An Analysis of the Book of Jonah, Part 2

by Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., August 11, 2016

I do not disguise the fact that my approach to Jonah is eisegetical. Eisegesis refers to reading one’s own ideas into a biblical text. The opposite would be exegetical, where exegesis designates limiting oneself to traditional Bible commentary.

Two points to bear in mind when thinking about life in the 8th century BCE: people didn’t distinguish between the natural and supernatural realms, and gods dominated their lives – to an extent we in the 21st century cannot begin to grasp.

To resume where I left off at the end of Part 1, after three days and three nights of incommodious and distressing life within his sea-going host, Jonah found himself spewed out upon dry land somewhere along the Phoenician coast near one of the city-states – Tyre, Sidon, Byblos – north of Joppa, his starting point. Those who observed him as he emerged from the sea were spellbound. To them, he was none other than the fish-god Dagon, half-man, half-fish, morphed into full human form. Jonah was quick to disavow such an explanation for his dramatic appearance, repeating again and again that he was, like them, just an ordinary mortal and that it was, his god, the LORD God of Israel, who had delivered him from the sea creature that had swallowed him.

He now began the journey by camel caravan to Nineveh, some 500 miles to the east, which would take about three weeks (traveling at a 2-3 mile/hour pace for 8 hours a day). Just as the fish in a good fish story grows bigger and bigger with each retelling, so did the aura of the LORD God expand with each passing day. By the time he arrived, the Ninevites, fully informed of his coming, were already in a mind-set to do anything he would demand of them in the name of his powerful god, the LORD God of Israel.
Their fish-god Dagon – who had failed to guard and protect Assyria during the reign of Asur-pan lll – was no match for Yahweh. Once before the annals describe Dagon’s defeat at the hands of the God of the Hebrews. In the 11th century BCE, the strongman Samson, blinded and reduced to grinding grain for his Phoenician captors, brought down their crowded temple to Dagon in Gaza, perishing as well in a final act of atonement.

In the 11th century BCE, Dagon was a god of grain and considered a symbol of fertility. In Hebrew, dag means “fish” and dagan, “grain.” Furthermore, archeologists have found sculptures of the fish-god in Nineveh, so Dagon-worship was not limited to coastal Phoenicia, a fact whose importance will soon become evident.

Jonah didn’t have to do much. He stood in the city’s central square and bellowed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” His voice carried deep into the city, and his words were relayed still farther by others. Everyone comprehended his message (delivered in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East).

They understood and, in biblical speak, harkened to his voice, including the king (not King Assur-pan lll in Assur, the capital, but a vassal king), who covered himself with sackcloth and ashes. Their contriteness was genuine, but it didn’t impress the impassive Jonah. His duty was to deliver God’s message, which he had now done. Nothing more was required of him, he reasoned.

In Jonah 2:9, the prophet says: “I will pay that that I have vowed.” We do not know what he had vowed when he was in distress in the interior of the great fish. It is not uncommon to call upon God in time of trouble but to forget Him when deliverance comes. But, as already noted in Part 1, there is another explanation for Jonah’s reluctance to do more: he didn't want to participate in Assyria's restoration to power.

The Hebrew for “contrite” is dakka, which also connotes “crushed, crippled, or broken.” The connotation of dakka adequately summarizes the mental state of Assyria during the 760s and 750s. While Israel enjoyed unprecedented prosperity under Jeroboam ll (reigned 786-746), Assyria was stagnating, especially during the reign of Ashur-dan lll (772-755). A plague in 765 devastated the country, which was followed by a second widespread plague in 759. In between, on June 15, 763, there was a solar eclipse. This natural event, in the 8th century BCE, was considered an unfavorable omen, presaging disaster and destruction. In fact, during the eclipse there was a revolt in the capital, Ashur. Jonah’s arrival in Nineveh occurred toward the end of Ashur-dan lll’s kingship, perhaps 757 or 756.

Dagon was only one of many deities in an elaborate pantheon Ninevites worshipped. The goddess Nina was in charge of fish and fishing and was also the mother of the mermaids. (Dagon was often pictured as a merman.) Nina was also a variant spelling of Ninua, Akkadian for the place name Nineveh. In cuneiform, Nina (Aramaic, nuna, meaning “fish”) is represented as a fish within a house. In Akkadian, nunu is the word for “fish.” Related to it is ninus, which means “the residence of Nimrod,” the legendary founder of Nineveh, and Assyria is “the land of Nimrod.”

