Husband or master?

In an earlier post I argued that the relationship between God and his people is described in several places in the Hebrew Bible as being like a partnership and that this equality between the creator and the created was radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. I quoted Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. Suzanne McCarthy has posted an article today along similar lines and with some interesting comments about the use of these terms in modern Israel.

God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.

(Concluded)


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

God’s wives (2)

Julia Kristeva has noted that the earliest texts of the Bible contain only two references to God’s love for humanity, and even these are somewhat obscure.[1] The theme of divine love, she argues, is fully developed in Deuteronomy and the prophets and metaphorically in the Song of Songs, and while there is no explicit mention of either God or Israel in the Song of Songs the fact that the book is found among the Qumran scrolls is evidence that it was studied from a religious standpoint before the destruction of the Second Temple. It was almost certainly understood as an allegory from earliest times by a nation which which saw itself as the Shulamite woman, chosen by a God who had an erotic passion for her.[2] But God as the husband of his people is “the most innovative metaphor of the biblical period”[3] and is not seen elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Kristeva noted that “No other nation, even if dedicated to sacred orgiastic worship, has imagined its relation to God as that of the loving woman to the Husband.”[4] But the idea is not presented in the biblical texts early as a fully developed concept, and there are hints that it developed over time.

Referring to the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman Phyllis Trible argues convincingly that in the order in which the story is told “the account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination.”[5]  Tribble reads Songs of Songs as developing the equality theme of Genesis: “Like Genesis 2, Canticles affirms mutuality of the sexes. There is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. The woman is independent, fully the equal of the man.”[6] There appear to be several deliberate intertextual links between Song of Songs and the creation myths in Genesis which provide an insight into the purpose of Song of Songs. For example, the word translated “desire” in Song 7:10 is תשוקה which occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible, here and twice in the creation story (Genesis 3:16; 4:7). Interestingly, Song of Songs reverses the meaning of this word to the way it is used in Genesis where it refers to the woman’s desire for the man: in Song of Songs it speaks of the man’s desire for the woman. This should immediately give us a clue that Song of Songs may be deliberately reversing the consequences of disobedience in the Genesis story with the recovery of equality between man and woman. Tribble calls Songs of Songs “a midrash on Genesis 2-3”[7] and the recurring references in Song of Songs to gardens, animals and fruits pleasing to the eye and taste are strong indications that the writer has drawn themes and motifs from Genesis and deliberately restored the equality between the man and woman which was disrupted by eating the forbidden fruit. While “desire” in the context of Genesis is the result of disobedience (Tribble calls it “perversion”: the Genesis account does not use the word “sin” until the second occurrence of תשוקה in 4:7 where it is in the context of Cain’s sin and it is the abstract “sin” that “desires” to have Cain) in Song of Songs desire is joyous, passionate and pure. There is a pericope in Song of Songs however where passion is conspicuously absent, and that is in the second night scene (5:2ff) where the woman ignores the call and knocking of her lover. Is this the crux of the book and is the writer telling us that passion, or the lack of it, is the key to understanding something greater?

The idea of the relationship between God and his people being like an Edenic partnership is also implied in Psalm 8:4-6 where the question “what is man that you are mindful of him?” is answered by juxtaposing two ideas drawn from the creation story: man is made only a little lower than the heavenly beings, or God (almost certainly drawing on the words “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” in Genesis 1:26a); and, mankind being given dominion (drawing on the words “And let them have dominion” which immediately follow in Genesis 1:26b). Humanity is not only in God’s image; it also has dominion and is crowned, enthroned with God in joint-rulership. This equality between the creator and the created is radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. In the Genesis story however, the equality ends abruptly and creation is marred. It is a continuing saga through the prophets where God takes Israel as his wife and partner, but she leaves him for other lovers and yet even after she “plays the whore” he has a passion for her and takes her back in an effort to restore the intended unity evident in the creation story. We have a few glimpses of an eventual harmony in the relationship: Psalm 8, drawing heavily on creation themes; the Song of Songs, where there is no sign of either lover dominating the other, but where, if only for a moment, the man disappears, forsaken, because of the woman’s loss of passion; and in Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. But even in these texts there is a tension between the way it should be, and was perhaps always intended to be, and the way it actually is. Psalm 8 with the near-equality at the crux has an inclusio which includes the words “O LORD, our Lord” where אדנינו Lord, although different to בעלי Baali has the meaning of someone who has authority over the other.

to be continued


[1] 2 Samuel 12:24-25 where Solomon is named by David Jedidiah or “beloved of the LORD”, and 1 Kings 10:9 where the Queen of Sheba observes that God loves Israel, or at least has “granted [Israel] his favour”.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.99f

[3] I noted this phrase and placed it within quotation marks during a lecture by Dr Ari Lobel at the University of Sydney but did not note a source, so I expect that they are Dr Lobel’s own words and not a quotation.

