns of the plot as they develop. And there is a great plot to this story. “This little book is a series of surprises; it is crammed with an accumulation of hair-raising and eye-popping phenomena, one after the other.”[ref][contentblock id=5 img=html.png]176[/ref] It is a great story, and should be treated as such. Hopefully, outlining the book as a series of four Acts will aid in telling the story as a story.
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