- The Honeymoon Is Over: Jonah's Argument With God
Much modern exegesis of the Book of Jonah has been influenced by a Christian reading of the book that dates back at least 1500 years to Jerome. According to this interpretation, the prophet Jonah represents some particular theological error of the ancient Israelites—be it the nature of God, mercy, repentance, salvation, or election—who consequently are in need of an education which the book seeks to provide. While newer literary approaches to biblical interpretation have downplayed the overtly theological aims of older exegesis, they perpetuate that older reading by making the prophet Jonah the object of some sort of "lesson" that God, the author, and we enlightened readers already know. In this light, the Book of Jonah is seen as a piece of comic or satiric writing, with the book's namesake as the butt of the joke. T. A. Perry has provided readers with a multifaceted, engaging study of the Book of Jonah that provides a welcome [End Page 174] corrective to the dominant readings of Jonah in both the distant and the recent past.
In Parts 1 and 2, Perry provides a creative and provocative reading of Jonah. He argues persuasively that Jonah's prayer in Chapter 2 is not simply a cry for help from the belly of the great fish, but rather charts a change in the prophet's outlook. The first part, the prophet's ruminations on the recent events of Jonah 1, reveals that Jonah's flight "toward Tarshish" is really a wish for death. Then, when God sees fit to oblige Jonah in his request, Jonah changes his mind—a change marked in Jonah's prayer at 2:7—and cries out to God for rescue. Part 3 deals with the theology of the book of Jonah, and Perry notes that, of the four main theological themes present in the book—divine love, prayer, repentance, and prophecy—it is repentance that has been stressed the most by interpreters and love that has received the least attention. Looking at the relationship between Jonah and God, Perry understands their conflict as having nothing to do with the issue of salvation for Gentiles in general or the hated Assyrians in particular. Instead, it is a lover's quarrel. For Jonah, God's love is "a unique and essentially private relationship" (p. 96), and when God proposes that the Ninevites be brought into a similar relationship, Jonah protests. He flees his beloved and asks for death until he finally retreats to the desert—the place of reconciliation in Hosea—to build a sukkah, a canopy, and seek reunion with God. Consequently, the famous and enigmatic kikayon plant God raises over Jonah is the positive divine response to Jonah's symbolic request for reconciliation in the building of the sukkah. This section is brimming with theological and literary insights into Jonah, in particular Perry's analysis of the erotic undertones of the language of Jonah (pp. 85–94). Part 4 treats the thorny issue of the literary genre of the book. Perry explores the book's connections with both pastoral and the fantastic, and, concerning the former, his remarks on Jonah's role as a liminal figure between the realms of civilization and chaos are illuminating.
In Perry's capable hands, Jonah is no longer a petulant or mean-spirited figure, begrudging forgiveness to the Ninevites because they are evil or simply because they are Gentiles. Nor is he the tight-lipped moralist who, unconvinced of the sincerity of the Ninevites' repentance, camps outside the city in order to confront an overly sentimental God with an "I told you so!" Jonah is rather much like the older son in the Christian parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The older son in that text is not angry that his hedonistic younger brother has been forgiven, but is outraged that the sinful younger brother has been honored more than he has. The question of the father's love for his two sons is...