Monday 3 October 2022

Jonah - pondering bits and pieces of this story

Yesterday, there was an article here by Rabbi Bob (not me) on responses to Jonah by Kimhi and other sages. Kimhi notes that there is no mention of Israel. Answer: Nineveh on one warning turned completely from their evil compared to Israel, "rebuked from dawn to dusk" who do not turn. Radak then says that God granted the Ninevites mercy (even more so when they are many). He is seconded by R. Yehoshua ben Shuib.

These two are then contrasted with Don Isaac Abravanel and R. Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser who note that Nineveh is being preserved to correct Israel. (Maybe an unstated part of the story line.) Ibn Ezra is reported as noting the god-fearing nature of the Ninevites (3:3). That's interpreting Elohim as God rather than gods in this one verse -- a bit of a stretch.

Jonah is a very short book, full of subtlety and complexity. It is hard to sort out the motivations of each character.

I note a second article on Jonah by Yitzhak Peleg today -- He explains that Jonah is the focus of Yom Kippur. Both the writers use repentance as their gloss for תשובה. I never gloss this root wvb as repent, because repent is a religious word whose meaning in the modern mind has been associated with various theories of God. I always use the direct sense of the word: to turn towards or away from. Whether one is turning to the good or turning away from what is not good, turn is an active verb - not a religious thought process. 

What is Yahweh God doing with this tale? Peleg calls it a didactic lesson. Both articles are worth the read.

The music at the beginning shows an autocratic call in verse 2 -- preceded by a drum roll -- ornamentation around the tonic. Jonah was not your typical obedient prophet in whom the word of God burned till he paid attention, and we don't hear any initial complaint from him. His actions speak his response -- he obeyed the first part, he arose, but he ran in the other direction.

The first thing God does in this book is make the word happen to Jonah. It's the same phrasing as for Samuel or Nathan or Elijah and a few others in the stories in 1 Kings. This phrasing is more frequent in Jeremiah (27 times) and Ezekiel (43) and Zechariah (7). But it doesn't occur at all in Isaiah. Isaiah uses oracle 25 times. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve, even more frequently -- over 300 times. Is happen active or passive action on Yahweh's part? This word (to be) could just be: and the word of Yahweh was for Jonah. I used happen, since the gloss fits in a lot of other places as well. Who knows how the word of some mysterious being - whether autocrat or not - comes to a person? Perhaps happen is picking up on what happens, and oracle is more direct speech.

Several words refer to the deity. God (al) is used as a word only once in Jonah (4:2). God (Elohim) is used in every chapter - 16 times altogether. The sailors, the pilot, Jonah, the king, the Ninevites all refer to the generic God. Yahweh God is used once (Jonah 4:6). The authoritative God appoints and speaks only in chapter 4. The narrator (ah, another mysterious character - the omniscient story teller) is the one who tells us who's doing what to whom. The narrator tells us that Yahweh is Jonah's God (2:2) and Jonah's psalm confirms it (2:7).

Yahweh is the origin of the words, and Yahweh is the face (presence) that Jonah is running from, the target of prayer, fear and offerings from the sailors, and vow and attribution from Jonah. Yahweh is not part of the Ninevite section. 
In chapters 1 and 2, Yahweh:
  • makes the word happen
  • hurls the great wind on the sea
  • appoints a great fish
  • answers Jonah
  • hears Jonah's voice and brings him up from destruction
  • talks to the fish
In chapter 3, God sees and sighs, and refrains from the evil designated for Nineveh.

Then in chapter 4, it is a bit more complex. In the face of Jonah's anger, and his prayer for death, Yahweh asks whether this is good. Then it is 'God' who
  • appoints a tender plant and makes it come up over Jonah
  • appoints a worm
  • appoints a sultry east wind
  • and then asks if it is good to be burning with anger
Finally Yahweh speaks about Jonah lamenting the lesser - the tender plant - now withered, and therefore how much more should Yahweh not spare the greater - Nineveh.

The music of the final speech of Yahweh is so lyrical. The shape of it mimics part of the Duruflé requiem (the rise from tonic to the sixth then tonic to the fifth). Yahweh's final speech is one of my favorite bits from my arrangements. It's the 12 8 rhythm that does it. I always have Yahweh speak with multiple parts since I think the word happens to us through the interactions and pressures of many voices. The final speech begins at bar 164.

Here are the questions raised for me:
  • Jonah finds himself saved from the great fish, but is he saved from himself?
  • What is Nineveh thinking except to escape from the judgment? It will continue with its incorrigible imperial desires.
  • Is it then enough to say that this is a lesson in universal mercy? Or that this is about Israel?
  • Why does Jesus use the sign of Jonah? It's a much bigger story than the '3 days'. 
  • Does this story have application to us today? Who is Jonah? Who is the imperial power whose evil deeds are in Yahweh's face? 
  • Is God's character as portrayed acceptable or is it just one of many ploys in the narration?
Russia today is trapped in its merciless religious and imperial framework. Iran is trapped in its fear of women. China is trapped in its need for uniformity. Half the US is trapped in its own lies. We are all trapped in the climate crisis. How far away are we from turning away from the evil that has come up in our own faces? Is there a prophet who would preach to us?

There are many reasons to run away and hide - not least because, like Nineveh, there is a deeper problem to be fixed - the violence that is in our own hands. Is there a multi-voiced word to us: sanctions, drought, floods, storms, death, destruction? Perhaps we, like Jonah, must be part of the solution.

Doesn't seem to be any magic here. Nor does it stop future violence. A prophet today might well sit on the sidelines and hope for 'change'. And the sidelines are a sultry wind destroying our tender plantings, our supply lines, our water, pollination, and growing seasons. 

The chapter on Nineveh makes no mention of mercy or kindness. Nineveh's turning is a 'who knows' gamble in terms of belief, and a self-protective move, but it does stop the stench of its imperialism momentarily. This is a pragmatic and political move and it works.

So God sighs over the evil that was designated for them. And it was not done. I don't find myself sighing about anyone's imperialistic tendencies - whether it be a nation, or a religion, or myself. The enforcing of power over another is anathema to the gospel.

The end of the story leaves Jonah silent with respect to the question reasoning from lesser to greater that God asks. Silence is not an option. Kindness comes up twice in the story: First in the comment of the Psalm in chapter 2:9: 
Those who keep vain futility,
forsake their kindness.

Then in Jonah's citation of Exodus 34:6 and his excuse for stalling and running away:
(4:2b) For I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and of abundant kindness, and who sighs over evil.

We had better hope that this is the case for Jonah and ourselves as well.

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