Jonah's Recalcitrant Prayer
The Structure of the Book
The Book of Jonah is highly symmetrical. Of the four chapters, two of them, one and three, begin with almost identical phrases: ‘The word of the LORD came to Jonah…’ In each of these two chapters Jonah, the reluctant prophet, encounters foreign peoples: the sailors in chapter one and, however briefly, the Ninevites in chapter three. In contrast, chapters two and four see Jonah alone, either praying to, or in angry debate with, God.
Other symmetries help convey the book’s meaning and message. For example Jonah’s angry self-justification to God in Chapter 4, beginning “please God (אָנָּה יְ-הֹוָה),” and ending with “better is my death than my life (ט֥וֹב מוֹתִ֖י מֵחַיָּֽי),” (vv 2-3) contains exactly 39 words (and if we count words linked together by a maqef, hyphen, as one, 30 words.) If we do the same word count to God’s final response (4:10-11), we get the identical numbers, whether we count single or hyphenated words. (It is tempting to think that the author was two words short in God’s final speech to get this effect and so had to add the enigmatic “and much cattle”!)
The author gives Jonah and God identical “air space.” In fact the symmetry between the two protagonists is expressly stated in God’s final comparison; “You had compassion… should I not have compassion (אַתָּה חַסְתָּ… וַֽאֲנִי לֹא אָח֔וּס).”
God’s Commandment Repeated ‘A Second Time’
The repetition of God’s command from chapter one in chapter three is marked by the puzzling addition of the word ‘shenit’, ‘a second time’. Why does God have to give the identical charge to Jonah when the prophet must surely know what is required of him after all the trouble that God has gone to to bring him back to his mission?
A Slight Adjustment in God’s Message
That God has less patience with his reluctant prophet this second time is spelled out with the change in the nature of what Jonah is to say. In chapter one, presumably as for most such missions, God gives the prophet a general idea to pass on to his potential audience, presumably in his own words: say to them “their evil has come up before me (1:2).” The phrase itself is somewhat ambiguous, as “their evil (רָעָתָ֖ם)” in this context could mean the evil they have done, or else it could mean the “evil” i.e. “punishment” that God intends for them; this is what the same word means in 3:10b.
Moreover since this phrase is introduced by ‘ki’ this could either be God’s explanation to Jonah of why God is about to act, “because their evil….”, or the general content of what he is to say to the Ninevites “that their evil…” But all such ambiguities disappear in Jonah’s second ‘call’, when he is only expected to say “the statement that I put in your mouth!” (3:2)
The Midrashic Answer: The Second and Last Time
But surely, after the disastrous failure of Jonah’s flight to the other end of the world to escape his mission, Jonah must have had a pretty good idea of what God required of him. So why did God’s word have to come ‘a second time’? One rabbinic solution suggests that God spoke to him ‘a second time’, but not ‘a third time’ (b. Yebamot 98a), though it is difficult to reconcile with the additional reference to Jonah ben Amittai in 2 Kings 14:25, who “spoke the word of the Lord” at the time of Jeroboam.
The Origin of Jonah’s Prayer: The Argument for it Being an Insertion
This puzzling ‘second’ call actually leads us into the need to consider a series of long-standing issues about the ‘prayer of Jonah’ that he composed and recited during his three day sojourn in the belly of the ‘great fish’. Is the prayer original to Jonah? Was it written for the book, or did the author use a pre-existing prayer and insert it into Jonah’s mouth?
The scholarly consensus is that the narrative parts of the Book of Jonah reflect a single coherent authorial voice. But Jonah’s prayer, in chapter two, was a very different matter. Firstly it stood out as poetry and not prose, which opened the door to the possibility that it was a later insertion, much like the sudden appearance of poetic material in other prose narratives – like Hannah’s prayer at the beginning of 1 Samuel 2. But this is not really a proof, since an author should be free to use whatever literary style works best in the piece. There is no rule that prose authors can’t write poetry or vice versa. In this case, I think that the tightness and precision of composition of Jonah reinforces the argument for one author.
Once the change of style became important, it was easy to point to ways in which the ‘prayer’ did not exactly fit into the context. Firstly it contains a number of phrases that appear elsewhere in the Book of Psalms, which suggests that it was taken from some such collection. Secondly, in its use of the perfect or past tense, it implies that Jonah has been saved, but according to the narrative, he is still stuck in his fish at the bottom of the sea. Additionally, those with a more theological perspective were disturbed at the absence of any expression of regret or penitence within Jonah’s prayer for having disobeyed the word of God.
This tendency may have encouraged the setting aside of the Masoretic text in the case of one word in favour of a variation found in in the Greek translation of Theodotian. Where the Hebrew has Jonah exclaim emphatically , “but (אך) I will continue to look towards Your holy temple” (2:5), the preferred word is “איך”, the simple addition of the letter yod, to give the plaintive ‘how can I continue to look…?’ Of course here we are faced with a wider issue of interpretation in terms of how one views Jonah – as suitably repentant or defiant.
