Posted by: mattcolvin | January 9, 2012

Jonah 2


Tuesday of the first week after Epiphany: Jonah 2.

The prophet has been swallowed by the fish, and prays to YHWH from inside it. The location is important because it contrasts with the Temple (2:4, 2:7), where YHWH hears Jonah’s prayer.

The scholars, ever keen to dismember every text, lest anyone read it as a whole, suspect this chapter as an interpolation into the main narrative text. It is poetry, to be sure, and the narrative is prose. I do not say that there are no interpolations in Scripture, but it seems to me that there is some poetic irony in the interplay between the psalm of Jonah and the rest of the text:

Jonah’s apparently sure destruction — who comes back after being swallowed alive by a fish? — is parallel with the apparently sure doom hanging over Nineveh. Both prophet and city repent.

The Psalm ends with Jonah’s promise to “pay what I have vowed.” At the same time, the sailors on the ship bound for Tarshish “offered a sacrifice to YHWH and took vows.”

As has been recognized by many critics, Jonah’s psalm is a farrago of quotations from the Psalter. Why should this mean that it is an insertion? What were we expecting Jonah, as a Jew, to sing? Where else should he have derived his piety than from Israel’s book of praises?

The imagery is gorgeously poetic, conveying utter imprisonment in escalating fastness: first “waters surrounded me,” then “the deep closed around me,” then “weeds were wrapped around my head,” then “I went down to the moorings of the mountain,” and finally “the earth with its bars closed behind me forever.”

Then verse 7 marks the peripeteia, where “I remembered YHWH.” It is a remarkable show of faith in what must surely seem a completely hopeless situation. The Psalm ends with the declaration that “salvation is of YHWH” — and certainly a man trapped in the belly of a fish cannot expect it from anywhere else!

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