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Mordechai Cogan

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The Book of Jonah: A Parody of the Northern Prophet Jonah Son of Amittai

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Mordechai Cogan

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The Book of Jonah: A Parody of the Northern Prophet Jonah Son of Amittai

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The Book of Jonah: A Parody of the Northern Prophet Jonah Son of Amittai

The post-exilic book of Jonah opposes the chest-thumping that was prevalent during the northern kingdom’s resurgence under Jeroboam II, as displayed by the historical Jonah of Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). It insists that YHWH is a universal god and that Israel must reconcile itself to living in a world where all penitents, regardless of nationality, are pardoned.

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The Book of Jonah: A Parody of the Northern Prophet Jonah Son of Amittai

Jonah's Calling and Refusal to Go to Nineveh (colorized), Hieronymus Wierix, after Maerten de Vos, 1643. Rijks Museum

The book of Jonah opens with a divine command to Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim their guilt.[1] He attempts to flee to Tarshish, but YHWH, with the help of a huge fish, forces him to return and undertake his task.

The only information the book gives us about the main character is his name and patronymic: Jonah son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1).[2] Nowhere is he called a prophet, which leaves the reader in the dark as to why he, of all persons, was chosen for the mission to Nineveh. Significantly, a Jonah ben Amitai of Gath-hepher is mentioned in the book of Kings as the prophet who predicted that Jeroboam II would conquer his neighbors and expand Israel’s borders.[3]

Israel Struggles with Aram-Damascus

During the first half of the 9th century, the kingdom of Israel became a political and military power for the first time since its founding. Under Omri (882–871 B.C.E.) and his son Ahab (873–852 B.C.E.), Israel exerted control over Transjordan and was allied with Aram-Damascus and the Phoenician city-states against an expanding Assyria. But following Jehu’s coup d’état (ca. 842 B.C.E.),[4] this ascendancy was replaced by a half-century of decline when Israel came under the harsh hand of Damascus. Responsible for this nadir in Israel’s fortunes were the Aramean kings, Hazael[5] and Ben-hadad:

מלכים ב יג:ז כִּי לֹא הִשְׁאִיר לִיהוֹאָחָז עָם, כִּי אִם חֲמִשִּׁים פָּרָשִׁים וַעֲשָׂרָה רֶכֶב וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים רַגְלִי כִּי אִבְּדָם מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם וַיְשִׂמֵם כֶּעָפָר לָדֻשׁ.
2 Kgs 13:7 In fact, Jehoahaz was left with a force of only fifty horsemen, ten chariots, and ten thousand foot soldiers; for the king of Aram had decimated them and trampled them like the dust under his feet.

Towards the end of the 9th century, beginning under the reign Jehoahaz (817–800 B.C.E.), Israel’s lot took a positive turn:

מלכים ב יג:ד וַיְחַל יְהוֹאָחָז אֶת פְּנֵי יְ־הוָה וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלָיו יְ־הוָה כִּי רָאָה אֶת לַחַץ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי לָחַץ אֹתָם מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם. יג:ה וַיִּתֵּן יְ־הוָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל מוֹשִׁיעַ וַיֵּצְאוּ מִתַּחַת יַד אֲרָם וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָהֳלֵיהֶם כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם .
2 Kgs 13:4 But Jehoahaz pleaded with YHWH; and YHWH listened to him, for He saw the suffering that the king of Aram inflicted upon Israel. 13:5 So YHWH granted Israel a deliverer, and they gained their freedom from Aram; and Israel dwelt in its homes as before.

The unidentified “deliverer” (מושיע) may well have been the Assyrian king Adad-nerari III (811–783 B.C.E.).[6] Assyria’s re-appearance in the West after its decades-long absence reshuffled the cards, replacing the hegemony of Damascus with its own. Not only did Adad-nerari III subdue Ben-hadad of Damascus, but as he claimed in an undated royal inscription, Israel’s King Joash recognized him as overlord:

He (Adad-nerari) received 2,000 talents of silver, 1,000 talents of bronze, 2,000 talents of iron, 3,000 multicolored linen garments as tribute from Mari’ (Ben-hadad) of Damascus. He received the tribute of Joash of Samaria, of (the people of) Tyre and Sidon.[7]

In submitting to Assyria, Joash was able to reclaim land that had been taken from Israel by Damascus (2 Kgs 13:24-25). Under his son Jeroboam (II), who reigned for 41 years (788–747 B.C.E.), Israel continued to enjoy a period of expansion,[8] achievable only in concert with Assyria’s interests in Syria,[9] seen in at least four military excursions it made into north Syria during this period.[10]

