Unexpected Exegesis, Part 1

Today we’re continuing our weekly examination of Jonah, but we’re going to stop and focus some time on his poem.  One reason for this is that interruption is an important literary device in Hebrew narratives.  So, when something looks out of place, it’s likely there for a reason.[1]  In the case of Jonah, without the poem we would be left wondering if Jonah is getting the short end of the stick from the narrator.  The rest of the story makes him look petulant and ethnocentric.  Certainly this is not so for the prophet.  We therefore welcome a poem from his own lips, giving us a glimpse into his own heart.

Last week I examined a few elements of the poem to show how it underscores the portrayal of Jonah in the rest of the book.  Today, we will continue that examination by focusing on the first verse.  Here’s my translation:

“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.”

There area a surprising amount of things to focus on here, but the main one is a quotation of scripture.  This first line is nearly a verbatim quote of Psalm 120:1.

“To YHWH, in the midst of the distress imposed on me, I cried out,

and he answered me,

YHWH, deliver my soul from deceptive speech,

[and] from a deceitful tongue.”

There are several noteworthy differences here.  First, the syntax of the quotation is different.  Hebrew syntax tends to be verb > subject > direct object > prepositional phrase.  Here’s what that means.  Normally, if one wanted to say “I cried out of my distress to YHWH”, the word order in Hebrew would be “Cried I to YHWH out of my distress.”  But that’s not what the Psalmist says.  YHWH is front and center, the first thing in the verse.  He is unmistakably the emphasis of the statement.  Not so for Jonah.  He emphasizes his own action over and above YHWH.  Ordinarily, this would not be emphatic.  It would be correct syntax.  But given that this is clearly a quotation, the best we can say of Jonah is that he’s correcting the Psalmist’s syntax.  Jonah doesn’t think it’s proper to place YHWH at the beginning of the sentence.[2]  At worst, Jonah is adjusting the wording of the Psalm to emphasize himself.  This seems likely, given what else he has done with the Psalm.

Hebrew poetry works off of couplets.  You’ve probably noticed this already.  You have one statement, followed by a similar statement.  It would be like saying, “I drove my car, and I went home.”  Those two statements express a similar idea in slightly different ways.  But imagine that someone wanted to quote me, and they said, “I drove my car, and I operated my automobile.”  Well, the first part is the same, and the second part does express an idea similar to the first.  But the overall idea has been changed.  If someone did this, we might conclude that they are emphasizing my driving over and above my destination.  That’s what is happening here.  Jonah quotes Psalm 120:1, but he only quotes that portion.  Instead of quoting it entirely, he emphasizes the action of crying out to God.  On the face of it, that might seem like a good thing, but notice what he omitted.

YHWH, deliver my soul from deceptive speech,

[and] from a deceitful tongue.

Has Jonah been deceptive?  It seems as though the sailors might think so.  Think back to 1:8-10:

8And they said to him, “Please tell us on account of what (or who) this evil is [happening] to us?!  What is your profession?  From where do you come?  What is your land, and where are your people?”  9And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew.  YHWH, the god of the heavens, is who I fear, the one who made the sea and the dry ground.” 10And the men feared a great fear, and they said to him, “Why have you done this?”  [They said this] because the men knew that he was fleeing from before the face of YHWH, because he had told them. 

It doesn’t seem like Jonah was perfectly up front with the sailors.  It’s only in the storm that they find out that Jonah’s God created the sea and dry ground.  That’s useful information that he apparently left out.  Why?  Because no sailor at that time would have allowed him passage on a boat if he’s fleeing from a god who created the sea.  That’s just asking for trouble.  So Jonah is deceptive.

Moving forward into the poem, who does he blame for throwing him into the ocean?

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

But, the sailors threw him into the ocean…not YHWH.  Again, we have deceptive speech.  Jonah blames YHWH for being thrown into the sea, when in fact Jonah himself told the sailors to do it!  So not only does Jonah adjust the word order of Psalm 120:1, he neglects a portion of it that is eminently appropriate for him.

This is not unlike Satan’s use of scripture when he’s tempting Jesus.

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Matthew 4:6, NIV

The quotation here is from Psalm 91:12. Notice the immediate context:

For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

Psalm 91:11-13, NIV

Why might Satan omit the following verse?  It only speaks about trampling a serpent.  Because that is a reference to the first prophecy of the Messiah.

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.

Genesis 3:15, NIV

Of course you don’t want to call that to mind if you’re the one on the losing end of it. Likewise, Jonah does not want to mention a deceptive tongue, because he’s relying on that careful manipulation of language to save him.

This may not be convincing to you, just yet. There are still many things to consider as we continue to work our way through Jonah and his prayer.  Next week we will consider some of his other quotations in this prayer, again looking at what he has omitted.  In a few weeks, we will look at the genre of this prayer, compared against other similar prayers.

[1] This concept is debated by some.  They argue that interruption is an indication that the “out of place” text is a later addition.  This is possible.  However, we can’t conclude that automatically.  To do so eliminates the possibility that an author could use such a technique.  Rather, we must examine the evidence and all possibilities to determine what makes the most sense in our passage.  In our present context, Jonah’s poem should be understood as original to the book.

[2] But as we shall see, he’s perfectly comfortable breaking that syntactical rule with words referring to himself.  See, for instance, verse 4 and verse 9 of this prayer.

One thought on “Unexpected Exegesis, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Unexpected Exegesis, part 2 | Home-cooked Jesus

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