Reading the Sign of Jonah: A Commentary on our Biblical Reasoning

Chad Pecknold (University of Cambridge)

Learning to Read Signs as God Reads Them

Think of a sign, for a moment, as an instrument that guides us in a particular direction. We can read a sign because it is written/spoken in our own language, or sometimes because we understand the sign founded on some broader convention (arrows, for example). Signs direct our attention, and refer to that which is neither sign nor reader, but re-presents something else. A relationship is established between the sign and the reader – call this relationship between sign and reader a logic or a reasoning which seeks to describe, inform, correct, clarify and direct. All reasoning, then, we can suppose, involves the reading (or interpretation) of signs. The sign bears the meaning it has for a reader or listener only if it is being read or listened to – only if a relationship has been established.

Is it significant that we have come to Jonah, as a community of Christian readers, thinking of Jonah as a sign? Jesus clearly gives us warrant for thinking so (in fact, in Matthew 12.39-40 , no other sign will be given but that one). And if we think of Jonah as a sign, perhaps we can infer that the sign of Jonah also seeks to describe, direct, inform, correct and clarify our reading of other signs – in fact, the priority given this sign might even warrant the reflection that the reading of this sign instantiates the logic of Scripture. This is, it seems, the way Jesus reads the sign of Jonah, as a clarifying, transformative, directive and even predictive sign that points to a future event – ‘the three days’ of his death and resurrection – the paschal Triduum, the Day of Atonement (itself a sign which alludes to other logical relationships of meaning).

We can imagine reading the sign of Jonah, as Jesus read it , redemptively. There is the casting of lots in the Jonah story (1.7), and the casting of lots in the Triduum. Jonah is cast onto the raging sea for it to become peaceful (1.15), Christ is cast onto the raging Cross to become peace itself. Jonah is swallowed up by a fish, three days in its belly (1.17), and Christ is swallowed up by death, three days in its grip. Jonah performs a sacrifice of praise to the Lord ‘out of the belly of Sheol’ (2), Christ releases the captives from the dead, himself the sacrifice of praise. The Lord releases Jonah from the belly of the fish (2.10), and raises Christ from the dead. Jonah ‘gets up,’ preaches destruction, the city repents, and God saves Nineveh (3.1); Christ is raised from the dead, preaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins – saving the cosmos. We can imagine reading the redemptive sign of Jonah in relation to these other signs if, as a community of readers, we find these relationships meaningful.

But perhaps the relation between sign and reader can be shown to be so problematic that the meaning of the sign is irremediably vague, awaiting still future clarification – eschatologically oriented. The logic of this sign-reading does not close off potential relationships of meaning but ‘makes space’, revealing the openness of signs to new logical relations. Jesus does not read (or interpret) the sign of Jonah for us – he only establishes that we read the sign of his life in relation to this one – he only teaches us how to read redemption. And Rachel Muers adds that ‘one of the themes of the book of Jonah,’ is to teach us ‘to learn to read the signs of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love as God reads them .’

We are encouraged to read these signs in relation, in order to clarify and intensify meaning. We are encouraged to make connections between signs. In this sense, we can say that signs grow as they are read in relation. They live, and spread, and flourish among readers, through use and experience. In fact, the intensity of a sign’s meaning is such that it wants (or intends ) to be extended in just this way – unless we train ourselves to constrain the meaning that would come from new logical relations to other signs.

We might ask, then, what other signs are being informed, corrected and clarified in relation to the sign of Jonah? If we consider for a moment a very stimulating insight that Muers imagines, asking us to read the sign of Jonah in relation to the sign of Noah, we discover a dynamic inter-textuality that excites us. Why are we excited by this reading? The text seems to have its own intense life, and we experience the relationships it has with other signs, relationships that intensify and deepen the meaning of the individual signs but also move the community of readers towards a fuller understanding, revealing a fresh level of intensity in the meaning of the relation between the signs (of the text) and the community of readers – a relationship which releases energies in the community of readers, and causes some degree of excitement.

We are not the first to attend to the reading of signs. If we are willing to think our way back, sketchily, through the history of semiotics – the study of signs as units of meaning – we can trace a retrospective line from contemporary semiotic theory to its progenitors in Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce, who learned about signs from Duns Scotus, who learned it from Augustine, who learned it from reading Scripture.

It was Jesus, we recall, who first drew our attention to the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12.39-40). Augustine finds this particular sign instructive and clarificatory for understanding the nature of signs. Augustine reads the sign of Jonah as a part which signifies a whole, namely the resurrection of Christ. [i] He tells us that this is a particular example of a kind of sign, called a synecdoche , in which the part can either be read for the whole, or the whole for the part (i.e., continuity in the relation of signs). Either way of reading signs establishes new logical relations, modes of signification, each requiring different relational logics – each making relationships that are themselves intentionally meaningful in their own context.

