Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The book of Jonah is one of my favorite, if not my absolutely favorite, books in the Bible. I even spend time on it in my introduction to theology (sorry Jeremiah, no time for you). We always learn a lot and the students love berating Jonah, ‘the drama queen.’

When all four chapters are read, it is clear that the great fish is overemphasized in the popular approach to the book; this is not just simply a book about a man being swallowed by a fish. The real crisis of the book is in chapter 4 when, after delivering his message, Jonah is angry that God has relented from punishing or overthrowing Nineveh (4:1-3).

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The rest of the chapter, and the real payoff of the book, is God using the object lesson of a shady plant to show Jonah the backwardness of his concerns.

At St. Thomas, our theology department uses the New Oxford Annotated Bible. I like it, and encourage my students to read the footnotes, but I think that the NOAB completely misses this one. The editors write:

Jonah is angry and embarrassed; because his words (3:4) did not come true, he will be judged a false prophet (Deut. 18:21-22). Unlike the LORD, Jonah is more concerned for his own credibility than for the lives of thousands of foreigners.
I don't buy it.  I do not think that Jonah is concerned with his reputation.  The passage in Deuteronomy reads,
You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
Not only do I not think that Jonah is concerned with being perceived as a false prophet, but I don't think that the criteria is particularly applicable to the role of the prophet in Israel and Judah!

First to examine the issue of the reason for Jonah's anger. 

In addition to the NOAB noted above, the SCM commentary by Phillip Cary presents Jonah as being angry because he was tricked by God. Jonah thought God meant 'overturned' a la Sodom, but God meant 'turned around,' as in repentance. 

Jonah himself is made to look like a false prophet--as the word that the LORD gave him to speak succeeds in bringing mercy where it threatened destruction. (127)
But Jonah knew that God would be merciful (that is the reason he fled) so this explanation of trickery does not seem convincing to me at all. I have read this interpretation in other places, so I was curious about how early we begin to have this interpretation. 

We find it in John Wesley's notes:
Did I not think of this? That thy pardon would contradict my preaching... Disgraced and upbraided by hardened sinners, who will brand me for a liar.

Calvin also addresses this passage and, disagreeing with Jerome, also asserts that Jonah's anger is about his prophetic status. (Read the whole passage if you'd like to read some serious jabs at Jerome)

...for [Jerome] denies that he grieved because God had showed mercy to so illustrious a city; but because the conversion of the Gentiles was a certain presage of the destruction of the chosen people. As then Jonah perceived as in a mirror the near ruin of Israel...Nay,... the cause of his grief was another, even this, — that he was unwilling to be deemed a false or a lying prophet: hence was his great grief and his bitterness
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (8th c. CE) seems to have this as well. 
And is it not enough for me that Israel should call me a lying prophet; but shall also the nations of the world (do likewise)?
Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews has many paragraphs regarding Jonah, who is a disciple of Elisha:

The next task laid upon him was to proclaim their destruction to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The doom did not come to pass, because they repented of their wrong-doing, and God had mercy upon them. Among the Israelites Jonah was, therefore, known as "the false prophet." When he was sent to Nineveh to prophesy the downfall of the city, he reflected: "I know to a certainly that the heathen will do penance, the threatened punishment will not be executed, and among the heathen, too, I shall gain the reputation of being a false prophet..."  
Clearly, seeing Jonah's fear of damage to his reputation as the source of his anger is an old interpretation, and I think it deserves some more investigating than can be done here.  

But is Jonah truly a false prophet? What he said did not come about and so, according to Deuteronomy, he is indeed.  
But what about the nature and role of prophecy in Judah and Israel? Does Deuteronomy's description of a false prophet make sense? 

Marvin Sweeney has a good introduction to the nature of prophecy.  He writes: 

Many prophets speak about potential future events, but they do so as part of their interest in persuading their contemporaries to adopt a specific course of action or attitude that they think best represents the will of G-d and the best interests of the people. 
His point here (as Miguel makes in earlier posts on Bible Junkies here and here ) is that the role Israelite and Judahite prophets is more complicated and nuanced than the role of 'fortune teller.'

The role of the prophet is often the role of the doctor: "You have one year to live! (unless you lose weight, exercise, cut down on the trans fats and take these pills)." A patient doesn't sue his doctor for malpractice when he outlives his prognosis by heeding his warning, and neither is Jonah a false prophet. 

Anchor Bible Commentary (Saason) has in this passage other examples of prophetic pronouncements that are heeded, and so God relents.  

One great example is found in 2 Kings 20:1-6a.  Isaiah goes to proclaim to Hezekiah that he will die.  After he delivers the pronouncement, Hezekiah prays to God and God relents.  Before Isaiah leaves the building, God tells him to go back and tell the king that he has 15 more years to live.

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to theLord: “Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah prince of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life.
According to the logic of Deuteronomy and the commentators on Jonah, Isaiah would be a false prophet.  Sasson gives other examples which would work as well 

  • Ezekiel's prediction of the destruction of Tyre (Ez 26-29)
  • Jeremiah's prediction of Jehoiakim's burial (Jer 22:19; 2 Ki 24:6)

I would add to these, in an odd way, David's pre-mortem mourning for Bath-Sheba's son, for he clearly believes that God can (and might) change his judgment.  

All of this to say, I do not see Jonah as a false prophet and, when compared to other great prophets, his accomplishment is perhaps greatest of all. Jonah's unhappiness is that he does not want to be successful;  he knew God would forgive the Ninevites and that is the very thing he does not want to happen.  If Jonah's concern was for his reputation, then God's use of the plant and his explanation would be a non-sequitur.  

Isaac M. Alderman
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