Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Muldoon, Catherine L., In Defense of Divine Justice: An Intertextual Approach to the Book of Jonah (CBQMS, 47; Washington D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2010). Pp. vii + 191. Softcover. US$12.00. ISBN 0-915170-46-9.

In Defense of Divine Justice is a revision of Muldoon's 2009 doctoral thesis at Boston College supervised by David S. Vanderhooft. The book is divided into five main sections: 1) Problems and Premises in the Interpretation of Jonah, 2) Dating Jonah: Historical, Literary, and Linguistic Analysis, 3) Thematic Parallels between Jonah and Malachi, 4) Jonah ben Amittai in 2 Kings and in Jonah, and 5) Prophetic Imagery in Jonah 4 and the Fate of Nineveh. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 represent the main part of Muldoon's argument and interpretation of the book of Jonah.

In the introductory chapter Muldoon puts forth her proposal for the book of Jonah. The book represents a debate between Jonah and God where each party is given the same amount of time and though, ultimately, the book sides with God, Jonah is not condemned by the author or God. Muldoon uses the historical-critical approach to examine the book's origins and meaning. After providing a brief overview of the remainder of her work to follow, she examines three traditional, monological interpretations which identify the main message of Jonah: 1) pro-Israelite and “anti-foreign” (p. 6), nationalistic in nature, 2) divine mercy, and 3) repentance which will appease God's wrath. Muldoon interacts well with secondary literature for each of these traditional approaches and demonstrates their shortfalls in understanding the book of Jonah. She convincingly argues that these three interpretative approaches to Jonah are inadequate.

One point of critique in this chapter is that her analysis of divine mercy is relatively short compared to the two other approaches. It would have been helpful to provide more background into the historical development of this interpretation along with citing scholars who have supported divine mercy as the main message of Jonah, as was done with the pro-Israelite approach. Though the reader may refer to the extensive footnotes to obtain some of this information, about half of this short analysis pertains to objections against this method of interpretation.

After Muldoon's examination of these three approaches, she concludes the chapter with a restatement of the three interpretative approaches and then briefly summarizes her approach, which will examine Jonah within the narrative and through intertextual allusions.

Chapter 2 focuses on the dating of Jonah and begins by examining the evidence to both support and refute that the book was written in the eighth century and the Hellenistic period. Muldoon presents a fair and balanced review of these two options as possible composition dates and rightly rejects these periods as inadequate. She then presents a detailed and thorough linguistic analysis that engages with the works of Ian Young[1] and Robert Polzin[2] in some of the subsections to demonstrate that Jonah was likely written early in the Persian period. Muldoon is cautious in that her linguistic analysis does not entirely settle the issue of dating for Jonah but points to a date somewhere between the mid-sixth to early fifth century.

Chapter 3 examines thematic parallels between the books of Jonah and Malachi to offer a dialogical rather than monological interpretation of Jonah. These thematic parallels include God's sovereignty, the apparent lack of divine justice, and the prophet Elijah. Muldoon examines the Gentiles in Mal 1:5, 11, 14 and the sailors in Jonah 1, and provides a metaphorical interpretation of God as king in Mal 1:11 based on the work of Åke Viberg.[3] The purpose of the nations' worship of God is to compel God's people to worship him. With regard to divine justice, Muldoon astutely observes that a tension exists in both Malachi and Jonah, where the people lack confidence in God to implement justice. The last thematic parallel is the allusion to Elijah. In Mal 3:1 the prophet is portrayed as both a consoler to God's people and the “enforcer” of God's judgment (p. 97). In the book of Jonah, though Elijah is not directly mentioned, Muldoon examines scholarship to demonstrate some similarities between Jonah and Elijah but offers additional insight: “both prophets deliver words of doom whose fulfillment is deferred, or at any event, delayed, by penitential acts (fasting, donning of sackcloth) performed by the objects of the projected punishment” (p. 99).

A few minor points of critique are in order for this chapter: 1) a translation of the non-English quotation on p. 83 would have been helpful as was provided for non-English quotations on pp. 7 and 130, and 2) a summary at the end of the chapter would have been helpful since seven key points were discussed in this lengthy and engaging chapter. Even though Muldoon does provide a brief summary of this chapter at the beginning of ch. 4, it would seem better suited as a conclusion to the previous chapter.

Chapter 4 focuses on Jonah in 2 Kgs 14:25 and the book of Jonah. Muldoon convincingly argues that the identification of Jonah with “ben Amittai” in Jonah establishes a connection to the 2 Kings passage and thus provides the reason why the prophet believes God's mercy triumphs over the punishment of sin: in the 2 Kings passage, Jeroboam II and his kingdom is successful despite the continuation of sinful behavior without any divine intervention or punishment.

Chapter 5 examines the plant imagery in Jonah 4 and argues that the rise and fall of the plant which provided shade for Jonah symbolize the rise and fall of Nineveh. Nineveh will experience God's judgment for its behavior in the future. Muldoon's interpretation of the plant imagery eliminates the tension between the apparent retraction of divine punishment against Nineveh in Jonah and divine punishment against the city in the book of Nahum.

Muldoon keeps her readers well informed of the progression of her arguments throughout the book as she provides summaries after the main chapters, 2 and 4, as well as a summary of chs. 3 and 4 at the beginning of ch. 5. The conclusion to the book is quite brief, covering less than two pages. While this may be appropriate, given periodic summaries were provided throughout the previous chapters, this conclusion does not address issues such as the implications of the study on research or what the next steps are for the reader, especially someone who does not agree with her conclusions. More thought and reflection needs to be done in this area. Overall, In Defense of Divine Justice is a worthwhile read which offers an original and insightful—though somewhat provocative—interpretation and examination of the book of Jonah, is well researched, and makes an important contribution to scholarship.

Shannon Baines, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Ian Young, “Late Biblical Hebrew and Qumran Pesher Habakkuk,” JHS 8 (2008), 2–38. reference

[2] Robert Polzin, Late Biblical Hebrew: Toward an Historical Typology of Biblical Hebrew Prose (HSM, 12; Missoula: Scholars, 1976). reference

[3] Åke Viberg, “Wakening a Sleeping Metaphor: A New Interpretation of Malachi 1:11,” TynBul 45 (1994), 297–319. reference