[4] Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 97f

[5] Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation”, Journal of the American Academy of religion, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 1973) Oxford University Press, pp. 30-48, p. 36

[6] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 45

[7] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 47)

God’s wives (1)

Relationships can be difficult, even tumultuous, yet Alfred Lord Tennyson reputedly once said “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved.” According to several biblical writers the relationship between God and humanity is no less complicated than human relationships and in fact we might wonder if it is even possible to have an intimate connection between the human and the divine. If so, is it something that can be experienced on a personal or individual level, or only as a corporate abstraction? In the history of interpretation, both in Judaism and Christianity, it has been common to interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor or allegory describing the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church. The New Testament letter to the Ephesians[1] encourages husbands and wives to submit to one another (5:21 ESV) and uses the relationship between Christ and the church as the model: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22); “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25); “husbands should love their wives … just as Christ does the church” (5:28f); and concludes with “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). Paul (or a later pseudonymous writer) was almost certainly influenced in this analogy by several prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible which described the relationship between God and Israel in terms of a marriage.

Possibly the earliest use of the husband metaphor for God is in Isaiah 5 where the prophet sings a love-song: “Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard” (v. 1) and describes his beloved as caring for the vineyard by clearing it of stones and planting it with choice vines. The song then shifts from the third person (about the beloved) to the first person (the beloved singing) and asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (v. 4). The song includes a warning for the ‘vineyard’: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured” and continues with a prediction that the wall will be broken down, the vineyard will be trampled on, and it will become waste and desolate (Vv. 5-6). The song finally returns to the third person and identifies the ‘vineyard’: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7). While this love song doesn’t explicitly speak of God as Israel’s husband, it used the same kind of language that we find in the Song of Songs[2] and has some of the characteristics of a wasf, [3]a near eastern poetic form in which a boy and girl describe how the other’s body affects them[4].

Perhaps the best example of a wasf outside the Song of Songs is Ezekiel 16:10-13 which includes elements similar to Song 5:10-16 with a difference being that Ezekiel’s wasf describes the woman’s clothing and jewellery in greater detail while Song of Songs focuses more on her physical features (perhaps because Ezekiel’s woman is a metaphorical one rather than a real person). Ezekiel used the marriage metaphor twice: in chapter 16 Jerusalem is described as a woman whom God marries, and in chapter 23 God takes two wives, Oholah (Israel) and Oholibah (Judah), both of whom turn out to be unfaithful. These two chapters have generated a great deal of controversy because of the graphic sexual metaphors which are used to describe the women. Some scholars take this language as evidence of “an abusive and misogynistic patriarchal society”[5] although it is possible that the writer is intentionally using vivid language to highlight some stark irregularities in the relationship between God and his people. There are some disturbing features about the metaphorical wives in the prophets. Judah is described as a whore who is wayward, incompetent and oppressive (Jeremiah 2:20-34). Hosea is told by God to take “a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2) in an enacted parable about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Israel’s “abominations” contains some imagery which is unique to this prophet and is graphically disturbing. It first describes the birth of an unwanted female child which is left to die in an open found (16:3-5) and which God pities and takes in as his own daughter, and because of God’s care the child grows and flourishes. The imagery thus far, although graphic, is not particularly disturbing although we may consider it to be an unusual way to describe God’s love for his people. However, it takes a dramatic turn when the child reaches puberty and is observed naked and the prophet attributes to God sexual desires toward her (vv. 7-8a). Here God is first father and then husband and this has the elements of an abusive relationship, or at least an unequal relationship. It is possible that the Song of Songs later addresses this issue by allegorising God and his people in an equal relationship where each desires the other. In Ezekiel’s metaphor God then makes vows and enters a covenant with the child, taking her as his wife. The wasf which follows describes God adorning his wife, but it takes another dramatic turn when the wife “played the whore” (v. 15). The disturbing element here (at least to a modern western mind) is not so much the wife’s unfaithfulness (serious though that would be, especially in an ancient culture) but the potentially exploitive and sexually abusive use of the child by God. Yet that concept must also have been shocking to Ezekiel’s audience – it seems intentionally designed to shock – or why would he have used it? What precisely are the biblical marriage metaphors telling us about the relationship between God and his people, or his creation in general?

… to be continued


[1] Ephesians is attributed to Paul but regarded by many scholars as a late first century text.

[2] Song of Songs includes a song about Solomon’s vineyard (8:11f) and also uses the vineyard metaphor in 1:6, 14; 2:15; 7:12

[3] Wasf is an Arabic word meaning “description”.

[4] G. Schwab “Wasf”, in Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), p. 835

[5] T.C. Parker “Marriage and Divorce” in Longman, Wisdom Poetry and Writings, p. 536

Misquoting the Old Testament (in the New)

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (4)

Jeremiah 18:2-3 cited in Matthew 27:9-10

ESV (OT Sources)

ESV (Matthew)

