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The Book of Jonah

17 Jul

The book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets, because it is not a collection of oracles at all. Rather it is a well-wrought, comic novella which, through its broad humor, makes a very decisive prophetic point. It was written tongue-in-cheek and must be read accordingly if its message is to be properly assessed.

The actual composition of the book is not datable except within the broadest boundaries (ca. 750-250 BCE.) simply because there are no certain indications in it of date. The considerations most seriously cited as relevant to the issue of dating are four: (1) the supposed Aramaisms in the language, such as ‘on whose account?’ in 1:7 and 1:12; (2) the possible dependence of certain motifs or theological considerations on the book of Jeremiah; (3) the close verbal connections with Joel 2; (4) the supposedly erroneous identification of Nineveh as the actual royal capital of Assyria in Jonah’s time – i.e. the phrase “king of Nineveh” is as nonsensical as saying “the king of Pittsburgh”.

The exact reference to Jonah in 1:1 roots the book in history (2 Kings 14:25), but literary features (e.g., irony, satire, hyperbole, repetition, humor, and the ending) indicate a nonhistoriographic purpose. The book is best seen as an interpretive development of these roots in the form of a short story pervasively didactic and carefully structured. Jonah himself becomes a type representing certain pious Israelites who hold a problematic theological perspective; Nineveh (cf. Nah. 3:1) is probably cipher for the Persians (cf. Jth. 1:1). The book is a unity, as most recent scholars recognize, though the author uses many earlier motifs and traditions (cf. Gen. 18; 1 Kings 19; Jer. 18, 36; Joel 2, an a possible unknown Psalm inserted at 2:2-9). The book is prophetic in that it speaks a word of judgment and grace to a specific audience, evoking amendment of thought and life.

The name Jonah in Hebrew means “dove,” which denotes various meanings, such as “chaste,” “fragile,” “fickle,” “asinine,” and the like. In Jonah 1:1, Jonah is described as the son of Amittai, which adds to the satirical element, literally meaning, “dove, my truthful son.” The irony is that Jonah’s prophetic behavior shows otherwise. This name of Jonah signals the comparable depiction and role of the dove in the flood narrative. In Gen 8:8–12, Noah sent out the dove three times from the ark; the dove returned to the ark the first time, brought a freshly plucked olive leaf the second time, and did not return the third time. The role of the dove indicates its ability to find the location and fidelity to fulfill the task. With regard to similarity, just as the dove was sent as a messenger, Jonah assumes the role of messenger to Nineveh. Just as the dove was dispatched with the anticipated sign of hope to those in the ark, Jonah was thrown out from the ship yet helped calm the storm and convert the sailors.

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Posted by on July 17, 2010 in jonah, tanakh

 

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