Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review
Perry provides a wonderful addition to Jonah literature, with surprises on every page. He specifies the book to involve reading that avoids two extremes: refusal to loosen pre-conceived interpretations and failure to imagine fresh possibilities. Perry works with his readers as he claims the biblical characters interact: respectfully and patiently. Perry is in steady dialogue with Jonah scholarship—ancient and modern, Jewish and other, canonical and extra-biblical.
A preface contributes his guiding thesis that the main question to be probed is the motivation of the prophet: specifically why he flees God and generally why he acts as he does. Jonah's issues are characterized as deeply serious and existentially significant, not trivial as they are often rendered. And Perry commits to treat the book's erotic aspect carefully: Jonah is a love story between prophet and deity. An introduction sorts the motive issues preliminarily, laying out in more detail the base claim that love of God motivates the prophet rather than venality (e.g., that Jews lose if Gentiles gain). Jonah feels like a jilted lover—hence the title of Perry's book.
Four large parts follow, with issues first overviewed in italics and then unpacked in chapters: Part One, with two chapters, gives the overview of what happens as Jonah descends (Jonah 1 and 2). How is the experience and its stages to be understood? Part Two takes us onto dry ground and considers what happens in Jonah 3 and 4. These chapters are not commentary but lay forth bases on which Perry's readings rest and plot the main positions he will take as the book moves on. Part Three is titled The Theology of the Book of Jonah and comprises four chapters: the Book of Love, of Prayer, of Repentance, of Prophecy. Part Four, with two chapters, is a much sketchier portion about Life on the Edge, offering some pastoral implications and urging that the book be considered under the fantasy rubric. A conclusion summarizes key arguments. Four brief excurses touch on tangential points: the importance of reading the book itself; the sub-genre of comparison in wisdom literature (better than x is y); the time notations in the book; and the gender of the fish. A bibliography and three indices conclude this book.
Most valuable and distinctive is the motive question, not a single-stranded matter but gathering complexity as it weaves its way through both the story and centuries of commentary. Perry draws us past, or rather through, over-simplifying polarities: We are not to choose between Jonah as acting for personal or pastoral reasons; the justice/mercy split is rejected, as Perry calls them twins; the Jew/Gentile polemics so beloved of commentators are refused. Readings which are basically disrespectful of any character (Jonah as petty and spiteful, God as bossy and domineering) are challenged. Perry combs the book against the grain of easy readings and of familiar commentary. He consistently raises the importance of genre: canonically, the book is prophetic, but it also shares features with writings, with the literatures of the imagination, with works of literature and philosophy.
Most unusual, I think, and most important is Perry's treatment of Jonah as a love-story (his chapter 5), and a quick discussion of that topic can exemplify the nature of this study. Perry argues that Jonah 4 concerns Jonah and God dialoguing about their love bond, with Jonah's distress arising from feeling that relatedness threatened. This point is sustained by exploiting numerous intertexts which help us re-see the passage: The wilderness of Jonah 4 is reminiscent of certain prophets and in the Song of Songs where love language occurs and the dove/yonah is a term of endearment; other biblical vocabulary—granted common—has spent time in love topoi: rise, go, flee, love, distress, banish, take, fear. Jonah's sukkah is shown to be homologous with dwelling places where communion with God is sought, notably the temple; it becomes a canopy God provides for the prophet. Jonah thus emerges as estranged from God, driven from the relationship he most desires—which God desires as well—longing to die rather than to exist in such alienation. Finally, intertexts from non biblical sources (e.g., Emerson, Thoreau, Molière) are interposed to flesh out or make strange and re-interpretable the Jonah topos which may be threadbare. The exercise of seeing afresh, of reconsidering a substantially different scenario than the whiny Jonah and imperious God is beneficial to the imagination.
Amid the many strengths of this work are a few small criticisms. Given the tremendous originality and significance of many fresh intertexts, some theoretical discussion of how they work would be useful. Granted, intertextuality is a (post-) modern word for a mode that rabbinic and virtually all Jewish interpretation does almost instinctively. But an analysis of why it is so freeing and valuable to interpose fresh (or classic) quotations from other works while reading Jonah would be useful for many readers of this book. Related: there is virtually no explicit discussion of the role of the reader: Why and how do we proceed to read a classic with fresh insights, to move beyond where we might like to rest and consider readings that seem outrageously wrong? A bit of theory would have been welcome, and if held in moderation would not have thwarted the basically popularizing purpose of this study—to the contrary. The chapters are written loosely, which suits the generally gently pedagogic style of the biblical book. But consequently, it is not as tightly argued or as clear as it might be. The subtitles do not help. Occasionally summaries of the argument are welcome; more would not have been bad. There are a few misspellings, notably of scholars' names, which is a bit disconcerting, since it suggests a less-than-careful reading, which I think is not the case. On the whole, though, this book is fresh, stimulating and valuable.