Jonah in the Shadows of Eden

Like the manna-hoarding Israelites who, after the splitting of the sea, believe they can preserve their latest installment of divine largesse, the rebellious Jonah, after his own salvation at sea, renews his quest for a permanent Eden-like existence. In neither case, however, is the wish granted. Rather, God teaches Jonah, as he showed in the story of the manna, that enduring value cannot be attained by unearned gifts amassed in a day. Rather, only by persistent, plodding effort can humans strive toward a more perfect world—an opportunity that the prophet seeks to deny to the flawed inhabitants of Nineveh.

See Also: Jonah in the Shadows of Eden (Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature; Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016).

By Yitzhak Berger                                                                                Professor of Bible
Head, Hebrew Division
Hunter College of the City University of New York
November 2016

The book of Jonah generates a wide array of allusions to other biblical texts. Scholars have increasingly recognized that, based in part on such allusions, the story gives rise to multiple layers of meaning.[1] One notable set of correlations suggests that the enclosures that Jonah occupies—a Tarshish-bound ship, a great fish, a booth, and a shade-bestowing plant—signify Eden-like environments whose inhabitants revel in divine bliss.[2] When properly considered, these connections prove central to the book’s message, giving rise to multiple readings of the story that complement one another.

On the one hand, a moralistic Jonah objects to the opportunity for repentance that God provides to the people of Nineveh, and instead seeks out a divine, Eden-like realm that tolerates no imperfection. Simultaneously, according to a second intended meaning, a dreamy, idealistic Jonah resists pronouncing doom on Nineveh, and undertakes an escape toward a blissful world that contains no suffering. The futility of Jonah’s quest, in turn, gives expression to the story’s theological message: the Lord shuns the escapism born of either of these extreme reactions to sin and its consequences. Rather, the flawed conduct of human beings is inevitable, and both forgiveness and the prospect of punishment play necessary roles in God’s effort to guide humanity in the hard work of moral improvement.

Jonah, Cain, and the Quest for Edenic Perfection

Consider, for example, a series of parallels between Jonah and Cain (Jonah 4:1–6; Gen 4:1–16). After God compels Jonah to relay his prophecy, we learn that the prophet “became angry” (wayyiḥar). This expression bears an equivalence to the phrase “and Cain became angry (wayyiḥar),” which appears after God refuses Cain’s offering. God’s subsequent challenge to Jonah, “Are you really that angry” (hahêṭēb ḥārâ lāk), recalls a similar challenge that he presents to Cain: “Why are you angry ... After all, if you improve ...” (lāmâ ḥārâ lāk ... hălō’ ’im-têṭîb). Next, we learn that Jonah “went out … and stationed himself east of the city,” just as Cain “went out … and stationed himself … east of Eden.” Finally, after Jonah seeks protection in a sukkâ (“booth”), an abode that typically signifies divine shelter (cf., e.g., Ps 27:5), God briefly acquiesces by causing a qîqāyôn-plant to grow above him—the very word qîqāyôn resonating with the name Cain (qayin). Scholars, in fact, rightly compare this plant to Eden: among other connections, both the plant and the idyllic garden repel their human inhabitants at the instigation of a crawling/slithering creature.[3]

This sequence of parallels calls attention to an essential connection between these two characters: both Jonah and Cain—each in his own way—resist the path of repentance. Consequently, both embark on an ultimately futile quest for an idyllic world, one that is free of moral vicissitudes and calls for self-improvement.

Cain, for his part, wanders hopelessly near the eastern boundary of Eden, where cherubim and a flaming sword block the path to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). And Jonah sits wistfully in the sukkâ that he constructed, longing for God’s acquiescence to his quest for divine bliss.

A Tarshish-Bound Ship and the Garden of God

This understanding of Jonah’s motives emerges already from the book’s opening passage, which recounts the prophet’s flight on a ship heading to Tarshish. In the Bible, ships of Tarshish, a location aptly described as a “distant paradise in the ancient imagination,” carry glamorous riches.[4] Crucially, a sequence of prophecies that Ezekiel directs against Tyre—an Edenic city likened to ships of Tarshish—bears numerous lexical and thematic parallels to Jonah (Ezek 26–28). For example, the leader of Tyre exhibits divine pretensions, a display of arrogance that, according to Ezekiel, will bring about his fall (28:1–9). In Jonah, likewise, the arrogant, “Godlike” city of Nineveh must humble itself in order to be saved (Jonah 3:3). Yet, whereas Ezekiel predicts that rulers witnessing the destruction of Tyre will descend from their thrones, remove their royal robes, “clothe themselves in trembling,” and sit on the ground (Ezek 26:16), the king of Nineveh displays almost identical behavior in a display of humility that forestalls the destruction of his city (Jonah 3:5).[5]

More important, when Jonah flees his mission, he seeks out the Edenic, Tyre-like realm of Tarshish. After receiving his instructions, Jonah heads to Joppa (yāpô), finds a ship going to Tarshish, provides its fare, and sets out on his voyage (Jonah 1:3). The significance of the place-name yāpô has defied easy explanation, as has the clause “he provided its fare,” which many readers see as implying that Jonah commissioned the entire ship. Consider, however, that when describing the glory of Tyre and its leaders, Ezekiel employs the related roots yph and yp‘ a total of eight times, the highest concentration of these terms in Scripture (Ezek 27–28). Similarly, in Ezekiel 31, the prophet repeatedly describes the kingdom of Assyria as a beautiful (yph) realm comparable to the Garden of Eden. On account of this key terminology, Jonah’s journey to yāpô signifies his desire to attain the idyllic beauty, of a kind facilitated/signified by ships of Tarshish, that characterizes the paradisiacal kingdom of Tyre—if also the glamorous yet unworthy Assyrian city of Nineveh. When Jonah provides “its fare,” then, he personally stows the riches that give the vessel the status of an Edenic “ship of Tarshish,” a domain that he hopes will provide him with an enduring idyllic existence.

Further, when Jonah descends to the “nethermost part of the vessel” (yarkĕtê hassĕpînâ) during a raging storm (Jonah 1:5), the text switches from the standard term ’ŏniyyâ (“ship”) to sĕpînâ (“vessel”). Scholars rightly note that the resulting unique phrase yarkĕtê hassĕpînâ recalls the yarkĕtê ṣāpôn (“uppermost reaches of [Mount] Zaphon”)—a location that signifies a divine abode.[6] For example, the psalmist uses the expression yarkĕtê ṣāpôn to describe the sacred mountain in Jerusalem (Ps 48:3) whose “beauty” (yph) leaves other glamorous locations in the dust—prompting the image of a divinely commissioned wind breaking apart ships of Tarshish (48:8). Indeed, the text of Jonah invokes this precise kind of threat in response to the prophet’s unauthorized, escapist quest for Eden on a Tarshish-bound vessel (Jonah 1:4). Fittingly, therefore, it is only when the sailors divest the ship of both its paradisiacal riches and the Eden-seeking prophet that the waters become still (1:5,15).

A Paradisiacal Plant and the Ephemerality of Unmerited Grace

The link between Jonah and Ezekiel 31 yields an additional, essential connection to the qîqāyôn. In that prophecy, Ezekiel compares Assyria to an Edenic cedar of Lebanon that will be cut down. In turn, he envisions the “wilting” (‘lp) of leaves that rely on that cedar for protection (Ezek 31:15). The text of Jonah, for its part, uses the same rare verb ‘lp to describe Jonah’s experience after the withering of the Edenic qîqāyôn (Jonah 4:8).[7] For just as in the case of Tarshish-bound ship, the plant signifies Jonah’s quest for an enduring paradisiacal abode reminiscent of the glamorous—if sinful and imperiled—Assyrian city of Nineveh. Jonah’s presence in the shade of the plant, however, much like his stay on the ship, is short-lasting, his escapist impulse running afoul of God’s purposes.

Crucially, the text underscores the unsustainability of the plant by means of another textual correlation: the qîqāyôn parallels the portions of manna that the Israelites leave uneaten or uncollected.[8] First, the thrice-repeated term wayĕman (“and he appointed”) in the plant episode (Jonah 4:6–8) calls to mind the word mān (“manna”). Second, a two-step assault on the plant by a worm and the hot sun recall the very items that spoil the unconsumed manna (Exod 16:20–21). Third, the word wayyîbāš (“and it dried up”) in Jonah recalls the word wayyib’āš (“and it became putrid”) in that earlier story, both terms describing the effects of the respective worm attacks.