Jeremiah 18:2-3“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. Matthew 27:9-10Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Zechariah 11:12-13Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter” – the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Matthew 27:9-10 is the most puzzling citation of Jeremiah in the New Testament. In fact, it is possibly one of the most puzzling citations of any Old Testament text. Matthew introduces this ‘quotation’ with the formulaic “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying …” The most remarkable thing about this is that nowhere in any of our manuscripts of Jeremiah do the quoted words appear. The wording which is most similar is Jeremiah 18:2-3 which refers to Jeremiah being directed to go to the potter’s house. Both texts refer to a potter but there the similarity ends. In fact, Matthew’s quotation parallels Zechariah 11:12-13 more closely than any text in Jeremiah. Zechariah refers to thirty pieces of silver as well as a potter, but not to a field. Elsewhere in Jeremiah (32:6-9) the prophet bought his cousin’s field in Anathoth, but there the price is seventeen shekels. Matthew’s ‘quotation’ appears to be a composite of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13 with a possible allusion to Jeremiah 32:6-9 and it is difficult to see how it is a ‘fulfilment’ of any specific prophecy. Craig Blomberg has argued that “Rabbis would sometimes create a composite quotation of more than one Scripture but refer to only one of their sources by name, often the more obscure one (though sometimes also the more important one) to ensure that others would pick up the reference”.[1]

Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah preserves a clause found in the Masoretic Text but missing from the Septuagint: “the lordly price at which I was priced by them”. His concluding clause (“as the Lord directed me”) is not in either source text, but could be alluding to Jeremiah 13:15 “So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me”. Neither source text refers to a potter’s field, although this is a key item in the fulfilment of the prophecy to which he is referring. Later in the story about the potter in Jeremiah (19:2) the prophet is instructed to “buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate”. We may be tempted to see a connection between the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (known as Gehenna in the Gospels) and the traitor Judas Iscariot but Matthew makes no such connection, nor does Luke when writing about Iscariot’s fate in Acts 1:18-20.

What is Matthew doing here with a composite quotation which he attributes to Jeremiah and how can he say that Iscariot’s actions ‘fulfil’ Scripture when there is no such prophecy? Joseph Fitzmyer has noted that “the use of well-known introductory formulae to cite a passage which is not found in the Old Testament (or at least which is not found in any of the known texts or versions)” is a phenomenon found both in the NT and in the Qumran literature” (think “Dead Sea Scrolls”).[2] He put this in the category of “modernized texts” rather than as a literal fulfilment of prophecy.[3] This could also be a case of what he later describes as an “accommodated text”, that is, one which is “wrested from its original context or modified somehow to suit the new situation”[4].

Archer and Chirichigno put this text in the category of quotations which give the impression that unwarranted liberties were taken with the Old Testament text in the light of its context. It would probably be even better, in my view, to categorise the Matthew quotation as a composite allusion rather than a quotation.


[1] Craig Blomberg, [“Matthew” in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 95]. Unfortunately Blomberg doesn’t provide any sources for or examples of this Rabbinic practice. Archer and Chirichigno also claim that in combining elements from both Jeremiah and Zechariah Matthew is “simply conforming to contemporary literary custom when he cites the name of the more famous of the two” [Archer, Gleason L. and G. C. Chirichigno Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey (Chicago: Moody, 1983) p. 163]. but they don’t provide references for their claim either.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 304. Another example of this in the Gospels is Matthew 2:23 “he shall be called a Nazarene” while ‘As for that which it said, “Your own hand shall not avenge you”‘ (CD ix 8-9) is an example of a Qumran text quoting an unknown source.

[3] Ibid, p.315

[4] Ibid, p.316. Fitzmyer finds twelve examples of accommodation in Qumran texts.

Boccaccini, Daniel and 1 Enoch

Following on from some discussion with Dustin Smith on an earlier post about angels and princes in Daniel 10, I thought I’d post some ideas by Gabriele Boccaccini which are consistent with my conclusions.

In Roots of Rabbinic Judaism [1] Boccaccini argues for the emergence of three quite distinct Judaisms in post-exilic Judea:  (1) Sapiential Judaism (as evidenced in such works as Proverbs, Job, Jonah, and Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes); (2) Zadokite Judaism, detected in texts including  Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles); and (3) Enochic Judaism (priestly opposition to the Zadokites, embodied in such works as the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch).

In the post-exilic period the so-called Zadokite priesthood, descendants of Zadok the chief priest in the time of King David, took control of the rebuilt temple, established the priesthood as the dominant political force instead of a restored Davidic monarchy, and ruled Judea until shortly before the Maccabean revolt. Enochic Judaism is named after the Book of Enoch, which is really a composite work of five books written, according to a consensus of scholarly opinion, between 300 and 100 BCE, and reflects the theology of a group of disenfranchised priests. Sapiential Judaism was a kind of secular morality, in which the accumulated wisdom of several generations provided an alternative to the covenantal theology of the Zadokite priesthood. Their literature includes works such as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom and Sirach.

Broadly speaking Boccaccini theorises that the Sadducees were descended from the Zadokites, the Essenes and Christianity from the Enochic tradition, and Rabbinic Judaism as we know it from a synthesis of Zadokite and Enochic theology through the Pharisees.

