Should I not Pity…?: A Review of Phillip Cary’s Commentary on Jonah

The book of Jonah is short, but its brevity does nothing to reduce the significance of the theological questions it raises. In Phillip Cary’s 2008 commentary on Jonah, he shows that those who have the courage and humility to let Jonah’s story confront them will be challenged to deepen their understanding of God’s mercy and wrestle once again with the meaning of the proclamation in Exodus 34:7 that the LORD is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV).

Cary approaches Jonah with both literary and theological sensitivity, pointing out relevant storytelling and rhetorical features, bringing the rest of the Christian canon into conversation with the text, and reflecting on how the book of Jonah might have challenged those who first encountered it. He also explores ways in which Jonah can continue to challenge Christian readers today.

Unfortunately, some studies of Jonah get tangled up in questions of historicity to the degree that the heart of the story—the expansive depth of God’s patience and mercy—can be missed. While some read Jonah as a historical narrative, there are a number of reasons for thinking that this is a misunderstanding of Jonah’s genre. Regardless of one’s position on the historicity of Jonah, though, most readers can hopefully agree that the main focus of the story is on the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy.

Getting Sidetracked from Nineveh

Nineveh is spoken of in the past tense in Jonah 3:3, and the tone of the narrative as a whole is consistently larger-than-life (the wind is a “great wind,” the storm is a “mighty storm,” Nineveh is called “that great city” etc.) (pp.46, 107). The story’s structure also drives towards the open-ended, audience-oriented question at the end of the narrative, rather than focusing on what happens in the rest of Jonah’s life. Because of literary and rhetorical features like these (along with others), many Old Testament scholars consider Jonah to be an extended parable of sorts, written in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. Hence, R.W.L. Moberly describes the book as “somewhat like the story of Job: an exploration and portrayal of moral and theological issues in memorable narrative rather than abstract form” (2013, p.187). A post-exilic dating of Jonah is actually pretty important for Cary’s interpretative approach:

To turn this story into a historical account of the prophet being sent to a city that is not yet the capital of Assyria would disrupt the parallel on which the whole book is based… what the book of Jonah aims to get us thinking about is the situation faced by the Judeans with respect to Babylon, the capital of the empire that has swallowed up Judah, as it is illuminated by the situation of Jonah with respect to Nineveh, the capital of the empire that swallowed up Israel. (p.36)

Literary Elements in Jonah

While his judgments about genre and dating are fairly conventional, Cary’s “Israelogical” interpretative approach to the figure of Jonah struck me as a bit more speculative, though interesting to be sure. By Israelogical, Cary means understanding Jonah to function in the narrative as a representative symbol and image for the people of God. He argues that “we cannot see how Jonah represents Christ, the church, and Christians without seeing how he represents Israel and Judah” (p.19). This allegorical kind of approach leads Cary to, for instance, interpret Jonah’s being swallowed up by the great fish in the stormy sea as an image of the Judeans being swept off into exile by the Babylonians:

Jonah swallowed up by a sea monster is an image of the Jewish people in exile… singing the songs of Zion even in the belly of the beast… To meditate on Jonah swallowed up in the depths is therefore to think of the Jewish people alive in exile. (p.77)

I’m intrigued by Cary’s argument, especially since this approach sheds potential light on how the book of Jonah may have addressed the communal concerns of its original readers and hearers. However, it’s an interpretive angle that I haven’t come across very often before—at least in relation to Jonah—so I (and possibly other readers) would have benefited from more extended engagement with the Jewish and Christian history of interpretation in order to place this reading in wider context.

At various places throughout the commentary, Cary brings up the surprisingly humorous and ironic nature of Jonah. Structurally, the book is divided into two main halves, and he observes that in both of them, “Jonah is a blessing to the Gentiles despite himself” (p.17).  In 4:2, Jonah quotes Israel’s fundamental conviction that God is gracious and merciful, but he brings it up, not in praise, but as a complaint regarding what elsewhere is cherished as a beloved confession of Israel. Another ironic feature of Jonah’s story worth bringing up is the ambiguity of the final word in the Jonah’s declaration, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4, NRSV). Roughly speaking, it means to overthrow or overturn, but Cary tells readers, “To overturn can mean not only to overthrow and destroy but also to turn over, turn around… [and] The turning can be for bettor or for worse” (p.109). Looking back in light of how the story turned out, it may be that God ironically gave Jonah more hopeful news than the prophet ever realized.

