JONAH’S HĀPAK: Genre and methodology

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August 4, 2012 by jmar198013

On Methodology: A Trans-Methodological Approach for a Trans-Genre Book[1]

In the introduction it was offered that the book of Jonah “is a strange tale which—like its divine protagonist YHWH—refuses our attempts to categorize, tame, or even really grasp it.” This strangeness spills over into the story’s resistance to learned attempts to assign to it a literary genre. The search for the genre of Jonah embodies the counsel of Qoheleth: “be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles. 12.12 AV).[2] The book itself is an oddball in the prophetic corpus, a tale purported to have happened to Jonah ben-Amittai, who would have been known to readers from an appearance in 2 Kings 14.23ff, during the days of Jeroboam II. For some, especially form critics conditioned by the notion that a prophetic book should contain primarily oracular rather than narrative material, the inclusion of Jonah among the Twelve is nothing short of scandalous.[3]

This very scandal is instantiated by the rush to fit Jonah onto the Procrustean bed known as a literary genre.[4] And so various genres are adduced and tried on Jonah in a scholarly equivalent of Cinderella’s glass slipper: “myth, fable, folktale, allegory, midrash, legend, parable, satire, parody, theodicy, and the like.”[5] But Jonah can be made to fit any of those slippers only at the expense of a few toes, or according to Sasson’s genteel evaluation, “Needless to say, each position appeals only to a small fraction in scholarship.”[6] It should by now, however, be clear that the massive failure of great minds to reach anything like consensus in terms of the genre of the book stems from what Wolff has described as “the protean character of the material and traditions that go to make up the book.”[7] In other words, the book of Jonah is trans-genred; just to the extent that scholars continue to pin a specific genre to it, they will come away frustrated, and the meaning of the text will also be frustrated, even distorted, in exegesis, hermeneutics, and application. Again, it is a tale that simply refuses attempts to classify, and hence tame and manipulate it.[8]

Such a scenario as described above provokes a radical re-apprehension in the direction of methodology: a trans-genred work demands a trans-methodology. It has already been observed in this study that there is a material connection between one’s chosen methodology and the genre assigned to Jonah, and that this continuum bears significant consequences for the hermeneutical process (and by extension, theological rumination, at both ends of the descriptive and prescriptive polarity). If what we have observed about Jonah’s defiance of genre-imposition holds true (and in light of the long-running and ongoing scholarly loggerheads in regards to that matter, it seems a safe assumption), then a logical response is to adapt to the demands of the text, i.e., to encounter the narrative qua narrative, on its own terms.

Such a radical yielding to the text could be rightly termed organic exegesis, a process of being schooled in/by the text which trusts in the reader’s innate curiosity and willingness to have her prehensions of the text refined by its parochial features (i.e., the text’s own internal logic and organizing principles, its function as a document of community formation and reformation, and its subsequent reception and actualization by said communities).[9]

Yielding to the text (and by that I mean any number of things—submitting to it, being seduced by it, accepting it for what it is even if one does not agree with its posture) is liberating in that it allows the needs of the text to subordinate the demands of methodology. One is free to adopt a methodological posture just until that methodology no longer suits the demands of the text; or to recognize the validity of results garnered by methodologies that seem to be at loggerheads (e.g., historical-critical readings vs. literary ones), and indeed apply those results situationally. Yvonne Sherwood refers to her interpretation of Jonah, for instance, “as a hash, a jambalaya (a recombination of older more piquant, marginal readings).”[10] Such a way of handling the text is perhaps a prototype for my own inclinations here. The liberating feature of my chosen approach puts the “trans” in trans-methodological, insofar as the prefix “trans” inhabits a semantic continuum connoting both “beyond” and “across.” Jonah is an ideal book for just such an experiment, owing to its parochial difficulties (e.g., what Wolff has described as “the protean character of the material and traditions that go to make up the book,” as seen above). Again—my primary thesis (at least in terms of how to approach Jonah): a trans-genred work invites (demands?) a trans-methodology.