Boccoccini argues that the book of Daniel reveals the emergence of a “third way” between Enochic and Zadokite Judaism and understands that Daniel “opposed the Enochic doctrine of the superhuman origin of evil and strenuously defended the tenets of Zadokite Judaism: the covenant (based on the Mosaic Torah) and the legitimacy of the Second Temple.”[2] There is no place in covenantal theology for a superhuman cause of sin and evil. Instead there is a temple sacrificial system which offers a framework for personal responsibility and accountability for sin, and even in the context of a vision in which some of the “host of heaven” are thrown to the ground (8:10), which sounds Enochic, Daniel is more concerned about the end of the evening and morning temple sacrifices and the desecration of the temple (8:11-14). In his prayer in chapter 9, possibly the climax of a structural chiasm, Daniel focused on Israel’s transgression of the lawof Moses (11-13), the holy city Jerusalem which is called by God’s name (16, 18, 19), the temple (17), and exile and restoration (13-15, 17); all Deuteronomic themes, and central to Zadokite theology. Enochic Judaism did not accept these covenantal theological premises or that history degenerates because of human sin and, based on the Book of the Watchers and the dream vision of 1 Enoch 83-84[3], believed that “the crisis was something deeper than the consequence of human sin”, that the degeneration of history was caused by angelic sin and that the earth is the victim of chaotic forces.[4] Reading Daniel against a background of Enochic theology one could read the conflict between Michael and the princes of Persia and Greece as a continuation of this celestial battle (as J.J. Collins does). However, Boccaccini’s reading of the clash between two (or three including Sapiential Judaism) theological worldviews makes better sense of Daniel 10 in my view.

This is not to discount the contribution of 1 Enoch to our understanding of Daniel. On the contrary, Enoch helps us to understand the divergent theological viewpoints of the time and, whether or not we agree with Boccaccini’s view that there was an alternative Enochic stream within Judaism in that period, to fully understand Daniel we need to understand the Zeitgeist of second century BCE Judea and hence the available literature.


[1] Boccaccini, G., Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.) 2002

[2] Boccaccini, 2002, 206

[3] Especially 84:4 “The angels of your heavens are now committing sin (upon the earth) and your wrath shall rest upon the flesh of the people until (the arrival of) the great day of judgment”.

[4] Boccaccini, 2002, 165, 167

Angels and Princes in Daniel 10

In the prologue to the final vision of the book of Daniel (chapters 10-12) Daniel saw “a man clothed in linen”. The “man” in Daniel’s vision is sometimes assumed to be Gabriel (based on Gabriel’s appearance in chapters 8 and 9) but the man is not actually named here. “If Daniel knew it was the Gabriel he had seen earlier, surely he would have named him here” and “we would expect the description to be in chapter 8 when he first appeared to Daniel”.[1] Some elements of Daniel’s encounter with this “man” are puzzling. The man said “the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia”. Who is this “Prince of Persia”? Later there is a reference to the “prince of Greece” (v. 20) and “Michael, your prince” (v. 21) and “Michael the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). The suggestion is often made that these three “princes” are patron-angels. Michael certainly has that role here (“who has charge of your people”) and he is also referred to as one of the seven archangels in 1 Enoch 20:1-8. What we have here in Daniel 10 then may be a conflict between the visionary man and the patron angel of Persia, with the patron angels of Greece and Israel also becoming involved. There are two other texts which may suggest celestial beings may represent or rule nations:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders [Or territories] of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [Compare Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Israel]. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV).

“Over every nation he set a ruler. But Israel is the portion of God.” (Sirach 17:14-15)

Neither of these texts specifically refer to patron-angels but the “sons of God” in the DSS and LXX readings of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are understood to be angels. The reference in Sirach is to a “ruler” set over each nation, and could only be understood as a reference to angels if the Deuteronomy text is read as a deliberate intertextual link (which is possible considering both texts refer to Israel as the Lord’s/God’s portion).

1 Enoch 10 also has a conflict between angels, with the angel Raphael binding the angel Azazel, the angel Gabriel destroying the children of the Watchers, and the angel Michael  binding the angel Semjaza and his associates. Revelation 12 has a war in heaven with Michael and his angels fighting against Satan. Revelation is almost certainly alluding to 1 Enoch. Do we have a similar celestial conflict here in Daniel 10?

The Hebrew word translated as “prince” throughout Daniel 10 is שַׂר sar a word often translated as “leader” or “commander”. The Hebrew term שַׂר used more than four hundred times in the Old Testament, carries the following meanings: captain, leader (Num.21:18; 1Sam.22:2); vassal, noble, official under a king who functions (a) as a ruler or counsellor (Gen.12:15; 1Kings20:14–17), (b) the sovereign or magistrate of a region (2Chron.32:31), or (c) the ruler of a city (Judg.9:30; Neh.7:2); commander (Gen.21:22,32); head of a group of people, that is, an official  (Neh.4:10; Ps.68:27 [28,Heb.]; Dan.1:7–11,18); one who carries a certain religious responsibility (Ezra 8:24,29; Isa.43:28);or a person in an elevated position (Ps.45:16[17,Heb.]; Isa.23:8). The common denominator in these diverse uses is the concept of “one who commands.”[2]

The Septuagint translates this with a word carrying a similar meaning. “The LXX diverges more markedly from the MT at the references in 10.13, and 20 to ‘the prince of Persia’ … and ‘the prince of Greece’ … [T]he terminology of the LXX translation differs in that these princes of Greece and Persia are seen as … ‘leaders/commanders’ … its referent is almost inevitably to political or military leadership. In Daniel it translates שַׂר in the list of officials in 3.2. It translates שַׂר three other times in the LXX (1 Kgs 29.3-4; 1 Chron. 11.6; 2 Chron. 32.21), and each time the context is secular.”[3] “The choice of vocabulary in the LXX suggests that the Greek translator regarded the Princes of Persia and Greece as human figures, and so interpreted an ambiguous Vorlage in a particular direction.”[4]

