Uriel Simon, Jonah.
(JPS Bible Commentary Philadelphia, PA.: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), xliii, 52 pp.
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

This fine commentary follows upon the completion of the JPS Torah series. Though the translation is that of the 1985 JPS edition, the commentary is based closely on the author’s original Hebrew commentary (Am Oved, 1992), with some revision and expansion. It thus makes accessible to a larger English-reading public, the philological and philosophical subtleties of the book and the commentator.

Simon’s treatment of the text is first-rate, and his attention to literary detail, insightful. For example, Simon discusses how key words, growing phrases, and punning play important linking roles between narrative sections. To cite a couple of his examples, he notes that word play links the story’s agents of “appointment,” e.g., dag gadol “great fish” (2:1), tola`at ba`alot “worm at dawn” (4:7), and ruah harashit “a quiet … wind” (4:8), and that the repetition of the root yrd “go down” is “intentionally hidden in his fourth descent-into the depths of the sleep (va-yeradam, “and feel asleep” [1:5]) … ” (p. xxxii).

Simon has a keen eye also for literary structure. He adjusts, for example, the current understanding of the structure of Jonah 1 by revising the concentric structures model proposed by N. Lohfink and R. Pesch.1 As he argues, their assertions about structure were based more on “tendentious characterizations of elements … not thematic but formal links, such as alteration of the protagonist’s speeches and the narrator’s comments” (p. xxvii). Instead, he asserts:

The symmetrical structure of the story as a whole highlights the formal and thematic links between the prophet’s two manifestations of rebellion-the external flight that ends in submission and the internal flight that ends in acquiescence (p. xxix).

Though Simon’s approach is primarily literary (and historical), and therefore mostly interested in treating the text as we have it, and not according to reconstructions, he does not shy from positing that chapter 2, Jonah’s Psalm, was added to the book at a later date, though the analogs he offers in support of this notion could just as easily be explained as deriving from different Vorlages as well. (For example, Hezekiah’s prayer in Isa 38:9–20, but not in 2 Kgs 20:2; Azariah’s prayer in the Septuagint’s [LXX] version of Daniel 3, but not in the Masoretic text’s Daniel 3:23–23; and the prayers of Mordechai and Esther added after Esther 4:7 in the LXX.)

Moreover, Simon distinguishes his literary treatment of Jonah from others by approaching Jonah not as an ironic satire, but a compassionate irony. The difference is a subtle one that rethinks the function of humor in the story,2 and thus, changes the way we understand the prophet, his role, and the story’s overall purpose. As Simon cautions:

The fundamental seriousness of the fugitive prophet and his utter fidelity to himself are meant to arouse the reader’s sympathy rather than derision: Jonah is a genuinely pathetic figure in his hopeless struggle with his God (p. xxi).

This is a pathos-amplifying sort of humor, one which “… looks down on the hero and painfully exposes his failures, but it is forgiving: It sets the hero in his proper place without humiliating him and restores him to his dignity without abasing him” (p. xxii). This characterization of Jonah changes our conception of the prophet’s hubris and causes us to reassess the book’s literary genre.

Thus, the book of Jonah is constructed from the same thematic building blocks as many other prophetic stories, but with one essential difference: every element has been transformed from a narrative motif to an object of inquiry, questioning and contemplation, and reaffirmation. This means that the book of Jonah is to be located in the area between prophetic stories and the frame tale of Job. Like the former, it deals with a prophet and prophecy, with miracles and repentance; but like the frame tale of Job, it elucidates, in bold and stark colors, a fundamental issue in the relations between human beings and their Creator. We ought then to classify it as a “theological prophetic story” … (p. xx)

For Simon, such an approach to Jonah reveals the paradoxical nature of the prophet’s portrayal and charts a very different interpretative strategy for the reader.

More than they are supposed to judge the personality of the desperate fugitive, who is at once bold and stubborn, upright and ludicrous, readers are called upon to observe the series of surprises that the Lord has in store for His prophet, who had the audacity to claim to know how to conduct His world better than its Creator does (p. xxi).

I have little to offer by way of criticism of this work. Only in passing do I note the presence of two unfortunate typographical errors that have crept into the text (t-w-l for t-w-l [with dotted t], p. xxxi, and `-l-f for `-t-f, p. 23); but they in no way deter. Simon’s presentation of the material is even-handed throughout, and is in continual dialogue with ancient Near Eastern materials, as well as with the medieval Hebrew commentaries. In all, an insightful addition to the JPS Tanakh commentary series.


[1] N. Lohfink, “Jona ging zur Stadt hinaus (Jon 4,5),” Biblische Zeitschrift 5 (1961), 185–203; R. Pesch, “Zur konzentrischen Struktur von Jona I,” Biblica 47 (1966), 677–581.

[2] For a similar approach to biblical humor see most recently, e.g., J. Whilliam Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For a contrary treatment of humor in Jonah see David Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA.: Scholars Press, 1995).