Jonah of Gath-hepher’s Prophecy

While it would be an exaggeration to think that Israel had the upper hand in the affairs of this vital geo-political area, these were heady days. In support of Israel’s conquests, Jonah of Gath-hepher appeared at the side of Jeroboam, encouraging his king by proclaiming, according to Kings, that YHWH was with him:

מלכים ב יד:כה הוּא הֵשִׁיב אֶת גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל מִלְּבוֹא חֲמָת עַד יָם הָעֲרָבָה כִּדְבַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר בְּיַד עַבְדּוֹ יוֹנָה בֶן אֲמִתַּי הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר מִגַּת הַחֵפֶר.
2 Kgs 14:25 It was he (Jeroboam) who restored the territory of Israel from Lebo-hamath[11] to the sea of the Arabah,[12] in accordance with the promise that YHWH, the God of Israel, had made through His servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-hepher.
יד:כו כִּי רָאָה יְ־הוָה אֶת עֳנִי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֹרֶה מְאֹד וְאֶפֶס עָצוּר וְאֶפֶס עָזוּב וְאֵין עֹזֵר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל. יד:כז וְלֹא דִבֶּר יְ־הוָה לִמְחוֹת אֶת שֵׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם וַיּוֹשִׁיעֵם בְּיַד יָרָבְעָם בֶּן יוֹאָשׁ.
14:26 For YHWH saw the very bitter plight of Israel, with neither bond nor freed left, and with none to help Israel. 14:27 And YHWH resolved not to blot out the name of Israel from under heaven; and he delivered them through Jeroboam son of Joash.

This Jonah of Gath-hepher was likely a historical personality. Although we do not know exactly when he lived or prophesized, the background of his prophecy is overall retrievable, especially because we have other examples of this type of prophet.

Northern Political Prophets

Jonah is one of a number of prophets that appear in the Book of Kings, all of whom were associated with the state affairs of the northern kingdom of Israel. Among them are:

Ahijah of Shiloh delivers YHWH’s word to Jeroboam son of Nebat that he would be king over ten tribes of Israel following the death of Solomon (1 Kgs 11:28-39); Ahijah also proclaims Jeroboam’s downfall for his sinfulness (1 Kgs 14:1-13).

Jehu son of Hanani speaks of the violent removal of Baasha and his house from ruling over Israel (1 Kgs 16:1-14).

Micaiah son of Imlah foretells Ahab’s defeat in battle with the Arameans (1 Kgs 22:7-28).[13]

Elijah the Tishbite contests with the priests of Baal during the reign of Ahab, and prophesizes the king’s death; he also condemns his son, Ahaziah, for his idolatry (1 Kgs 17–19; 21; 2 Kgs 1–2).

Elisha aids Israel during Aramean attacks, meets with kings and generals, and sends a junior prophet to anoint Jehu king in a coup against the House of Ahab (2 Kgs 2–9; 13:14–21).

These prophets were not writers of books; their actions are described in third-person reports,[14] most of which are quite short. (Elijah and Elisha are exceptional: the Bible contains longer accounts of their activities). In all likelihood, these accounts derive from northern Israelite, as opposed to Judean, traditions.[15]

A Positive Prophecy about a Northern King?

Jonah’s positive prophecy in the name of YHWH concerning the kingdom of Israel runs counter to one of the major themes of Kings that views the northern kingdom of Israel as constantly sinning and deserving of punishment.[16] In view of this, it is more than likely that the Deuteronomist’s interest in prophets and the fulfillment of prophecy, clear throughout Kings, overrode his animus towards Israel,[17] and he included an ancient, and evidently Israelite tradition in a book that usually reflects the values of the southern kingdom of Judah.[18]

In his unqualified support of the royal establishment and the promise of victory for Israel, Jonah should be classed with earlier prophets reported to have been active during the period of Israel’s struggle with Aram-Damascus in the 9th century under the Omrides, all of whom strongly promoted vengeance on Israel’s enemies, even excoriating the king of Israel for sparing Ben-hadad’s life (cf. 1 Kgs 20:35–43).[19]

Active a century later, Jonah of Gath-hepher is the latest example of these nationalistic enthusiasts. Like them, he spoke authoritatively in the name of YHWH and promised Jeroboam victory and control over Aramean territories well beyond Damascus. With the fulfillment of his prophecy, Jonah found a respected position in Israelite tradition.

