Jonahic Hermeneutics: How “We” “name” G-d

William Wesley Elkins
Drew University

Introduction

The title of this paper represents its thesis: in the book of Jonah we are called to appropriate revelation as a encounter with a merciful Other in which our identities are transformed by a scripturally formed hermeneutics of reconciliation. This argument for this thesis will be developed in two interrelated steps. The first will exegete the book of Jonah. The second will continue the exegesis of Jonah by specifying the possibilities of a Jonahic hermeneutic for reconstructing our knowledge of G-d and the ways this knowledge shapes our self-identity. [ii]

(1) Jonahic Hermeneutics

The history of interpretation of the book of Jonah is varied and conflicted. The story, however, is clear. Jonah is called by G-d to announce the destruction of Nineveh, but he refuses and tries to escape from G-d by fleeing by ship to Tarshish. As a response to Jonah’s attempt to escape, G-d raises a terrible storm which threatens to destroy the ship, its crew, and Jonah. As the storm grows worse, the crew cry out to their gods and try to save the ship but it becomes apparent that the ship will be destroyed. The sailors then cast lots to discover who is responsible for this crises and it is revealed that Jonah is at fault. When the sailors question Jonah they discover that Jonah is a Hebrew who worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” Jonah also reveals that he is “fleeing from the presence of the Lord… ” In order to save the ship and sailors, Jonah suggests that the sailors throw him overboard. Initially, the sailors refuse, but their efforts cannot get the ship back to the safety of the shore. Moreover, the storm is growing much worse. Finally, Jonah is thrown overboard to die but, unexpectedly, he is saved by G-d providing ” a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and (he) was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” This ends chapter one. Chapter two begins with Jonah praying to G-d and thanking G-d for the salvation he has received.

As noted, the story of Jonah is simple, or, at least, it is simple up to this point. Beginning with the end of chapter one, the Jonahic narrative becomes somewhat fantastic and complicated. With the addition of chapters two, three and four, this simple story requires careful interpretation. Any interpretation, however, should not attempt to rescue the historical accuracy of this narrative. In a literary perspective, the book of Jonah is parable. [iii] Jonah is not history. It is a parable: a story with a twist. Following the work of Paul Ricoeur on biblical hermeneutics [iv] , interpretation of a parable requires discovering how its literary structure shapes a possible world that shapes the faith of the reader. [v] For Ricoeur, the twist in a parabolic narrative shocks and disorients its characters/readers in order to reorient them to a new set of values. Jonah is a story that exhibits the faith of Jonah and narrates how the faith of Jonah is transformed. In a literary/theological perspective interpreting Jonah as a parable requires discovering how the “logic” [vi] of the faith of Jonah shapes the faith of the reader.

For example, Brevard Childs, in his interpretation of the “parable-like form” of Jonah, notes that Jonah’s prayer to G-d in chapter two is “a veritable catena of traditional phrases from the Psalter…” [vii]

I called to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice…you brought up my life from the pit… Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple…with the voice of thanksgiving (I) will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord. (Jon chap 2)

Tradition interprets this as a cry to G-d for help. Jonah was in trouble (deep water) so he called out to G-d to help him. However, interpreting Jonah as a parable challenges this interpretation. Understanding the Jonahic narrative as a parable open the possibility that chapter two is not a cry for help to God, but is traditional praise for the mercies of G-d which will be disrupted, critiqued and then transformed by the parabolic developments of the story. Following the tradition, G-d has been is merciful to Jonah and he is thankful. These songs of praise constitute a performance of thanks in a standard theology of mercy. It is this standard that will be subverted by the parable constituted by chapters three and four of Jonah. The story of Jonah does not end with Jonah being saved and then in gratitude reversing his refusal to accept G-d’s call to “cry out against Nineveh “. There are twists and turns in the story in which Jonah’s faith and the faith of the reader is challenged and transformed.

