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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Jonah - Introduction

THE BOOK OF JONAH was included in “the Twelve,” among the other prophetic books, because it was accepted as a prophetic book. Yet it is unlike all the other prophetic books in many and diverse ways. For one thing, the book of Jonah is a narrative, whereas the others are not, though they may include some narrative sections. Prophetic books tend to allocate a large share of their text to reports of divine announcements (or “oracles”) and of prophetic addresses to a public other than the LORD or the prophet alone. This is clearly not the case in Jonah. Further, none of the other eleven prophets rebels against God and takes practical steps to preempt the fulfillment of the explicit divine will as communicated to the prophet. The motif of Jonah's active opposition to the LORD's command and will, and accordingly his reluctance to show honor and reverence to his Master, is overtly emphasized in the text through contrast with the inhabitants of Nineveh and with other non‐Israelites. Despite the typically negative view of Assyria in the Bible, the book characterizes the entire population of Nineveh (the capital of Assyria), including its elite, the sailors, and even all creation, as clearly responsive to the LORD. Finally, according to this book, this extremely atypical prophet is the most successful in the Bible (see the annotations).

The book itself has been characterized in different ways, among them: as a satire, a story that presents an implicit ideal by means of an exaggerated portrait of its opposite; as a parable, which makes its theological, spiritual, or moral point implicitly through narrative; and as didactic fiction, perhaps a narrative philosophical tractate. It is perhaps better to understand it as a meta‐prophetic book, that is, a book that probes the role of the prophet, and as a book that is to be studied as the LORD's word or teaching (see below). As such it uses humor and elements of satire and parody and it carries a strong didactic message.

Some have argued that the principal theme of the book of Jonah concerns the power of repentance; others that its main focus and message contrast a doctrine of retributive justice to one of divine grace. Still others maintain that the main issue in Jonah is a conflict between God's universalist approach and Jonah's nationalistic tendencies. Another group of scholars is convinced that the focus of the book is the contrast or conflict between an understanding of God as constrained by particular rules known to human beings andanother that stresses the radical independence of such a being. All of these and similar approaches to the book have failed to command overwhelming assent for the simple reason that the book cannot be reduced to one main theme.

At one level, the basic narrative is quite simple, but at another, it shows much sophistication and polyvalence (that is, multiple meanings). For instance, in the basic story Nineveh is saved from destruction because, as the LORD states, “Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” ( 4.11 ). But if so, what are the readers of the book supposed to make of the well‐known fact in their time that historical Nineveh had long been totally destroyed and never rebuilt? Surely, they thought, such destruction must have been a manifestation of God's will. But if so, are some of God's words, as recorded in the prophetic books, valid at one time but not another, even if God's explicit argument seems universal? Are prophetic words contingent on a set of particular historical circumstances and therefore of no absolute value and general scope? Is it possible to distinguish between the contingent and the noncontingent words, and if so how? Or are all of them contingent? The book raises many other issues concerning the role of prophets, the question of if and when prophecies will be fulfilled, and the limitations of human knowledge based on reading Scripture. It bears noting that Jonah is described as one who knows Scripture well; nevertheless, his understanding of the role of prophecy and of God's will is presented as defective.

Although there is some debate on the matter, the usual date for the composition of Jonah is the Persian period. No critical scholar today advocates the historicity of the prophet and his fantastic misadventures.

The book is read in the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see b. Meg. 31a) because of the theme of repentance. On that day Jews are supposed to identify with the Ninevites and their plea (certainly not with Jonah; and cf. already m. Ta'an. 2.1 ; on the completeness and truthfulness of the Ninevites'repentance see, for instance, b. Ta'an. 16a, cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah,b. Ta'an. 4.2 ; the Jerusalem Talmud, however, shows other voices, e.g., R. Yohanan in y. Ta'an. 9a; perek b, halakhah a).

The basic structure of the book of Jonah is clear and quite symmetrical. There are two divine calls to Jonah, both worded in a similar manner. In the first case, Jonah disobeys the divine command; in the second, he obeys (cf. 1.1–3 and 3.1–3 ). In both cases he interacts with non‐Israelites who show fear of the LORD, and in both he stands in sharp contrast to them (cf. 1.4–15 and 3.5–10 ). Both interactions lead Jonah to address the LORD in distress ( 2.2–10 and 4.1–3 ). The main difference is that in the concluding case, the LORD responds in words and enters into a didactic dialogue with Jonah ( 4.4–11 )

[eHUD BEN ZVI]

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