PRAYER: Jonah, by Walter Brueggemann

Attestation to the wonder of Yahweh’s deliverance is limited to the simple statement of verse 6c, introduced by the preposition “yet.”  The “yet” is an adversative whereby the rhetoric inverts, by Yahweh’s saving presence, the circumstance just described.  This single affirmation concerning Yahweh is at the center of Jonah’s prayer.  For all the accent on Jonah’s need, the core claim here is Yahweh’s power to save:

  • Yahweh is credited with rescue.  The “You” of rescue is the same “you” who was named in verse 3 as the one who cast Jonah away.  Prayer is able to credit Yahweh with actions – both negative (as in v. 3) and positive (as in v. 6) – without any explanation of how this has been done.
  • The rescue is to “bring up my life.”  The verb indicates a physical elevation, in this case lifting Jonah out of the chaotic waters.  The verb is the same one Israel has used for the exodus, “to bring up out of the land of slavery.”  Rescue is extraction from the chaotic waters and the threat of death.
  • Except here the dangerous place from which Jonah is rescued by Yahweh is “the pit.”  Such characterizations of place are not intended to be precise.  While it is “pit” here, in verse 2 it is “Sheol,” whereas in the narrative it is “the sea,” the embodiment of chaotic energy that negates life.  Such assertive description does not aim at exactness, but at an emotive overload in order to communicate the urgency of rescue.
  • The one credited with rescue is here designated as “Yahweh my God.”  Thus Yahweh is called by a proper name while the parallel phrase, “my God,” indicates a history of intimate connectedness.  Only in this one instance in the prayer is Yahweh so fully characterized; this usage is at the center of the prayer, while the uninflected name of Yahweh is utilized at the beginning and end of the prayer, (see also v. 7):

I called to Yahweh, (v. 2).
Deliverance belongs to Yahweh, (v. 9).

Thus Yahweh, at the beginning, middle, and end of the prayer, dominates the utterance of Jonah.  Yahweh is the decisive player in the dramatic transformation from trouble to restoration, from pit to temple.

By verse 7 Jonah is finished with his attention to Yahweh.  Now, in verse 7, interest is drawn back to the “I” of the speaker.  In this verse it is as though Jonah must give an account of his piety and his readiness to turn to Yahweh, a readiness that contradicts his stance in chapter 1.  Verse 7 permits Jonah to represent himself as a pious partner of Yahweh.  He confesses that in his helplessness he remembered Yahweh.  Evidently he did not remember Yahweh in the first chapter when he was strong and able to act in freedom.  It is as though Jonah is confessing “fox hole religion,” turning to Yahweh when he has no other source of hope.  But remembering the God whom he had forgotten is no small matter.  It is the act of remembering and so addressing Yahweh that causes his need to be noticed by the Lord of the temple.

From this assurance of being heard by the Lord of the temple, Jonah, in verse 8, utters a propositional theological truism.  The statement does not really follow from the preceding, and reads as though it were a quite self-conscious didactic aside, a generalization deduced from his immediate transaction.  If the verse is to be accepted as a legitimate part of the prayer, then it means that Jonah had come to his senses and had reengaged Yahweh in an act of “loyalty.”  From such a vantage point he is able to reflect on the rejection of loyalty when Yahweh is disregarded and devotion is given instead to idols, that is, to unreal “vapors.”  Thus Jonah, congruent with Israel’s covenantal faith, articulates an unambiguous either/or.

The curiosity in the verse is that Jonah has not “worshiped” any other god, unless his own pride and willfulness against Yahweh are to be understood as “vain” works of devotion.  If that is the case, the verdict he renders is a quite sophisticated theological insight, to see that willful selfishness is indeed false worship.  The verse does not directly indict Jonah for his previous action, but we may infer as much.  Jonah has moved from willful false worship back to true loyalty, and takes his own case as a lesson for his listeners.

Now, having returned to “loyalty” in covenant, verse 9 moves to the conclusion of the prayer, an act of gratitude that consists in three gestures that are characteristic in Israel.  First there are verbal thanks.  Indeed the entire prayer is an act of thanks in which an Israelite gives thanks by reciting the entire drama of need and rescue.  Second there is sacrifice, an offering of something of value to Yahweh, acknowledging a gift from Yahweh and a debt to Yahweh.  Third there is an acknowledgment that the thing of value offered is a fulfillment of a vow made to Yahweh.  It was the case that when one prayed to Yahweh for deliverance, a promise was made to give a gift to Yahweh when rescue had been enacted, (see Psalm 116:12-19).  The genuinely pious remembered the promise and fulfilled the vow.  On all these counts of verbal thanks, offering of sacrifice, and fulfillment of vow, Jonah is here seen to be a faithful Israelite and a faithful partner to Yahweh.