At the beginning of chapter three, after receiving the mercy of G-d, Jonah obeys his commission and proclaims G-d’s judgment against Nineveh. Believing G-d, Jonah expects that Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days. The Ninevites, however, unexpectedly repent. They cover themselves (even their animals) in sackcloth and ashes and when G-d “sees what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, G-d changed (G-d’s) mind about the calamity that (G-d) had said (G-d ) would bring upon them; and (G-d) did not do it.” (Jon 3:10) So, G-d is merciful and does not destroy the Ninevites. Jonah, however, rather than rejoicing in G-d’s unexpected mercy, is angry at this turn of events. Jonah is a prophet of judgment, so he objects to G-d’s mercy towards Nineveh. It seems that for Jonah, the task of a prophet is to establish who G-d is through a declaration of the purposes of G-d and, for Jonah, G-d is a righteous and will not abide sin. So, if the purpose of a prophet is to proclaim G-d’s judgment against sin and to announce the destruction of all sinners, G-d’s unexpected mercy to Nineveh contradicts both the purpose of G-d and Jonah’s prophetic commission. For Jonah, if G-d forgives Nineveh G-d is not the G-d that he declared G-d to be. The G-d who forgives the enemies of G-d and the enemies of G-d’s people is not the G-d in which Jonah has any faith.

All this is certainly is a difficulty for Jonah, but it is not the only complication introduced by chapters three and four. One other is added. In his anger towards G-d, Jonah attempts to justify his earlier refusal of his prophetic role by declaring that he knew that G-d was merciful and G-d would not effect judgment on Nineveh. Although the sense of Jonah’s argument is not unambiguous, there are two clear possibilities. The first is that Jonah is asserting that he knows G-d better G-d knows G-d: the G-d of judgment is really a G-d of mercy and will always substitute mercy for judgment. This is, of course, an optimistic interpretation, one that is contradicted by Jonah’s subsequent refusal to accept G-d’s mercy towards Nineveh. The second possibility is that Jonah is accusing G-d of violating the constitutive requirements of justice through a facile and mechanical response to the first signs of the repentance from the Ninevites. [viii] In the final analysis, however, neither of these possibilities is acceptable. The first possibility is simply a too facile self-justification and the second, as Walter Moberly notes, incorporates into the Jonahic narrative issues and concerns from other scriptures and philosophical perspectives. [ix]

There is, however, another, deeper and more disturbing possibility. If Jonah does not object to the Ninevites knowing G-d as judge and source of their destruction but only objects when they are spared by the mercy of G-d, it is possible that the source of Jonah’s objection is that he refuses to accept the extension of the revelation of G-d’s mercy to non-Jews. For Jonah G-d is the G-d of judgment to non-Jews so, the G-d of mercy that covenants with the Jews cannot show this mercy to those outside the covenant. Any relation of G-d to those outside the covenant, besides destruction, is, for Jonah, illogical. [x]

Christian tradition has supported a reading of Jonah as a critique of Israel’s and the church’s temptation to exclude others from the covenant. This reading, however, is less a matter of reading what is said in Jonah than it is an implication of the parabolic structure that results from connecting chapters three and four with the first two chapters of the book. In chapter three Jonah proclaims G-d’s judgment against Nineveh, the Ninevites repent and G-d has mercy on the Ninevites. However, in chapter four, Jonah becomes angry that the Ninevites are spared. He leaves Nineveh and sits down to the east of the city “to see what would become of the city”. (Jon 4:5). What happens next begins the parabolic twist in the narrative. Chapter four changes the Jonahic narrative from a story about Jonah, and G-d’s mercy to the Ninevites, to a parable in which the faith of Jonah and the reader is transformed. This is accomplished by the addition of the small narrative constituted by the six final verses of Jonah.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jon. 4:6-11)

The last verse of Jonah is a question, unanswered by Jonah, and the Jonahic narrative ends in silence. Jonah’s silence, however, is not a refusal to answer or a “no” answer to G-d’s question. G-d’s question is purely rhetorical. The answer is obvious. Echoing the revelation of the name of G-d in Exodus 20, G-d will do what G-d will do to make G-d’s name known. What G-d has done in Jonah is to show mercy to the Ninevites. So the Ninevites are a matter of concern to G-d. This is who G-d is. So, in this context Jonah’s silence is an answer. In Jonah’s silence G-d is G-d. Jonah’s silence puts G-d outside and beyond all Jonah’s presuppositions and interpretative judgments. This is the beginning of an interpretative hermeneutic, a wisdom, that permits the possibility a revelation of a new aspect of G-d’s will. G-d will be merciful to those who are outside the covenant with Israel.

