JONAH by Kevin J. Youngblood

Published on April 25, 2014 by Igor Mateski

Zondervan, 2014 | 192 pages

Reviewed by Jesse Scheumann

Youngblood has written an excellent commentary on Jonah, entitled Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy in Zondervan’s new Old Testament (OT) commentary series, Hearing the Message of Scripture (HMS). Since this volume is one of the first two installments (along with Obadiah: The Kingship Belongs to YHWH by Daniel Block) of the HMS series, it is fitting to introduce readers to the distinctives of the series.

Led by the editorial board of Daniel Block and six other established OT scholars, the HMS commentary series has a distinct and refreshing approach that is sure to stimulate new theological reflection in the academy and church alike. The primary goal of the series is “to hear the messages of Scripture as biblical authors intended them to be heard” (9–10). The editors recognize a weakness in most commentary series trying to proclaim the message “either through word-by-word and verse-by-verse analysis or synthetic theological reflections on the text without careful attention to the flow and argument of that text” (9). Authors in the HMS series seek to uncover this big-picture message of each OT book by employing advances in “rhetorical and literary strategies,” guided by the conviction that message is shaped by both literary structure and the meaning of individual words. It is important not only to understand what an author said but also how he said it.

The format of each commentary follows a break-down of each literary unit in six steps.

  1. The Main Idea of the Passage
  2. Literary Context
  3. Translation and Exegetical Outline
  4. Structure and Literary Form
  5. Explanation of the Text
  6. Canonical and Practical Significance

Because of this thorough-going, message-minded approach, something has to give in larger commentary books in the series. “Commentators will guide readers through ## 1–4 and 6 for each literary unit, but ‘Full Explanation of the Text’ (#5) will be selective, generally limited to twelve to fifteen literary units deemed most critical for hearing the message of the book.” What this means is that whereas Youngblood has 176 pages to explain every phrase in the four short chapters of Jonah, the commentator on Jeremiah will have to forgo explaining entire units of text.

As a current seminary student, I am excited for every volume of the HMS series to be released. The series promises to equip the exegete in asking, How does each word relate to the sentence to the paragraph to the book and to the other books in Scripture? For those convinced that God gave us a unified revelation — so that the sixty-six books are not so much disparate texts as they are sixty-six chapters in one Text — this big-picture approach to message is an exciting, and even necessary, task!

Every good commentary can only do so much. Youngblood’s focus is to write for a “general audience” and apply the latest advances in “text linguistics and rhetorical analysis to biblical interpretation” (13).

Youngblood applies two principles in interpreting canonical context. First, he interprets “the final or canonical form of the book of Jonah.” Second, he relates this message to the OT Prophets, then to the OT in general, and finally to the whole Bible (30). Within this concentric circles scheme, he holds no priority for Jonah’s place within the Twelve Minor Prophets (26–28) simply because Jonah falls into four different positions in four known arrangements of the Minor Prophets (MT, LXX, M & A of Isaiah, 4QXIIa). He notes that the book of Jonah asks two questions that all the prophets address: “(1) How do divine mercy and divine justice interact without canceling each other out? (2) How do God’s universal sovereignty and his particular covenant with Israel interact without canceling each other out?” (28–29).

Youngblood’s stated main contribution is to the literary context of Jonah. He sees six devices that form the book’s structure and message: parallelism, alternating scenes, verbal repetition, symbolic use of geography and climate, intertextuality, and textual information gaps (37–42). Joining certain discourse markers in Jonah to these devices (42–44), Youngblood presents a compelling structure of the book. Jonah is split into two halves: chs. 1–2, 3–4. Each half splits into thirds. For the first main section: A Stage Setting (1:1 –4a), B Pre-Peak Episode 1:4b–2:1b[HT=1:17b]), C Peak Episode (2:1c–11[1:17c–2:10]). For the second main section: A Stage Setting (3:1–3b), B Pre-Peak Episode (3:3c–10), and C Peak Episode (4:1–4). The section that does not fit in this parallelism is 4:5–11, which Youngblood calls “D Post-Peak Episode,” where “YHWH offers Jonah an object lesson in divine mercy and concludes with a rhetorical question that clarifies the book’s message” (38).