It is interesting that “nothing is made of the battle among the princes in the message that follows in chapter 11”.[5] Their appearance in the prologue to the vision is almost incidental. Several scholars, including William Shea, hold that the “prince of Persia” was one of the political authorities in Persia who opposed the reconstruction of the Jewish temple. Shea writes, “If one looks for an earthly human prince of Persia in the 3rd year of Cyrus, there is one specific candidate for that historical position: Cambyses, the son and crown princeof Cyrus… This is the one interpretation which takes cognizance of both (a) the potentiality for interpreting the word ‘prince’ as a human being, and (b) the actual political situation that obtained in the 3rd year of Cyrus. In my opinion, therefore, Calvin was correct in this identification.”[6]

There is a strong case, in my opinion, for Shea’s view that these “princes” are human political or military leaders. The “prince of Persia” would most likely be Cambyses who was a co-regent with Cyrus, making sense of the plural “kings of Persia” (v.13). Daniel 10:1 calls Cyrus the “king of Persia” while Cyrus was apparently known as “King of Babylon” and appears not to have used the title “king of Persia” for himself.[7] The recurrence of the expression in verse 13 in the plural “kings of Persia” is a significant detail and probably refers to the co-regency of Cyrus and Cambyses. While Cambyses is here referred to as “prince of Persia” both Cambyses and Cyrus are designated “kings of Persia”, consistent with the crown prince being a co-regent.

Cambyses’ opposition to national cultic temples is well documented by Shea, and it is significant that the Jerusalem Temple was not rebuilt during his reign. Daniel’s “mourning” occurred during the same twenty one days time-frame that the visionary man “struggled” with the prince of Persia, and may very well have been due to Daniel’s knowledge of some local political event (perhaps a delegation from opponents to the temple rebuilding in Jerusalem). It is possible then that the matter which concerned Daniel was the same matter that occupied the angel.

If this interpretation is correct then Daniel 10 has nothing to do with celestial battles between the patron angels of nations, and has no relevance for understanding the wars in heaven in 1 Enoch 10 and Revelation 12.


[1] Gowan, D.E., Daniel, (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001, 143

[2] Stevens, D. E., “Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157: 628 (2000): 410-431, 413, citing Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Leiden: Brill) 1995, 1350-53

[3] Meadowcroft, T. J., Aramaic Daniel and Greek Daniel: A Literary Comparison, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press) 1995, 253

[4] Meadowcroft, 254

[5] Gowan, 2001, 144

[6] Shea, W. H., “Wrestling with the Prince of Persia: A Study on Daniel 10,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 21 (1983), 249. The reference to Calvin is to John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 2:252

[7] Collins, J.J., Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 1993, 372

Jonah – parody of a prophet (6)

The Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Conclusion

The cluster of unusual features which I’ve mentioned in previous posts suggests that what we have is a clever story which is not meant to be taken literally or even too seriously. The message of the Book of Jonah may be a serious one, but the intended message is not the folk-tale itself but the underlying point the writer is making in his comical portrayal of the prophet. It is almost certain that the story contains humour, irony, satire and parody. But would it be reasonable to categorise the whole book as satire or parody?

Some scholars lean toward a classification of the book of Jonah as satire [1]. Marcus identifies the characteristics of satire and states that ‘a text may be identified as a satire if it has a target which is the object of attack, either directly or indirectly, and has a preponderance of the essential attributes of satire’, including a mixture of unbelievable elements, ironies, ridicule, parody, and rhetorical features. [2] He argues that these elements must not simply be present in the text, but must dominate it and constitute the essence of the work. In the book of Jonah the prophet is made to appear ridiculous insofar as he acts in ways which are contrary to those expected of a prophet. For example, Jonah is told to rise up and preach but flees in disobedience to the commandment of God to go to Nineveh, beginning a series of descents [3]; during the storm Jonah sleeps while the pagan sailors acknowledge the God of Israel; and he is upset over the repentance of the Ninevites which spares the city from destruction, but grieves for the demise of a plant. Nogalski concludes from this behaviour that ‘The portrayal of Jonah deliberately inverts the typical expected obedience of a prophet.’ [4] Feinberg emphasises the hyperbolic quality of satire and notes that satire is a ‘playfully critical distortion of the familiar’ [5] Frye argues that there are two essentials to satire: first, that the wit and humour are founded on fantasy or on a sense of the grotesque or absurd; and second, that there is an object of the attack [6]. I have demonstrated in earlier posts how Jonah meets these criteria.

For the book of Jonah to function as parody it would need to mimic the style of another writer or genre, in a humorous or satirical way. Hamel has suggested that due to the similarities with the Jason and the Argonauts Greek legend that an element of mockery of the Greeks is part of the Jonah story and reflects Jewish resistance to, and fascination with, Hellenistic culture.[7] He argues that:

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. The author has manipulated a myth, which had become alien and reelaborated parts of it in order to reflect on and reinforce his own cultural values. [8]

The similarities with the Jason legend, while impressive, are probably insufficient to conclude that the book of Jonah is mimicking the genre of Greek epic literature. Nor do the Greeks appear to be the primary target. The suggestion that the book of Jonah is a parody relies on the existence of the other Biblical prophetic books and the prophets which it mimics.

