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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246 Ph. Guillaume
to repent (19), being moved to tears over a mere plant as you were. I will not
shed a tear when Nineveh is destroyed!
Therefore, there is not a single rhetorical question in Jonah 4 to support
reading its last verse as a rhetorical question in disguise. Reading a question
where the context does not support it suggests that the interrogative rendering
of Jon 4,11 is pure dogma.
2. Jonah 4,11 and the Overall Meaning of Jonah
George Landes recognizes that the understanding of Jon 4,11 as a
rhetorical question leaves many problems unresolved though he is not ready
to embrace the affirmative reading which in his opinion offers â€œintriguing
though not ultimately satisfying possibilitiesâ€ (20). There is a growing
awareness that the end of Jonah must make a point other than simply stating
divine mercy since in Jon 4,2 Jonah is all too aware that God is merciful and
repents of evil (21). Although he maintains that â€œthe plot of Jonah collapses
without the salvation of Ninevehâ€ (22), Ehud Ben Zvi insists that the post-
exilic readership of Jonah was influenced by the eventual destruction of
Nineveh. The knowledge of the destruction constitutes a double ending which
provides a more sophisticated discourse (23). Knowledge of the destruction of
Nineveh is essential to the plot. Repentance is important but is not everything.
God is merciful and just (24). â€œFrom this perspective, Jonah was absolutely
wrong in imagining JHWH as a deity who cannot be expected to carry out a
massive destruction of human (and animal) lifeâ€ (25). Despite its support for
the final rhetorical question, Ben Zviâ€™s detailed study supports the affirmative
reading. The question is where the destruction is located, only in the readerâ€™s
awareness or it is already stated in Jon 4,11?
The straight-forward reading of the end of Jonah solves several
contentious points within the book.
(19) See R.W.L. MOBERLY, â€œâ€˜God is not Human that He Should Repentâ€™ (Numbers
23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29â€, God in the Fray (eds. T. Linafelt â€“ T.K. Beal) (Minneapolis
(20) LANDES, â€œDissonancesâ€, 291. Also KAMP, Inner Worlds, 109, once in the entire
book notes that the last verse â€œopens up a sub-world in which he [JHWH] is not concerned
with Ninevehâ€™s people and animalsâ€. Already T.E. FRETHEIM, â€œJonah and Theodicyâ€, ZAW
90 (1978) 231 demonstrated the difficulties of the interpretation of the end of Jonah as
implying an â€˜oughtnessâ€™ or inevitability of Godâ€™s pitying action.
(21) â€œThe herd of brutish Ninevites and live cattle in the last verse requires a more â€˜beefyâ€™
interpretationâ€: Y. SHERWOOD, A Biblical Text and its Afterlives (Cambridge 2000) 270.
(22) BEN ZVI, Signs, 14.
(23) BEN ZVI, Signs, 28. â€œThe logic of the narrative leads readers to an understanding of
the question at the end of the book as a rhetorical question, in which case the communicative
message of the text is that surely YHWH will never destroy the city for the deity will have
pity on so many people who do not know their right from their left. But when the readers
approach the text with the knowledge that YHWH did destroy the city, then the readers
might approach the words of YHWH as meaning, â€œI will not have pityâ€. In sum, the readers
are left with two endings of the book, according to one YHWH will not destroy the city,
even if it is sinful, because he will have pity on the multitude of people who do not know
their right from their left, but according to the other YHWH is certainly capable and has
actually done so, and more than onceâ€ E. BEN ZVI, personal communication.
(24) BEN ZVI, Signs, 27.
(25) BEN ZVI, Signs, 21.