This parallel holds the key to the book’s notoriously opaque conclusion. Like the manna-hoarding Israelites who, after the splitting of the sea, believe they can preserve their latest installment of divine largesse, the rebellious Jonah, after his own salvation at sea, renews his quest for a permanent Eden-like existence. In neither case, however, is the wish granted. Rather, God teaches Jonah, as he showed in the story of the manna, that enduring value cannot be attained by unearned gifts amassed in a day. Rather, only by persistent, plodding effort can humans strive toward a more perfect world—an opportunity that the prophet seeks to deny to the flawed inhabitants of Nineveh.

When Jonah, then, experiences anger over the death of the qîqāyôn, this is because it represents the loss of his Eden-like existence and forces him to confront the reality of human imperfection and its ramifications. God’s reaction, then, follows smoothly: You Jonah wished to preserve an idyllic reality that you did nothing to “make great,” consequently held no enduring worth, and, like the manna in the wilderness, was gone within a day of its arrival. I, however, will spare the vast population of Nineveh, a city whose greatness reflects serious investment and whose wickedness does not justify the dissolution of its grandeur (Jonah 4:10–11).

Jonah: Moralist or Pacifist?

This approach immediately suggests two possibilities: either Jonah seeks an Eden-like alternative to the great city of Nineveh, wishing for Nineveh’s destruction and refusing to help it achieve salvation. Or, unwilling to pronounce doom on Nineveh, Jonah seeks an alternative world where magnificent, Nineveh-like domains retain their Edenic splendor, regardless of the conduct of their inhabitants.

Scholars, however, typically abandon the possibility of a pacifist Jonah on account of chapter 4, where the prophet seems depressed by divine mercy and must be taught that Nineveh deserves a second chance.[9] By contrast, in Jonah in the Shadows of Eden, I argue that an astounding combination of inner-biblical allusion, ambiguity, and other literary devices yields multiple, sustained readings of the story which, respectively, cast its Eden-seeking protagonist as either a wrathful moralist or an uncompromising pacifist. Yet ultimately, neither extreme accords with God’s purposes. Rather, despite the uneven moral trajectory of civilization, the Lord, accordingly to this splendidly crafted biblical tale, endorses the value of the struggle. For by shunning the prophet’s utopian absolutism, God affirms that the worth of human existence obtains in a painstaking process of moral development, one that inevitably entails sin and punishment on the one hand, and repentance and forgiveness on the other.


[1] Among many studies of intertexuality in Jonah see recently Catherine L. Muldoon, In Defense of Divine Justice: An Intertextual Approach to the Book of Jonah (CBQMS 47; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2010). On the book’s multiplicity of meaning, see esp. Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud (JSOTSup 367; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), and T. A. Perry, The Honeymoon is Over: Jonah’s Argument with God (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006).

[2] Concerning the Edenic character of Jonah’s enclosures, cf. James S. Ackerman, “Satire and Symbolism in the Song of Jonah,” in Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith (ed. B. Halpern and J. D. Levenson; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 213–246.

[3] Regarding this entire connection, cf., e.g., Eric W. Hesse and Isaac M. Kikawada, “Jonah and Genesis 11–1,” AJBI 10 (1984): 3–19 (5).

[4] This characterization of the Tarshish motif appears first in C.H. Gordon, “Tarshish,” IDB 4:518–519.

[5] On parallels between the text of Jonah and Ezekiel’s prophecies on Tyre, see the summary and (skeptical) discussion in Thomas M. Bolin, Freedom beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah Re-Examined (JSOTSup 236; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 91–95.

[6] The suggestion first appears in Baruch Halpern and Richard E. Friedman, “Composition and Paronomasia in the Book of Jonah,” HAR 4 (1980): 84 n. 11.

[7] Cf. Muldoon, Divine Justice, 134–137.

[8] The observation first appears in Gershon Hepner, Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel (Studies in Biblical Literature 78; New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 694–695.

[9] See, e.g., Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (ISBL; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 318–320.

Comments (2)

Great article! I am looking forward to read the book.
Were the conclusion of Jonah read as it stands in the Hebrew and the Greek, as an affirmation that God shall have no qualms in destroying Nineveh (see Nahum), and not as the common rhetorical question (were is the question marker?) the point might be even stronger.

#1 - Guillaume - 11/11/2016 - 07:09

Thank you for your kind comment. In the Jonah-as-pacifist section of the study, I present one interpretation that embraces the declarative reading of the book's last line that you and others have advocated, although I have difficulty with it an as exclusive reading for reasons that the study clarifies. I am grateful for your contributions to Jonah scholarship, from which I've benefited appreciably.

#2 - Yitzhak Berger - 11/11/2016 - 17:47

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