We also need to determine what purpose satire or parody would achieve in this context, and identify the target of the parody. There are several possible targets. Jonah is portrayed as weak, hypocritical, and a kind of anti-hero. Possibly, as Marcus notes, beneath these satires ‘there lies the unspoken wish of what the proper behavior [of a prophet] should be’[9]. Perhaps then the book is an anti-prophetic satire aimed at prophets in general; but what role would such a parody play as part of The Book of the Twelve? Alternatively, the narrator may be targeting his Jewish readers and their exclusivist attitudes [10], perhaps as a polemic against the exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah[11]. Allen prefers the view that the book of Jonah may have been authored by the wisdom teachers ‘who challenged self-righteous Israel with the devastating book of Job’ and similarly perhaps ‘produced the little book of Jonah as another shock for a self-centred community’[12]. Another possibility is that the book of Jonah parodies the prophet in an effort to raise questions about the rival claims of justice and mercy and Israel’s relationship to God.

The prophet seems to be trapped in a dilemma which goes to the core of Israel’s basic tenets of faith. Jonah is caught between two extreme ideas: God’s justice and anger in response to Israel’s failures; and, God’s infinite patience and compassion. This dilemma is one of the themes of Jonah’s literary context as part of The Book of the Twelve. Commenting on this dilemma Watts writes: ‘The Twelve struggles with whether God has changed. Joel 2:12-14 and Jonah 4:2 cite Exodus 34:6 (see also Deut 7:9). This is the basic dogma being tested.’[13] It is noteworthy that Nahum also quotes Exodus 34:6 and is the only other book in The Twelve to mention Nineveh. Nahum’s quotation emphasises the justice and severity of God; Jonah emphasises his mercy and compassion. Both Books allude in significantly different ways to the self-revelation of God’s attributes in Exodus 34:  Jonah extracts from the Exodus text those characteristics of God which best fit his theme of a merciful and relenting God: ‘you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (4:2); by contrast, Nahum draws different characteristics of God from the Exodus text: ‘a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty’ (1:2-3). The way the two Books deal with this Exodus text highlights what appears to be a deliberate contrast in the collection of The Twelve. ‘Nahum and Jonah are like two sides of a coin when read together … like two parts of a broken pot that are only whole when they are brought together … Together they explore the nature of God’s mercy and vengeance, and how they relate to each other.’[14]

In my view, the book of Jonah is possibly one of the best examples of humour and comic in the Hebrew Bible, containing a cluster of elements including irony, satire, surrealism, and parody. While parodying Hellenistic legends, or at least drawing on this genre for inspiration, the primary target of the book is either the hypocrisy of some prophets, or, more likely, the self-centred and exclusivist theology of the post-exilic period.


[1] Including Holbert [Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81] and Marcus [Marcus, D., “From Balaam to Jonah – Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible” Brown Judaic Studies 301  (Atlanta: Scholars Press) 1995].

[2] Marcus (1995) 9

[3] 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).

[4] Nogalski, J., Redactional Processes in the Book of the Twelve (New York: Walter de Gruyter) 1993, 263

[5] L. Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames: Iowa State University Press) 1967, cited in Holbert (1981) 61

[6] N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1967, 224, cited in Holbert (1981) 60

[7] Hamel (1995) 10

[8] Hamel (1995) 7

[9] Marcus (1995 ) 170

[10] Redditt, P., Introduction to the Prophets (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 2008, 262 ‘The narrator satirizes his hero to expose the moral failure of his readers, who themselves held exclusivist sentiments’.

[11] Simundsen [Simundson, D. J., Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2005 pp253-262, 260] and Allen (1976) 188 both mention the anti-Ezra/Nehemiah interpretation but say it has fallen into disfavour.

[12] Allen (1976) 191

[13] Watts J. D. W., “A Frame for the Book of the Twelve: Hosea 1-3 and Malachi” in James D. Nogalski and Marvin A. Sweeney (eds) Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2000 pp 209-218) 214

[14] Young, I., The Alan Crown lecture: “What Use is Nahum?” 17 May 2011, Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney (not published).

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (5)

Jonah – the most successful prophet

There is a comic element to our prophet: he has an inflated perception of his own abilities as a prophet. Jonah fled to Tarshish because he ‘knew’ that that the LORD would ‘repent’ or ‘relent’ of his intention to destroy Nineveh if the people of the city turned from their evil. In effect, Jonah was convinced that his prophetic message would result in sufficient numbers of people repenting that God would change his mind, even though no other prophet in Israel’s history had been so successful. Perhaps that is why he ventured only one day’s journey into a city three days journey in breadth[1]:  he was so confident of his prophetic skills that even a half-hearted effort would be enough to get a result. Then the king repents, and commands a massive reformation, even though he hears only a second-hand account of Jonah’s message. Jonah’s five words of preaching, delivered half-heartedly and reaching their destination indirectly, are the catalyst for a national conversion on a previously unheard of scale; even the cattle repent. In five words Jonah did what Isaiah and Jeremiah never did. This is Biblical comedy at its best.