But if Jonah’s silence is an answer that permits G-d to be G-d, this does not imply that it is possible for the reader to answer G-d in the same way. When Jonah is questioned the reader is also questioned since the reader, following Ricoeur’s biblical hermeneutics, identifies with Jonah. So the silence in which G-d is G-d is also the reader’s silence. But when Jonah does not answer G-d (an answer is impossible since the narrative ends at this point) it is still possible for the reader to answer G-d’s question. For Jonah, whose identity is constituted without remainder by the narrative, the silence that ends the book cannot be broken. For the reader, whose identity is shaped by how she appropriates the narrative, [xi] the silence of Jonah creates an open space [xii] which permits the reader’s answer to be substituted for Jonah’s silence. Most importantly, the reader’s answer identifies who G-d is, and who the reader is by how the pattern of her appropriation of the Jonahic parable has reoriented and reconstructed her knowledge of G-d and the ways her identity is shaped by G-d.

All this, of course, requires that Jonah and the reader be brought to a place in which the traditional answers fail and the resulting silence opens a space where an answer can be given that follows the pattern of G-d’s mercy. So, one aspect of a Jonahic hermeneutic is to silence Jonah and the reader so that answers may come from a G-d who is Otherwise than we’d expect.

(2) Jonahic Hermeneutics: Suffering and Sheltering

Fundamental to any interpretation of Jonah is an answer to the question of how the narrative shapes the identity of Jonah and the reader. Although the silence and “open space” at the end of the Jonahic narrative might appear to permit any number of interpretations of and answers to G-d’s question, this space is not without its contours and limits. The silence that ends Jonah has a context: the a story of the bush or sheltering plant. G-d’s question to Jonah about the limits of G-d’s concerns immediately follows G-d’s questioning Jonah about his reaction to the death of the sheltering bush Any answer to the unanswered question requires an interpretation of Jonah’s response to the growth and death of the sheltering plant. In addition, the parable that is constituted by placing this story inside the larger Jonahic narrative requires that the reader take the place of Jonah and answer for him. Any interpretation of the parable of the sheltering plant is the key to the meaning of the Jonahic narrative by providing an answer to G-d’s question.

As noted above, in any parable there is a twist in the story. This twist involves a conceptual shock that is a sign that there is another logic that projects a new possibility of thinking/acting. Interpretations that attempt to specify this logic tend to move beyond the ordinary limits of the real by imagining what is in terms of what is possible . The new logic suggested by the parable creatively restructures the situation by facilitating a way of re-imagining the meaning of and relation between the real and the possible.

The logic of the Jonahic parable is not any different. In Jonah’s representation of the traditional faith of Israel (Chap. 2), G-d is merciful and Jonah and Israel are grateful recipients of G-d’s mercy. This is the logic of the way G-d works in history. However, G-d’s forgiveness of Nineveh reveals that G-d’s mercy extends beyond the limits of Israel. This contradicts the tradition that the justice of G-d requires the destruction of G-d’s and Israel’s enemies. So, G-d’s mercy to the Ninevites disorients and makes Jonah angry. Jonah’s traditional, habituated expectations have been disrupted and disappointed. Jonah’s response to his disorientation is to try to reassert the traditional interpretative pattern that has shaped G-d’s relation to Israel. Jonah waits outside the city in the expectation that G-d would not ultimately forgo the destruction of Nineveh.

In this disruptive and disorienting situation, any reassertion of traditional expectations would require that one of two things occur. The first is that the repentance of Nineveh falters and fails and G-d destroys the Ninevites. The second is that G-d’s unexpected and inexplicable mercy is overcome by G-d’s righteousness and the justice of G-d is reasserted by the destruction of the sinful. However, the Jonahic narrative does not develop these possibilities, and G-d refuses to meet Jonah’s expectations and destroy the Ninevites. But this is not all the narrative does. G-d will not let this situation end with a declaration to Jonah to the effect “that is how it is, now get used to it.” The narrative develops in way that G-d presents to Jonah, through the narrative of the sheltering bush, the possibility of re-conceiving both the identity of G-d and his own self-identity.

