JONAH’S HĀPAK: The undoing of the prophet


August 6, 2012 by jmar198013

Jonah’s Hāpak: Jon. 4.2 vis-à-vis 2 Kings 14.23-29

The choice of “Jonah’s hāpak” as a means of titling/classifying the exegesis of the passage at hand has to do with the use of the verb in Jonah’s message to Nineveh in Jon. 3.4: ʻôd ʼarbāʹȋm yôm wenȋnewēh nehpāket (“Forty days and Nineveh is overturned/turned over!” JSM). The use of hāpak here is deliciously ambiguous, as has been noted by interpreters at least as far back as the rabbis.[1] Though the basic glosses of the word inhabit a wide semantic continuum containing both inversion and demolition,[2] and including a change of heart for good or ill,[3] as Sasson notes, because the word is found in the niphal stem in relation to cities only here, there is much more wiggle room to allow for the reflexive sense, as a great many niphal forms do—so, “Nineveh will turn itself around,”—or, to allow for intentional ambiguity.[4] The latter is the option to which I am most sympathetic, for reasons that should become apparent below. To my mind, the events that befall Jonah over the course of his own narrative likewise turn him inside out, demolish him, and turn his heart upside down. The Jonah we as readers encounter in Jon. 4.2‑3 has been pushed to his breaking point.

As noted above, in Jon. 4.1, Jonah finds the events in which he has been forced to participate morally objectionable. To fully comprehend why this is so, it is necessary to briefly exit the text of Jonah. If one read purely on the grounds on inter-textual exegesis[5]—hence, a reader-centered approach[6] that paid attention only to the interplay between biblical texts, all extratextual questions dealing with historical referents aside—one would gather from other readings that Nineveh was the future capital of the Assyrian empire that eventually destroyed Israel (2 Kings 17; Nahum 1-3). In that case, one would not need to be so bold as Marvin Sweeney, who states that “Jonah as a prophet is expected to know that Assyria will destroy his homeland Israel.”[7] The reader would simply import what they knew from those other texts to explain Jonah’s moral outrage.

The aforementioned moral indignation provides the appropriate backdrop against which to read, exegete, and interpret Jon. 4.2,[8] which reads:

So [Jonah] prayed to YHWH: “YHWH, was this not my word while I was still in my own country? That’s why I cut and ran for Tarshish at first; because I saw that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with ferocious compassion, and eager to relent from causing disaster.” (JSM)

Jonah’s prayer, explaining (finally) his flight from YHWH, mentions a “word” (dābār) of his while still in his homeland. This is not insignificant, and there is a direction in which scholarship has not developed this portion of Jonah’s prayer/apologia. Sasson, for instance, suggests that the “narrator might be playful in assigning dābār to Jonah when, in all of its previous occurrences, the word had always referred to God’s order (1:1; 3:1, 3).”[9] Wolff attaches its significance “to the hour when Jonah received his call.”[10] It is Raymond Person, however, who points toward the significance of “my word while I was still in my own country,” when he says that it “has no antecedent in the text itself; therefore the reader restructures the following information in order to create an antecedent for this phrase that then successfully fills in the gap created in 1.3.”[11]

Person gets sidetracked in my estimation, however, when he turns to the reader’s familiarity with prophetic literature to fill this gap; his explanation thus becomes quite facile, noting plainly what is encoded into the text of Jon. 1.3 itself—that a prophet should not run away from God.[12] If the reader must again depart from the text at hand, why depart to something as abstract as “prophetic literature” to tell her what she already tacitly knows? Why not start with the reader’s presumed knowledge of the prophet himself? For in 2 Kings 14.25, there is already a word recorded from Jonah, concerning the re-establishment of the borders of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II: “He was the one who restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath all the way to the Sea of the Arabah, in keeping with the word of YHWH the God of Israel, which he spoke by the agency of his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath-hepher” (JSM).[13] Hence, I posit that Jonah’s “word while I was still in my own country” in Jon. 4.2 refers to the word given him by YHWH in 2 Kings 14.25.[14]