What was it in Jonah’s five-word prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no ‘thus says the LORD; no call for repentance; no offer of hope; and no reason is given for their impending destruction. This was described by one writer as ‘the most startlingly effective human communication in the whole Bible. [2] Jonah’s five words led to what is virtually a model repentance by everyone in Nineveh without exception. Even the cattle fast and put on sackcloth, in what is possibly the most surreal line in the book.[3] The unrealistic description of animals repenting, integrated into the unrealistic account of the Ninevites’ repentance, further alerts us to the presence of humour or parody in the story. A further reference to the animals in Nineveh at the end of the book (‘And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ 4:11) makes best sense if it is understood as a jocular allusion to the earlier ‘repentance’ of the cattle. If the (sinful) cattle of Nineveh can ‘repent’ then why shouldn’t God take pity on them? In what may be another interesting word play the ship in which Jonah was fleeing from the LORD ‘thought it was going to founder’ (the literal rendering of the Hebrew[4]  חשבה להשבר). It seems that repenting animals and thinking ships are part of the plot to ridicule the prophet.


[1] We are meant to take note of the juxtaposition:

‘Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,

three days’ journey in breadth.

Jonah began to go into the city,

going a day’s journey.’ (3:3-4)

[2] Moberly, R. W. L. “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168,  156

[3]Miles, who reads the Jonah story as a parody, understands by this that ‘the Ninevites, dressing their animals in sackcloth and forcing them to fast, have been foolish in their repentance.’ [Miles, J.A., “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan. 1975), pp 168-181 (University of Pennsylvania Press) 180]. There could also be a double entendre with an implication that the Ninevites had engaged in bestiality and the animals were therefore involved in the Ninevites’ sin and needed to repent.

[4] Shemesh, Y., “And many Beasts (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah” in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Vol. 10 Article 6 2012, 14n. Another scholar who has noted the personification of the ship is Holbert  who puns on the ‘thinking ship’. (Holbert, J.,  “Deliverance Belongs to Yahweh!”: Satire in the Book of Jonah, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1981): 59-81, 65)


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

Paleo-Hebrew inscription of Jonah and the fish

Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary has just announced a rather startling observation regarding an inscription on an ossuary discovered in Jerusalem that appears to be a stick figure of a man and a fish. Charlesworth argues that the stick figure contains four letters in paleo-Hebrew that spell out the name YONAH (Jonah) —Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh.

If Prof. Charlesworth is right, then the ossuary depicts Jonah being vomited out of the mouth of the fish. “Most likely,” says Charlesworth, “we may comprehend the inscription as reading ‘Jonah.’ And I have no doubt it is a fish.”

James Tabor has posted photographs on his blog, which highlight the possible Hebrew characters.

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (3)

There are several features which help us to identify humour in Biblical texts. One of these features alone may not be sufficient to enable us to positively identify humour, but when they appear in clusters we can be confident that something is going on and the text should not be read as straight narrative or taken too seriously. The Book of Jonah, in my view, contains such clusters and I’d like to explore some of these identifying features.

Wordplays are common enough in Biblical Hebrew, but in Jonah they seem to be making some deliberate contrasts between what we might expect of a typical prophet and what we actually find in the prophet Jonah. We come across the first of many wordplays in the opening lines:

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise (קוּם qum), go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evilhas come up before me.” But Jonah rose (וַיָּקָם same root – qum) to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Then there is something not right about our key character. Right from the start we see that something is wrong: prophets are meant to be the servants of God. The Deuteronomic history refers to “my servants the prophets” and in 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah is specifically mentioned as “his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet”. We frequently find prophets raising objections to their calling, from Moses on (“I cannot speak”; “I am too young”, etc), but Jonah does more than object – he hears the imperative to “rise” and rises to go in the opposite direction!

Prophets are the LORD’s spokespeople. That’s what prophets do: they speak. The Hebrew word for “prophet” is נָבִיא navi from a root (נָבָא nava) which literally means “to cause to bubble up, hence to pour forth words abundantly”. But Jonah does precious little speaking. In fact, there are only five words (in Hebrew) of prophecy (עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת׃): “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In this story the prophet has to be pressed into speaking! When God speaks to him he says nothing. When the storms begins he says nothing. When the sailors cry out to their gods Jonah says nothing. When the captain of the ship tells Jonah he should cry out to his god Jonah is again silent. Then the sailors cast lots to determine on whose account this misfortune has happened and when the lot falls to Jonah they demand of him to tell them who he is and why this misfortune has come. At last Jonah speaks! He is a reluctant prophet indeed, hardly one whose words bubble up and pour out in abundance.

There is an interesting chiasmus in the words of the prophet throughout the book. The prophet speaks seven times:

A. I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (1:9)

B. Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you. (1:12)

C. Jonah prayed to the LORD … you brought up my life from the pit … When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord … (2:2ff)

D. Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (3:4)

C. And he prayed to the LORD … please take my life from me …  (4:2-3)

B. It is better for me to die than to live. (4:8)

A. Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die. (4:9)

The central climax is the five-words prophecy. On either side of it Jonah prays, although the two prayers are remarkably different: the first is a psalm of thansgiving for his life which has been spared, and the second is a complaint, asking that God would take his life. The second and second-last sayings relate to Jonah dying: the first time he says his death would enable the sailors to live and his death would be better for them; and the second time he complains that he would rather die because the Ninevites now live, and his death would be better for him! The first and last statements also stand in stark contrast. In the first he fears God; in the last he is angry with God. The first words of this prophet are fine, but his final words are the antithesis of what we would expect from a man of God.