Prophetic Criticism of Jonah of Gath-hepher

While presented as a reputable prophet of YHWH in the book of Kings, Jonah of Gath-hepher did come in for criticism from another quarter: Amos of Tekoa, a town to the east of Bethlehem on the fringes of the Judean desert. Amos came north to Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II to speak out against what he saw as the breakdown of Israelite society.

The first of the preserved literary prophets, Amos describes in biting rhetoric the luxurious life led by wealthy Israelites who had abandoned just social norms, taking advantage of the less privileged:[20]

עמוס ד:א שִׁמְעוּ הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה פָּרוֹת הַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר בְּהַר שֹׁמְרוֹן הָעֹשְׁקוֹת דַּלִּים הָרֹצְצוֹת אֶבְיוֹנִים הָאֹמְרֹת לַאֲדֹנֵיהֶם הָבִיאָה וְנִשְׁתֶּה.
Amos 4:1 Here this word, you cows of Bashan on the hill of Samaria, who defraud the poor, who rob the needy; who say to their husbands, “Bring, and let’s carouse!”
עמוס ו:ד הַשֹּׁכְבִים עַל מִטּוֹת שֵׁן וּסְרֻחִים עַל עַרְשׂוֹתָם; וְאֹכְלִים כָּרִים מִצֹּאן וַעֲגָלִים מִתּוֹךְ מַרְבֵּק. ו:ה הַפֹּרְטִים עַל פִּי הַנָּבֶל כְּדָוִיד חָשְׁבוּ לָהֶם כְּלֵי שִׁיר. ו:ו הַשֹּׁתִים בְּמִזְרְקֵי יַיִן וְרֵאשִׁית שְׁמָנִים יִמְשָׁחוּ וְלֹא נֶחְלוּ עַל שֵׁבֶר יוֹסֵף.
Amos 6:4 They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches, feasting on lambs from the flock and on calves from the stalls. 6:5 They hum snatches of song to the tune of the lute; they account themselves musicians like David. 6:6 They drink [straight] from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils, but they are not concerned about the ruin of Joseph.

According to Amos, the neglect of basic moral values will bring about Israel’s downfall.[21] Among those who came in for pointed rebuke was Jonah of Gath-hepher. Even though Jonah is not named directly, Amos attacks the braggadocio of those who revel in Israel’s victories in Transjordan—the retaking of the towns Lo-Dabar and Karnaim—that was part of Jeroboam’s campaign to reshape Israel’s borders:

עמוס ו:יג הַשְּׂמֵחִים לְלֹא דָבָר הָאֹמְרִים הֲלוֹא בְחָזְקֵנוּ לָקַחְנוּ לָנוּ קַרְנָיִם. ז:יד כִּי הִנְנִי מֵקִים עֲלֵיכֶם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַצְּבָאוֹת גּוֹי וְלָחֲצוּ אֶתְכֶם מִלְּבוֹא חֲמת עַד נַחַל הָעֲרָבָה.
Amos 6:13 [Ah,] those who are happy about Lo-dabar,[22] who exult, “by our might we captured Karnaim”![23] 6:14 But I, O House of Israel, will raise up a nation against you, declares YHWH, the God of Hosts, who will harass you from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi Arabah.

Amos puns on the name of the town Lo-dabar (spelled variously in Hebrew ldbr, l’dbr, lwdbr) in the Gilead, calling it a “Nothing.” Likewise, he downgrades the arrogance of those who prided themselves in their own strength, who took Karnaim, a town in the nearby Golan, a name that means “horns,” a symbol of power and prowess.[24] Amos further says:

עמוס ו:יד כִּי הִנְנִי מֵקִים עֲלֵיכֶם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַצְּבָאוֹת גּוֹי וְלָחֲצוּ אֶתְכֶם מִלְּבוֹא חֲמָת עַד נַחַל הָעֲרָבָה.
Amos 6:14 But I, O House of Israel, will raise up a nation against you—declares YHWH, the God of Hosts—who will harass you from Lebo-Hamath to the Wadi Arabah.

