Unexpected Prayer – Jonah 1:17-2:10

If the suspense has been killing you, the text in the manuscript below is the final part of last weeks translation and the beginning of this weeks (at least the right column is).  The first line up at the top rights is “And the men feared a great fear to YHWH.”  The left column is part of the prayer, ending with “they abandon faithfulness.”

This poem is central to understanding the book.  It is often hailed as a humble and contrite prayer, and there is some reason to agree.  However, I believe the evidence is quite to the contrary, and I will take a few posts to examine the various reasons why I think that is the case.  But first, the translation.

This translation will include the entire second chapter in one post.  It’s important we see this poem as a whole before we begin to break it into pieces.  My translation in this poem is occasionally a little more interpretive than usual.  I’ll try to explain why in my commentary below.  Feel free to comment or message me if you have questions.  Some of what follows comes from a paper I submitted in partial completion of Exegesis of Hebrew Narratives at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  For those of you particularly interested, I might be willing to email you a copy.  🙂

1:17But YHWH had assigned a fish to swallow Jonah, so Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. [1]  2:1Then Jonah prayed to YHWH, his God from the belly of the fish.  2And he said,

I cried out[2] from the distress that was imposed on me[3] to YHWH,

and he answered me,

from the belly of the underworld I called for help,

and you heard my voice.”

3But you had thrown me to the depths, in the heart of the sea,

and the current surrounded me,

all your breakers and waves were upon me,

passing over me.

4But I thought,

I was driven out from in front of you and your eyes

Yet I will again look to your holy temple.

5The waters covered up to my soul

and the deep surrounded me,

The reeds were bound to my head.

6To the base of the mountain, I went down,

the earth, her bars were separated from me forever.

But you brought my life up from the pit, YHWH my God.

7While my soul was severely fainting upon me, I remembered YHWH,

And to you my prayer came, to your holy temple.

8Those that guard vain idols

Faithfulness is what they abandon.

9But I, in a voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you,

that which I have vowed I will repay.

Salvation belongs to YHWH.

10 So YHWH spoke to the fish, and he spit Jonah to dry ground.

There are a few things to point out from the outset.  One, hopefully you noticed the words in red.  Go ahead and read it again with this in mind.  Notice how frequently Jonah places himself at the center of the story.  Pronouns referring to him outnumber references to YHWH by almost 2 to 1.  That should tell us something.

Second, it’s worth noting that the poem could be removed without irreparable harm to the narrative.  Consider the following, if we skip the poem entirely we are left with:

But YHWH had assigned a fish to swallow Jonah, so Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And YHWH spoke to the fish, and he spit Jonah to dry ground.

So, why the poem?  This has puzzled interpreters for quite some time, and has resulted in many suggesting that the poem is a later addition.[4]  However, Hebrew narrative frequently employs interruption to make a point.  It is precisely the perceived discontinuity that ought to draw our attention and motivate us to ask why the author would do this. After reading the first chapter, an attentive reader might be left asking themselves, “Is the prophet really this obstinate?”  The poem answers that question in the affirmative.  Jonah is entirely self-centered in this poem, and only gives credit to YHWH for acting in response to his own prayers.  I understand that this is not a popular take on Jonah, but I ask that you give me the following few weeks to unpack this particular poem in detail before you decide to disagree.

For now, let me unpack just one example.  The leading line is fascinating.  The first word, קָ֠רָאתִי, is a form of the same word YHWH used in his prophetic call to Jonah in 1:2.  He was to arise, go, and cry.  Here we have 1/3 of the call repeated from Jonah’s mouth.  But does he cry to Nineveh?  No, he cries out for his own good.

Moreover, as you may have noticed, “cried out from the distress that was imposed on me to YHWH…”  This translation is supported by Jonah’s phrasing.  Simply put, the way Jonah says it emphasizes him over anything else in the sentence.  This particular syntax for “my distress” is rare (מִצָּ֥רָה לִ֛י).  It occurs only here and in Ps 120:1.  Elsewhere[5] צָרָה employs a suffix to indicate possession (i.e. צָֽרָתִ֔י).

But even if we discount the syntax, this line is almost a direct quote of Psalm 120:1.  In my trouble I cried to YHWH, And He answered me.  But there’s a significant change.  The Psalmist emphasizes to YHWH over the rest of the sentence.  Jonah emphasizes himself.  So while the wording is the same, the word order is not.  This is significant.

Furthermore, Hebrew poetry works with paired phrases.  The paired phrase in Psalm 120 is Deliver my soul, O YHWH, from lying lips, From a deceitful tongue.  Anyone familiar with this Psalm would expect this line to come after the first.  But instead, Jonah re-emphasizes his predicament.  But more telling than his omission is the next verse.

But you had thrown me to the depths, in the heart of the sea, and the current surrounded me, all your breakers and waves were upon me, passing over me.

Who threw him into the depths?  Was it YHWH?  If we re-read chapter one, it seems to have been the sailors…at Jonah’s request.  So, instead of accurately quoting the Psalmist, Jonah throws us a curveball and misrepresents the situation.  This is particularly interesting, in that the missing element from the Psalmist had to do with YHWH delivering us from lying.  Jonah doesn’t quote that.  Instead, he lies.  YHWH did not throw him into the depths.  YHWH was not to blame for Jonah’s predicament.  Jonah was.

As I’ve stated before, there is a lot to deal with here.  Next week, we will continue to examine the first line of the prayer.  I will show multiple prayers in the Psalms that exemplify what Jonah should be praying.  Then we’re going to look at how he quotes a few other Psalms, because he’s not done with his selective use of scripture.  We will also look at the various types of psalms used in scripture.  This will help us understand the elements Jonah employs in his psalm (and more importantly, which elements he omits).  All of this data supports my original thesis that Jonah is the antithesis of what a prophet should be.

[1] In the ancient world this phrase, three days and three nights, indicated a trip to the underworld.  It is also later echoed in the narrative when we are told that Nineveh is a three-day journey (3:3).  Perhaps this means that journeying across Nineveh was considered dangerous enough to guarantee death.  See George M. Landes, “Three days and three nights motif in Jonah 2:1.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 86, no. 4 (December 1967): 446-450, specifically 448-9.  Also Ackerman sees this inclusion as an indication that the fish was in fact taking Jonah to his death.  See James Ackerman, “Satire and Symbolism in the Song of Jonah,” in Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, ed. Baruch Halpern and Jǒn Douglas Levenson (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 221.

[2] The poem begins with one of the three words YHWH used in his command to Jonah.  This may tease the reader into expecting some measure of obedience, but that hope is quickly dashed.

[3] This is an interpretive decision, but it seems to fit the word choice and syntax.  In layman’s terms, there are a lot of ways to say this.  See my later explanation for more detail.

[4] Douglas Stuart, “Jonah, book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets , ed. Mark J. Boda and JG. McConville (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, ©2012), 459. For positions supporting (and perhaps dependent upon) Stuart, see Billy K. Smith and Frank S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah  (Nashville: Holman Reference, 1995), 243-4. For opposing perspectives, see an excellent treatment in Sweeney, 316-8; and a brief treatment in James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah , Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub., ©2011), 425, 427.

[5] cf. Gen 35:3, Judges 10:14, 1st Sam 1:6, 10:19, 2nd Chron 20:9, Neh 9:27, Ps 25:22, 34:7, 34:18, 77:3, 86:7, 142:3.

One thought on “Unexpected Prayer – Jonah 1:17-2:10

  1. Pingback: Unexpected Exegesis, Part 1 | Home-cooked Jesus

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