While such a trans-methodology as the one described above will certainly invite the criticism that it admits an unacceptable amount of imprecision[11] in the handling of biblical texts, it is defensible in the case of Jonah, at least, inasmuch as “Jonah’s position can be given any number of cogent glosses.”[12] Again, this is where my frustration with the hermeneutical continuum of methodology to exegesis to theology-building (whether of the descriptive or prescriptive variety) becomes apparent, because a broad survey of the literature surrounding Jonah offers—no matter the methodology employed—facile variations on what the story is about (xenophobic prophet learns of God’s inclusiveness, or curmudgeonly prophet learns about grace)[13] and what “principles” or “messages” may be distilled from it (outlined succinctly by Barbara Green as: “God loves us all; mercy is more urgent than justice; Jews need to try harder”).[14]
This situation is problematic in terms of theory because the complicated nuances of the book of Jonah suggest something more “visceral” and “less cerebral than a principle”[15] is represented therein. Likewise, it is problematic on the pragmatic end to the extent that it dulls us to the rich array of analogues possible between the text and our own life situation(s). Just as “scholars are reluctant to admit more than one literary classification for a single piece of literature,”[16] so it seems that they are equally obsessed to pin down tidy “interpretive apophthegms”[17] (preferably one at a time) that may represent the fruits of their exegetical labors. Yet as Hans Wolff reminds us: “skilled though [the author of Jonah] is in the creation of scenes and in the use of satire, grotesque, and irony as literary methods, our writer is not a systematic theologian.”[18]

Having outlined my trans-methodology, wherein both reader and method submit to the demands of the text, the subsequent sections of this study shall proceed as an application of such an organic exegesis of the text of Jonah 4.2 vis-à-vis 2 Kings 14.23-29. Three distinctive features, two native to the text of Jonah itself, and one specifically related to a presupposition undergirding my approach to Jonah, are noted below. These provide a basic program for the exegetical venture undertaken in the following sections.

(1) The basic structure of the book of Jonah is an open-ended doubly-focused narrative, as demonstrated by its building-block-like narrative elements (e.g., the exchanges between YHWH and Jonah which propel the story) coupled with its lack of formal closure. Any exegesis of any part of the narrative must take into account this feature and a particular portion of text’s role or function within that framework.

(2) An issue of intertextuality, largely undeveloped by biblical scholarship, is instantiated by Jon. 4.2, where the prophet references “my word while I was still in my own country” (JSM),[19] which brings to mind the content of his prophetic word as detailed in 2 Kings 14.25.

(3) This particular exegetical exercise adopts a posture essentially sympathetic to Jonah’s position, as stated in Jon. 4.2. The double-focus and open-endedness of the narratival structure of the book render such a position licit. Furthermore, the tendency by dominant readings to reduce Jonah’s role to one of a buffoon or mere object-lesson—a strategy which disrespects the complexities of the issues surrounding the tale of Jonah (theodicy, the limits of justice, the problematic nature of mercy)—demands that someone amplify the voice of the troubled prophet. Perhaps paradoxically, only in offering just nuance to Jonah’s protest will true justice be done to YHWH’s counterpoint. Otherwise, YHWH’s presumed (by the text) posture becomes a trite platitude. Only when one appreciates (as does Jonah) what is at stake in YHWH’s program (as stated through the exchange between YHWH in the prophet in 4.4-11, especially YHWH’s words in vv. 10-11) may one make a truly informed decision whether or not to accept YHWH’s program.[20]

[1] Credit goes to my colleague Joseph Kelly for suggesting the notions of trans-genre and trans-methodology.

[2] Good surveys of genre proposals for the book of Jonah may be found, for those so inclined, in the following resources: Millar Burrows, “The Literary Category of the Book of Jonah,” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament: Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May, ed. H. T. Frank and W. L. Reed, 80-107 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970); T. Desmond Alexander, “Jonah and Genre,” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985): 35-59. James Limburg assigns it the genre “didactic story,” see his Jonah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 22-28. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 82, settles (with some reservation) on “novella” as a designation for the book’s genre. For an insightful, balanced, and cautious assessment of various proposals, see Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation, Anchor Bible 24B (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 327-40.