It is not hard to see in Amos’ words a critique of the nationalistic milieu that had taken hold in Israel under Jeroboam. In opposition to the support given to such self-praise by Jonah and his prophecy, Amos understood the victories in the far north and in the neighboring south as spelling doom: Israel’s military prowess will surely be shattered because it has given rise to a breakdown of society at home. YHWH has determined the road to its defeat and exile:

עמוס ז:יא כִּי כֹה אָמַר עָמוֹס בַּחֶרֶב יָמוּת יָרָבְעָם וְיִשְׂרָאֵל גָּלֹה יִגְלֶה מֵעַל אַדְמָתוֹ.
Amos 7:11 Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall be exiled from its soil.

Jonah in the Book of Jonah versus the Jonah in Kings

Jonah son of Amitai, the jingoistic prophet spoken of in a single verse in Kings and whose message comes in for rebuke in Amos, features in the fictional book of Jonah, written centuries later in Second Temple period Yehud (Judah). Language and style are the clues to the lateness of the Jonah parable.

The Late Hebrew of the Book of Jonah

Nearly all modern commentators[25] agree that the language of the Book of Jonah is mostly in Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH), that is, Hebrew written in Judah prior to the Babylonian exile that began in the early 6th century. At the same time, they note that the book contains an appreciable number of linguistic features that appear in the Hebrew of the post-exilic period from the late 6th-early 5th century B.C.E onward—a stage of Hebrew that is referred to as Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH).[26] Some of these features developed through contact with the speakers of Aramaic, especially in the Babylonian exile, where Aramaic was the lingua franca, while others may be inner-developments of SBH.[27]

This stage of Hebrew shows up in late Biblical books, e.g., Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, Esther, Daniel, and continues well into post-biblical writings throughout the Second Temple Period. In the Book of Jonah, the signs of LBH are:

Vocabulary

סְפִינָה (Jon 1:5)—this term for ship, which eventually replaces the SBH term אָנִיָּה (Gen 49:13; Judg 5:17; 1 Kgs 9:27), appears only here in the entire Hebrew Bible, though it is common in rabbinic literature. Even the author of Jonah, who is trying to write in SBH, elsewhere uses the older term (1:3) but here the contemporary term slipped out.

זַעְפּוֹ (Jon 1:15)—the term here refers to the “raging (of the sea”). In SBH, the root ז.ע.ף regularly appears in the noun זעף that means “anger״ (Micah 7:9), and in the verb “to be angry” (Gen 40:6).

מַהֲלַךְ (Jon 3:3, 4)—this noun, which means “walk” (the distance one can travel by foot), replaces SBH דֶּרֶךְ (e.g., Exod 3:18; 2 Kgs 3:9(, both of which are translated in the Aramaic Targum Onkelos with מהלך.

ע.שׁ.ת (Jon 1:6)—this Aramaic root, meaning “think, give thought to someone (often, for good),” takes the place of more frequent SBH root ח.שׁ.ב.

Expressions

אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם (Jon 1:9)—this title, “the God of Heaven,” is used in post-exilic writings (Ezra 1:2; Neh 1:4–5, 2:4, 20; 2 Chron 36:23).[28]

וַיֵּרַע אֶל (Jon 4:1)—this expression, meaning “displease” (lit. “to do evil to”) also appears in other LBH texts in the form וַיֵּרַע לָ (cf. e.g., Neh 2:10; 13:8). In SBH, the idiom for “displeasure” is וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי, lit. “to be evil in the eyes of” (e.g., Gen 21:11; cf Judg 2:11).

Syntax

שֶׁ (Jon 1:7, 12)—The use of this particle for “whose” is rare in SBH but becomes common in LBH, mostly replacing the fuller form אֲשֶׁר, common in SBH. The earlier full form appears in Jonah 1:8.

לַמָּחֳרָת (Jonah 4:7)—This LBH term for “the next day” appears once more (2 Chron 29:21). The SBH form מִמָּחֳרָת appears 29 times (e.g., Gen 19:34; 1 Sam 5:3; Jer 20:3(.

Thus, the linguistic analysis of Jonah does not allow it to be considered a composition contemporary with Jonah son of Amittai of the 8th century B.C.E.[29]

The Fictional World of Jonah and Nineveh

Another reason for seeing the Book of Jonah as a late fiction is its genre and style. This brief story, 48 verses in all, is replete with colorful actors: non-Israelite fishermen who acknowledge YHWH’s greatness and offer him sacrifice (Jonah 1:16); God-fearing repentant Assyrians (3:8); a fanciful life-saving “huge fish” (2:1), as well as an instantly growing qiqayon-plant (4:6). Further irreality appears in the description of Nineveh as “an enormously large city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3) with a population of “120,000 persons (4:11).” No Israelites, except for Jonah, appear anywhere.

