Extending the Signs: Jonah in Scriptural Reasoning

Rachel Muers
University of Cambridge

This edition of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning reflects – and reflects on – the extending of scriptural reasoning, in three significant ways. Firstly, all the articles collected here are concerned with texts on the prophet Jonah. These are texts that speak of the extending of human understanding of the breadth and depth of the compassion of God, and that perform this extension as they are read and interpreted. Walter Moberly writes of the need for Jonah, and for those who read and interpret his story, to have “defective understandings” of foundational confessions challenged and extended, finding ways “to enable fresh re-engagement with the given content of revelation”. Asma Mermer and Umeyye Yazicioglu read texts on Jonah as exemplifying how “particular events narrated in the Qur’an point to universal truths”, and as making the reaffirmation of those “universal truths” possible in the contemporary situation. In “Jonahic Hermeneutics: How ‘We’ ‘name’ G-d” , William Elkins calls for a “Jonahic hermeneutic” that would transform people’s and communities’ self-understanding as it reconciled them with the enemies over against whom they had defined themselves.

Secondly, these articles are not, as previous collections have been, the result of focused collective work around invited papers, culminating in conversations at the annual meeting of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning. Rather, what we see here is scriptural reasoning locally distributed and contextualised, intersecting with the other conversations in which its practitioners are committed participants, and giving rise to different processes and results in these different contexts. One of the authors (Moberly) has not taken part in meetings of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning; my own piece was written before I had done so. Mermer and Yazicioglu discover in the work of a contemporary theologian (Bediuzzaman Said Nursi) strong resonances with the approach of scriptural reasoning.

If these articles are not linked by an agreed method (a set of “rules”) or by a predetermined common intention, it could be said that what brings these pieces together is – in Wittgensteinian terms – “family resemblance”. To say that would both reveal and conceal the deeper links between them. They are products of textual reflection by the children of Abraham, seeking to understand what the blessing of “all the families of the earth” through Abraham might mean.

The second group of articles, displaying as they do their origins in local groups inspired by the idea of communal reasoning focused on scriptural texts, makes this point about family resemblance clearly. The first three short pieces in this second group are the result of a discussion of Jonah held by the “Cambridge Society for Biblical Reasoning”, a small group of Christian scholars who meet regularly to study texts in ways inspired by the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. Michael Cartwright’s article , by contrast, comes from the Indianapolis “Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue”, formed with the conscious intention of building relationships between the Abrahamic faiths when such relationships are under particular strain. These very different groups’ attention to the Jonah texts brings out strikingly similar concerns – similarities that are not, I suggest, to do with having found the texts’ “only true meaning” (given a priori without the activity of the interpreters, in a “dyadic” logic of signs and their reference), but rather about the challenges with which they confront the “children of Abraham” at this historical point.

Cartwright’s article on the Trialogue places the conversation around texts in its multiple particular contexts – but these are contexts that, far from enclosing or isolating the conversation partners, function repeatedly to extend the circles of their concern. Simply by paying attention, before the conversation begins, to the worship of one of the communities involved in the trialogue, the participants must immediately become conscious of (at least) three historical traditions of worship; of gender difference and other natural and social facts that shape the lives of people both within and without the Abrahamic traditions; of the city in which they are located; and of fundamental theological and philosophical issues. These studies of Jonah both call for and practise close readings of given signs, readings that open the signs, and their readers through them, to expansive contexts.

In order to read the Jonah texts well, the authors of these articles extend the range of their textual reference – to specific passages elsewhere in the Bible or the Qur’an, to traditions of interpretation, to the histories of the texts themselves. The logics they find in the Jonah texts are logics basic to their whole scriptural inheritance; logics of the oneness of God (tawhid ) , of responsible human action as integral to the work of God, of how prophecy offers the possibility of repentance.

Thirdly, these articles reflect the wish to communicate, to “hold out” ( ex-tenere ) to others a significant discovery. In the consultation at which Moberly’s paper was originally presented, we see a deliberate effort to engage a wider academic community in this form of scriptural interpretation. Chad Pecknold’s paper , which speaks of the “excitement” of discovering the extending of signs in community, expresses a commitment to extending scriptural reasoning in this way.

