Friday, 4 November 2016

Book review: Sympathy for Jonah

David Benjamin Blower, Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror, and the Politics of Enemy-Love, Eugene OR (USA):  Resource Publications, 2016.

David Blower’s brief (60 pages) study of the Book of Jonah challenges the main foundation of most popular interpretations of this book, i.e., Jonah was a bigot whose exaggerated hatred for the people of Nineveh led him to “run away” from God’s call to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah seek to evade God’s call, he did so via the ridiculous action of getting on a ship going as far away in the opposite direction from Nineveh as possible.  Speaking personally, I have promoted this popular interpretation of Jonah over the years in preaching sermons, leading Bible studies, and conducting retreats. 

However, Blower sees a serious flaw in this interpretation.  He feels it can lead (particularly in the hands of an interpreter who is hostile to Jews and Judaism) to the false notion that Jonah’s bigotry is somehow characteristically Jewish.  This can then lead to an artificial (and frequently antisemitic) contrast between “Jewish exclusivism” and “Christian universalism”. 

Blower works from a radically different starting-point than the popular view of “Jonah-as-Bigot”.  His starting point is that Jonah’s loathing for Nineveh was well-grounded in reality.  The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was a particularly cruel empire in terms of its treatment of its enemies and its conquered peoples.  Blower compared Jonah’s eventual preaching in Nineveh to that of a person standing up in the midst of an ISIS stronghold or a Nazi rally to proclaim an alternate viewpoint to that of the prevailing ideology.  Jonah’s initial wish to avoid going to Nineveh need not have been a sign of bigotry.  It was merely a sign of an intelligent desire for self-preservation. 

Jonah’s eventual decision to proclaim God’s message in Nineveh, leading to the surprising repentance of the Ninevites, stands at the heart of the Book of Jonah.  God is able to radically transform even the most destructive realities found in our world.  This, according to Blower, is the subversive message of the Book of Jonah.

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