A Defense of the Prayer being Integral to the Book
Many of the arguments against the prayer as an original part of the composition can be easily countered. That he is not yet ‘saved’ is true, nevertheless he is no longer drowning in the sea, so there is room for an expression of gratitude. Again Jonah’s attitude in the prayer needs to be measured against his attitude throughout the narrative parts of the book, where his self-centredness is stressed. But my own research has suggested two other considerations.
The author of the prose narrative uses certain techniques, particularly the repetition of certain phrases, to which further words are added when they appear again, to show both continuity and change – something that the author of the ‘prayer’ also does: v 4 ‘the currents surrounded me’, v 6 ‘the deep surrounded me’. Similarly, early on Jonah ‘looks towards Your holy Temple’, later his prayer ‘comes to Your holy Temple’. Thus, the poetic techniques of the poem are similar to those used in prose, and likely reflect the same author.
Moreover, whereas the phrases describing his descent into the depths are in part borrowed from Psalms, they are here organized in a narrative sequence and not in the more random way they are generally used in Psalms. Thus the sequence begins with Jonah surrounded by the ‘streams’ (נהר) which I read as surface currents, after which the waters passed over his נפש (‘life force’, but etymologically related to ‘breath’), and he sinks into the ‘deep’ (תהום). Following this, the reeds cover his head, i.e. he has reached the floor of the sea; he descends to “the bases of the mountains (קצבי הרים)” and finally passes through the bars of the underworld.
So, stylistically, the prayer incorporates techniques used in the narrative itself. In addition, the prayer uses the verb ירד, “to descend”, which is a key word in chapter one, as Jonah “descends” to Jaffa, “descends” into the ship, and “descends” into the inner part of the ship. (Even his “deep sleep (וַיֵּרָדַֽם)”, plays on ירד.) Finally, to return to our starting point, the prayer also fills out chapter two, thus contributing to the symmetry of the structure of the Book as a whole.
Jonah’s Prayer and God’s Repeated Command
Now all of this may only be of scholarly interest, but the function of the prayer within the Book of Jonah as a whole does have an immediate bearing on our questions about “a second time.” If we take the prayer seriously as belonging to the overall narrative strategy of the author, we have to consider what Jonah actually says. Having evoked the Temple twice, his final words (v. 10) are “and I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is the Lord’s!”
The phrases about ‘making sacrifices’ and ‘vowing vows’ are the same as used by the sailors when the storm abated. The language points in only one direction, a visit to the holy Temple in Jerusalem. So if the prayer is to be taken seriously as an integral part of the book, Jonah’s final words are a vow, that once back on dry land, he is off to Jerusalem to sacrifice animals and offer his thanks to God for being saved.
Moreover, in a rather obscure phrase in his prayer, v 9, he asserts that “those who keep lying vanities will forsake their mercy,” which seems to suggest his judgment on the wicked people of Nineveh who are doomed. (The phrase becomes even more pointed, though possibly no less obscure, when its apparent source in Psalm 31:7 is taken into account: “I hate those who keep lying vanities, but I trust in the Lord.” If this is a correct association, then Jonah no longer hates the Ninevites, but they will meet their own fate.)
The point is simply that the last information we have about Jonah at the end of chapter two is that he has concluded that he has learnt his lesson, should not have fled from God’s mission, is grateful to be still alive, and to make up for it is off to Jerusalem to do his pious duty. At which point God is forced to speak to him, ‘a second time (שנית)’ – not Jerusalem, Jonah, Nineveh!
What is delightful about the book is the consistent character of Jonah’s recalcitrance, even in the face of life-threatening experiences and divine interventions. Nineveh is a “three day journey (מַהֲלַ֖ךְ שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים)” (3:3). It is not clear what that actually means—three days to walk across it perhaps?—but Jonah only goes in ‘one day (מַהֲלַ֖ךְ י֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד)’ (3:4). His entire message consists of five words, and he leaves. The city repents anyway. Knowing this, and that the city will not be destroyed, Jonah complains that God is too soft!
In fact, this is one of the boldest ploys of the author, to have Jonah take the list of God’s attributes of compassion and mercy (Exod 34:6), and fling them in God’s face (4:2): “I knew that You are gracious and compassionate and long-suffering…!!” Given such magnificent insensitivity, no wonder the book ends with a question mark. So perhaps the rabbis were also correct. That God spoke to Jonah ‘a second time’ but not ‘a third time’.
A Concluding Quip
Perhaps the final evaluation of Jonah’s prayer belongs to the ‘great fish.’ It had to listen to Jonah’s prayer with its magnificent climactic promises and ringing final proclamation: ‘Salvation belongs to the Lord!’ And God spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto the dry land.
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September 29, 2014
January 11, 2020
Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism.
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