There are admirable aspects to this commentary. First, the structure of the commentary is clearly laid out. For all its complexity with six distinct sections for each literary unit, the Jonah commentary is likely representative for the series in being very orderly. It is easy to find the author’s thoughts on even a single word in Jonah. Second, Youngblood has clearly soaked in Jonah for a long time, and his curiosity and love for the book is infectious. Third, Youngblood has a thorough grasp of Hebrew and the message of Jonah through literary analysis. Fourth, the author has imbibed the writing style of Jonah and reflects Jonah’s literary and rhetorical intent with carefully crafted sentences. Consider the following:

  • “Whereas YHWH summoned Jonah ‘up,’ Jonah responds by going down” (58).
  • “The movement from the dry land to the sea and from the sea to the watery depths of Sheol serves to mark Jonah’s downward progression toward chaos and death” (65).
  • “Every encounter with Gentiles brings Jonah to a crisis point. These crises are followed by interactions with God . . . and a renewed invitation to embrace, rather than resist, God’s mercy” (149)
  • “Interestingly, everyone is relinquishing ‘evil’ except for Jonah” (152)
  • “Ironically, just as YHWH quenched his wrath, Jonah has kindled his. . . . The event that calmed God’s wrath is the same event that has provoked Jonah’s wrath” (152)
  • “Just as Jonah’s first flight from YHWH led him to the inhospitable, turbulent sea, his second flight leads him to the inhospitable, arid desert” (165).
  • “What Jonah wished on Nineveh, YHWH performs on Jonah—a withdrawal of his mercy” (173).

I am not well-qualified to give critiques, but here is a go at it. One weakness is that the Jonah commentary rarely overviews interpretive possibilities, the most glaring concerns the abrupt ending to the book. Concerning this puzzling ending, Youngblood remarks, “The reader is left with YHWH’s question, ‘Must I not pity Nineveh?’ (4:11a)” (174). While helpful, I wish Youngblood would have pressed into the rhetorical effect of this question upon Jonah’s readers, both ancient and modern. He could have overviewed the number of answers given by other commentators and argued for his own.

A second weakness is that the “main point” sections were often too wordy to be helpful. I wish the editors would make it mandatory for all commentators to elucidate the main point in a single sentence; anything more functions as a summary. Youngblood does state the main point of 3:3c–10 in a single sentence (128), and it is his best work. His main idea of 2:1c–11b, however, is more typical: “Jonah realizes that YHWH’s judgment is not preferable to the commission after all, and so he cries out to YHWH for deliverance. YHWH retrieves his prophet from the threshold of the netherworld, which inspires Jonah to praise YHWH’s mercy with a thanksgiving psalm” (92). Condensing this, Youngblood’s understanding of the main point becomes clearer: Jonah praises YHWH’s mercy for delivering him from the threshold of the netherworld.

A point of disagreement concerns Jonah’s canonical context. As stated above, Youngblood rejects prioritizing Jonah’s message within the Minor Prophets simply because Jonah appears in four different positions in four known canonical arrangements. On the other hand, I believe interpreters should relate Jonah’s message first to the Minor Prophets before comparing it to the OT Prophets in general. After all, the twelve short books always appear together no matter the canonical arrangement. Also, there is one unresolved question from Youngblood’s discussion: is there a canonical ordering that is earlier and more authoritative than the others?

I praise Youngblood’s work on this Jonah commentary. I highly recommend this commentary to scholars, pastors, and any layperson interested in the book. Youngblood captures a beautiful balance between researching at a high level for the academic guild and packaging it for someone with a college-level education. I pray that this Jonah commentary is a harbinger of the good things to come in the entire HMS series, and I eagerly anticipate the forthcoming volumes.

Jesse Scheumann is a ThM student at Bethlehem Seminary.


Buy the books

Jonah: God's Scandalous Mercy

Zondervan, 2014 | 192 pages

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