Jonah – parody of a prophet? (4)

Jonah and Jason

I mentioned earlier that word play is common in the Book of Jonah, and gave an example from the opening verses where Jonah is commissioned to “rise” and go to Nineveh, but instead he “rises” and goes to Tarshish. A series of descents then commence: Jonah first ‘went down (ירד) to Joppa’ (1:3), then we find he ‘had gone down (ירד) into the hold of the vessel’ (1:5), and eventually he ‘sank (ירד) to the base of the mountains’ (2:6).

There appears to be further word play on Jonah’s name, which means ‘dove’. There is an irony here as the prophet turns out to be ‘flighty’. Gildas Hamel has also pointed out the similarities between Ionas, the Greek form of the Hebrew name יונה Yonah, and Iason the Greek form of Jason[1], and suggested, due to the preponderance of similarities between the Jonah story and the Jason myth, that the author of Jonah plays with one of the variants of the story of Jason.[2]  The Jason motif occurs in the Mediterranean region from as early as the eighth century BCE and was widespread in literature by the fifth century BCE. Hamel lists several parallel motifs in both stories: ‘the names of the heroes, the presence of a dove, the idea of ‘fleeing’ like the wind and causing a storm, the attitude of the sailors, the presence of a sea-monster or dragon threatening the hero or swallowing him, and the form and meaning of the difficult word kikayon.’[3]. The Hebrew word kikayon קיקיון is a famous hapax legomenon in Jonah 4:6ff referring to a fast-growing plant, which later tradition identifies with a type of gourd or ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. This word sounds very much like the kukeon or kukaon in the Jason legend, a brew made of medicinal and dangerous plants, prepared by Medea. The similarity in names could be the result of the plant species in the Jonah story being one of the principal pharmacological plants used in the brew in the Jason story, or a deliberate allusion by the author of Jonah to the Jason story. Jonah goes to sleep under his קיקיון; Medea uses the kukeon  brew to put the serpent or dragon to sleep.   Jonah’s plant also purges him of his anger, in a possible play on the emetic effects of the ricinus plant. If so, it also creates an interesting parallel with the fish ‘vomiting’ Jonah. In one version of the Jason story the hero is vomited out of the mouth of a sea monster.[4]

‘The creator of Jonah appears to be playing in a very conscious manner with some of the elements and motifs of the Greek story, inverting some, laminating others, or fusing them with Hebrew themes on the basis of linguistic or structural similarities’.[5]


[1] Hamel. G., “Taking the Argo to Nineveh: Jonah and Jason in a Mediterranean Context” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought  44. 3 (Summer 1995): 341. Hamel argues that metathesis was common in ancient Greek tradition. The name Iason (Jason) itself was also a metathesis of his own father’s name, Aison.  He further notes other word similarities between the two stories:  ‘Nineveh and Yavan sound similar, as do Yonah the “dove,” Yoniyah the ship, and Ionia the region. Phonetically as well as mythopoetically, it appears that the author of the book of Jonah is playing with a variant or variants of Jason’s adventures as told in Greek and other languages, selecting some of its motifs or sounds and refashioning them for altogether different purposes, all the while with a view to entertain.’ (7)

[2] Hamel (1995) 1.

[3] Hamel (1995) 3

[4] Hamel (1995) 5

[5] Hamel (1995) 6

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