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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248 Ph. Guillaume
(Jon 4,3.8) is a requisite of fairness. Jonah is not angry because the sirocco
hurts him but because of the theological inconsistency that he perceives in
Godâ€™s decision not to do what he had said he would do (Jon 3,10). Jonah 4 is
a theoretical discussion of good and evil (32). To his tormentor (33) who points
out that he would be the first victim of the meting out of divine justice
(â€œwould wrath be any good to you?â€), Jonah retorts that anger, divine anger,
is good even if it entails his own death (Jon 4,8-9) and that of a numerous
population. JHWH should kill Jonah rather than plants, this is the least a just
god should do to a disobedient prophet. Jonah insists that his execution be
immediate (ht[ Jon 4,3), not in order to shorten his agony, but to salvage
divine justice and with it the foundation of the universe (34). Jonah does not
dodge his responsibility, he does not ask for mercy for himself and
punishment for Nineveh. All along, Jonahâ€™s concern is the defense of justice
from the encroachments of mercy. With a final rhetorical question, JHWH
evades the issue. Cheap grace prevails. With the assertive ending, JHWH raises
to the challenge, acknowledging Jonahâ€™s point while introducing the issue of
delay. Delayed punishment is not pardon.
Indeed, the possibility of reading a rhetorical question at the end of Jonah
is part of the narrative strategy of the book. Upon reaching verse 11, the
reader reacts to the shock produced by the plain meaning of the text and seeks
to avoid the conclusion that God will not shed a tear over Nineveh. The
possibility to read a rhetorical question in Jon 4,11 is the narratorâ€™s rhetorical
trick (35) to trip the readerâ€¦ for a while. It produces many loose ends and
delights modern scholarship that revels in ambiguity, irony, satire, sometimes
at the expense of the message. Yet, the end of the book puts a sharp end to the
fun. If the rhetorical question is a temporary option to provide greater
perspective, at the end the declarative reading is inescapable. Cooper
understates his case when he claims that â€œthe book of Jonah itself gives no
grounds for choosing between the interrogative and declarative renderings of
4.11â€ (36). Jonah itself provides enough arguments in favour of his thesis,
more so when the other Jonah joins in.
5. Jonah 4,11 in light of 2 Kings
Readers who find it hard to stomach a JHWH unmoved by Ninevehâ€™s pious
show should refer to the choice of the name Jonah used also in the book of
Kings. As much as the knowledge of the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, the
awkward explanations for the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE play a role in the
interpretation of Jonah. Deuteronomistic theology barely managed to explain
Hezekiahâ€™s failure by making it a consequence of his showing his treasure to
Babylonian envoys (2 Kgs 20,12-19), but Josiahâ€™s inability to revert Huldahâ€™s
oracle (2 Kgs 22,15-20) is beyond Deuteronomistic theological ability. In
spite of their great piety, Hezekiahâ€™s only consolation was that he would die
(32) Jonah 4 uses forms of [r and bwf thrice: LANDES, â€œDissonancesâ€, 291-292.
(33) hnwyh cf. Jer 25,38; 46,16; 50,16; Zeph 3,1.
(34) E. LEVINE, â€œJonah as a Philosophical Bookâ€, ZAW 96 (1984) 241-242.
(35) The notion is from BEN ZVI, Signs, 36, who applies it to Jonahâ€™s choice.
(36) COOPER, â€œCapriceâ€, 158.