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.

Did Job abhor himself?

Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6 KJV)

This statement by Job comes at a highly significant moment in the book, as the conclusion of Job’s final brief response to the LORD. The King James Version, and others, give the impression that Job is confessing his faults, although without naming them, and repenting. It appears that Job is recognising that there was some hidden sin or character fault and in a truly repentant fashion he loathes himself for it. However, there are significant problems with this translation, or interpretation.

First, there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text for “myself” in this verse and the verb has no object. There is no textual or grammatical justification for interpreting the verb reflexively. By doing so the King James translators are interpreting rather than translating.

The verb translated “abhor myself” in the KJV is מאס and comes from a root meaning “to reject”. It’s the same word that is used in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God said “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel” and in the few places where the KJV translates it as “abhor”, “abhored”, “abhorreth” or “abhorrest” it is clear from the context that “reject” or “rejected” is what is meant (e.g. to “abhor” God’s judgments and statutes in Lev 26:15, 43 has the sense of rejecting them). The Jewish Publication Society version has “I recant”, the NASB has “retract”, which are better but still do not provide an object. What was it Job was rejecting, recanting, or repudiating?

Samuel Balentine, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in his Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2006), writes: “Textual ambiguities also make it clear . . . that whatever Job’s last words may mean, they convey anything but a simple confession of sin.” He argues that “God’s disclosure invites a transformation in Job’s understanding about what it means to be ‘dust and ashes.'” This understanding is supported by the translation of Stephen Mitchell who translates this difficult verse this way: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (The Book of Job Harper Perennial, 1992). This translation, incidentally, supports my translation of the final verb נחם as “I am comforted” rather than “I repent” (in a previous post).

However one translates this verse there are significant theological implications.

The first problem with this interpretation is that on several occasions the Book makes the point that Job was “blameless”. The narrator in the prologue introduces Job as a “man [who] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), and the LORD twice gives his own assessment of Job as a “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (18; 2:3). Job consistently maintains his own innocence to the end.

Those translators who have Job abhoring myself and repenting generally come from a theological position which regards the human race as “fallen”, depraved and inevitably sinful. Even the most upright person is guilty of some sin and in need of redemption. Consequently Job’s self-abhorence was a sign of true repentance and a necessary step to being put back into a right relationship with God. It is understandable how a translator with this bias would see this verse as a confession of hidden sin. However, there is a huge problem with this. To argue that Job was guilty of some hidden sin or character fault would be to take the position of the Adversary and Job’s three friends, and the LORD’s own comment on the position of the friends was that they did not speak well of God. It would make the Adversary and the three friends right and both Job and the LORD wrong!

However, if we interpret this verse as Mitchell, Balentine, Janzen and others have done and understand Job to be saying that he now has a new understanding of what it means to be “dust and ashes”, then we are faced with some important theological implications:

  1. It is possible for a human being to be blameless, and free of sin. In the epilogue Job was called to offer sacrifices for his three friends, but not for himself: he had no personal need of a sacrifice for sin.
  2. A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
  3. There is no suggestion in the Book of Job that Job’s experiences were necessary for character development, and it would be a nonsense to argue that his ordeals made him “more blameless” or upright. The only reason provided in the Book for Job’s ordeals was to “prove” that Job was upright and would maintain his integrity in the face of trials. One implication of this is that humanity is not “fallen” in the sense that human nature is inherently depraved or sinful.

In my next post I want to discuss the implications for Augustinian theology about the “fall”, human nature and sin.

Did Job repent?

Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

After two speeches by the Almighty we read Job’s final (uncharacteristically brief) words in 42:1-6.

Job says “I know that you can do everything” (42:2) and then repeats two of the LORD’s own challenges to him in, although in a slightly altered format, and responds to each challenge by confessing that he did indeed speak without understanding.

The LORD’s challenge: “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?” (42:3, cp. 38:2)

Job’s response: “Indeed, I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me, which I did not know” (42:3)

The LORD’s challenge:  “I will ask, and you will inform me” (42:4, cp. 38:2; 40:7)

Job’s response: “I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes” (42:5)

This seems to be the answer to the whole book, viz. God has to be experienced through a personal encounter to be understood (“seeing”) rather than just through a theoretical/theological approach (“hearing”). But Job then job adds something odd:

“Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6 JPS). In some translations Job “repents” (e.g. ESV, KJV). The Hebrew reads:

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵֽפֶר

The KJV is almost certainly wrong when it has Job repenting “in dust and ashes” seeing as he has been sitting in dust and ashes since his torments began (2:8), but they get this from the Hebrew word על  which often means “on”  (but more about this to follow). This might be be an allusion to Genesis 3:19 “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (where the Hebrew word for “dust” is the same as in Job עפר) but is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 18:27 where an identical phrase occurs when Abraham says “I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (עפר ואפר)”. Job is putting himself in the same position as Abraham in daring to challenge the Almighty.

So does Job “repent” or “relent” (I’ll come back to his “recanting” or “abhoring” himself in a later post)? The Book begins by saying he was upright and blameless, and throughout the ensuing debate and legal arguments no sin has been proven. But as Philippe Guillaume rightly points out: “anyone insisting that Job repented because he was guilty ends up in the precarious position of Job’s friends, whom YHWH declares guilty (42:7-8).”  [1]  Job does not specify what he “repents” of, and in the translations that have him repenting we are left wondering about that. The Hebrew verb is from the root נחם which is used 7 times in Job. Here it is in the niphal stem but in every other place it is in the piel stem and has the sense of “to comfort”.

  1. Job’s three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him” (2:11)
  2. “… my bed will comfort me” (7:13)
  3. “You are all mischievous comforters” (16:2)
  4. “Why do you offer me empty consolations?” (21:34)
  5. “… like one who consoles mourners” (29:25)
  6. “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and … they consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

What’s the difference between the niphal and piel stems? The piel stem denotes an intensive or causative action (i.e to comfort or console another). The niphal form is passive and means to have regrets, to be sorry, or to comfort or console oneself. According to Gesenius, when the niphal is followed by על (as it is here) it is reflexive and means to comfort oneself or to be comforted, not “on” but “on account of” something. In other words, Job is saying “I am comforted on account of the fact that I am but dust and ashes”. Gerald Janzen translates this last verse: “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes”.[2] Seeing the Book of Job has so many wonderful wordplays I believe there is another one here: Job was unable to be comforted by his “mischievous comforters” with their “empty consolations”, but finally he finds comfort from the LORD’s rebuke.

So in the end Job finds comfort from the LORD’s assertions that he is sovereign and in control.


[1] Guillaume, P., “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job” in Journal of Biblical Literature; Fall 2008; 127, 3

[2] Job, IBC (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 251