Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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One of the most famous short stories in the Bible, the book of Jonah has been a major subject for artists and writers throughout European history.81 Jonah ben Amittai is mentioned as a prophet in 2 Kgs. 14: 25. The story of how he fled to Tarshish by boat when commanded to speak against Nineveh, was caught in a storm and thrown into the sea, and thence delivered after spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish (or whale, according to centuries of tradition), preached against Nineveh and converted all the people there, then spent the rest of the story arguing with YHWH is well known. Its simplicity, small vocabulary, and highly repetitive style conceals great complexity. In four brief sections we see Jonah in four very different contexts: from the inner recesses of a ship, in the belly of a large fish, in the city of Nineveh, and finally outside the city under a tree. The story begins and ends with YHWH speaking and focuses almost entirely on Jonah, apart from the repentance rituals of the king and people of Nineveh (3: 5–10). As a piece of burlesque satire on prophets and their attitudes towards foreigners it is almost Swiftian. In both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles the Book of Jonah is placed after Obadiah—in the Greek Bible Jonah appears between Obadiah and Nahum. Some have seen in this canonical placement an attempt to soften the harsh xenophobia of Obadiah—if so, it works better in the Greek version because Nahum consists of a series of oracular poems against the city of Nineveh. In many ways the Book of Jonah looks more like the tale of a prophet's education. The curt five-word message to Nineveh (eight words in English) ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’, may not be accommodating but, as we have seen, prophets rarely were. The Ninevites, however, clearly know what is expected of them and promptly repent by fasting and wearing sackcloth and ashes. In case the satiric edge of this is missed, we are told that even their beasts wore sackcloth and cried mightily to God (3: 8). As YHWH himself explains to Jonah, he also notices the beasts: ‘And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?’ (4: 11). One-hundred-and-twenty thousand people (and much cattle) all wearing sackcloth and fasting was a sight moving even YHWH to pity. Not Jonah however. What touched him was the death of the gourd which had sheltered him from the heat of the sun. Jonah could pity that gourd but not Nineveh, whereas YHWH had no time for the vegetable but could pity Nineveh, with its many people and much cattle. Even Ninevites, however stupid (in this comic story) or dangerous (in real life), can be pitied by YHWH, who, the story subversively begins to suggest, might have wider sympathies than was assumed by prophets only interested in relaying the word of a wrathful tribal god. The story ends with YHWH's rhetorical statement and we are left to work out whether or not he is waiting for Jonah to answer.

Chapter.  548 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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