The difficulty with all this, of course, is that this possibility does not require, logically or circumstantially, any change in Jonah’s perspective. Moreover, Jonah’s adamant refusal to change makes his acceptance of G-d’s mercy to the Ninevites extremely unlikely. Given these restraints, [xiii] G-d’s response is to involve Jonah in a parable – the parable of the sheltering plant – that parallels the logic of the larger Jonahic narrative. There is, however, a difference between the larger narrative and the small narrative of the sheltering bush. In the small narrative, Jonah takes on the position and role of Nineveh. In order to overcome Jonah’s difficulty of accepting G-d’s mercy towards Nineveh, G-d disorients Jonah though providing an experience of “sheltering mercy” that is then removed. When Jonah experiences the suffering that results when G-d removes the plant that sheltered him, it becomes possible for Jonah to understand the suffering of the Ninevites that would result if G-d was not merciful to them.

In the final analysis what the parable of the sheltering plant accomplishes is a reversal of the narrative of the first two chapters. In chapter one Jonah is threatened and then is saved by being sheltered in the belly of a large fish. In chapter two, Jonah’s prayers and songs of gratitude are an appropriate, though somewhat formal, response to G-d’s mercy. At this point Jonah is a traditional model of the faith of Israel. However, the development of the Jonahic narrative points out a limitation in the logic of Jonah’s faith: Jonah cannot recognize the suffering of others as a reason for G-d’s mercy towards them. [xiv]

At this point, for clarity, the thesis and argument of this essay requires restatement. The thesis is the Jonahic narrative is a parable that disorients and then reconstructs Jonah’s faith. It is through this logic that we are called to appropriate revelation as a encounter with a merciful Other in which our identities are transformed by a scripturally formed hermeneutics of reconciliation. The exegesis has attempted to show that the Jonahic narrative constitutes for Jonah and the reader a new sense of who G-d is through the narrative of the sheltering bush. The narrative of the sheltering bush makes the Jonahic narrative a parable and it is the narrative of the sheltering bush that is the key for interpreting the Jonahic narrative. Through the narrative of the sheltering bush, Jonah experiences mercy and then suffers this mercy being removed. Suffering the removal of mercy, Jonah is prepared to answer the question whether G-d should be concerned with the Ninevites.

The answer to this question is, yes, but this answer, as important as it is, is not the real point of the Jonahic narrative. The important thing is the not the what of the answer to G-d’s question, but the how . It is only by having undergone the experience of suffering the removal of mercy that Jonah can imagine the identity of G-d as the Other who is merciful to all who suffer. But if the answer, G-d is merciful, is obvious, the faith that makes this answer a way of knowing G-d is not so simple. To become a faith in the G-d who is merciful to all that suffer, the Jonahic narrative parabolically shapes and mediates a transformation in the faith of Jonah and the readers. In this way the hermeneutics of Jonah is a scriptural logic: it constitutes a mediating relation between G-d, Jonah and the reader in which an experience of the mercy of G-d becomes a way of understanding that the mercy of G-d is not limited to anyone or any one thing in particular. Moreover, when G-d’s mercy is extended beyond any “reasonable” limits, when it is extended to our enemies, then G-d becomes the Other of sheltering mercy, who guides Jonah and the reader towards a transformation of their faith and faith communities.

However clear the thesis and exegesis, details make the argument. For example, as noted above, in chapter four in the parable of the sheltering plant Jonah is protected and then exposed to the elements. This pattern reverses the narrative of chapters 1 and 2. In chapter two Jonah is grateful for the mercy he has received, but in chapter four his gratitude for the sheltering plant immediately turns to despair when the sheltering plant is destroyed. Since the beginning of chapter 2, Jonah has been sheltered by grace. He is rescued by G-d from drowning in the sea. His proclamation of G-d’s judgment to the Ninevites, however half-hearted, [xv] brought about unimaginable success. Moreover, when he became angry at G-d, rejecting G-d’s mercy towards the Ninevites and leaves Nineveh, sitting down outside the city to see what G-d would do to the Ninevites, he is again sheltered by G-d’s mercy. G-d appoints a plant to shelter him from the hot (merciless) sun. But it is at this point that G-d’s mercy for Jonah appears to end. G-d destroys the sheltering plant and the resulting suffering brings Jonah to the point that he despairs of his life.

