THE HONEYMOON IS OVER: Jonah’s Argument with God by T. A. Perry

Perry begins this book with a tantalizing quote from Henri Meschonnic:  “Jonah has swallowed up his critics like the fish swallowed up Jonah.”  Indeed, there are few Old Testament books that attract as much interest or attention as the Book of Jonah.

Most of that interest or attention Perry (Yale U.) considers misdirected, and he sets off to offer new perspectives.  Part of what drives his unique approach is his literary rather than theological background.  Along with, therefore, copious bibliography and footnote references to exegetical (including many Talmudic) commentators come fresh appeal to modern literary figures from Molière to Sartre to Lévinas.  Hence, Perry’s much broader approach, namely that the “Book of Job is ‘about’ God and Jonah, and, beyond that, about the multiple or complex relationships between humans and the divine.” (201)

Perry divides his study into three parts.  The first is a quick run through the Book of Jonah, dividing the book into an ocean section (chh. 1-2) and a dry land section (chh. 3-4).   The first section is dominated by ramifications of Job’s “suicidal state of mind,” reflected in the first of the two prayers Perry unravels from Jonah 2—the second is a prayer of thanksgiving.  (Perry finds duality also in the matter of the fish, actually one male fish and one pregnant female fish.)  The dry land section is driven by the threatened relationship between God and His messenger, with Nineveh and the castor plant as the catalysts.  Perry heightens the matter of relationship by suggesting an erotic reading of the Book of Jonah—hence the title.

After that quick run-through, Perry devotes the largest section of his book to four different readings of the Book of Jonah, actually four books, namely a book of love, a book of prayer, a book of repentance (God’s, Nineveh’s, and Jonah’s), and a book of prophecy.  Perry concludes his book with miscellaneous reflections (pastoral, fantastical) and a few excurses on special topics.

There is no questioning Perry’s acquaintance with both primary and secondary sources.  At times, that serves him well, and provides some fresh and incisive observations about the Book of Jonah, e.g. “The book of Jonah narrates God’s repentance, not Jonah’s.” (125).  Again, with rather forceful imagery, Perry raises the question whether Job’s complaint against God isn’t due to “God’s promiscuity” of love, i.e. love directed to those undeserving at potential risk of diluting God’s love to His own—another expression of the “erotic” view of the book.

At other times, however, the interpretations are idiosyncratic in the extreme:  two fish (one pregnant), erotic reading, Jonah’s suicidal drive, Jonah’s fleeing “because God first told him to go away” (82), Jonah building his booth “as a bold lover’s gesture” or as a “Temple of Meeting” (98), what happens to Nineveh if it reneges on its repentance.  Similarly, Perry follows his right-on observation about the movement of the book (“At one extreme is the Temple, where Jonah wants to be; at the other is Nineveh, where God wants Jonah to be.”) with what strikes this reviewer as a mis-direction (“The book of Jonah can thus be described as dialogic in its attempt to negotiate a compromise between these diametrically opposing positions.” 202).  These innovations may likely be a result of Perry’s reading Jonah less from a faith/community perspective and more from a predominantly literary perspective, exercising the “defiant right of the individual reader to bring all texts into judgment.” (209)

As masterfully written as the Book of Jonah is, and therefore as attracted as this reviewer was to Perry’s book, it was a let-down.  The occasional gem is hidden in a dense webbing of speculative probing.  Not to be overlooked, however, is the artistic presentation of Jonah on the cover, done by Dr. He Qi, noted Christian artist from China.

Henry Rowold

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