However, there are certain ways of reading that simply are inadequate to the sign given, Augustine suggests. For example, in De Trinitate [ii] , he writes ‘This three days…of which he says, As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (Mt 12.40), this three days was not in fact full and complete, as scripture bears witness. But the first day is reckoned as a whole one from its last part, and the third as a whole one from its first part.’ ( De Trin. IV.10) In other words, the literal sense can often be inadequate – or rather, it eventuates in overly precise readings of inherently imprecise signs. We misread if we do not attend to the relationships of meaning that the signs hope to establish. Augustine helps us to understand relationships of figural meaning by attending to the nature of signs – by teaching us how to read signs and order their relations in a way that intensifies rather than minimizes their meaningfulness.

Meditating on the Scriptures in De Doctrina Christiana II.1, Augustine writes ‘a sign, after all, is a thing, which besides the impression it conveys to the senses, also has the effect of making something else come to mind…’ Once again, a sign re-presents to a reader some third thing that is neither sign nor reader. Charles Peirce teaches us that we have a ‘mediatory interest’ in signs in so far as they convey to ‘a mind an idea about a thing,’ and in so far as a sign functions in this way it is a ‘representation.’ [iii] The kind of signs that concern us in Scripture, Augustine says, are ‘given signs’ whose purpose it is ‘to bring out and transfer to someone else’s mind what we, the givers of the sign, have in mind ourselves.’ ( De Doct. Chr. II.2) The purpose of the sign-giving, we might infer then, is relational – it mediates relationships of meaning (the very word means , as Peirce reminds us, ‘signifies something which is in the middle between two others…’ EPII 1894:5). These kind of signs give us pause, then, to ask, who gives these mediating signs to us in Scripture?

Augustine argues, as perhaps Rachel Muers does, that the Holy Spirit, in fact, is the giver of these signs and intends for meaning to occur to some reader or listener, ‘ensuring that the same words could be understood in several ways.’ ( De Doctr. Chr. III.27) The intense life of the Spirit extends meaningfulness to these ‘given signs’ in inexhaustible ways. So it is in the reading of these signs, and the relationships they point to, that we discover the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning occurs to us, according to Augustine, because the Holy Spirit has given the signs, and these ‘given signs’ graciously invite a relationship of meaning fulness that is itself generative of new relationships of meaning. In fact, innumerable meanings which do not ‘clash with right faith’ are, we might imagine, sleeping – waiting to be woken. (cf. De Doctr. Chr. III.27) We might even consider that it is the Holy Spirit who excites us, and releases energies in us, as we read the logic of Scripture this way.

Learning to Read Signs Backwards and Forwards

We think of the relationship of the figures, the Prophet Jonah and the Christ Jesus, as signs which refer to the past – and yet, for Jesus, the relationship of the sign of Jonah is cast (or directed) into the future , and perhaps Jesus especially draws our attention to read signs forward just as he read the sign of Jonah onto his own future death and resurrection. If we are to learn to read signs we must be prepared to establish unexpected relationships of meaning that are as open to the future as they are to the past. To the extent that reasoning itself can be understood as the reading of signs, we do well to ask what it means to have our reasoning shaped by the reading of signs given to us in Scripture. One so paradigmatic of Jesus’ self-description as the sign of Jonah might give us pause to reflect that the way Jesus reads could teach us the way (or direction ) God reads.

We read the sign of Jonah ‘backwards’ in relation to the covenant God gives to Noah after the flood and ‘forwards’ to the new covenant God gives to the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Might we not also read Jonah ‘forwards’ and then Christ Crucified ‘backwards’? We read the relationships of the sign of the rainbow, the sign of Jonah, the sign of the Cross, forwards and backwards, because of the abundance of meaning that flourishes in those relations. The ordering of the relations can be read in terms of linear history, but we should ask, might not the signs have meaningful relations in every (conceivable and inconceivable) direction?

Muers helps us read backwards, like a good Hebraist, searching the meaning of the relationship between the sign of Jonah and the sign of the rainbow in the Noah story. She writes, ‘the rainbow is obviously an “open sign”, perhaps the open sign that opens all the divine signs; less obviously, it seems at the same time to be a sign of something hidden.’ And perhaps my comments have suggested that all ‘given signs’ are to be read as open. Reading signs backwards and forwards shows us just this, that signs constantly open themselves to new relationships of meaning, including, or perhaps especially, meanings hidden in the future.

Reading the signs of Scripture, as God reads them , we discover a logic , a triadic relation of a text (1) to its meaning (2) for a community of sign-readers (3) that both hides and reveals the intensity of meaning that God gives, extending meaningfulness to all of creation. The revealed and redeeming sign (the Word) is that fullness that always seeks relation. Signs of something hidden, however, are themselves hopeful – and might just encourage us to continue reading forwards and backwards, often simultaneously , in multiple directions, while somehow privileging the hopeful future where, in the long run, we will read as God reads. But this should be tested in a community of inquiry prepared to test and be tested by this logic of Scripture.

[i] Augustine of Hippo, Teaching Christianity: De Doctrina Christiana , trans. Edmund Hill (New City Press, 1992), henceforth De Doct. Chr , . III.35

[ii] Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity: De Trinitate , trans. Edmund Hill (New City Press, 1991), henceforth De Trin.

[iii] Charles Peirce The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Volume II (Indiana University Press, 1998), henceforth EPII, 1894:4.

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