It is at this point that G-d questions Jonah about the limits of G-d’s concerns. As noted, Jonah does not answer, but it is possible to imagine that Jonah could answer: “No; G-d should not be concerned for the Ninevites and their many animals.” This is a logical possibility, but it does not follow the scriptural logic of the parable of the sheltering bush. The hermeneutics of this parable brings Jonah and the reader to the point of the possibility of truly understanding the meaning of G-d’s forgiveness of Nineveh. In this sense, Jonah is not outside G-d’s mercy. It is the mercy of G-d that brings Jonah outside the limits of his suffering to the point where it is possible that his silence is the end of all his and the readers objections to G-d’s mercy for the suffering of the Ninevites. But how does this happen?

The details tell the story. In chapter four Jonah’s refusal to accept G-d’s extension of mercy to the Ninevites takes him to the point of an adamant “set-me-down-right-here-in-the-dust-and-hot-sun” until G-d changes G-d’s mind. Jonah refuses to accept what G-d has done for Nineveh. However, when G-d “appoints” a plant to shelter Jonah and distract him from his role of a prophet of judgment, Jonah is “happy” that G-d has again recognized and shown mercy for his needs. However, at this point, G-d “appoints” a worm to kill the bush and then, it appears, arranges things so that the hot weather gets worse. The result of Jonah’s change in fortune and the suffering that it brings is that Jonah would rather die than live. At this point, G-d interrupts Jonah’s despair with a deceptively simple argument that reconceptualizes and reinterprets Jonah’s situation.

Succinctly stated, G-d’s argument is that if Jonah is concerned because the plant that sheltered him died, a plant that is outside his control and quite transitory, shouldn’t G-d be concerned with the vast multitude of the Ninevites who will suffer if G-d withdraws the mercy that shelters them? But what does Jonah’s concern for the way a small bush protected him from the blistering sun have to do with his acceptance that G-d is the G-d who is merciful to Israel and Israel’s enemies, the Ninevites? For anyone without a preconception that G-d’s mercy is limited to a particular people, the affirmation that G-d is merciful is not, so to speak, a hard fact. It is a relation between G-d and someone/thing that is suffering. Moreover, G-d’s mercy is not transitory and G-d is merciful in all the ways that creation sustains life. If G-d’s mercy is removed then those who have been sustained by this mercy will suffer or die. Moreover, in some cases, take Jonah and the Ninevites for example, the unsheltered will suffer so much that they will want to die. This is, of course, the point at which Jonah finds himself. Without the shelter of the sheltering plant he wourld rather die than live.. Moreover, this position is analogous to what would happen to the Ninevites if the judgment of G-d is substituted for G-d’s mercy. Outside the mercy of G-d the Ninevites will suffer, despair of life and then die.

As noted above, however, this analogy between Jonah and the Ninevites does not guarantee that Jonah will get the point. As noted by Moberly [xvi] , Jonah is concerned with the sheltering plant because without its shelter he suffers. The value of the plant is an extension of his own interests. But the judgment that Jonah is selfish, a valid result of a hermeneutic of suspicion, does not entirely account for the force and direction of G-d’s question to Jonah. The narrative cannot guarantee a transformation in the faith of Jonah and the reader. But the narrative can, through the relations in the narrative, so closely approach the absolute limit of a logical connection, that the space between a faulty faith and a faith transformed is no longer a leap in logic but is a step in a closer relation.

For example, the narrative shows with the death of the sheltering plant that Jonah is in the same place that the Ninevites would be if G-d removed the mercy granted them. Without the shelter of G-d’s mercy the Ninivites’ suffering would be so great as to make them despair of life. In this respect the quality and even possibility of life is dependent upon conditions that shelter the Ninevites from suffering. Here sheltering conditions are relations, the relation between the plant and Jonah, G-d and Israel, and Israel and the Ninivites. Suffering occurs when sheltering conditions are absent or are removed. So, if before the narrative of the sheltering bush there was for Jonah no logic for G-d’s mercy to the Ninevites, the experience of suffering the removal of mercy becomes the relational logic that connects Jonah and the Ninevites.

