Sign of Jonah: Aide Memoire of Cambridge Society for Biblical Reasoning (CSBR)

Rachel Muers,
from a meeting held on 11 th February 2002.
Present were Jon Cooley, David Ford, Dan Hardy, Jason Lam, Rachel Muers, Chad Pecknold.

At this first meeting of the CSBR, it was suggested and agreed that one participant should prepare an “aide memoire” summarising the discussion. The “aide memoire” is then circulated for comment and for participants’ records. The two articles that follow it are, respectively, a further commentary on one issue raised in the aide memoire; and a response to the discussion, the aide memoire and the further commentary.

Since this was the first meeting of the CSBR focused on a particular text, we began by spending some time recalling the wider context of scriptural reasoning (SR) within which we work, and some of the reflections on SR processes that have already been put forward (in the Rules of Scriptural Reasoning and commentaries on them ).

Our consideration of Jonah started from the enquiry that first suggested the choice of this text – what is the “sign of Jonah”? [i] Considering the context of the reference to the “sign of Jonah,” we are confronted with the further question: what is the relationship between wisdom and the sign of Jonah? [ii]

Further reading of this context [iii] produces an initial suggestion about Jonah’s sign. Jonah’s sign is an eschatological sign of judgement – but a judgement that is not simply deferred to an unspecified future. The people of Nineveh “rise up” in judgement on a present generation, in the present, when the story of their repentance is recounted.

We turn to the text of Jonah asking, in the first instance, about the nature of the judgement that the text contains. Jonah himself is judged in puzzling ways. He does not fulfil what the LORD requires of him – looking ahead in the scriptural canon to Micah, he does not “do justly”, “love mercy” or “walk humbly with [his] God” (Micah 6:8). He begins by fleeing from the presence of the LORD, and continues by attempting at every point to establish his own agency over against that of the LORD.

At the same time, it seems on one level that Jonah’s theology is accurate, and that he acts logically in accordance with it, in refusing to prophesy Nineveh’s destruction. The sailors, in throwing him overboard, and the Ninevites, in repenting to avoid destruction, also act logically. It is, it would appear, only the LORD who is not logical.

We see, however, that the logics employed by all the human protagonists keep failing, or in some way reach the limits of their usefulness, in the particular situations confronting those who employ them. In each case, “it all made sense at the time”. If the LORD is only a local or tribal god, it makes sense to flee from the LORD’s presence; if the storm is the meaningless act of some capricious deity, it makes sense to throw the goods overboard; if deities do not exceed the parameters of human conflicts, it makes sense to expect that either the Ninevites or Jonah, but not both, can enjoy the LORD’s favour and mercy.

It is only the LORD who is not logical. Another way of saying this is that the LORD consistently and faithfully acts to transform ways of understanding when the previous modes of logic have proved inadequate, and this transformation occurs through contingent historical circumstances. We suggest, or hypothesise, that this points towards a transcending or universal divine “logic”; or, to put it another way, to a living logos of God. To speak of a “living logos” leads us further to hypothesise that the “sign of Jonah” (pertaining to “one greater than Jonah”) given to “this generation” is the resurrection.

It seems, having proceeded thus far with the reading, that the logic of the text is the steadfast love of the LORD – who intervenes whenever anyone is about to suffer. But this is not quite true; consider chapter 4 and the sultry wind [iv] that blows upon Jonah and the bush. The immediate reason for Jonah’s suffering here seems to be his misreading of God’s desire – in adhering to his single prophecy, as if it were still what God demanded, even when its failure has become clear.

We consider the excessive character of the repentance of Nineveh. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth (is he perhaps at this point himself made into a prophet, given his repetition of the call to repentance and the proclamation of God’s anger (3:8f.)?), and the whole city does the same. It might be said, following a distinction developed by Rosenzweig and others, that the event of God’s command in the “now”, conveyed by Jonah’s preaching, has been converted into law . [v] Something in its character as law, as the king of Nineveh speaks it, gives rise to this excess of “repentant action” – so that even the animals put on sackcloth.

The reference to the animals (3:7f., 4:11) draws attention to a wider biblical context and to the account of the covenant/logic of God’s faithfulness to the earth and all its inhabitants –in the story of Noah. The book of Jonah retells and reverses this story – such that the logic of the covenant with Noah is rediscovered through the text and used to re-read its events. The book begins, as does Noah’s story, with God’s resolve to destroy the wicked, and the word of the LORD to the righteous man (see Gen 6:11ff.). It seems that the story of Noah may be repeated; but the LORD has promised never to repeat that story (Gen 8:21: “…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done”) and has made a covenant with “all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16). So, instead of being repeated, the story is inverted: the call of the LORD is refused, the wicked are saved, and the one called by God – who is also the dove , the meaning of his name – is submerged in the waters. [vi]

As if this were in danger of becoming too tidy – even, too logical – this reference to being “submerged in the waters” calls us back to the centre of the book, chapter 2. In Jonah’s psalm from the belly of the whale we hear a liturgy arising from trauma, a “liturgy of the depths”, coming from the depths within the depths. The sea monster marks the place of absolute horror, the pit of Sheol – in the LXX the belly of Hades and the last abyss ; a void at the centre of the text. Is this a fate worse than death? (See 4:8, in which Jonah declares that it is “better for [him] to die than to live”). Readings like this force us to ask – where does a psalm come from that comes from the pit of Sheol, whence none of those in the book of Psalms come? How can anyone engage in liturgy (note the references to the temple, to the sacrifice, and to the thanksgiving song!) in this place? How, in particular, is it possible to say here to God that ” you cast me into the deep”?

Recalling our earlier reflections on the resurrection as the sign of Jonah – and recalling particularly Mt 12:40 [vii] – a further suggestion arises: could this song of thanksgiving be the sound of the preaching to the “spirits in prison”? In the LXX the psalm speaks the language of resurrection – “you have raised up my life from decay”; and the question in 2:5 – “shall I indeed look again towards your holy temple?” appears to expect the answer “yes”.


[i] Mt 12:39ff ., see 16:4; Lk 11:29ff .

[ii] Mt 12:42f ., Lk 11:31

[iii] See Mt 12:41, Lk 11:32: “the people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”

[iv] In the LXX a pneuma kauson , a “fiery spirit”

[v] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption , trans. Hallo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971), pp. 176-77.

[vi] The LXX for verse 2:14 has the sailors refer to Jonah?s killing as the shedding of “righteous blood”.

[vii] “Just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth”.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning