Review of L. K. Handy, Jonah's World: Social Science and the Reading of Prophetic Story

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Lowell K. Handy, Jonah's World: Social Science and the Reading of Prophetic Story (BibleWorld; London: Equinox, 2008). Pp. 192. Hardcover, £14.99, US$24.95. ISBN 9781845531232.

This handy little book lets us see over the shoulder of the Jerusalem scribe who composed the book of Jonah so we can get a wider picture of the book itself and of the world in which it was produced. As tools for control of the peasants by the elite, scribes held a particular position that tainted their perception of the world in which they lived. This vantage point offers some interesting insights although at certain points, Lowell Handy's own social world taints Jonah's. In the system of patronage that prevailed and still prevails in the Middle East, scribes may have suffered from the “boss's son” syndrome (21). If the peasants did regard the scribes with envy, hatred and indifference (20), they rarely showed it. On the contrary, the peasants curried the favour of their wasta with gifts since scribes such as the composer of Jonah were the necessary intermediaries between the people and the administration.

The description of eastern Mediterranean religion in the latter half of the first millennium BCE as a motley crew of divinities (42) and almost without exception polytheistic (44) derives from Handy's world as much as from ancient oriental perceptions of the divine realm. How should the characterization of the sailors and of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah be understood since Jonah 1:5 does not help decide whether each sailor cried to his god or to his gods? Was the Ninevites' reaction to Jonah's sermon totally out of character? Here we touch upon the methodological difficulty inherent to the exegesis of any ancient text out which we must extract both the context as well as the writer's reaction to it.

Handy's uncritical acceptance of some crucial exegetical “truths” in Jonah scholarship to explain Jonah's world is problematic. It is far from obvious that the ‘palace of your sanctity’ in Jonah 2:4 and 7 refers to the temple of Jerusalem. On page 40, Handy implies that Sheol belongs to the Lord's domain. In light of Ps 6:5 it is hard to know when this notion was accepted and how widely so. Yet, this was probably not the position of the scribe who wrote Jonah since the narrator warns the audience that Jonah is in the belly of a fish (Jonah 2:2) while Jonah is deluded in thinking that he has reached the underworld. There are crucial theological points here as well as in the final verses of the book, where Handy fails to note the absence of a question. Ehud Ben Zvi's recent article (published in this journal), has the potential to turn comfortable certainties about Jonah on their head. It will have to be integrated in the next step towards Jonah's “imaginary real world” (23-41).

The volume reveals how little we know about conditions in the ancient world and how difficult it is for us not to transpose our own world onto the world of the Bible. Yet, getting modern readers acquainted with the practical conditions and mindsets of those who wrote biblical stories is a crucial aspect of the exegetical discipline. Hence, Jonah's World is an important exegetical tool.

Besides informative chapters such as “The Divine Realm” (4260), the “Human Dimension” (61-82), “An Unnatural Nature?” (83-97), “A Moral Universe?” (98-109), the articulation between “Wisdom Proper” and “Wisdom on its Head” (57-58) and the chapter on “Reality as Fiction” (110-122) make the entire book an excellent introduction to Biblical stories. Jonah's World deserves a place of honour on every reading list for courses on the book of Jonah. It poses the right questions and supplies lots of information to guide readers towards the ancient world. The volume's editorial quality is excellent. It closes with authors, biblical and subjects indexes.

Philippe Guillaume, The University of Sheffield