A review of Uriel Simon's, "Jonah," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Uriel Simon. Jonah. The JPS Bible Commentary. Translated by L.J. Schramm. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999. xliii + 52 pp. $34.95. ISBN 0-8276-0672-9.
This short commentary on Jonah is a translation and expansion of an earlier work in Hebrew that was published in 1992. Like the other commentaries in this series it is based on the New JPS Translation (1985), but the author has felt obliged at times to correct the translation in order to reflect better literary nuances and word plays. Simon exposits the “traditional Hebrew text” (that is, the Massoretic text) of Jonah. He interacts very little with critical scholars or the apparatus in BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia), but he does, however, refer continuously to rabbinic scholars and midrashic tradition.
The extensive introduction (pp. vii-xlii) is not much shorter than the commentary on the prophetic text itself (45 pages). This introduction discusses in a very readable manner the classic key points of debate in Jonah research, including the articulation of the book’s theme, its literary genre and narrative art, the connections with other passages and characters in the Old Testament, and the date of composition. Several of his positions on these matters bear mentioning here, the first two of which will come into play below in my critique of Simon..
To begin with, instead of other commonly argued options for the principle concern of the book of Jonah—such as the desire to contrast the universalism of God with the nationalistic particularism of the prophet or the suggestion that Jonah is trying to salvage the integrity of prophetic predictions and, hence, the prophetic office—Simon believes that the text’s primary purpose is to present a confrontation between the prophet and Yahweh that explores the meaning and significance of divine compassion (pp. vii-xiii). That is, Jonah endeavors to hold God to a particular conception of justice but through his experiences stands to discover more about the complex character of the one he claims to serve:
Jonah argues on behalf of strict justice against the merciful God, who repents of His sentence. Punishment of sinners in accordance with their wickedness is demanded by strict justice and essential to deter transgressors, but allowing the judge to stand above the law undermines the authority of law and dims the clarity of the doctrine of reward and punishment… He must learn that the world can exist only through the unfathomable amalgam of justice and mercy, that fear of sin is produced not only by fear of punishment, but also by awe at the sublimity of salvation… (p. xii)
On another occasion he expresses this same perspective of Jonah’s misplaced “fanatical advocacy of justice”:
The stringencies of the law and its vigorous application, on the one hand, and a disdain for mercy and contempt for human weakness and limitations, on the other, are important spurs to the fulfillment of this duty. Divine compassion is perceived not only as unnecessary but as actually harmful, because mercy undermines the force of justice by detracting from the certainty of punishment and obscures the clarity of judgment by adding a factor that cannot be calculated in advance. (p. 35)
Second, the fantastic elements of the book (e.g., the mass conversion of Nineveh) and the lack of concrete, specific historical particulars lead the author to categorize Jonah more as story than history (nevertheless, he concedes that there might be credible historical details behind the tale). In Simon’s mind, such a genre classification allows the reader to better appreciate the book’s rhetorical power. In addition, his generally positive evaluation of Jonah pushes Simon to interpret this story more as “compassionate irony” rather than an “ironic satire” of a rebellious prophet’s attitudes and actions (pp. xv-xxii). Finally, based on the premises that Jonah contains several linguistic phenomena of late Hebrew and borrows from Jeremiah, the commentary dates the book sometime in the Second Temple period (pp. xxxvii-xlii).
The exposition follows Simon’s division of the book into seven separate scenes (cf. pp. xxiv-xxx). Each section opens with a lengthy introductory paragraph, and each verse is explained phrase by phrase. Observations on these phrases incorporate stylistic details, parallels with other Old Testament passages, and theological matters related to the author’s understanding of the book’s purpose. The layout of the commentary juxtaposes the Hebrew text with its English translation at the top of each page; the comments follow underneath. This work ends with a four page bibliography (pp. 49-52).
Simon writes well. I found the commentary an enjoyable read and his literary sensitivity insightful on several occasions. It is precisely with his reading of the text and his interpretation of its purpose, however, that I must disagree. The author attempts to portray the prophet Jonah in a generally positive light, as one who mistakenly fails to appreciate the depth of God’s compassion but tries to be faithful in his own way to his calling. Thus, Jonah’s self–sacrificing offer to the sailors to have himself thrown overboard in chapter one is taken as evidence of his “moral grandeur” (p. xxi). In addition, while acknowledging that the psalm/prayer of chapter two lacks a confession and a petition for forgiveness, Simon suggests that the redactor’s intention in adding the passage was to rectify the fact that the prophet did not pray in the opening chapter by placing a hymn of thanksgiving on his lips. Lastly, he says that the lack of response by Jonah to God’s final question (4:10-11) “by no whit diminishes his complete recognition that the Lord is right” (p. 47). In my opinion this point of view does not fit well with the overall tenor of the text’s characterization of the prophet. Each of the aforementioned three cited episodes is more easily coordinated with an interpretation that envisions a more consistent obduracy in the prophet, which even at the end refuses to reflect the divine mercy. My own view is mentioned, but is summarily dismissed with insufficient interaction by Simon: Jonah is willing to die rather than have the cruel world power that threatens his people saved from the wrath of God (pp. viii-ix). In other words, the book does deal with the profundity of God’s mercy, but this is highlighted by setting it against the deep–seated and desperate nationalistic prejudice and hatred of the prophet.
My disagreement concerning the central thrust of the book of Jonah does not contradict my genuine appreciation of this reader–friendly and insightful commentary. This would be a good work to have to begin one’s investigation into this wonderful and provocative little prophetic book. One final quibble: the scholar’s surname Trible is misspelled throughout as Tribble.
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament