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A Short Story about a Conflicted Prophet

Published / by kathleen

JonahI’ve been thinking about Jonah. If you want to understand Jonah, think of it as a short story. A short story can be read in an hour but remembered for a lifetime—which certainly fits Jonah. Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard.  I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.

If one asks what message the author of the Jonah story was intending to convey, there are many possible answers. The problem of deciding which of these understandings might be right attaches to the Jonah scroll in a distinctive way because of its distinctive nature, as a short story. The nature of a story is not to tell you what you are supposed to get from it.

The observation has been applied to the book of Jonah that understanding what a great man is saying is made easier if you know what he was opposing. And we don’t know what the answer is. Accepting the usual critical view that it was composed in Judah in the Persian period doesn’t help, because widely divergent understandings of its background and aim have been held within that framework. The narrator of the story doesn’t articulate its implications. The story is content to raise questions and not answer them. It works on us by making us think. Its closing with a question symbolizes its approach.

Leaving interpretation to the people listening to the story leaves them free to bring ideas or assumptions or questions from outside it and see how it illumines them. For instance, people may read the scroll on the assumption that Jonah stands for Israel as a people, or that he stands for the individual Judahite, or that he is a type of Christ.

Within the scroll itself, there are three key themes. First, the story is about God’s relationship with a great and violent city. God is prepared to act against it for its waywardness but glad to remit its punishment if it turns from its waywardness.  (It’s often been said that the message of Jonah is that Israel should be more open to other peoples, but there’s no reason to think that the average Israelite was more xenophobic than the average Christian, or that the average Prophet would object to the idea of Nineveh repenting and finding Yahweh’s forgiveness. One has to be wary of anti-Judaic inclinations finding expression in this understanding.)

The story is about the sort of person God is. He’s insistent on his moral authority but also characterized by grace and compassion, and he’s capable of being flexible about his intentions in interaction with nations over which he is sovereign. The story portrays Yahweh’s manifold involvement with nature (the storm, the fish, the animals, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. The theodicy question presupposed by Jonah is “Are God’s compassionate actions just?” Jonah’s problem is that Yahweh doesn’t fulfill his declarations of judgment on the great oppressor (Assyria, Babylon, Persia). The people of God have to hold onto the reality of both God’s judgment and God’s compassion, and both God’s sovereignty and God’s flexibility.

The story is about the kind of person a prophet can be. Prophets can be resistant to their vocation yet also willing to do what God says; they can be quite conflicted people; they can be simultaneously knowledgeable and slow on the uptake. Prophets need not to take themselves too seriously, and people in general need not to take them too seriously.


Chet Baker and the Old Jazz Guys

Published / by kathleen

There’s a new movie about Chet Baker which is on our Netflix list, but somehow I also put there the old documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost. So we watched it thinking it would be the new movie with Ethan Hawke as Chet and found it was the old movie with Chet as Chet (apparently the new movie is a movie about the making of that old movie…).

Chet Baker

It started with scenes in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1950s and reminiscences about those clubs from the era of the West Coast Sound, where Chet played in little store front establishments with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, before he became the victim of his drug habit, and aged and waned before our eyes.

Old jazz guys in Los Angeles bemoan the fact that the jazz and club scene isn’t what it once was, and when they do that, I roll my eyes, but the documentary enabled me to see what they mean. They complain regularly about the places that have closed down, and I can make a list from the time I’ve been here. The third night after we moved to Pasadena, we went to the Pasadena Baked Potato (yes, that’s what they serve) and I noted there weren’t many people there; the next day it closed. We used to go to the Hollywood Baked Potato; it closed. We went to Charlie O’s, and one evening found it was closing that very night (the singer for the evening was pretty bewildered, too). The Pasadena Jazz Institute lost the plot and closed down. The Vic in Santa Monica just closed. While sometimes the places lose clientele, as often as not it’s because the owner gets bored.

I am as struck by the new places that open. On Monday we were at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo (don’t ask me why it’s there), in a street called after Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese American astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Vocalist Jessica Vautor was celebrating her birthday and her CD with the most original and creative arrangements of standards by Vardan Ovsepian on piano and extraordinary jazz cello playing by Artyom Manukyan (there were non-Armenians in the band as well). That was only Monday. Tuesday there was the New Breed Brass Band from New Orleans doing a free outdoor concert, and on Thursday Sara Gazarek and the New West Guitar Group doing another free outdoor concert, and on Friday Asian American Connie Han’s lively piano trio at Red White and Bluezz. Don’t listen too much to the old jazz guys.

Jessica Vautor

On Translating the Old Testament

Published / by kathleen

I’ve just finished translating the Old Testament. “Excuse me?” you ask. Well, about eight years ago Philip Law (then of Westminster John Knox) invited me to write a series of commentaries called “The Old Testament for Everyone.” When I was nearly done (the last ones will come out this year) he asked if we could bring together the translation elements in each volume and produce the complete translation on its own. It would also mean my translating the remaining twenty per cent that wasn’t included in the commentaries.

It didn’t seem a big task, but it took much longer than I thought. The bits I had omitted were often the difficult bits. But also I hadn’t needed to worry about consistency when I was working book by book. When the translation was in one volume, there needed to be consistency. So I’ve spent several hours almost every day over the past year or so just working through the translation of the Old Testament again with nothing much on my desk but the Hebrew text and a dictionary.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made we wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them.
(Until it’s published next year, the translation is on my website, under the tabs for different parts of the Old Testament. There’s also a paper about translation which includes some reflections, under the “Interpretation” tab.)



Who Are the Poor in Spirit?

Published / by kathleen

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of heaven” (Matt 5:3).

Who are the poor in spirit to whom the reign of heaven belongs?

Here as elsewhere Jesus is picking up the language of Isaiah 61. There, they are the people to whom Isaiah 61 declared good news of freedom, vindication, and restoration. Isaiah 61 was an important passage for Jesus; he quotes in his sermon at Nazareth. Luke includes that story at an equivalent place in his Gospel to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus echoes it in describing his ministry to John the Baptizer (Matt 11:2-6). The poor in spirit are people who are neglected, ignored, put down, insignificant, and powerless. They will no doubt thus be materially needy, but also oppressed and depressed.

It’s impossible for someone like me or for most readers of this blog to be poor in spirit. That’s not something to feel guilty about, though. Arguably it’s something to thank God for. But it’s also something to be wary of. The poor in spirit are the people to whom the reign of heaven naturally belongs. People like us are the rich for whom it’s hard to enter to the reign of heaven (Matt 19:23-24). Fortunately it’s not impossible to get in (Matt 19:25-26).

We can redefine “poor in spirit” so it applies to us. But do we then take the description away from the people to whom it belongs? That might well mean we can’t get in.