The Parable of the Gourd

Cary’s treatment of God’s extended conversation with Jonah in chapter 4 is another thing that makes his commentary notable. At one level, the significance of this episode in the narrative seems fairly obvious. Jonah is angry about God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh, and God calls Jonah out on the absurdity of having deeper pity for a plant than a sprawling city filled with people. True as that reading is, Cary interprets this final section as being primarily concerned with the situation facing the Judeans returning from exile. Of course, this interpretive strategy is in line with his general approach to the figure of Jonah.

After making his (brief) announcement in the city of Nineveh, Jonah settles himself outside of the city, makes for himself a booth,, and waits to see “what will become of the city” (4:5, NRSV). God produces a plant/gourd that provides shade and protection over Jonah while he waits. There is disagreement over how to best translate the Hebrew word for this plant, but Cary helpfully observes that the point isn’t to determine the exact species and discover what the fruit it produces: “the story wants to focus our attention instead on how it grows and how it protects Jonah” (p.143). In a number of biblical passages, plants (and their shade and protection) are used as images of salvation and of protection from enemies (p.143). Isaiah, for example, speaks of a shoot that unexpectedly sprouts up from the stump of Jesse (11:1). Cary suggests, “There is reason to think that Jonah’s gourd also represents the line of David, a matter of no small concern to the original readers of this book” (p.143). If the gourd represents the messianic line of David, then it is no surprise that Jonah takes great joy in it. However, the gourd eventually withers:

After being rescued from a kind of national death in their Babylonian captivity, which was like being brought up from the depths of Sheol… postexilic Jews had to face a yet more serious threat to their own existence: their anger, shame, and despair over the loss of the messianic line. The parable of the gourd and the book of Jonah as a whole is the LORD dealing with precisely this issue. (p.154)

Jonah has pity on the gourd, wishing for it to live and not die. God asks Jonah why he shouldn’t feel the same way about Nineveh, and if we take up Cary’s line of reasoning, the book as a whole asks why the returning Judeans shouldn’t feel that way about the Gentiles, including those living in Babylon. Looking at Jonah’s situation retrospectively, from the hermeneutical perspective of the cross and resurrection, Cary writes:

[U]nbeknownst to Jonah, God’s pity for the gourd goes deeper than Jonah’s. Through the lineage of Zerubbabel, he offers up his only begotten Son to become a son of the night and to perish as a son of the night, and then he gives life to the dead, bringing him up from a place deeper in the darkness of Sheol and nonbeing than even Jonah knew. The concluding question of the book of Jonah implicitly connects this deep and hidden divine pity, which is the great mystery of the parable of the gourd, to the overt pity for the Gentiles that Jonah finds to be such a great evil. (p.157)

Exploring Jonah alongside Cary means discovering that, when read in canonical context, Jonah’s mercy for the gourd turned out to be more closely connected to God’s mercy for the Gentiles than Jonah, or anyone else, could have ever guessed.

Conclusion

Cary’s commentary is a thought-provoking and happily interesting volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. He brings the story of Jonah to life and gives readers much to contemplate as they work their way through it. Though he makes use of historical-critical scholarship, he also addresses the more existential and theological questions raised by the text. Cary’s commentary also gives readers a fruitful example of what it looks like to read Scripture with a developed biblical and theological imagination. Lastly, his work gives evidence that those who consider Jonah to be an extended parable still have a deep and abiding love for Scripture.

While I have some reservations about Cary’s rather allegorical interpretive tendencies, I’m intrigued by them, and his Israelogical reading is quite interesting. In the end, this is the second volume in this commentary series that I’ve read (the other one was on Colossians), and both have given me illuminating conversation partners in the reading of Scripture. My appreciation for them continues to grow, and I think it’s safe to say that Cary’s commentary on Jonah won’t be the last one I enjoy.

Other Works Cited

Moberly, R.W.L. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

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