If we understand his “word” while he was in his own country as his commission to speak of national renewal in a time when the king (Jeroboam II), like so many before him, “did evil in the eyes of YHWH” (2 Kings 14.24 JSM), this opens up an interesting window into Jonah’s reason for running from his commission. The sorry state of affairs had, however, provoked not wrath, but pity in YHWH, who looked past the wickedness of its leadership and “observed the extreme bitterness of Israel’s affliction and that there was no one, whether young or old, to help Israel” (2 Kings 14.26 JSM). So YHWH chose to save Israel through Jeroboam II, restoring their boundaries and leading to a time of prosperity. Observing that Hosea and Amos[15] condemned the social injustice and idolatry rampant during the reign of Jeroboam II, some interpreters have chosen to label Jonah a nationalistic prophet, who will preach only good tidings for Israel despite their sin.[16] This is nowhere suggested in the text, however—here Jonah speaks what YHWH tells him. To my mind, this “nationalistic” Jonah is a fiction created by superimposing a faulty portrait of a bigoted prophet (gleaned from equally bigoted readings of the book bearing his name) onto 2 Kings 14.25.

Those who argue that Jonah is an ardent nationalist (on the scant basis of 2 Kings 14.25) are ultimately working from a presupposition about the book of Jonah, namely that it is aimed at post-exilic exclusivists[17] such as Ezra and Nehemiah. Not only is this viewpoint not substantiated by historical data,[18] it also stinks of Auschwitz.[19] Thus, while I argue that 2 Kings 14.23-29 (esp. 25) is key to our understanding Jonah’s reason for flight, I wish to stress that it has nothing to do with reading a Jewish parochialism onto Jonah. Rather, Jonah is a prophet who once spoke renewal upon Israel, even though Israel was apostate. Yet, this Israel was also hardly the exploitative and corrupt place spoken against by Hosea and Amos—those assessments came later. The Israel in which Jonah spoke the prophecy of 2 Kings 14.25 was distressed, when the “extreme bitterness of Israel’s affliction” could be observed, and when “there was no one, whether young or old, to help Israel” (2 Kings 14.26). In fact, 2 Kings 14.26 echoes Deut. 32.36, which promises that YHWH will have compassion on his people, and vindicate them when they are helpless.

Imagine, then, that Jonah has spoken YHWH’s blessings upon Israel through Jeroboam II, but that this time of prosperity and national renewal becomes an occasion for ever-increasing sin among the people; hence, the careers of Hosea and Amos. But imagine also that Jonah is still alive to see this turn of events, and this is when Jonah is called to go and preach in the distressed city of Nineveh. I recognize that this is quite a chain of speculations, but it bears out my point, and Jonah’s (in Jon. 4.2). Jonah’s stated reason for flight was his “word” (dābār) in his own country. Furthermore, he adds, “because I saw then [kȋ yādaʹtȋ] that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with ferocious compassion, and eager to relent from causing disaster.” That is, Jonah gained first-hand knowledge of YHWH’s self-disclosure of Exod. 34.6 back when he prophesied restoration to a distressed Israel by the hand of the apostate Jeroboam II. Thus, Sasson’s fitting assessment: “Jonah is not referring to the goings on in Nineveh . . . but is reasserting what seems a commonplace to him, that if given the slightest opportunity to do so, God customarily chooses not to punish evildoers.”[20]

That being granted, if we posit that Jonah has since lived long enough to see Israel continue in evil, and perhaps even heard the unsettling prophecies of Hosea and Amos concerning future exile at the hands of Assyria, his panic will be acute—indeed, he will feel that YHWH is betraying his people. It matters little that in 2 Kings 14.25, he speaks good tidings to Israel, while in Jon. 1.2, the prophet is told to cry out against Nineveh because of their wickedness. The prophet’s function is to cry out against the wicked in an attempt to coax repentance. Jonah, however, knows all too well what people do with the second chances YHWH affords them. The quality of YHWH’s mercy has been strained to the point that, for Jonah, it is now not only cliché, but in light of the potential threat Nineveh poses, dangerous.

