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Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other
Judy Klitsner. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009.
Judy Klitsner teaches Bible in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute, a non-denominational Jewish school. She reads the Bible with a sensitivity to feminist issues.
I was immediately interested in her book because inner Biblical interpretation is an area I want to read up in. In my coming research in Ezekiel, I believe the interaction in Ezekiel with earlier texts will be a key element. That is also why I will soon be tackling Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.
Subversive sequels is a look at a series of pairs of Biblical texts in which Klitsner believes the later text deliberately undermines some of the ideas in the earlier text. Chapter 1 is of particular interest to me as Klitsner takes on Jonah as a subversive sequel to the Noah story.
Before considering the many parallels and possible interactions between Jonah and Noah, a key question is whether the Jonah story was written deliberately to comment on the Noah story. Klitsner’s study is literary and she does not address the issue of Jonah and history. Are we to understand Jonah as a fictional character and the book of Jonah as a parable? This is a leading interpretation in critical commentaries. Or was there a Jonah son of Amittai (2 Kings 14:25)?
All of that said, the parallels between the Noah story and the Jonah story do call for consideration:
(1) Noah sent a dove (Hebrew, yonah) to see if the flood was ended; Jonah is, of course Yonah.
(2) God flooded the world because of hamas (violence, injustice); in Jonah, the Ninevites repented of their hamas and turned away from it.
(3) Noah and Jonah’s stories both involve boats, sea journeys, and water-induced catastrophe (even though Nineveh is nowhere near the sea).
(4) The Noah story is about judgment without mercy; the Jonah story is about mercy over judgment.
(5) Noah ends his career in self-induced slumber and drunken self-destruction; Jonah begins his quest sleeping in the hold of the ship, then asking to be drowned in the sea, and at the end praying for God to take his life.
(6) Noah is ambivalent about the destruction of the world while God is unrelenting; in Jonah, God wants to save the wicked, but Jonah is unwilling.
As we will see, the book of Jonah serves as a subversive sequel to the story of Noah. The Jonah narrative adopts much of the Noah story’s language and many of its themes to invite comparison. But then the second story begins to dismantle and revise the first, questioning many of its basic assumptions about the prophet, about God, and about the doomed population. To begin with, the Book of Jonah will ask whether Jonah, with all his similarities to Noah, will be able to rewrite his story. Perhaps this time the prophet will adopt a more generous attitude toward others, and by extension, toward himself. In addition, the sequel will question God’s behavior, asking whether God might eschew the strict justice of Noah’s Flood in favor of a more forgiving attitude toward humanity.
Many of Klitsner’s insights are powerful and revealing. Sometimes her exposition lacks credibility. For example, she rightly notes the Hebrew pun involved in the sentence, “And Noah found favor in God’s eyes.” Noah is two letters in Hebrew: nun and chet. Favor is two letters: chet and nun. NoaKH found KHeN in God’s eyes. Yet Klitsner stretches the point with a non-sequitur: “[This] hints that the hoped for impact Noah was to have on the world is replaced by the much more limited, personal impression he makes on God.”
In other words, the purpose of the pun in Hebrew is to show that Noah is a disappointment. His father had hoped for much from him in 5:29, saying his name was to be Noah because maybe he would bring comfort to the world (comfort is from the same root as Noah). But Klitsner feels the reader is supposed to notice that Noah is instead a disappointment since he only found favor (khen) in God’s eyes. Never mind that the pun could be there to highlight the positive: that one Noah did receive favor from God in an age when the world was completely wicked.
However, for every strained exposition, Klitsner brings a dozen compelling ones. In fact, the theme of Noah as a disappointment was one I had never considered. Here is a summary of Kiltsner’s case:
(1) In 5:29, Lamech hoped his son, Noah, would bring comfort (Hebrew root, n-h-m) from the curse placed on humankind in the garden.
(2) In 6:6, using the same root word as comfort this time in a different meaning (regret), God turns Lamech’s hope on its ear: “The Lord regretted (Hebrew root, n-h-m) that he had made humanity on the earth.”
(3) Noah never asks God to spare more people in contrast to Abraham in Genesis 18 who tries to get Sodom and Gomorrah spared or given more time to repent (Klitsner notes that the rabbis had long made this comparison between Abraham and Noah to show that Abraham was more righteous).
(4) After the flood, Noah is apparently depressed. He builds a vineyard and gets drunk and is found lying unconscious and naked in his tent.
(5) The drunken episode leads to a curse, not a blessing, and the story records Noah’s death immediately after, though chronologically he did not die for some time.
There is irony in the “man of the earth” planting something as inessential as grapes in the aftermath of the world’s destruction, instead of a more basic crop such as wheat. But his actions highlight his desperation to escape his unbearable reality, to simulate death by living in self-induced unconsciousness. The next logical step, his actual death, is recorded immediately afterwards, despite the fact that it occurs many years later. . . . God had wanted to spare the prophet from the Flood, but in a sense Noah, like all those around him, drowns. It is not God, but Noah who extinguishes his own breath of life by inundating his body with liquid.
While I would quibble with Klitsner that vineyards were every bit as vital in agriculture as wheat, nonetheless I confess to elation in the insight she finally comes to. Of all the stories of Noah’s life the narrator could have included, why the drunken episode? It not only explains the curse on the descendants of Canaan, but more than that, it shows Noah drowning in the aftermath of the world’s destruction. Perhaps he did feel some sense of failure for not trying to save more people. Or perhaps he was lonely and despondent in a world now containing only one family.
With careful attention to word-motifs and evidence for deliberate parallels, Klitsner brings this kind of close scrutiny also to the Jonah story. The prophet Jonah begins sick with failure and ready for death. Im his story, God wants to save the wicked and he wants them to die. Klitsner notes that his father’s name, Amittai, is from the root for truth. Is Jonah unrelentingly dedicated top truth above compassion?
The Noah story begins with the silence of the prophet. Noah does not ask God to save more people. The Jonah story ends with silence. God asks if he should not have compassion on the people and animals of Nineveh. But Jonah has nothing to say in answer to God.
Klitsner’s exploration of subversive sequels achieves what I consider to be the primary achievement of a good book on Biblical studies. She helps the reader to see the texts in new ways. Her expositions are not without fault, but at least in this opening chapter, she brings light to the mysteries of God’s judgment and mercy. My own theology differs a bit from hers, not being as willing to find fault with God in the Flood account. I would say that context was different between the Flood and Nineveh and that the Judge of all the earth does right. In fact, the repentance of Ninevah, if you believe Jonah is based on real events, was temporary and did not save them. In the end, the Assyrians like the generation of the flood, paid the price for their hamas and went down in history as a defeated empire and a despised people.