The third feature in this cluster is surrealism. Several things don’t ring true, most notably the stories of the fish and the gourd, but also the description of the breadth of Nineveh as “three days journey” (Nineveh was, in fact, only 5kms in diameter). Then there is the dramatic and unrealistic response to Jonah’s preaching and the conversion of the Ninevites. What was it in Jonah’s five-words prophecy that prompted such a response? There was no “thus says the LORD”; no call for repentence; no offer of hope; and no reason is given for their impending destruction. This was described by one writer as “the most startlingly effective human communication in the whole Bible” [1].  Jonah’s five words led to what is  virtually a model repentance by everyone in Nineveh without exception. Even the cattle fast and put on sackcloth!

This cluster of unusual features suggests to me that what we have is a clever story which is not meant to be taken literally or even too seriously. The message of the Book of Jonah is a serious one, but the intended message is not the folk-tale itself but the underlying point the writer is making in his comical portrayal of the prophet. More about that to come.

[1] R. W. L. Moberly “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 156-168, p. 156

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (2)

The prophet Jonah being thrown into the sea, from the catacomb of Priscilla.

The prayer, or psalm, of Jonah in chapter 2 contains some hints that the writer was attempting to clearly identify Jonah as a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel.

In verse 4 Jonah prayed “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Later, in verse 7, he said “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” This second reference to “your holy temple” makes it clear that Jonah was thinking of heaven rather than the temple in Jerusalem. He goes on to pray “But with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you” (וַאֲנִי בְּקֹול תֹּודָה אֶזְבְּחָה־לָּךְ). The text uses the verb for slaughtering animal sacrifices (זָבַח), but it seems to me to be ambiguous about whether  the  “voice of thanksgiving” accompanies the sacrifice or is a substitute for it. If it is a substitute then this is a direct rejection of animal sacrifice, and therefore the temple cult, with a substitution of ‘thanksgiving’ as an acceptable sacrifice. We might expect to find such comments on the lips of a northern prophet, or from the pen of a writer who wanted to make his character sound like a northerner.

Having said that, I should also point out that Hosea, a contemporary of Jonah’s in the southern kingdom of Judah, said that God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice (זֶבַח), the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Amos, another contemporary southern prophet also spoke sarcastically of “a [sacrifice of] thanksgiving of that which is leavened” (וְקַטֵּר מֵֽחָמֵץ תֹּודָה Amos 4:5 – this text does not include the word זֶבַח = sacrifice) in a prophecy addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel.

There are two issues here:

  1. Is there a common theme here in Jonah, Hosea and Amos which reflects changing attitudes to the temple sacrifices? To answer this we should also look at the influences which shaped the post-exilic compilation of “The Book of The Twelve”.
  2. Is the writer of the Book of Jonah intentionally portraying Jonah as a northern prophet who has rejected the temple cult? The association of Jonah with Jereboam II in 2 Kings 14 is interesting and relevant. Is Jonah being portrayed positively or negatively?

Jonah – parody of a prophet? (1)

I have an interest in Biblical humour which began by exploring Jesus’ frequent use of humour. I went on to look at whether Jesus use of humour  was typical or atypical of teachers of his time, and I am now investigating whether this first century Jewish humour of Jesus had its roots in the Hebrew Bible. Because my mind is open to the idea that the Bible contains humour I may see humour where it wasn’t intended. My comments in earlier posts about humour in the Book of Job led one friendly critic to say “well, it must be black humour then!” I suggested in a post on Job that the Book may in fact be a parody of Deuteronomistic theology, bearing in mind that parody is a form of humour.

This leads me to look at the unusual prophet Jonah, and I’d like to explore the possibility that this little Book may be a parody of a prophet.

It is reasonable to assume that the prophet in the Book of Jonah is the same “Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet” who is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-27 as prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) in Israel. His message there was one of comfort and hope for Israel “for the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel”.  Jeroboam II is said to have “restored the border of Israel … according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah.” Nothing is said in this text about Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, nor is there any mention in the Book of Jonah of his message concerning Jeroboam’s military campaigns. The Deuteronomistic History specifically named Nineveh as the home city of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (705-681 BCE) who came against Judah during the reign of Hezekiah: “Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:36). The Assyrian Empire destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Significantly however, during the reign of Jeroboam II Nineveh was relatively weak and posed no immediate threat to Israel. The message of the Book of Jonah, in that setting, is anachronistic.

Rolf Rendtorff has observed that “Jonah does not portray Nineveh as a real political power. Nineveh is not seen primarily as a danger for Israel but as the prime example of a Gentile city that is sinful thus deserving divine judgment.”[1]

… to be continued

[1] Rendtorff, R., “How to Read the Book of the Twelve as a Theological Unity” in Nogalski, J., and Sweeney, M., (eds) Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2000, 75-87, p83.