The Lesson

After dropping off my kids at school on Monday I go to a coffee shop a couple blocks north of our house to finish the next day’s lesson plan for a Hebrew class I’m teaching. I have an idea to read through the book of Jonah in Hebrew—three or four verses per class—as a way to review what we studied last semester and to preview what will be coming up this semester. Most importantly, I feel the book of Jonah has so many fun nuggets in it that it will show the value of learning the language of Hebrew; much of the playfulness of the language doesn’t come through in any of the English translations.

I sit at a window seat, facing the street. A few businesses are scattered in this section of the neighbourhood formerly dominated by longshoremen and sailors. Most of the harbour work is now done by enormous orange cranes that I can see peaking over the buildings across the street. The people who work nearby—now they are techies at Hootsuite or artisans in loft studios—trickle into the coffee shop every weekday morning. Monday is no different. I take a sip of my coffee and look at the first verse of Jonah: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittay, saying…” literally “to say.” It’s an infinitive construct with a lamed prefix, so perhaps you could argue that the word of the Lord came “in order to say,” but most people would just not translate the word since it’s unnecessary in conventional English. The subject of the sentence is debar-Yhwh, in construct relationship. So the ostensibly inanimate “word” comes to Jonah, “to say…”

I take another sip of coffee and look out the window. Two women are walking down the street, parallel to the coffee shop, seeming to have a nice conversation, though one woman in a green hat seems to be saying most of the words. She looks familiar but I can’t place where I’ve seen her before. Perhaps at the coffee shop.

The second verse of Jonah begins with the imperative “qum“. The class doesn’t know the word formally since they haven’t had to learn hollow roots, yet. But they do know the word from another context. In fact, the day before, the sermon text at my church was from Mark 4, when Jesus says to Jairus’s daughter, “talithah qum,” “Little girl, get up!” “Get up,” says the “word of the Lord” to Jonah and “Go.” Be careful, “go” in the imperative looks a lot like “to you,” but context is a nice guideline. “Go to Nineveh, the great city (the city the great).” Here follows another imperative: “And qera‘ ” which is another word we haven’t yet learned formally, but is something that we’ve seen in the concept of ketib-qere’ where something that is written (ketib) one way, is read (qere‘) another. The one we do regularly is Yhwh (ketib)-‘adonay (qere’). So when I write debar-Yhwh, we say it/read it/preach it/call it “debar-‘adonay“. Thus, the imperative qera’ in this context should be read “preach to”. Preach to whom? To it (feminine singular)… the great city.

When I look up this time I see the same woman as before, but this time she’s talking to a different couple. Her mouth is moving very fast and the people she is talking to seem either to know her or are just friendly, but they are not all together since the couple break away into the parking lot of the coffee shop and come inside. Meanwhile the woman, familiar how? turns about face and picks up her speed to catch up with someone else. I try to hear if the couple, who are now inside the shop, say anything about the woman in the green hat. It occurs to me that I recognize this woman from a previous encounter. I suspect she had asked me for money or something else, but I couldn’t remember.

So why is Jonah supposed to preach to the city? The next word is ki, which means… for or that, and in this case, following an imperative, probably means because. Because why? “Because their evil (though ‘evil’ is just a gloss; the word (ra’) is much more complicated and sometimes means misfortune, but in this case, Nineveh is certainly evil in Jonah’s eyes since they are a constant threat to Israel) has come up before me (lipnay),” literally, “to my face.” The insinuation being that Jonah is to preach against the evil of the city. He is to encounter the evil that has come up before Yhwh and say something.

When I look up the next time I catch the woman in the green hat running to catch up with someone else. She’s seeming more and more pathetic to me. She has a kind face, which on the surface doesn’t look like the face of an addict, but her desperation betrays her. Although when I say betray, you could take that as giving her up. It’s clear that she doesn’t care if she’s given up. She has no shame in her begging. She seems to have no luck in her begging, either.