[3] See W. Eugene March, “Prophecy,” in Old Testament Form Criticism, ed. John Haralson Hayes, 141-77 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1977) and Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), which both exclude Jonah from treatment. One would assume that form-critical considerations have contributed to this neglect, excluding Jonah from the prophetic table on account of the book’s idiosyncratic form. Others begrudgingly offer that Jonah was selected arbitrarily to round out the collection into the significant number of twelve. See Karl Budde, “Jonah, Book of,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Cyrus Adler, et al. (New York: Funk and Wagnall, 1904), 7:229. Disturbed by such postures, and noting that the Twelve have been “the Twelve” time out of mind (cf. Sir. 49.10), Elmer Dyck replies that such formal considerations are modern inventions, and would not have concerned the ancients. See his “Jonah Among the Prophets: A Study in Canonical Context,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (March 1990): 63-66. On how the atypical features of Jonah actually serve to reinforce its status as a prophetic book, see Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud, JSOTSup 367 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 80-98.

[4] Thus Sasson, Jonah, 326: “It is common for biblical scholars to locate Jonah within a known genre of literature, hoping that the traditions and affinities it shares with comparable material will permit better insight into Jonah’s many interpretive problems.” “Interpretive problems” is a polite way to say, “This work of literature doesn’t behave like it’s supposed to.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hans Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 80.

[8] Here it should be noted that this study does not propose disregarding genre as such as a legitimate (and necessary) component of the exegetical and hermeneutical processes. Indeed, poetry should not be subject to the same rules of interpretation as prose, etc. The overarching concern of this study is an imposition of a genre onto a text (Jonah) that resists such categorization. This approach strikes me as similar to the scenario highlighted by phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels, wherein an observer attempts to define a strange phenomenon in a culture other than their own using categories indigenous to their own culture (e.g., attempting to parse out a particular form of psychosis from data provided in biblical accounts of demon possession). According to Waldenfels, this is a function instantiated in the penumbra of three powerful (and dangerous) mechanisms: ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and logocentrism. See his Der Stachel des Fremden, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 868 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1990), 57-71. Imposing a genre onto an unwilling text is tantamount to oppression.

[9] See Wayne A. Meeks, “A Hermeneutics of Social Embodiment,” Harvard Theological Review 79 (1986): 176-86.

[10] Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 210.

[11] To my own mind, that “imprecision” is what allows the interpretive venture to remain a game worth playing; the point of one reading may perhaps not be dulled by the counterpoint of another—they may, in fact act as iron sharpening iron.

[12] Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 274. It is this author’s supposition that this is true not only of Jonah but most any written work (telephone books, technical manuals, and assembly instructions may be exempt from this appraisal). See also Timothy K. Beal, “Ideology and Intertextuality: Surplus of Meaning and Controlling the Means of Production,” in Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation, ed. Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 27-40. Says Beal, “Every text—as an intersection of other textual surfaces—suggests an indeterminate surplus of meaningful possibilities. Interpretation is always a production of meaning from that surplus” (31). Beal further suggests that dominant modes of biblical criticism—canonical, form, or rhetorical, for instance—essentially set limits (or in Marxian terms, “control the means of production”) for the interpretive enterprise, which raises the question: “Which voices are marginalized and which are foregrounded when these critical approaches are put into practice?” (36). In this particular study, I am suggesting that it is the voice of the prophet Jonah himself that is most often marginalized in any reading of the text, no matter the methodology employed.

[13] So Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah; John C. Holbert, “’Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh: Satire in the Book of Jonah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81; Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 94-116.

[14] Barbara Green, “Beyond Messages: How Meaning Emerges from Our Reading of Jonah,” Word and World 27 (Spring 2007): 150.

[15] Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 243.

[16] Sasson, Jonah, 326,

[17] Green, “Beyond Messages,” 149.

[18] Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 87.

[19] All translations marked “JSM” are the author’s own. Other citations of biblical material will be appropriately noted.

[20] At this point, I would offer that as arrogant as it sounds to offer mere mortals the opportunity to accept or reject YHWH’s program, this is the privilege afforded us by YHWH’s decision to grant humans free will. In fact, for the disciple (or would-be disciple) Jesus presents such a decision-making process as an obligation, which he terms counting the cost (see Luke 14.28-32).

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2 thoughts on “JONAH’S HĀPAK: Genre and methodology

  1. […] 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 […]

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