This collection of essays contains no direct contribution from a Jewish reader of Jonah – although Cartwright’s paper reflects the contribution of Jewish participants in the Indianapolis trialogue. We might hope for further “extensions” in this direction; meanwhile, the (accidental) absence of a Jewish contribution serves to emphasise a further point about extending signs. The New Testament and the Qur’anic texts on Jonah, both of which assume in their readers a familiarity with his story as told in the TaNaKH/Old Testament, extend Jonah himself as a sign – holding him out as central to divine revelation, and extending his significance by relating him to other signs and contexts.

Pecknold reflects on the theological significance of this “extending” of Jonah as a sign. Following Augustine, he understands the generativity of God as the source of the generativity of these textual signs – signs that invite readers into relations of meaningfulness that are themselves generative of meaning. Pecknold’s article also raises the question of what it means for Christians to read – and in a certain sense to “extend” – the signs of the TaNaKH. He takes Jesus’ reading of the sign of Jonah – a reading somehow “privileging the hopeful future”, making space for new relationships of meaning, clarifying and directing the reading of other signs – as the reading that “teaches us how to read redemption”.

The difficult questions about the relationship between “extending” and supersessionism in this context will, however, remain part of the dynamic of Christian readings of the Jonah texts. This in turn forces on use the wider question: what does all this “extending”, which I have treated as unproblematically a good thing, actually mean theologically or ethically?

These readings of the Jonah texts clearly suggest that “extending”, in the sense in which God’s signs are extended, does not mean acquiring more of the same, annexing further territory; nor yet does it mean seeking more and more general terms on which to accommodate the greatest possible range of approaches in some form of mutually protected peaceful co-existence. As these readings, and particularly the article by Mermer and Yazicioglu, suggest, the extension of Jonah’s capacity to read the signs of God’s compassion occurs only after his descent to the depths, his protests against God and his prolonged suffering. His understanding is extended, and he himself becomes capable of being extended as a sign to others, only through his own intense and conflictual re-engagement with what shapes his identity. People who engage in scriptural reasoning risk some such re-engagement as the consequence and basis of the extension of their concern.

Re-engaging with – or being re-engaged by (as the fish swallows Jonah or the “fiery spirit” afflicts him) – “what shapes identity” is, for the readers of these texts, re-engaging with the identity of God. It is noteworthy, and might require further reflection by scriptural reasoners, that in the Jonah texts such re-engagement calls into question the limits of textuality itself – and hence of what shapes the particularity, jointly and severally, of the Abrahamic traditions – as a category for thinking God’s “ways with the world”. This becomes particularly apparent in the articles from Cambridge Biblical Reasoning. [i] The city of Nineveh addresses God and receives compassion “without” a text (although it does have at least one prophet). Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, in the TaNaKH/Old Testament, relates closely to the texts of the Psalms – but claims to come from the “pit”, the place from which this kind of prayer is said within the Psalms themselves to be impossible. Is there in any sense, scriptural reasoners might ask, a place our texts cannot reach – and what does it mean to make concerning that place, as in Mermer and Yazicioglu’s article, the affirmation of divine unity ( tawhid )? It may be that Jewish, Christian and Muslim responses to such questions will become more significant as scriptural reasoning extends.

This reflection provokes a final comment on what this issue of the JSR indicates about the future of scriptural reasoning. The articles here, constituting, in their different ways, responses to a situation of global conflict, suggest that scriptural reasoning does not extend to global solutions. Any global solution could, perhaps, only be put forward by denying the proponent’s own profound implication in the conflictual patterns of identity-formation and the misreading of signs. To say that God loves everyone may demand very little of me, but to say that God loves my enemy may require a fundamental conversion. “Extending” scriptural reasoning, in the third sense identified above – attempting to involve more people in its practice – is not, then, a matter of peddling a miracle cure to the problems of interreligious conflict. As a form of “extension”, it is perhaps rather more like Jonah’s rather half-hearted journey through Nineveh (see Moberly’s paper ) – hardly daring to summon the Ninevites to repentance for fear of what it might do to him . Precisely because extending signs cannot be a matter of bringing further territory under the same uniform control (appealing to a single and indefinitely transferable “meaning”), its consequences are, in an important sense, unpredictable. What these readings of Jonah suggest is that the very possibility of “extending signs” is grounded in the reliability of God – so, in what is not less, but more, than predictable.


It is hoped that this issue will be extended further! Please send additional papers, brief commentaries, or comments to the issue editor.

[i] I would like to thank Jon K. Cooley for extended discussions on this topic.