There is, of course, a dissimilarity between the circumstances of the Ninevites and Jonah. Jonah suffers and knows that he is suffering because the sheltering plant has died. The Nineivites, however, do not know the ways they are being sheltered from suffering and, given their ignorance of the conditions and relations of G-d’s mercy, they will never understand that the source of their suffering is a result of G-d removing conditions of mercy from them. The position of Jonah and the Ninevites are analogous, but in the final analysis is it possible for this analogy to bridge the differences determined by Jonah’s selfish indifference? [xvii]

This may be placing too much exegetical weight upon one small parable, but if there is holiness in minute particulars (Blake) a fine-grained interpretation of the parable of the sheltering bush may yield promising results. It is a fact that Jonah is selfish, but the sheltering plant and the mercy of G-d fit his need for care. Moreover, the need for care and how care is received is not exclusively a relation specific to Israel and Jonah. These circumstances are also relations that constitute the history and identity of Nineveh. The only difference between Israel and Jonah and the Ninevites is that Israel and Jonah require a reminder of G-d’s mercy and the Ninevites are ignorant of the ways G-d’s mercy is sheltering them. However, for the Ninevites, G-d’s specific act of mercy, G-d’s forgoing of their destruction, is a direct manifestation of all the ways that G-d shelters them. So, following the relational logic of the Jonahic narrative and the parable of the sheltering plant, it is possible for the analogy between Jonah and Nineveh to lead the reader to conclude that Nineveh may know G-d through G-d’s mercy for their suffering.

In the final analysis, even though Nineveh repents of its sins, the parable of the sheltering plant is not about justice, since, from all appearances, the Ninevites do not know what they have done wrong. All they know is that they will be judged and will suffer if they do not receive the mercy of G-d. So, they repent. This is not unlike the position of Israel in the Exodus. Israel received the mercy of G-d long before they understood the requirements of G-d justice. G-d was merciful in ways hidden and manifest long before the covenant on Sinai. G-d’s mercy towards the Nineveh, like the Exodus for Israel, is simply the first manifest event of G-d’s mercy towards the Ninevites. For Israel, G-d liberated them form suffering and death in Egypt. For the Ninevites, G-d liberates them from the deadly consequences of their sin. The analogy between Jonah and the Ninevites is that in both cases suffering is mitigated or prevented by the direct mercy of G-d. So, should G-d be concerned with the Ninevites? Yes, since in their ignorance they will not understand who G-d is and what G-d requires without a direct experience of G-d’s mercy.

There is, in addition, another way to extend the analogy established by the parable of the sheltering plant. G-d is merciful in history but also through nature. [xviii] The natural world, represented by the sheltering plant is one way that G-d extends mercy to humanity. G-d’s mercy, however, is not transitory as the natural world. Although the sheltering plant is a creation of G-d’s mercy, ultimately it is not the plant that is merciful, it is the Creator and G-d’s creations that are merciful. G-d is the creator of a sheltering creation and, ultimately, G-d is truly G-d when mercy is continuously extended to all the suffering of creation. Moreover G-d is G-d when mercy is in creation and G-d creates mercy that exceeds the limits of created mercy. [xix]

All this is obvious for anyone acquainted with the history of Israel. G-d’s mercy is historical. G-d extended mercy to Abraham, and to all Israel in the Exodus, and Israel is called to extend mercy to the widow, the orphan and the stranger. In the same way Jonah is called to accept G-d extension of mercy to the Ninevites. But mercy is not something historical, something particular to the history of a particular people. Mercy is also something natural. Creation itself is merciful.

Finally, if the logic of this argument was extended as far as possible, it is implied that G-d is aware of the suffering that occurs when creation is not sheltered and is aware, therefore, of the limits of mercy. Moreover, it is implied that G-d is truly G-d when exceeding the limits of G-d’s own mercy. So, if Jonah believes that he and Israel have been sheltered by G-d and that their suffering merits the mercy of G-d, then it is the suffering of Israel not Israel that G-d shelters. In the final analysis it is the suffering of creatures that is G-d’s reason for including others, even the enemies of Israel, in the mercy that is the foundation of G-d’s covenant with the world.

