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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud by Ehud Ben Zvi (Sheffield Academic Press, Continuum) In this new and refreshing approach to the story, Ben Zvi starts' with the premise that Jonah, like most books, was written to be read. He therefore concentrates on intended and unintended readership(s) of Jonah and the network of messages that they were likely to derive through their reading and rereading. He starts with the historical and social matrix of the production and reading of the book in antiquity, analyzes its self-critical approach and its metaprophetic character as a comment on the genre of prophetic books and on prophets. How does the historical fact of Nineveh's destruction actually shape the reading? Or the perception of Jonah as a runaway slave?

Ben Zvi demonstrates the malleability of interpretation of the book of Jonah and its limitations, as attested in different communities of readers. He asks why certain messages are easily accepted by particular historical communities, whereas others are not raised at all.

Prophetic books were used to educate or better socialize the com­munities that accepted them as authoritative texts. They encouraged par­ticular sets of theological outlooks, norms, constructions of the past, and discouraged others. Memorable imagery and a good plot served these socializing purposes. Jonah, more than many other prophetic books, has been associated with a great variety of basic communal meta-narratives, such as those involving sin and repentance, divine judgment and com­passion, death and resurrection, rejection and acceptance of the divine will, God's power over all creation, universalism and nationalistic particularism.

Thus, the fact that Jonah is an excellent and memorable story served well to channel and socialize the people's imagination in communities of readers. Rather than each person running with her or his imagination in disparate ways, the reading (and reading to others) of Jonah created a frame within which shared, interpersonal imagination is possible. So, for instance, images of sea monsters turned into that of `the fish', images of mythical great cities of sinners into Nineveh, and wandering thoughts about turning away from the normative behaviour in the community, which were often associated with the divine will, were suddenly embodied in Jonah. Imagination was not only socially channelled, but also channelled to; The (interpersonal) activities of reading, rereading and reading to others the book of Jonah contributed to the shaping of partially shared imagination that became intertwined with, and led to what was presented as the message of a prophetic book accepted by the community as authoritative and legitimate. Thus, imagination was channelled to serve an ideological or theological goal; namely, to bring the community's attention to the book and through it to central and authori­tative meta-narratives, such as those mentioned above.

The creation of a (partially shared) space of imagination among the readership community, and the reaffirmation of the basic meta-narratives held by the group contributed to an ongoing positive self-identification of its members, to the creation of borders around it,' and contributed to the constant shaping of its worldview and world of knowledge.

Signs of Jonah is about the reception of the book of Jonah. But as a historian, Ben Zvi is mainly interested in the book of Jonah as a historical source for the study of ancient Israel. Ben Zvi  does resurrect the by now almost defunct and plainly wrong enterprise of using the basic narrative of Jonah, taken at its literal value, as a source for the study of such matters as the history of the Assyrian empire or ancient marine biology.

Unlike other historians who deal with prophetic books, Ben Zvi does not propose to focus on the historical author/s or editor/s of the book of Jonah, nor on their intentions. Instead he focues first on the reception of the text, that is, to focus on the readers and their readings. The reasons for this focus on the recipient side involves not only the speculative character of reconstructions of the writers' intentions, but also the fact that the readers of the book had access to the written text, rather than to the intentions of the writer. The book, not the writer, was read, reread, studied and read to others. As such, it reflects and shapes society.

To be sure, most historical readers of Jonah, including its primary readers, have endeavoured and claimed to `understand' it. But the emphasis on the readership is justified, even if one assumes, as it is most likely, that the ancient readers on which this study focuses thought that `to understand' was basically to meet the interactive/communicative expectations of an authoritative communicator.

Since the book was considered to provide legitimate knowledge about YHWH and YHWH's ways, and as such was included in the accepted reper­toire of prophetic books, the communicator must have been construed as ‘authoritative’. Had this not been the case, there would have been no reason to continue studying, copying, reading and reading to others this text. But the authoritative communicator was certainly not the actual historical author of the book (or a composite figure of authors and editors). The authoritative communicator was the implied author that the readers construed through their readings and rereadings of the text. Readings were (and are, in general) by necessity socially and historically dependent. These ancient readers approached a text with a particular world of knowledge. The latter included, in addition to the obvious lin­guistic abilities to decode the words of the text, ideological or theological viewpoints, a construction of the past, an understanding of the present, hopes and fears for the future, a literary/theological awareness that set their book within the framework of the general cultural repertoire, as well as literary sensibilities. Thus the nature of the communicator with whom the actual ancient readers and rereaders of the book of Jonah interacted was dependent on their particular worldview and world of knowledge.

Although Ben Zvi deals with many historical communities, the focus of this work is certainly on the ancient communities of readers for whom and within whom the book was written. What did the book of Jonah tell them? And, more importantly, what does the book of Jonah tell us about them?

This particular choice is not meant to convey a sense of hierarchy. The ancient communities are as important and as worthy of study as any other community of readers. Ben Zvi focus reflects his professional guild; it is not about hierarchy but about occupation. Since he is a historian of ancient Israel, it is only natural that his focus is on the primary readership/s for which the book of Jonah was written. Historians of other periods and social groups are better equipped to study other readerships.

Methodologically, Ben Zvi focuses on textually inscribed markers that can be reasonably assumed to have led the intended readership to prefer certain reading strategies over others, to ponder on certain matters but not others; and above all on the likely readings and rereadings of this intended readership. Although the number of possible interpretations of the book of Jonah seems infinite, these interpretations are still constrained by a number of factors. The horizon of pertinence of the text within interpretative frames that consider the book authoritative, propositional macrostructures and the ability of an interpretation to integrate itself within an adopted meta-narrative have all been proposed as important factors. But there are others.

Since the interpretation of Scripture may have vast implications in many societies and communities, relevant authorities may also have a say in these matters. Moreover, in historical situations, such as when two inter­pretative communities involve themselves in a significant social and theo­logical confrontation over the interpretation of the book, the interpretation of the one is bound to affect that of the other. Additional factors may include the textual environment in which the interpretation is produced.

Whereas many of these constraining factors tend to create much diversity, still, not only the `rules of the game', but also basic macro­structures, and in most cases through history, the horizon of pertinence of the book contributed to some extent of shared interpretative elements, which in fact go back to claims and basic propositional meanings of the text itself.

Although it is true that each listener may hear a different voice in the midst of silence, the readers (and rereaders) of Jonah were never com­pletely in the midst of silence. There was the book of Jonah saying to them, as it were, something that most of them held to be godly and worthy of being godly. There were always other listeners too, for the readers were never alone, but were members of an interpretative community, with expectations and shared meta-narratives, for above all, the interpretation of text, and particularly scriptural texts, is a social phenomenon.

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