Exegetical Exercise

sculpture of Jonah in the belly of the fish

Jonah the Prophet

According to the Biblia Hebraica, Jonah 2 starts with what the NRSV and others make out to be the last verse of ch. 1.

Jonah 2 is the Uniform series text for Sunday, May 14. Mostly NRSV with some modifications …

(1) Then YHWH provided a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (2) Jonah prayed to YHWH his God from the midst of the fish, and he said: “I called to YHWH in my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. (3) You cast me into the deep into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me, all your waves and your billows passed over me. (4) Then I said, “I am driven away from before your eyes; when shall I look again upon your holy temple?” (5) The waters closed in over my soul, the abyss surrounded me, weeds were wrapped around my head, (6) at the roots of the mountains, I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever, yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O YHWH my God. (7) As my soul was ebbing away I remembered YHWH, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. (8) Those who defend what is worthless and empty forsake their steadfast love, (9) but I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to YHWH.”

(10) So YHWH spoke to the fish and he spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

Hmmm.

So this is mostly Jonah’s prayer, from inside the great fish.

It is ultimately a prayer of thanksgiving – an almost defiantly positive statement of confidence in God’s power under the circumstances.

Jonah alternates between speaking of God in the third person by name (YHWH/he/him) and addressing God directly as “you,” and the sequence might be significant. (2) opens with the statement about YHWH, then switches to “you” – you heard my voice, cast me into the deep, your waves and billows passed over me (cf. Psalm 42:7), Jonah is driven away from before your eyes, wants to look on your temple, [then there’s sinking deeper for a verse and a half], you brought up my life, (6) switch back to YHWH, (7) Jonah remembered YHWH, prayer came to you, your temple, and Jonah will sacrifice to you. So, more “you” than “YHWH”, but … maybe YHWH begins and ends an initial episode (drowning), and then begins and ends a second episode (soul ebbing away). If so, Jonah is calling upon the [presumably recent] experience of answered prayer (you saved me from drowning), and initiates a second prayer … which might end in deliverance. Or, the soul’s ebbing away is also in the past, the second section is a reminder of what happened, and a continuing statement of confidence in the future deliverance (in which case the location of this prayer is being interpreted as … something like an improvement on the earlier drowning situation).

In fact, from the next verse, we know the deliverance is realized.

There are a couple of repetitions: “surrounded” – first water (river; flood) surrounds Jonah; then the tehom, the “deep” or the abyss, surrounds him – so, things go from bad to worse between (3) and (5).

“Soul” repeats, in (5), the deepest point of Jonah’s fall, the waters are closing in over his “soul,” then again in (7), the “soul” is NRSV translates “ebbing,” “drooping” … so, at the end of the first crisis – in the water, and again in the second crisis – in the fish. As I read it.

The fish is not the worst place to be, but he is still about to die.

The NRSV translates v. 8 as “those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty” – but the word translated as “idols” could be translated “worthless thing” or something like that, it’s a general word, and the word translated “vain” is a noun that’s elsewhere translated “vanity” (like in Ecclesiastes) and could be “emptiness” or the like ; and the word they translate as “worship” is elsewhere translated “guard” or “keep” (like in the sense of “observe” or “obey,” like “keep the Sabbath”) – so and “true loyalty” is hesed. Loyalty makes sense, but again, elsewhere they use “steadfast love.” If we use “worthless idols,” it sounds like he is talking about the sailors and contrasting them with himself. But if we make it out to be something like “what is worthless and empty” it feels more like it refers to Jonah’s own efforts to preserve his former life that didn’t respond to YHWH’s call to go to Nineveh – the thing that is worthless and empty could be his security, his “life as I know it,” his refusal to take on the task, etc. And this makes a little more cognitive sense to me, really.

That makes the last clause of the prayer something like a statement of repentance: those who defend what is worthless and empty [as I was doing] forsake what really matters, their steadfast love [of YHWH, which is what they/I really need to guard], but [now] I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to YHWH [since prayer is the only sacrifice I can offer, since I cannot see the temple], and what I have vowed, I will pay. [Possibly referring to a vow made in the past, with the current sacrifice of thanksgiving being the payment, or else the voice of thanksgiving also being promised in the future; possibly referring to a vow made in the present that will be paid in the future. For instance, by turning around and going back to Nineveh, if he gets out of this fish. This seems like something someone in Jonah’s position might vow.]

In any event, the prayer seems to speak to Jonah’s revised attitude.

God speaks to the fish; the fish follows God’s instructions without reported hesitation; once again, the natural world is immediately responsive to God’s direction – in contrast to Jonah, who has required a lot of [life-threatening] persuasion.

The description of the first crisis is all about water: deep, seas, flood (river), waves and billows, waters, the tehom; the image of weeds wrapping around the head … deep and wet. It doesn’t actually say anything about light, but to me it feels dark.

Then there is land beneath this watery depth, but it is not encouraging land, rather a land that is like burial land. [so maybe the weeds are a kind of transitional image, or a boundary-blurring image.]

The fish and Sheol both have bellies.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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