Conclusion: Signs and Shelter

In a classic essay H. Richard Niebuhr noted that the most important question for theologians is “what is going on?” [xx] Philosophical hermeneutics has argued that answers to any question are shaped by the conceptual resources in the tradition and community asking the question. If, at the present time, the crisis for Christian faith is a conflict between the different ways our lives and imaginations are shaped by violence or mercy or love or condemnation [xxi] then it is necessary to reexamine the resources of tradition for interpretative possibilities to meet this crisis. Outside the essential themes of the Gospels and pastoral letters, a significant possibility the Abrahamic traditions is the thematics of mercy which constitute the Jonahic narrative. The story of Jonah raises a number of problematic questions (1) What the identity of G-d and how is G-d revealed? (to whom and in what way) (2) What is the connection between G-d’s justice and mercy (what and in what ways for whom)? (3) How does suffering capacitate mercy, and mercy shape the limits and our understanding of justice? (4) How do the ways that nature shelters creatures capacitate mercy toward enemies? Finally, (5) What relations capacitate the possibility of living in G-d’s mercy and forgiveness to all who suffer, and what is the logic that describes and constitutes this possibility?

One answer to these questions is to read and interpret the Jonahic narrative as a parable of mercy. The Jonahic parable raises these questions, and the scriptural logic and hermeneutics of this narrative constitute one way of answering them. One aspect of the Jonahic answer is an emphasis on G-d’s sheltering care for the suffering of creation. By providing the possibility of imagining conditions of care, care for suffering and the possibilities of sheltering mercy as a pre-condition of justice, a Jonahic hermeneutic offers a scriptural logic that grounds love in the ordinary and extraordinary conditions that nurture life. In conclusion, to strike a contemporary note, the scriptural logic of the Jonahic hermeneutic of G-d’s mercy and care for the suffering offers a way for both victims and terrorists to imagine ways of providing or repairing ways to shelter each other. If it is possible to discover in scripture ways to encounter a merciful Other who capacitates and transforms of our identities through a scripturally formed hermeneutics of reconciliation. Given this possibility, mercy may shelter all creation form suffering and justice take the place of systematic violence.

William Wesley Elkins
The Casperson School of Graduate Studies
The Theological School
Drew University





[i] . The quotes framing “We” and “name”, indicate that we do not name G-d. G-d names us and this naming changes who we are. The use of G-d in this exegesis of Jonah indicates that the identity of G-d, as it is revealed by the mercy of G-d, is beyond our capacity to completely name and understand.

[ii] . This essay is only the first section of an extended essay which argues that a Jonahic hermeneutic resolves an aporia that results from a correlation of the philosophies of forgiveness developed by Jacque Derrida and Paul Ricoeur. An abbreviated version of this essay was read as a small paper in Lancaster at the British Society for the Study of Theology in 2002.

[iii] . Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture , Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1976, pp 417-427.

[iv] . Paul Ricoeur, “Biblical Hermeneutics” Semeia 4, 1975, 29-148.

[v] . Ibid.

[vi] . Following the analysis of Chad Pecknold in his essay ” Reading the Sign of Jonah: A Commentary on our Biblical Reasoning “, the story of Jonah is a relation, a “logic” that determines a mediating relation that interprets the meaning something to someone. Here the Jonahic narrative interprets how the faith of Jonah is shaped and reshaped by the story. This relation of “logic” becomes a model for the faith of the reader.

[vii] . Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture , 1976, 423-4

[viii] . This possibility and others are discussed at length by R.W. L. Moberly in his article in this issue ” Jonah, G-d’s Objectionable Mercy, and the Way of Wisdom “.

[ix] . Ibid.

[x] . This possibility is noted by Rachel Muers in her article ” Reading the Rainbow “. She notes that we may have no difficulty with an affirmation that G-d is merciful to everyone. However, when this generality is applied to our enemies, we often ignore or distort its implications. She, in addition, notes, in her summary of the work of the Cambridge Society of Scriptural Reasoning that the Jonahic narrative points to “a transcending or universal divine “logic”…that…transform(s) ways of understanding when the previous modes of logic have proved inadequate. In connection with Chad Pecknold’s analysis of relational “logics” these considerations suggest that the purpose of the Jonahic parable is to create a relation that reveals and then transforms the faith of Jonah and the reader of the Jonahic narrative.

