Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Cary, Phillip, Jonah (BTCB; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2008). Pp. 187. Hardcover. US$ 29.99. ISBN 978-1-58743-137-1.

As a biblical scholar and philosopher it is intriguing to read a theological, Christian commentary by another philosopher. Cary directs the philosophy program at Eastern University. Cary's commentary is a narrative theological reading of Jonah. He declares at the outset that he does not know Hebrew, but nevertheless he does a fine job analyzing Jonah's narrative art, making use, among other sources, of Meir Sternberg's fine work.[1] He reads Jonah as a postexilic comedy written for returning exiles; it is a story about a prophet from the northern kingdom, “a parable written for returning Judean exiles about what might have been” (36).

Cary rightly recognizes that the audience is intended to see Jonah as representing themselves; Jonah stands for Israel among the nations. The Word of the LORD drives the story even as the prophet flees from the LORD. His geographical flight from the Temple (cf. 2:4) is an enactment of his heart's refusal to obey the Word. The action of Jonah thus takes place outside the sacred place of Israel. Jonah utilizes the technological achievements of his day—ship building in Tarshish—to escape from the LORD, but, as the story reveals, this is impossible. God hurls the storm into the sea around the boat; it is like Noah's flood inside out! Ironically, the non-Israelite sailors do all that we would hope a prophet would do; they call to God, worship him and are rescued, whereas Jonah is cast into the depths. According to Cary, the great fish is a reversal of the views of ANE mythology; Yahweh's power extends to every aspect of the creation. Even after his return to the dry land Jonah is a reluctant prophet. Cary argues—unconvincingly in my view—that the gourd represents the line of David. God's compassion contrasts with that of Jonah, and Cary is attentive to the remarkable concern of God not just for the Ninevites but also for their livestock.

The strength of Cary's commentary is in its attention to the narrative art of Jonah and intertextual connections with the rest of the OT, as well as his exploration of Jonah as a type of Jesus. I think that he rightly recognizes that Jonah is a parable of Israel herself, and this is its sting in the tail. By the end of Jonah we have no idea whether God's gracious work with his prophet has been transformative or not, and, for me and Cary, the ultimate question is not is not whether Jonah has been transformed but have we (i.e. the readers)?

Theologically Cary acknowledges the influence of Barth (hence the emphasis on the Word as driving Jonah) and Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology.[2] In applying Jonah, Cary's main focus is that Christians today should have compassion on Jews, particularly on messianic Jews, who remain God's people. Of course, Christians, just as any other group, should be compassionate, but Cary's position strikes me as an unusual limitation for the application of an explosive narrative to contemporary, and even political, theological thinking. For instance, I wonder what Jonah, if read in this way, might mean today for Israeli Jews in relation to Palestinians, or what could mean for Palestinian Christians. As I read it, Jonah cries out for a far broader and richer present-day, theological application than Cary provides.

A further limitation of Cary's commentary is that the introduction is very short, there is no bibliography, and very few footnotes. The reader is left unaware whether he has read very widely in the literature on Jonah or not, and there is no reflection on his hermeneutic and why it is particularly suitable for a Christian theological commentary.

This is a useful resource for narrative theological readings of Jonah within the Church, but to serve its audience it would have to be supplemented by the major commentaries and other Christian theological literature.

Craig G. Bartholomew, Paideia Centre for Public Theology and Redeemer University College

[1] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (The Indiana Literary Biblical Series; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985). reference

[2] R. K. Soulen, God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).reference