This cast of characters acts out their roles in settings that lack chronological markers. This is clearest with reference to the Assyrian king (“king of Nineveh”), who is unnamed (3:6)—and there is no way to retrieve his name from Assyrian texts because Jonah is never mentioned in them, nor are the Assyrians ever known to have adopted the worship of Israel’s God.

Moreover, the repentant Nineveh of the Book of Jonah is a far cry from the historical Assyria, cruel conqueror of much of the ancient Near East, that was responsible for the destruction of the kingdom of Israel only a few decades after the death of Jeroboam II. The storyteller has replaced the real Assyria with a fiction.[30] This lack of reality clearly classifies the Book of Jonah as a parable,[31] contrary to the fundamentalist pleading for its historicity that is sometimes put forward.[32]

Jonah of Gath-hepher Recast as Jonah at Nineveh

Whether or not Amos’s criticism of Jonah of Gath-hepher was known to the author of the Book of Jonah,[33] he certainly knew the Book of Kings from which he lifted the name Jonah son of Amittai. The reason he chose Jonah to be the protagonist of his parable, instead of simply leaving YHWH’s messenger to Nineveh nameless like the other characters of this book, was to make his work more than just a simple tale of a stubborn prophet and YHWH’s universal compassion.

The author of the Book of Jonah specifically sought to criticize the type of prophecy the historical Jonah represented, thus appropriating and recasting the prophet parodically in his parable. Arnold Band defines parody as:

[A] composition which always assumes a pre-existing text which it imitates and distorts, often, but not always, for satiric purposes. While satire “censures wickedness and folly” in human society in general, parody is a literary genre which deals with the refunctioning, or criticism, of other preformed literary and linguistic material.[34]

In this new configuration, Jonah of Gath-hepher became a failed prophet, one who tried to escape the divine mission and who misunderstood the nature of the godhead even at the end.

We do not know the historical societal circumstances (that is, the Sitz im Leben) that prompted Jonah’s author to write this parody. Beyond the general consensus that the book was written in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period, we have little more to go on, since the history of Judah during these periods is mostly undocumented. What we can say with confidence is that, considering that the book became part of the Hebrew canon, the Book of Jonah played a significant part in the discussion concerning the nature of the prophetic calling and of God's just ways in its day and beyond.

Jonah’s author called for moderation and acceptance of the non-Israelite – i.e., the Ninevites – exemplified in YHWH's volte-face, in his acknowledging the repentance of any part of creation. This was not a new conception in Israelite thought. Towards the end of the Monarchic Period, Jeremiah had already taught that YHWH being moved by people’s repentance and having a change of heart were not signs of divine weakness, but a reflection of the true divine nature and justice.[35]

The Message of Jonah

In Jewish practice, the chanting of the Book of Jonah as the haftarah to the afternoon Torah reading is the highlight of the Yom Kippur minhah (afternoon) service. This connects strongly to the theme of this holy day: YHWH grants forgiveness to all of his creation, even to non-Israelites:

יונה ג:י וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה.
Jonah 3:10 God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

If so, the sinners among YHWH’s chosen people would surely be forgiven if only they repent.[36] Yet this spiritual reading of the Book of Jonah should not overshadow the collateral teaching that winds its way through the Jonah tale: It is futile for a messenger of God to try to avoid his divine mission whether he agrees with its message or not.

The depiction of Jonah in the Book of Jonah, a caricature of a real prophet of YHWH, manifests the author’s criticism of Israel’s belief that military ascendency and revenge against its enemies are blindly supported by YHWH. YHWH is a universal god, and Israel, though it considers itself chosen, must reconcile itself to living in a world in which all penitents, regardless of nationality, are pardoned.

Published

March 28, 2024

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Last Updated

April 10, 2024

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Prof. Mordechai Cogan is Professor (emeritus) in the Department of Jewish History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written widely on the political and cultural connections between ancient Israel and the empires of the ancient Near East. Cogan is the author of many studies and books, among them: Imperialism and Religion; The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel; Bound for Exile: Israelites and Judeans Under Imperial Yoke, Documents from Assyria and Babylonia; commentaries in the Anchor Bible series on 1 Kings; 2 Kings (with Prof. Hayim Tadmor); commentaries in Hebrew in the Mikra Leyisrael (Bible for Israel) series on Obadiah, Joel, Nahum and Kings, and the just published Under the Yoke Ashur: The Assyrian Century in the Land of Israel.