Zondervan have generously sent me a review copy of Kevin J. Youngblood’s commentary, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, which is part of the Hearing the Message of Scripture series (edited by Dan Block).
The format of this series is excellent. Each chapter contains six sections:
- a brief statement of the main idea of the passage;
- a short discussion of literary context;
- a translation and visual outline of the relevant passage;
- a more detailed discussion of the structure and literary form of the passage;
- a sustained explanation of the text; and
- concluding observations about the canonical and practical significance of the text, which elucidate themes and seek to bridge forward to a contemporary setting.
Youngblood’s contribution to the series is on the book of Jonah. It begins with a introduction that seeks to place Jonah within its canonical and historical context. In this regard, there are some useful comments about Jonah as part of the Book of the Twelve—an important observation given the increasing importance of understanding the ‘minor prophets’ as a single collection. I found the historical context both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand it provided some good insights about the difficulties with reading Jonah as a straight history, suggesting it would be best viewed as a non-historical genre. However, this was then subverted by characterising the difficulties as deliberate authorial ambiguity. The two claims didn’t quite seem congruent to me. I feel a chance to bring freshness to an evangelical reading of Jonah has been missed.
Nonetheless, despite this qualm, what follows is still a genuinely good commentary on Jonah. Youngblood reads the text closely with attention to Hebrew grammar, syntax, and semantics. This is all discussed in a non-threatening way that makes it largely accessible to the non-specialist (though knowledge of Hebrew will always make this easier). He makes some excellent structural observations, giving an excellent account of the text’s form. And he perceives good thematic development, picking up trajectories from elsewhere in the canon. This leads him to make modest but valid contemporary inferences from reading Jonah as Christian scripture. The one frustration I had pertained to the historical discussions. These were excellent, and yet seemed to continue the incongruence picked up in the introduction between historical difficulty and its implication for genre, and the claim of deliberate authorial ambiguity.
A few notable quotables:
God’s dealings with humanity should never be reduced to simplistic retributive formulas. The author emphasizes this with respect to God’s threatened judgement. He states God “relented concerning the disaster that he threatened.” The last phrase in that sentence (ʾăšer-dibber) stresses God’s freedom with respect to the prophetic word. God’s pronouncements through his prophets do not obligate him to courses of action from which he cannot turn. [p.141]
This is an important observation that helps balance an understanding of the Deuteronomic test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:21–22.
21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. [NIV11]
Youngblood helpfully shows that divine faithfulness must be held together with divine freedom in the understanding of prophecy. Thus, Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is not a one-size-fits-all test (otherwise Jonah would be classified a false prophet!). It is, rather, a handy rule of thumb. Youngblood continues:
The unit loss with a restatement of God’s relenting from his wrath: “and he did not do it” (wĕlōʾ ʿāśâ). The narrative expresses God’s clemency both positively and negatively, thus conforming to the wording of the royal decree (“God may change his mind, and relent [wĕniḥam] … so that we will not perish” [wĕlōʾ nōʾbēd]). Normally, negative clauses in Hebrew narrative function as background, scene-setting devices and are relegated to the lowest rank of significance. In certain contexts, however, the fact that an event did not materialize is so critical to the plot that the negative clause receives prominence. Such is the case with 3:10e, which functions as a second rank clause, directly supporting the preceding narrative verb (wayyināḥem). [p.141]
Here is a good use of syntactical observation for rhetorical significance. This eventually leads Youngblood to reflect on the significance of God seemingly changing his mind:
Special circumstances always apply in contexts where the Bible affirms that God does not repent. most of these cases are related to covenantal obligations into which God voluntarily entered. In such cases, God has chosen to limit his options and his commitment is irrevocable. Yet, one must be careful not to turn one of these affirmations into a general principle that governs the other, or to dismiss one as merely accommodative language that metaphorically attributes human qualities to God while insisting that the other is literally true… Prophecy, generally speaking, is conditional. Unilateral covenants (i.e., covenants in which God unconditionally guarantees promises solely on the basis of his character), however, such as the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants, are irrevocable. [p.143]
This is a safe explanation of the concept of God changing his mind. I’m not sure it would fully explain certain instances of this theme in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., contrast 1 Sam 15.11 with v.29 later in the same chapter), but it covers a significant amount.
Here’s a short clip from Kevin Youngblood himself talking about the commentary.
In conclusion, Youngblood’s commentary on Jonah is a commendable addition to a Christian library, particular for someone who wants to understand the text of Jonah and perhaps preach through the book.