August 3, 2012 by jmar198013


At the end of his cognitive-linguistic analysis of the book of Jonah, Albert Kamp arrives at a set of conclusions concerning Jonah that to this reader’s mind border on facile: “From a theological point of view the text confronts me with a very liberal understanding of God, in which models of explanation of reality are not fixed in advance in rigid thought patterns, religious claims, and dogmatic premises . . . Left behind is a structurally altered view of God and the world.”[1] Perhaps my annoyance was rooted in the notion that, as novel as Kamp’s approach may have been, it failed to advance a novel resolution to a narrative that is jarringly open-ended.[2] Then again, perhaps it stems from the cynicism of one who has wrestled with the text, has been hobbled by it, and crying out for a blessing hears nary even a still, small voice; maybe I have become the “suspicious and irritable reader” who is willing to give the anti-heroes a more sympathetic hearing.[3]

The danger of reading the Bible as well-informed believers is that we are apt to finish all of its punch lines with a knowing wink. Jonah is one of those old jokes, although our prehension of it might owe more to flannel graph storyboards and Veggie Tales movies than the biblical text itself.[4] Jonah, however, is a strange tale which—like its divine protagonist YHWH—refuses our attempts to categorize, tame, or even really grasp it. For the character of Jonah, there is no punch line: “he is left hanging, his narrative thread untied and unraveling . . . the significance of his character left up to the whims of the reader.”[5] And, since the significance of the character of Jonah is to be left up to the whims of the reader, perhaps it is only fair that we not read him as a mere comedic foil, but with all the graciousness that is afforded to humans to exercise, recognize that “the narrative . . . makes inroads into the prophet’s body and the prophet’s mind,” leaving us with “the spectacle of a protagonist who seems seriously damaged by his narrative.”[6]

Against the aforementioned tableau, this essay suggests a route that may be taken to advance the discussion of Jonah, in terms of both exegesis of the text and the rich vein of theology to be mined thereby. Instead of viewing the narrative thrust of the story as YHWH the protagonist vs. the antagonist, Jonah,[7] the tale should be read in light of what Robert Alter has described as “the paradoxical double focus” often employed as a biblical narrative technique.[8] This double focus recognizes both human and divine agency–taking seriously both God and humans as moral actors–in a way that emphasizes the ambiguous relationship between divine and human causality. The YHWH-Jonah exchange—especially as the story ends—bears certain affinities to the example Alter uses, which is David’s retort to his estranged wife Michal when she challenges him for frolicking around half-naked in front of base women (2 Sam. 6.20-22). Says Alter of that confrontation: “David has the last word because, after all, he has the power, as he has just taken pains to point out to Michal . . . Michal can do nothing, and perhaps has literally nothing more to say, about her rage against her husband.”[9]

On this model, both YHWH and Jonah will be seen as protagonists (and antagonists) in their own right, and their movements and counter-movements at one of the story’s pivot points (along with a flashback) will be exegeted in this study in a manner weighted toward sympathy with Jonah’s position. This will be done to highlight the (oft-neglected) fact that the “antithetical reading is not repressed, hidden, waiting to be teased out . . . Jonah’s countertext presents itself as clearly as the main—that is YHWH’s—text.”[10] In essence, then, this study would find such a claim as Hans Wolff’s contentious (or at least in need of further nuance), namely that Jonah “is not really a story about Jonah at all. It is a story about Yahweh’s dealings with Jonah.”[11] Rather, it is a tale about YHWH and Jonah’s dealings with each other, and even at those “points where Jonah recedes completely into the background for the time being,”[12] the prophet’s protests are neither silenced nor frontally addressed, but are left echoing in the atmosphere of the semiotic continuum inhabited by both the prophet and YHWH.

[1] Albert Kamp, Inner Worlds: A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to the Book of Jonah, Biblical Interpretation Series, trans. David Orton (Boston: Brill, 2004), 234.

[2] Whether one construes Jonah along the lines of a xenophobe opened to YHWH’s inclusiveness, a spoilsport questioning the logic of mercy, or a true prophet genuinely concerned for the safety of Israel who is reminded that all distressed nations matter to YHWH, the outcome of Jonah is always “supposed” to be that the reader comes to have a broader appreciation for YHWH’s ineffability, with the tacit assurance that it is ultimately benign (at least, according to Rom. 8.28, for the elect).

[3] Alice Bach, Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21-22.

[4] On editorial circumcisions and other forms of violence perpetrated against the text of Jonah in popular church resources, see Russell W. Dalton, “Perfect Prophets, Helpful Hippos, and Happy Endings: Noah and Jonah in Children’s Bible Storybooks in the United States,” Religious Education 102 (Sum 2007): 298-313. Dalton even notes a version that includes an illustration of Jonah and the king of Nineveh embracing with smiling faces, and ends with the hand of God patting Jonah on the back (308)!

[5] Walter B. Crouch, “To Question an End, To End a Question: Opening the Closure of the Book of Jonah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 62 (1994): 101-12.

[6] Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 275.

[7] Conversely, if one were to look at the events from Jonah’s vantage-point, YHWH would be seen as the antagonist. It should soon become apparent that this study advocates considering the book from this perspective as a valid interpretive enterprise, even if one ultimately sides with YHWH.

[8] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 125. It was Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 274, that planted the seed of this notion in my mind to apply the “double focus” device to Jonah. See also the excellent discussion of dual causality and historical determinism in biblical historical narratives in Roland Boer, Jameson and Jeroboam, Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), 155-58.

[9] Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 125.

[10] Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 277.

[11] Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 81.

[12] Ibid.



  1. […] True to the spirit of what I have written thus far, I shall make no attempt to slap a pithy moral onto the tale. YHWH’s final words to Jonah make their point: “Am I not supposed to be distressed over Nineveh—that great city!—where there are more than 120,000 humans who don’t know their right hand from their left, and beasts of burden galore?” (Jon. 4.11 JSM). YHWH says this, of course, as the creator (see v. 10), a perspective Jonah (or any human) cannot be expected to understand. This propensity of God’s to fret over scores of clueless humans and thus extend mercy is called his folly and weakness by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 1.25), and though we might rejoice in it insofar as it applies to us, what cannot be forgotten is that ignorant humans, individually or in hordes, are wont to wreak havoc, such as carrying out holocausts, starting wars, persecuting the helpless, or lynching Jesus, for that matter. This is why Jonah’s voice must be heard; otherwise, grace can only be cheap, and there is no cost to be counted before picking up our crosses. Thus, we leave the narrative as open-endedly as does the author. The book’s lack of closure invites a choice to be made between Jonah’s position and YHWH’s (or perhaps a reverent agnosticism betwixt the two), but it is not a choice that one can make for another. “God is right and Jonah is right. But their respective positions are mutually exclusive. Who will tip the balance one way or another?”[1] […]


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