It is not surprising that Jonah sounds an exclamation that summarizes the outcome of the drama of rescue, and identifies the agent capable of such rescue: “Deliverance belongs to Yahweh.”  It belongs to none other.  Jonah could not save himself nor could he count on any other god.  Israel has known this since the miracle of exodus, (Exodus 15:21).  But every Israelite must sing the affirmation again, not only for what is remembered, but also for what is experienced directly, immediately, personally, at first hand.  Jonah knows that the God of great miracles is the God who, from the temple, attends to all the needs of Yahweh’s people.

At the end of the prayer, having been lifted out of the sea and having dwelt three days in the liminal context of the great fish, Jonah now is back on dry land, the threat of chaotic waters defeated, (v. 10).

We have seen that this prayer is enormously complex:

  • It voices in hyperbolic fashion deep need that must be addressed to Yahweh.  In Israel’s prayers, full articulation of trouble in vivid imagery is a recurring practice.
  • It makes visible either deception or self-deception.  When Jonah accuses Yahweh in verse 3 of casting him into the sea, he contradicts the “facts” of the narrative.  Whether he is mistaken in this or, more likely, whether it is a deliberate rhetorical ploy against Yahweh, is not clear.  Either way, the accusation does not persuade, because the reader knows better.
  • Along with self-deception, verse 7 suggests self-serving piety on the part of Jonah.  He is able to report that he remembered Yahweh, but does not acknowledge that he fled Yahweh in an attempt to forget his mandate from Yahweh.  Both the self-deception and his self-serving are offered in the prayer as qualifications for a rescue to be given by Yahweh.
  • As often happens in such prayer, it easily slides over into didacticism in verse 8.  Those who pray in public – and we readers are Jonah’s public – do not often acknowledge that even when the prayer is addressed to God, there are other listeners.  We often cannot resist the opportunity to extract from prayer theological lessons that others need to learn.
  • The prayer ends in gratitude that we may take as genuine.

The complexity of this prayer is reflective of the complexity of all prayer.  Prayer purports to be single-minded in its communication with Yahweh.  Everyone who prays is complex, given to deception, distortion, and willfulness; our prayers are most often thick with mixed motives, distortions, and exhibits, even if only to the self.  There are “saints” who are more mature and more disciplined than this in their prayer.  But evidently Jonah is not among those mature, disciplined saints.  For that reason his compromising and manipulative maneuvers are highly visible in the prayer.  We may spot such maneuvers in his prayer and be driven to reflect on our own acts of seduction in prayer whereby we deceive ourselves, even if God is not deceived.

Given all of that, however, the “story line” of the prayer is nonetheless clear and faithful to Israel’s core faith.  It is a drama of need and rescue that culminates in gratitude.  None of the rhetorical byplay detracts from the clear staging of a human person in need who addresses a divine agent with generous saving power.  A dramatic exchange between the two exhibits a newness in the world that could happen in no other way, a newness signified by “dry land” in verse 10, a cipher for ordered well-being after a nightmare of chaos and near death.

It is also to be noted that in verses 4 and 7 Jonah addresses Yahweh in the temple.  That is, even from the distance of “the sea” or within the great fish, prayer is still aimed toward Jerusalem where Yahweh resides, (see 1 Kings 8:28-30).  This reiterated point makes clear that Jonah is not a private lonely individual; he prays as a member of the community that is represented in the temple liturgy.  Even at a distance, he is a member of that liturgical community that receives a new world of good, safe, ordered creation from the Lord of the temple.

When Jonah ends up on “dry land,” we may expect, in his gratitude that Jonah is now ready to embrace his mission, again a dispatch by Yahweh to Assyria: “Go to Nineveh, (3:1; see 1:1).  Jonah goes; but before his mission is finished, he prays a second time, (4:2-3).  In his second prayer it is immediately clear that he has not yet come to accept his duty or the future of the world on Yahweh’s terms.  Yahweh has “turned from his anger” toward Nineveh and “changed his mind” about divine wrath against Nineveh, (3:9-10).  This act of divine forgiveness toward Israel’s enemy evokes Jonah’s anger and elicits his prayer rebuking Yahweh.

In this second prayer, Jonah reiterates the old covenantal formula of Moses from Exodus 34:6-7 confirming Yahweh’s generous forgiveness and steadfast love.  It is this hallmark of divine graciousness that galls Jonah and it is the reason he did not want to go to Nineveh.  He did not want Yahweh’s graciousness extended to Israel’s enemy.  He rebukes Yahweh for being who Yahweh has always been in the life of Israel.  Jonah wants to keep Yahweh safely in his own agenda of willful parochialism; but Yahweh breaks out of every such formulation.  It is clear that Jonah’s gratitude voiced in 2:8 has little staying power, for gratitude would have welcomed divine graciousness toward others.  Like much of our well-intentioned prayer, the next exhibit of divine generosity erodes our good intent and we, like Jonah, are often back to partisan resistance.  Life on Yahweh’s terms is beyond Jonah.  He is “angry enough to die”; like Jonah we are sometimes angry enough with God to die.  Sometimes, but not always.


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