Jonah and Jesus

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September 3, 2012
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Yvonne Sherwood

A few years ago, I wrote a book on the “afterlives” of the book of Jonah. I wanted to explore how this tiny little book survived, and expanded exponentially, in Judaism, Christianity, and the cultural mythologies of the West. According to midrash, when God gave the Torah, God gave it in the form of wheat with which we could make flour, and flax with which we would make garments. People have made complex garments and recipes: Some are delicious and others are in poor taste; some recipes are common, such as challah or gefilte fish,1 and others are hidden away in side-street restaurants, known only, these days, to academic specialists. I set out to collect some of these lesser-known recipes; I also wanted to study and respond to certain mainstream Christian interpretations of the Bible that I considered quite distasteful.

Jonah tempted me because it struck me as a real misfit among the prophetic books: a playful book with only a one-line oracle. Everything is exaggerated, as if the words were attempting to be a verbal equivalent of cartoon graphics or caricature. Everything is big: gadol. The ship shivers. The worm smites the plant. The big fish throws up. Underwater, Jonah recites a psalm about seaweed being wrapped around his head. Is this aqua-psalm meant to be funny? Doesn’t it fit its context a little too well?

The book is not only funny. It is also very serious, even dark. The central protagonist twice expresses a desire to die. The king of the Ninevites/Assyrians, destroyers of the northern kingdom, commands the most perfect repentance scene in the entire Bible (even the cattle repent!). The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel offers a dark interpretation of this repentance when he suggests that God saved Nineveh “so that God might take vengeance against Israel by means of them.” The early Christian theologian and interpreter Jerome similarly suggested that Jonah acted as a “patriot”; he was not motivated by hatred of the Ninevites but by the desire “not to destroy his own people.”

The book of Jonah seems to be intensely serious and comic: dark and light. The same can be said for the history of interpretation. In early Christian interpretation, Jonah was commonly read as a sign of Christ. In Matthew (12.38-40) and Luke (11.29-30), Jesus applies the “sign of Jonah” to himself. The two gospels suggest different explanations. In Luke, the riddle is about the “son of man” becoming a sign, just as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites. In Matthew, the emphasis is on Jesus spending three nights in the heart of the earth, as Jonah spent three nights in the belly of the sea monster or whale (k¯e tos).

The comparison seems surprising. As a marginal note in the Douay-Rheims (Catholic) “Old Testament” of 1610 puts it, “[W]ho could have thought that Jonah had been a figure of our savior’s death and resurrection unless he himself expounded it?” Jonah and Jesus show little overt resemblance. They are rather like Danny de Vito and Arnold Schwarznegger in the Hollywood movie “Twins.” Early Christians, however, find numerous ways to relate the book of Jonah and the story of Jesus using the resources of typology, which makes everything in the “Old Testament” a sign of the New. Jonah sleeping in the hold of the ship is like the fetal Jesus, asleep in the womb of the virgin. The ship is the church, or humanity, or the synagogue, snatched from ruin by Jonah-Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice. The Ninevites are often the gentiles or the church. Jonah’s flight is a sign of the incarnation. As Jonah flees to Tarshish, Jesus flees the heavens to come to the “sea of this world.” The possibilities are endless and the interpretations never stop.

But then, from Luther onward and well into the history of professional biblical interpretation, the Christian reading of Jonah rotates 180 degrees. The prophet who was once a sign of Christ becomes a figure of the Jew. In a twist on the traditional pairing of Jonah and the fish, this volte-face seems to confirm literary theorist Stanley Fish’s thesis that readings are governed by a great deal more than the words on the page. In biblical scholarship and Christian commentary, the book of Jonah is regularly read as a version of the rhetorical question of Romans 3.29: “Is God the God of the Jews only or of the gentiles also?” There, Jonah is described as “narrow-minded,” “mulish,” and a “bigot.” He is read as a representative of the “narrow, blind, prejudiced and fanatic Jews.” Interpreters use the book to call into question Israel’s “beliefs and ministry in the world.” And this is just the briefest example of the dark interpretations that I’ve collected. It seems that while Jonah wasn’t looking, everyone else in this text converted to Christianity: Proto-Christian sailors and proto-Christian Ninevites people a proto-Christian book, written by a proto-Christian author, to preach the universalism of a proto-Christian God.

I’m not at all sure if Christian commentators and scholars have acknowledged the profound anti-Jewish readings of the book. Nor am I sure if we have entirely escaped them today. We so often castigate Jonah for his hatred of the Ninevites; perhaps, we might think more subtly about what this book (and the history of its interpretation) might teach us about the relationship between the “other” and the “self,” or “them” and “us.”

For my own part, I like to read the book as a comic, philosophical text — a book of questions similar to Kohelet or Job. I think it prods us to push the question of self-and-other beyond the point where we simply demonize those who do not adequately care for “others.” In the playful experimental zone of story, this book is asking us to consider a painful “what if”: What would we really feel if we were suddenly catapulted into an unheimlich/uncanny story-world where we were not necessarily at the center of the world?

1 I have a wonderful cartoon on a postcard that mischievously adds the caption “gefilte fish” to a picture of Jonah descending into the fish.

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Yvonne Sherwood is professor of Bible, religion, and culture at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is the author of A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press).

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