[xi] . For a concise analysis of the relation of self-identity, the interpretation and appropriation of a narrative, see Paul Ricoeur’s article, “Life in Quest of a Narrative” in On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation , ed. D. Wood, London and New York, Routledge, 1991, pp 20-33. An extensive analysis of the hermeneutics of reading and appropriation, see Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative , vol I, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

[xii] . Chad Pecknold in his article ” Reading the Sign of Jonah: a Commentary on Biblical Reasoning “, notes that the open space of interpretation is a consequence of any sign that constitutes a mediating relation between an interpretation, the object of that interpretation, and the interpreter.

[xiii] . Another way of interpreting the structure of Jonah is to exegete the parable of the sheltering bush as a way of placing Jonah in the position of G-d: as Jonah is concerned with the death of the sheltering plant, so G-d should be concerned with the death of the Ninevites. Although this is not the direction taken by this essay, this interpretation is not without justification and significant theological implications. Jonah’s concern for the sheltering is not self-interested but matter of his care for the way living things suffer and die. By analogy G-d’s concern for the Ninevites is a matter of G-d’s care for the suffering of creation. There is, however, a difficulty with this interpretation. The plant shelters and protects Jonah from suffering. But does G-d suffer and what sheltering protects G-d from suffering? Scripturally, it is possible for G-d to suffer. This is the plain sense of Exodus 3:7 when G-d says to Moses “I know their suffering” (I am concerned about their suffering). But if the analogy is direct then G-d is vulnerable in the ways that Jonah is vulnerable: the death of something created could make G-d suffer. So what shelters G-d from suffering? In Exodus it is the liberation of the Israelites and, by extension, the righteousness of Israel in her obedience to the covenant of Sinai. For Christians the gospels suggest Christological and Trinitarian possibilities: Christ’s faithful obedience, in the mutual sheltering of G-d, Christ, and the Spirit, glorifies and, though the crucifixion incorporates suffering into the heart of the Trinity. All this is, as noted, has significant theological implications, particularly in relation to G-d’s self-giving and the ways this shelters creatures and Creator. Aspects of these themes are developed in the paper from which this section was selected. This essay has a more limited focus: a description of the ways Jonah’s suffering and self-concern could be transformed into a concern for the suffering of creation. Given a certain limitation on our knowledge of the way God knows, this is, outside the New Testament, the most interesting possibility.

[xiv] . The term “logic” is used here as practically equivalent to the term “relation”. As noted above, Chad Pecknold, following the work of Augustine and Charles Peirce, argues that the logic of our relations to others is a matter of the way relations mediate between the knower and the known. Following this suggestion, the development of the Jonahic narrative in chapters 3 and 4 indicate the relational logic that constitutes the faith formed by the covenant between G-d and Israel, unlike Jonah’s faith, is not limited to Israel. The relation that constitutes the grammar of G-d’s mercy is the relation between the sheltering plant and Jonah.

[xv] . See in this issue R. W. L. Moberly, ” Jonah, G-d’s Objectionable Mercy, and the way of Wisdom

[xvi] . Ibid.

[xvii] . After an extensive analysis of possibilities for Jonah’s rejection of G-d’s mercy to the Ninevites in which he notes that it is “probably not possible to specify any one version in such a way as to rule out the others”, R. W. L. Moberly indicates that his “inclination is towards…”…”simple selfishness”.

[xviii] Rachel Muers has noted that the meaning of Jonah is “dove” and has argued that connections between Jonah, the narrative of Noah, and God’s covenant with creation after the flood serves to make G-d’s care of creation the fundamental theme of the Jonahic narrative. The argument that God’s care for the suffering of creation is the point of the parable of the sheltering bush is one example of this more general thesis.

[xix] . Notes xiii and xviii .

[xx] . H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self , New York, Harper and Row, 1963.

[xxi] . Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 th , William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002.


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