Each year during the spring semester my Prophets class brings new levels of fixation on those familiar characters that so few actually know. The process began early this year. With several students of eastern Christian persuasion, Jonah became an issue based on the folkloristic nature of the tale. Jonah is particularly prone to a literal interpretation because of the “sign of Jonah” trope cited by none other than Jesus himself. Also, as I learned in my doleful days at Gorgias Press, many eastern Christians understand Jonah as a special favor to them, sent by Yahweh well before Christianity began. Even with the full weight of history against them, the students are unwilling to relinquish Jonah to his native literary genre. Then came Isaiah.
Isaiah is the most heavily co-opted prophet in the canon. Well, one might put Elijah in the running, and it would be a Chariots of Fire finish I’m sure, but as the most quoted prophet in the Christian Scriptures, Isaiah would come out on the Liddell end. So massive is this sense of ownership that Isaiah’s direct prophecy concerning the Syro-Ephramite Crisis in 7.13-17 is incapable of being understood as anything other than a prediction of a virgin birth some seven centuries down the road. Interestingly enough, it is the literal sense of this passage that is generally overlooked in favor of a later interpretation.
Even the sense of what prophecy was in the ancient world has been altered to an unrecognizable jumble by later agendas. Prophets spoke out regarding current issues (“the two kings you dread”), occasionally providing future, generally conditional, remarks. In our apocalypse-hungry society, pundits are eager for the culmination of all things and the more fireworks the better. If old Jonah and Isaiah were sitting together in a bar I can imagine the stories they’d exchange. And it wouldn’t be a whale (excuse me, “big fish”) that would be doing most of the swallowing.