Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Literary Features in Jonah (Jonah 1:1-6)

I’m teaching Hebrew syntax/exegesis this semester, and our class is working through the books of Jonah and Ruth. I will be making some brief posts on features of the Hebrew text of the passages we work through in class (primarily literary and rhetorical features). Many of these comments are not original to me but are things that I have particularly gleaned from Robert Chisholm’s A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew and Phyllis Trible’s Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. I find that paying attention to these types of literary features from the original languages has two major benefits for teaching the biblical text. First, these literary features often provide clues regarding the key theological emphases of the text. Second, an understanding of the poetics of the biblical text helps us to be more creative and vivid in our own retelling of the passage.

Verse 2:
The two imperatives “get up” (קומ) (qum) “go” (לך) (lek) joined without the conjunction convey the urgency and seriousness of the Lord’s command to Jonah. Prophets do not have the option of accepting or rejecting the Lord’s call to deliver his word. In other passages where the Lord commands a prophet to “get up and go,” the prophet’s compliance simply mirrors the Lord’s command (“he got up and went”; cf. Num 22:20-21; 1 Kgs 17:9). Jonah “gets up” (קומ) (qum), not to obey but rather to flee away from what God is commanding him to do. As Chisholm states, “Jonah is the anti-prophet.”

Verse 3:
Repetition often highlights what is important to the biblical writer. The place name “Tarshish” appears 3 times—it is in exactly the opposite direction of where the Lord is commanding Jonah to go. The phrase “from the presence of the Lord” also appears twice in this verse. Here’s Jonah’s real motivation—he believes that getting on a ship and going to Tarshish will help him to escape the Lord’s presence. The book of Jonah is characterized by Jonah making theologically precise confessions that he completely ignores in the way that he acts. In verse 9, Jonah confesses that he worships the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land—if that’s the case, then how does he think he can escape from God’s presence by getting on a ship?

The verb yarad (ירד) (“to go down”) is also prominent in Jonah 1. Jonah “went down” to Joppa and then “went down” into the ship (v. 3). He will later “go down” into the inward parts of the ship (v. 5). The conceptual idea of “going down” continues when Jonah is thrown into the sea in ch. 1 and then descends to the point of Sheol itself in ch. 2. This idea of downward progression is an effective way of demonstrating the consequences of Jonah’s disobedience—sin leads downward to death.

Verse 4:
In the Hebrew text, weyhwh is the first word of the verse. A waw + a non-verbal form at the beginning of a sentence/clause indicates disjunction and here there is a contrast between Jonah’s actions and the Lord’s response. There are clear consequences to Jonah’s choices, and the Lord ultimately acts to accomplish his original intent of getting Jonah to Nineveh.

The name “Yahweh” is the last word of v. 3 and the first word of v. 4, indicating that Jonah was not successful in his attempt to evade the Lord. Jonah attempts to flee from the Lord, but the Lord merely “hurls” a storm in Jonah’s direction to make his presence immediately felt. The verb “to hurl” (טול) (tul) is prominent in chapter 1 (vv. 4, 5, 12, 15). Yahweh is sovereign in that he controls the forces of nature and is able to “hurl” a storm. The human characters in this drama merely act in response to Yahweh’s sovereign power—the sailors “hurl” the cargo into the sea (v. 5), Jonah tells the sailors to “hurl” him into the sea (v. 12), and the sailors comply and “hurl” Jonah overboard (v. 15).

The repetition of the adjective gadol (גדול) in v. 4 reflects the ferocity and intensity of the storm—there was a gadol (“mighty”) wind and a gadol (“violent”) storm. The figurative description of the ship in this verse helps to make this same point. The Hebrew literally reads “even the ship thought it was going to break up.” The ship itself is personified and given human thought so as to portray the sheer terror of this storm. If the ship itself was afraid of breaking up, imagine the fright of the sailors on the ship. The Hebrew involves a sound play (השבה להשבר) hishebah lehishaber for emphasis and a form of onomatopoeia (where the sound of the verb “to break” imitates its meaning). With the sound play, the reader can practically hear the ship about to shatter into pieces. The imagery is even more impressive when we consider the type of seafaring vessel in view. King and Stager (Life in Biblical Israel, 179-81) provide photos of two 8th-century B.C. Phoenician ships (shipwrecked) that each carried cargoes of wine in excess of 12 tons. A storm threatening to destroy a similar-type ship headed for Tarshish was certainly a violent storm.

Verse 5:
This verse makes a vivid contrast between the pagan sailors and Jonah, the prophet of God. The first half of the verse describes the activity of the sailors, and the second half (introduced by the disjunctive we + Jonah) depicts the inactivity of the prophet. Three verbs are associated with the sailors (they feared, they cried out, and they hurled) and three with Jonah (he went down, he laid down, and he slept). While the pagan sailors are sensitive to the working of God and respond with prayer, Jonah is oblivious and sleeps on. The irony of pagans being more spiritually aware than the Lord’s prophet continues throughout this chapter and carries over into Jonah’s interaction with the Ninevites in chapter 3. The prophet states in v. 9 that he “fears” (ירא) (yara’) the Lord, but it is the sailors here who “fear” (ירא) (yara’) the storm that is sent by the Lord.

Verse 6:
There is further irony as the pagan captain has to confront the man of God and urge him to pray to his god. Rather than the prophet instructing the captain, the captain informs the prophet of the theological truth that God may respond to their prayers and deliver them from danger. It is further ironic that these are the first human words spoken in the book, because God’s willingness to spare from judgment and death is the very truth that Jonah resists and is the ultimate reason for his refusal to obey and go to Nineveh (cf. 4:2-3). The captain instructs Jonah to “get up and call” (קום קרא)(qum qera), echoing the Lord’s earlier command for Jonah to “get up [and] call” (קום ... קרא) (qum qera) to the city of Nineveh. The prophet has tried to run away from God’s presence and calling, but has been unsuccessful in doing either. God has made his presence felt in a very real way through the storm, and now Jonah hears the divine commission once again in the words of the captain. However, Jonah will continue to attempt to evade God’s calling, even to the point of telling the sailors on the ship to throw him overboard. He ultimately would rather die than do what God has commanded him.


1 comment:

  1. this is a great help for us. Keep your good work on with the help of our Lord1