Amy Erickson, Jonah: Introduction and Commentary

Erickson, Amy. Jonah: Introduction and Commentary. Illuminations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xxiv+466 pp. Hb; $70.00.   Link to Eerdmans 

Amy Erickson’s new commentary on Jonah is the second in the Illuminations series from Eerdmans, joining series editor C.L. Seow’s Job 1-20 commentary (Eerdmans 2013). This series is unique because it combines a solid exegetical commentary with an unusual history of interpretation. In the introduction to the series Seow suggests several ways the commentary could be considered a “history of interpretation,” or a “history of effects,” even a history of influence.” He settles on a “history of consequences” since the commentary will track how people have interpreted and been inspired by the biblical book in various traditions but also in a wide range of media including art, literature, film, music, and architecture.

Erickson JonahIn the sixty-four-page introduction to the commentary, Erickson deals with the texts and versions of Jonah. Although she does not suggest a specific date for the book, it is certainly post exilic and she argues Jonah is late biblical Hebrew. She does not think any theory of composition adequately explains the awkward juxtaposition of styles in the book (p. 28). She considers the book of Jonah to be an example of scribalization of prophecy. Revelation occurs through interpreting earlier prophets (p. 31). There are allusions to earlier texts that require the reader to make connections. Jonah is “dehistoricized and decontextualized” (p. 37). Erickson does not tie Jonah to aa single place or time.

As is well known, there is a wide range of options regarding the genre of the book of Jonah. She summarizes 3 examples, a didactic story about the prophet, a satire, or an epic. Erickson suggests “one may have better look identifying and classifying formal units within the book then trying to create a genre for the book as a whole” (p. 45). Yet Jonah is an artistic masterpiece filled with humor and allusions to earlier prophets. “Jonah is a narrative yawning with gaps and teeming with ambiguity (p. 50).

In the 171-page History of Consequences section of the introduction, Erickson tracks Jewish interpretations of the book, beginning with Second Temple and early Rabbinic literature. She collects examples from medieval Jewish writers (including the Zohar) and the modern period (including martin Buber and Abraham Heschel).

Christian interpretation begins with the New Testament, especially Jesus’s “sign of Jonah.” She surveys the early Greek, Syriac, and Latin interpreters and early Christian artistic depictions of Jonah’s story. She has a long section on the medieval period, including Christian Mystics such as Saint John of the Cross. This section also includes examples of illuminated medieval manuscripts of Jonah. There is far less in this section on modern Christian interpretation than expected, but the modern scholarly interpretations of Jonah would fill an entire book. Under Muslim interpretations of Jonah Erickson summarizes the four accounts of Jonah’s story in the Quran, which emphasize the importance of submitting to God. She also summarizes references to Jonah in Stories of the Prophets and other Islamic literature. Under “Jonah in the modern world,” Erickson mentions virtually every significant mention of Jonah in art, literature, and music. She even includes a modern Israeli stamp. Erickson briefly mentions the Veggie Tales Jonah film, perhaps the first such reference in a scholarly commentary on Jonah. She provides detailed bibliographies after each section throughout the commentary.

After her translation of the chapter, the body of the commentary includes three sections. The first unit (“Interpretation”) interacts with scholarship and makes a few literary or theological comments. Following this section Erickson provides additional History of Consequences (printed in a grey box, like a sidebar or excursus). For example, in the section dealing with the great fish Erikson discuss is early Christian interpreters who consistently read this as a figure of Christ’s resurrection. But Jonah’s association with resurrection is not limited to Christian interpretation. In Jewish interpretation associated Jonah with rebirth and resurrection as early as the second century BCE. Jewish writers identified Jonah as the son of the widow Elijah raises from the dead in 1 Kings 17 (Mdr. Pss. 26). Erickson provides several examples of Jonah’s resurrection in the past associated with a resurrection in the future. Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish provides a model for medieval commentators 4 prayers of confession. She finds a similar reading of Jonah’s prayer in the Quran.

Following this History of Consequence section is a literary reading of the chapter followed by a short summary (“Retrospect”). This sets the chapter into the context of the overall book Jonah. The third section is the commentary proper. She provides a phrase- by- phrase commentary on the Hebrew text. All Hebrew words appear transliterated, and she refers to secondary literature with in-text citations. She deals with matters of Hebrew syntax, often comparing early versions (Old Greek, Peshitta, and Targums). Using these versions is consistent with the goal of this commentary, the reception of Jonah by later readers.

The commentary concludes with subject, author and Scripture indices.

Conclusion. Amy Erickson’s book is really two useful contributions to the study of Jonah. The commentary on the text Jonah is clear and helpful for anyone studying this popular prophetic book. But the History of Consequences section of the introduction and the additional units in each chapter are fascinating reading. Erickson assembles an immense collection of sources documenting how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim readers have understood Jonah.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Amy Erickson, Jonah: Introduction and Commentary

  1. Does Ms. Erickson discuss the book as a parable? I don’t believe it’s considered to be historical. There is nothing on record in Assyrian history to corroborate it, right? I know the big fish has been interpreted to have been a whale but the pressures of the deep would most certainly have killed Jonah. I love the ending where Jonah is more concerned about a weed than the Assyrians.

    Woodrow Nichols

  2. That was very helpful, and I enjoyed Joanna Hoyt’s take that it is a “historical narrative with satirical elements”, but I still view it as a parable that rejects hate and is a vivid expression of God’s Grace.

    Woodrow Nichols

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