Philippe Guillaume, «The End of Jonah is the Beginning of Wisdom», Vol. 87 (2006) 243-250
Is God, at the end of the book of Jonah, claiming that he will not destroy Nineveh?
Or should the straight-forward reading of the Hebrew and Greek texts be taken at
face value as claimed ten years ago by Alan Cooper? Although they do not
challenge the common reading of the end of Jonah as a rhetorical question, the
results of recent studies on Jonah support Cooper’s contention. Reading “You had
pity over the plant… but I will not pity Nineveh…” makes more sense and places
Jonah on a par with Job.
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The End of Jonah is the Beginning of Wisdom 245
context provides an answer to confirm the presence of a hidden question just
before. When an reply is missing, the phrase can be translated as a question
or as an affirmation with little impact on the overall meaning of the passage,
except in Jon 4,11 and Job 2,10. Some modern translators are conscious of
the problem and replace the question mark at the end of Jonah by an
exclamation: â€œAnd should I not pity â€¦!â€ (15).
Such subtleties would be harmless if Jon 4,10-11 was not critical to the
meaning of the book as a whole. Because they originate in the mouth of God,
these verses reflect the concluding issue and deliver a â€œsplendid coup de
1. Jonah 4,11 and the Questions in Jonah 4
Jonah 4 contains three questions. If any of them is rhetorical, the
rhetorical aspect of the final verses gains credibility. Jon 4,2 is Jonahâ€™s
defence for his attempted escape to Tarshish: â€œIs this not what I said while I
was still in my own country?â€ In Jon 4,4.9 JHWH and Elohim question Jonahâ€™s
anger â€œIs it good for you to be angry?â€. All three questions are properly
indicated by the interrogative h particle: hzAawlh (Jon 4,2) and bfyhh (Jon
4,4.9). The first question seems rhetorical since no direct answer is provided.
Instead of answering whether or not Jonah was justified in boarding a boat to
Tarshish, JHWH shifts the focus on Jonahâ€™s anger and answers with a question
of his own. Jonahâ€™s question is rhetorical if its answer is obvious, but this is
not the case. Since Jon 1 is silent on Jonahâ€™s motivations, the reader has no
way to know what Jonah thought at the time. Hence readers of Jon 4,2 are
likely to side with the sailors (Jon 1,10) and disown Jonah: disobedience to
any God-given mission is surely wrong. If the answer to the question in 4,2 is
not obvious, the rhetorical process breaks down (17).
Then comes Godâ€™s turn to ask â€œIs anger good for you?â€. Instead of
answering, Jonah leaves the city. Again, the lack of answer seems to qualify
this question as rhetorical, but God repeats it verbatim in verse 9, only adding
that the anger is â€œabout the bushâ€. This time Jonah bursts out â€œAnger is good
for me until death!â€. Jon 4,4.9 are not rhetorical since they receive a clear
positive answer (18). Jonah considers that his anger over the death of the
qiqayon is legitimate and he is ready to die for it.
This leaves Jonahâ€™s question at 4,2 as the only unanswered question, until
vv. 10-11 are reached. There, JHWH answers Jonah squarely. You suggest that
you were right in escaping Nineveh in order not to preach a message of doom
because you knew that mercy would lead me to have pity. But I am not human
(15) Bible dâ€™Alexandrie, Les Douze (Paris 1999): â€œEt moi, je nâ€™Ã©pargnerai pas
Niniveâ€¦?â€ (future indicative rather than conditional â€œÃ©pargneraisâ€). So far, the provisional
edition of the New English Translation of the Septuagint sticks with the old â€œBut shall I not
have consideration for Nineueâ€¦?â€: .
(16) J.H. GAINES, Forgiveness in a Wounded World. Jonahâ€™s Dilemma (Atlanta 2003) 122.
(17) In fact Jonah is anti-rhetorical: Y. GITAY, â€œJonah: the Prophet of Antirhetoricâ€,
Fortunate the Eyes that See (ed. A.B. BECK) (Grand Rapids 1995) 197-206.
(18) Contra G.M. LANDES, â€œTextual â€˜Information Gapsâ€™ and â€˜Dissonancesâ€™ in the
Interpretation of the Book of Jonahâ€, Ki Baruch Hu (eds. R. CHAZAN â€“ W.W. HALLO â€“ L.H.
SCHIFFMAN) (Winona Lake 1999) 285.