All in all, there is something fishy about the name “Nineveh.” Nineveh, one may say, is Fishtown, Fishville, Fishburg, even Fish City. From its beginning to its end, from the fish that swallowed Jonah to Nineveh/Fishtown, the Book of Jonah is a fish tale.

Jonah had saved the Ninevites, a nasty, cruel people, at least for the moment. He built a ramshackle shack and waited to see how long their reformation would last. Despite his personal shortcomings, God took pity on His suffering servant in his wretched shack and caused a castor-bean plant to grow overnight whose broad leaves would afford him shading from the torrid sun. However, seeing that His prophet just sat on his hands, that is, did not follow up on his initial success in the name of the LORD God of Israel, He destroyed the castor-bean plant and left the disgruntled, sulking Jonah to squirm in the broiling heat.

The Book of Jonah contains only four short chapters covering a little more than two pages. Chapter 4, somewhat incomplete and hazy in construction –reflecting a poor editing job by the scribes – ends with God explaining to Jonah why He spared Nineveh, with its 120,000 persons “that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand.” By that, God was saying that they couldn’t distinguish between right and wrong. God Himself is unchanging, and this segment of the Jonah story illustrates an important advance in the development of the Jewish conceptualization of their God from the time of Abraham, when Abraham couldn’t dissuade God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.

Despite their gross shortcomings, the Ninevites were part of God’s creation. The author of the Book of Jonah had made his point: God’s love was not restricted to His Chosen People but was universal.

Jonah, nevertheless, had also made his point. The Ninevites’ rehabilitation lasted only forty days (according to the Talmud), and they were then back to what they had been. A new king, Tiglath-Pileser lll (ruled 745-727) would arise and reestablish Assyrian hegemony. His sons, Shalmaneser V and Sargon ll, would conquer the Northern Kingdom in 722-721 and carry off its 10 tribes, the Ten Lost Tribes, proving Jonah’s vision of the future had been accurate.

So, how much of the Book of Jonah is historical and how much fictive? The big fish sequence has to be considered a fish story, ranking near the top of the list of fish whoppers. Some of the material in the book is historical. For instance, the solar eclipse of 763 BCE is well documented. Even the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Jonah, makes mention of it (Amos 8:9).

Jonah is listed among the Minor Prophets, and that by itself  lends credence to his historicity. Curiously, however, the only proof of his actual existence is to be found in ll Kings 14:25, where Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-Hepher in Zebulun, Northern Kingdom, is mentioned, that is, actually mentioned by name and place of origin.

There remain several other issues to be dealt with. For instance, Nineveh is described in Jonah 3:3 as a very large city “of three days’ journey” (KJV). Someone walking at a leisurely pace, 2-3 miles an hour, for 8 hours, the camel caravan’s pace, would cover 48-72 miles (let’s say 60 miles, averaging the two) in 3 days. A city of such size would be a megalopolis. The author exaggerates, to say the least. Depicting Nineveh as 60 miles long is an example of what is referred to as Semitic hyperbole, an oft-used device of biblical writers and editors.

Hyperbolic language is especially evident in the Book of Joshua, where you encounter such phrases as: “leave alive none that breathes” Deut. 20:16) and “put all inhabitants to the sword.” (Deut. 13:15; Joshua 8:24, 6:21). Yet survivors pop up later in Judges and Deuteronomy. Such hyperbolized expressions are found throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and are to be considered SOP, or more to the point, SLOP – standard literary operating procedure.

The use of hyperbole, furthermore, is characteristic of the writing style everywhere in the Near East at the time. Sennacherib writes about a successful campaign: “The soldiers of [the Babylonian city of] Hirimme…I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped” (from Sennacherib’s Prism). After his successful revolt against Israel (c. 850 BCE), King Mesha of Moab, as recorded in the Moabite Stone, proclaims: “Israel has utterly perished for always.” Not so! The Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 721 BCE, which was about 130 years after Mesha’s boast but would rise again in 2669 years.

Jesus of Nazareth furnishes us an example of 1st-century Semitic hyperbole with his “judge not, that ye be not judged” metaphor in Matthew 7:3 (KJV): “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

There are several other matters, which will be deferred to Part 3. Here in Part 2, the author’s purpose in writing the Book of Jonah, as traditionally interpreted, has been stated. But its quintessential purpose is left for Part 3.

TAKEAWAY: Jonah could have been a big fish in a big pond, but because of  personal shortcomings, he ended up being remembered as a minnow in a fish bowl.

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