Saturday, December 19, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (13)

My cat starts talking incessantly about ten minutes before breakfast, which is probably about how long it takes me to pry the pillow out of my ears and give in to her pestering. My dog doesn’t bark much, but he too will let you know if dinner is taking an unreasonable time to hit the bowl.

Hungry, stressed-out cattle also make noises. They do not suffer in silence. Underfed lambs bleat and cry. So do goats when they are hungry or thirsty, and their bleating gets louder and more obnoxious over time. (They will also butt you when they are hungry, but that only makes a sound if they happen to connect when you’re not expecting it.)

A Racket Ascending to Heaven

Wild animals are different. They are generally quiet when hungry. An unnecessary howl might frighten away the prey. But domestic animals are used to a routine. If they are not fed, they have no options. They will make their discontent known and keep making it known until they get a response from somebody. Penned up and stressed by proximity, the noise will only get worse.

So then, suppose you are the king of an ancient city, and you are absolutely convinced that a foreign god is about to wipe your home from the face of the earth. You want to get God’s attention and signal your humble repentance and willingness to do anything he says. In short, you want to make a big scene accompanied by a racket that will ascend to heaven.

What’s the easiest way to do that? Well, you can stop feeding your livestock. If they number in the tens of thousands, that ought to do the trick in short order. Nobody will be able to miss the sound of thousands upon thousands of bitterly complaining animals.

Jonah 3:6-9 — Hue and Cry
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’ ”
The writer of Jonah has previously noted that there was a groundswell of chastened and obedient response among the citizens of Nineveh to Jonah’s warning of imminent judgment. He says they believed God, called for a fast and put on sackcloth, and that this was characteristic across the board, whether those who heard the message were rich or poor.

Reaching the King

The word translated “reached” or “came to” in verse 6 is in a Hebrew tense called the sequential imperfect, which in this case means it may be translated either “reached” or “had reached”. It is possible the writer of Jonah is stopping to explain the cause of the fast-spreading spirit of repentance moving through Nineveh by pointing out after the fact that the king had decreed it, and people were acting in response to his decree. But the verb tense on its own is inconclusive about that. What seems most likely is that as Jonah traveled through the city preaching, men and women responded individually by repenting, fasting and humbling themselves until the word of this movement eventually came to the king, who issued his decree, which had the effect of confirming and further spreading what was already going on. The grassroots movement among the people thus became official.

This is not always how things go between rulers and those they rule. Some leaders are trendsetters; others put a finger in the wind and go with the zeitgeist. The king of Nineveh might have been a proud man like Rehoboam of Israel, refusing to listen to the word of God through Jonah and ignoring the mood among his people. Thankfully for Nineveh, he was not.

On the Wearing of Sackcloth

Egyptologist A.K. Eyma has done some interesting work on the subject of Egyptian loan-words in English. (A loan-word is a transliteration, or a word that moves from one alphabet to another while retaining some semblance of its original pronunciation.) English words like “barge”, “sash” and “endive” originated in Egypt, says Eyma, and were transliterated first into some other language (often Greek, later Latin), then eventually transliterated for a second or third time into English as our language developed.

One of the alleged Egyptian loan-words Eyma lists as debatable is “sack”, which other linguists say derives from the Egyptian saqqa. Eyma says not so; the true origin of “sack” is actually Hebrew, not Egyptian. Now, considering Jacob’s family sojourned in Egypt for close to 400 years, it should not be a surprise to find that a few Hebrew words had made their way into the ancient Egyptian vernacular, and indeed this appears to be the case. Eyma says saqqa is a transliteration of the Hebrew saq, which is probably in turn a transliteration of the Akkadian sakku. Both these ancient words denote sackcloth, a course garment made from goat hair.

Why does this matter? Well, when you research the origin of the expression “sackcloth and ashes” online, you find next to nothing but biblical references. One can immediately see the problem: How is it that Assyrians are depicted in the book of Jonah as adopting what many writers refer to as a peculiarly Hebrew sign of mourning? Did Jonah tell the Ninevites this was the appropriate way to signal their repentance?

We cannot entirely rule out that possibility (though Jonah seems singularly unlikely to have helped the people of Nineveh any more than was strictly required). However, Eyma’s language study renders any search for further explanation unnecessary. The Akkadians controlled Nineveh prior to the Assyrian occupation of the city. If the Akkadians coined a word for sackcloth, it is evident the custom of wearing sacks to express an attitude of mourning (probably by cutting neck and arm holes in bags used for corn feed, as historians have suggested) was not a uniquely Hebrew custom, but considerably more widespread in the Ancient East.

In any case, the expression “sackcloth and ashes” predates the existence of Israel as a nation. The wearing of sackcloth as a public display of mourning occurs very early in our Bibles. Jacob mourned Joseph in sackcloth for many days. Job, who lived even earlier (and probably a fair bit closer to the city that would eventually become Nineveh as well) sewed sackcloth upon his skin in mourning and sat in the dust. The practice is found all through the Old Testament, from David to Daniel and beyond.

Absurd Comic Incongruity

When the king of Nineveh left his throne, stripped off his robe and dressed in sackcloth, then sat in a pile of ashes, he was humbling himself in a remarkable way, and setting an example for his people that could not be ignored. His instructions to the people included covering the herd animals of the Ninevites with sackcloth as well as the human beings, and imposing on the livestock the same dietary restrictions as the citizens of Nineveh were imposing on themselves. Bear in mind that unless God could be persuaded to “turn and relent from his fierce anger”, all those animals would shortly have been as dead as their owners. The king’s edict was brutal but quite logical.

The subject of intentional humor in the book of Jonah is probably worthy of a post of its own, so I will mention the writings of Mark Biddle, William Whedbee, Yvonne Sherwood and others who allege the book of Jonah is full of intentional humor only briefly for the time being. One example will suffice for now. In A Time to Laugh, Biddle writes:
“The image of cows fasting, clad in sackcloth, sitting on the ash heap, repenting, and praying to God is the very best definition of absurd comic incongruity.”
That pull quote can only be characterized as a cartoonish misrepresentation of the text.

Fasting vs. Starving

Fasting is defined as “the willful refrainment from eating”. It is certainly an activity that requires a measure of willpower, but if you have compelling reasons to do so, you can end a fast at a moment’s notice. An animal who has not been fed is not fasting, it is being starved. Nowhere in the book of Jonah do cows fast, repent or pray. The sackcloth and food and water deprivation in Jonah are imposed on the animals by their owners, following the royal edict. The animals are crying out in their hunger and misery.

Moreover, strange, silly, outlandish, or whatever else you may call them, the writer of Jonah gives us a record of the instructions of a pagan monarch in a desperate situation, not a description of what God either ordered or desired. There is nothing absurd, comic or incongruous about unhappy animals voicing their unhappiness, and even voicing it to God. It is not even a particularly unusual thought; a similar description of hungry animals, both wild and domesticated, is found in the first chapter of Joel:
“How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer ... Even the beasts of the field pant for [you, O Lord] because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.”
It is certainly couched in poetic language, but here we have animals doing exactly what the king of Nineveh was trying to produce in his city: a loud cry of distress to God.

The only people who could possibly view such a scene as intentionally humorous are people for whom hunger has never been a reality, people who do not read very carefully, and people who take the book of Jonah to be a work of sanctified fiction.

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