Verse three is where the joy of reading Jonah starts to become apparent, because the very first word of verse three is a repetition of the first word in verse two. “Get up,” says the word of the Lord in verse two, and Jonah complies. “And Jonah got up,” it says, implying obedience, but the next word is libroach, another infinitive construct, “in order to flee!” Where is he fleeing, but Tarshish (Tarshishah, with a directional qamets-heh), which is on the Iberian peninsula, the opposite direction. And if it isn’t clear what he’s doing, the text says “millipne Yhwh“—away from the face of Yhwh, repeating the word in verse two, “to my face.” An excellent example of key words in a very brief space: Get up because evil has come to my face, but Jonah got up to go away from Yhwh’s face. Is he expecting Tarshish to be free of evil as well as free of Yhwh? You could make that argument, I suppose. But it seems more likely that he’s less concerned with evil and more concerned with preaching against it in Nineveh.

The woman is not giving up on the street. I sense a bit of panic in her face, though I can’t say for sure. Her latest conversation partner is approaching the coffee shop and she follows him much closer to the door than she had the previous people. I can’t help but notice that none of the people she’s talking to make any motion toward their pockets and few say much at all to her.

Since Tarshish is on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea from Israel, Jonah has to get on a boat. He finds a boat in the harbour town of Joppa, which the Hebrew text spells Yapo (pronounced yafo). One of the reasons it’s safe to say that Jonah is unconcerned with evil in a general sense is because he goes to Joppa to get on a boat, right? Sailors aren’t known for their virtuousness. The problem he has is certainly Nineveh, itself, and it’s relationship with Israel. So Tarshish is where he wants to head, since it has no relationship with Yhwh. In fact, verse three mentions Tarshish twice and in both cases follows up the name with millipne Yhwh (away from the face of Yhwh). Yhwh wants Jonah to confront the evil, the evil which has confronted Yhwh, which has come to his face. Jonah, for reasons that become evident later in the book, avoids it. It turns out he avoids it because Yhwh is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Yhwh describes Nineveh later, not as evil in the way we think of it, but misguided—it doesn’t know its right and left. He wants Jonah not to preach against it so much as to offer it hope, doesn’t he?

I feel confident that this will be a good start to the semester and pack my books in my bag and get up from my table. I walk outside to go home, but when I get to the sidewalk, I peak around the corner to the right and to the left. The road is clear in both directions. I take the straightest path home.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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4 Responses to The Lesson

  1. wismered says:

    Drew, loved your article. Wish I could take your class. wish I could grab coffee with you.

  2. Drew, I’ve sometimes described Jonah anachronistically as “dark comedy”. Thoughts?

    • azlewis says:

      Well, it’s dark and comic. I don’t have any problem with it. I have a question for you as a Jesus scholar. When Jonah is on the boat to Tarshish, the language is very (very) reminiscent of Mark’s when Jesus calms the storm. Jonah’s asleep on the boat while the storm is raging. The captain wakes him up and asks him to contribute by praying to his god. When the sailors find out who his god is, they “fear a great fear.” The LXX is almost identical to the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ calming of the storm. Clearly, Mark is alluding to Jonah. What do you make of it?

      • Well Jonah isn’t a stranger to the Gospels. We have the famous (albeit mysterious) saying about the sign of Jonah in Matthew and Luke. But complicating matters further, Mark doesn’t do much with Jonah and perhaps goes a different direction entirely (Mark 8:11-13). Still, there are several parallels; the first and foremost being that both Jonah and Jesus preach repentance and do so in ways that cross social borders.

        A great deal more could be said and I’ve published a bit on this as an essay in an obscenely expensive book. I think that Mark probably draws from his archetypal and mythic reserves when projecting significance onto Jesus… not quite sure that the author is conscious of an explicit Jonah typology (but the language parallels are striking, as you say). We might also note that Jonah’s only option to save his fellow travelers is to allow himself to be buried beneath the waves. He cannot stop the storm himself. Jesus, on the other hand, is able to use his words to influence the chaos around him (echoes of Genesis chaoskampf? …echoes of the divine voice that creates?). So to the difficult question: does this passage ironically foreshadow the climax of Mark’s story when Jesus is buried and chooses against using his words to save himself? I.e. here is a guy who can stop the chaos using only his words, and yet he does not save himself from becoming a political sacrifice…. just a few thoughts.

        -anthony

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