[1] See the discussion in Sasson, Jonah, 234-35

[2] KBL 240.

[3] BDB 245.

[4] Sasson, Jonah, 234-35; cf. T. A. Perry, The Honeymoon Is Over: Jonah’s Argument With God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), xviii; Spina, The Faith of the Outsider, 110.

[5] See the discussions of Michael A. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); Thomas B. Dozeman, “Inner-biblical Interpretation of Yahweh’s Gracious and Compassionate Character,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (Summer 1989): 207-23; Lyle Eslinger, “Inner-Biblical Exegesis and Inner-Biblical Allusion: The Question of Category,” Vetus Testamentum 42.1 (1992): 47-58.

[6] I am grateful to Joseph Kelly for providing me with a provisional copy of his paper, “Is YHWH Faithful to Israel? An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Exodus 34:6-7 by Joel and Jonah,” where there may be found on pp. 2‑6 a lucid discussion of a reader-centered, intertextual methodology for interpreting scripture.

[7] Marvin Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2000), 1:329.

[8] Sasson, Jonah, 275, is a bit hasty when he judges that “it would be very incongruous to have an angry Jonah open his mouth in prayer because, as far as I know, there are no instances in Scripture of angry individuals rising to praise or beseech God.” What—has Sasson never read an imprecatory psalm?

[9] Ibid. 277.

[10] Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 166.

[11] Person, In Conversation with Jonah, 136.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Credit to Dr. John Fortner for helping refine my translation of 2 Kings 14.23-29.

[14] That Jonah would call a word spoken via his agency “my word” is no great difficulty in the semiotic universe of scripture. In 1 Kings 17.1, Elijah calls the prophetic pronouncement of drought “my word,” while the messages given to prophets are sometimes called “the words” of that prophet (Jer. 1.1; Amos 1.1; cf. Neh. 1.1). In the NT, Paul on occasion refers to the message he has been commissioned to proclaim as “my gospel” (Rom. 2.16, 16.25; 2 Tim. 2.8).

[15] Amos 6.14 actually reverses Jonah’s prophecy in 2 Kings 14.25, with the coming Assyrian invaders pursuing the Israelites from Lebo-Hamath to the Arabah.

[16] For instance, Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary 31 (Waco: Word, 1987), 447, calls Jonah “a nationalistic northern prophet who adopted no critical stance toward the policies and practices of the monarchy.”

[17] So Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 434-35; Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 157; Magonet, Form and Meaning, 90-112.

[18] For a discussion, see Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness, 57-60; Sasson, Jonah, 24-27.

[19] On anti-Semitism in the history of Christian interpretations of Jonah, see Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives, 21-32. Though some like to blame it all on Wellhausen, anti-Semitism has, regrettably been a part of Christian biblical scholarship virtually since there was a Christianity. André and Pierre-Emmanuel LaCocque note the irony of the situation: the contention that Jonah was written to chide exclusivist Jews, and is in turn used to present the “superiority” of Christianity, and mention a German Protestant pamphlet of the 1920s entitled, “Biblical Anti-Semitism: The Universal Character, Sin, and End of the Jews in the Mirror of the Jewish Soul Provided by the Prophet Jonah.” In Jonah: A Psycho-Religious Approach to the Prophet (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 169 n. 68.

[20] Sasson, Jonah, 282.


3 thoughts on “JONAH’S HĀPAK: The undoing of the prophet

  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 supposed to be […]

  2. […] just-under-the-surface charge echoes Jonah’s repulsion at God’s mercy toward Nineveh: that mercy toward the enemy is cruelty to everyone else. For Jonah suspects (rightly) that God’s unwillingness to destroy the Assyrian stronghold […]

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