JONAH’S HĀPAK: The literary setting of Jonah 4.2


August 5, 2012 by jmar198013

Finding a Home for the Text: Jon. 4.2’s Place in the Book of Jonah
The desire to do an organic exegesis was stated above; what that might look like is amorphous; indeed, it is an intentionally ambiguous phrase. The question of, “Where to begin?” (outside the obvious, with the text itself), looms heavily. I chose to begin with the question, “What is Jonah’s structure?” in order to consider in which soil an exegesis of Jon. 4.2-3 (a text chosen completely on an intuition of mine that it represented the “aha!” moment of the story, at least from understanding Jonah’s perspective) would best flourish. Scholarly suggestions ranging from complicated ring-compositions[1] to suggesting that there are no significant exegetical elements[2] to be found within patterns arising from the structure seemed, in the case of the former, far-fetched and forced, and with the latter, a cop-out. Simply stated, the “structure” of Jonah presents itself as a Rube Goldberg machine elaborately concocted to provoke a chain-reaction that will finally ensure the rhetorical show-down between Jonah and YHWH in ch. 4. I finally found a scholarly confirmation for my hunch about the structure of Jonah in a study by Raymond Person that broke the book down into a series of “adjacency pairings”; that is, an initial request (in the book of Jonah’s case, the command for Jonah to prophesy doom against Nineveh) can only be met by acceptance or refusal. Jonah refuses, and this sets off the chain of events seen in the book.[3]

The basic pattern of the adjacency pairings forming the book of Jonah works as follows: “Get up, set out [qûm lēk] for Nineveh, the great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my notice [lĕpānāy]” (Jon. 1.2); and in response: “Jonah instead got up [wayyāqom] to abscond to Tarshish, away from the LORD’s notice [millipnê YHWH]” (Jon. 1.3a, b). The repetition of qûm in vv. 2-3 emphasizes the defiance of Jonah’s flight by making it look (ever so briefly) as if the prophet is about to do what he is told.[4] Further accentuating the adjacency construction of the narrative at this juncture is the repetition of penê in vv. 2-3, where in v. 2, YHWH states that the “evil/distress” (rāʹātām) of Nineveh has come to his attention (lit., “come up to my face”), Jonah sets out to flee away from YHWH’s attention (“face”).

Beyond the practicality and ease of use that comes with the adjacency pairing structural proposition for Jonah is that it allows for a greater appreciation of the doubly-focused nature of the narrative. This is where my earlier analogy of the Rube Goldberg contraption becomes even more poignant. A Rube Goldberg machine is one that is intentionally inefficient, performing a mundane task in a circuitous and convoluted manner. The double-focus of this narrative involves, on the one hand, YHWH sending Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, their subsequent repentance, and YHWH’s relenting from punishing them; and, on the other, Jonah’s assertion (4.2) that he knew YHWH would forgive them all along. If what Jonah suspects of YHWH holds true (and from YHWH’s discourse in 4.10-11, it does not appear to be a far-fetched notion), then Jonah’s role in the process does seem redundant.

On another level, the adjacency-pairing balance is intentionally disrupted by the narrator, for though the reader is told that Jonah fled his commissioning (Jon. 1.3), the narrator withholds the prophet’s reason for flight until 4.2. Thus, throughout the divinely-appointed misadventures that befall Jonah subsequent his refusal of the divine mandate (Jon. 1.4-2.10), and the second commission and its outcomes (the people repent of their evil and YHWH repents of the evil he intended for Nineveh), the reader is left trying to fill in the gap.[5] Person suggests that this device allows the narrator to use the “flashback [of Jon. 4.2] in order to describe Jonah’s first success and therefore make his anger look even more ridiculous.”[6] And this is where I depart from Person. For the purposes of this study, the flashback occasioned by Jon. 4.2 will not only explain his response to YHWH’s command, but put his anger (Jon. 4.1) into perspective—as well as his haphazard approach to prophesying in Nineveh (Jon. 3.4).

And here is where I begin making bold exegetical moves in defense of Jonah’s position. First, though it is natural to note the gap between Jonah’s flight (Jon. 1.3) and his explanation of it (4.2), Jonah’s reason for running away from his commission is preceded by a note on his reaction to the situation in which he finds himself (4.1). Most English translations of Jon. 4.1, I am afraid, wrongly nuance wayyēraʻ ʼel-yônâ rāʻâ gedôlâ. Hence:

“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.” (NIV)

“But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (NRSV)

“Jonah was really upset and angry.” (CEV)

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (ESV)

I am going to make the radical suggestion that we translate Jon. 4.1 rather literally: “But this was evil to Jonah, very evil, and he became angry.” What was evil to Jonah? The fact that YHWH had forced him to preach in Nineveh, that the Ninevites were repenting, and that YHWH would relent from punishing them. This tableau did not merely “displease” Jonah—he found it morally objectionable. And this is to be the background for our exegesis of his prayer in 4.2 below.

[1] So David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 292-95; Jonathan Magonet, Form and Meaning: Studies in Literary Techniques in the Book of Jonah, Bible and Literature Series 8 (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983), 29-64; George M. Landes, “The Kerygma of the Book of Jonah: The Contextual Interpretation of the Jonah Psalm,” Interpretation 21 (Jan 1967), 24-25.

[2] Thomas M. Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah Re-Examined, JSOTSup 236 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 70-71; Sasson, Jonah, 204.

[3] Raymond F. Person, Jr. In Conversation with Jonah: Conversation Analysis, Literary Criticism, and the Book of Jonah, JSOTSup 220 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 25-28; 36-54.

[4] Sasson, Jonah, 77; Alan Jon Hauser, “Jonah: In Pursuit of the Dove,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104.1 (1985): 22-23.

[5] Person, In Conversation with Jonah, 87-88. An interesting exploitation of this gap is to be found, for instance, in Alan Jon Hauser, “Jonah: In Pursuit of the Dove,” 22, who states, of all possible explanations a reader encountering the story for the first time might come up with for Jonah’s flight, one might be “that Jonah may be fleeing to avoid being the agent of Nineveh’s destruction.”

[6] Person, In Conversation with Jonah, 88.


2 thoughts on “JONAH’S HĀPAK: The literary setting of Jonah 4.2

  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 Jonah make their point: “Am I not […]

  2. […] JONAH’S HĀPAK: The literary setting of Jonah 4.2 […]

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