Structure and Meaning
Yonah - Chapter 2
Study of structure in Biblical writings has taken increasing prominence in
modern times in parallel with the shift from a focus on the meaning of
Scripture to one on its language, historical and archeological background
and milieu. One might say that the world has gone from trying to
understand and apply timeless lessons to attempting to particularize and
restrict them to a specific bygone time and place, so much better not to
have to be bothered by them. Structural investigation originated with the
schools of thought that wished to slice, dice and separate, that desired
to demonstrate that the Bible is a babble of conflicting and arguing
voices that, cannot hold us to anything.
Nevertheless, the renewed focus on structure has had some beneficial
results. We have learned to understand better how form and function
interplay and how compositional structure icommunicates the Author's
intent. These methods are now in wide use among all who study Hashem's
The second chapter of Yonah is especially suited to structural
investigation for it is all about contrasts and oppositions. Not all
oppositioning is structural; the language and expression also darts from
one extreme to another. The prophet switches between I and Thou, third
person and second person, depths and heights, exhilaration and despair. We
will delve more into these patterns as we go forward. In this first
lesson, let us look at the overall structure of the chapter.
First, a quick introduction and definition of terms. A chiastic pattern is
one that has the beginning mirroring the ending and the middle parts set
in opposition to one another. The ancient reader did not read as we do. We
read solely forward. The ancient reader read both forward and backward,
frequently returning to earlier passages and sentences to re-read them in
the light of the later ones. For example, verse 9: "They that care for
lying vanities their own mercy forsake." It follows the A B B' A'
pattern; 'vanities' contrast with 'mercy' while 'care' plays
off 'forsake'. The overall purpose of a chiastic arrangement is to return
our attention to the middle of the chiasm, wherein lies the key to
meaning. In this case, it is the contrast between vanity and mercy.
Another pattern present in this chapter is A B C A' B'. Unlike the A B C
B' A' pattern that draws our attention to the central C segment, the
ABCA'B' pattern is a model for progression and development. You see
something from one point of view and then see it again from a different
point of view. Certain key words emphasize the relationship between
sentences and The font avaiable does not allow me to highlight these
words. Please read carefully noting repetitions and parallelisms (A-A', B-
B') as you go along. Consider the following:
A. For Thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me; all Thy waves and Thy billows passed
B. And I said: 'I am cast out from before Thine eyes'; yet I will
look again toward Thy holy temple.
C. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the deep was
round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head.
A. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her
bars closed upon me for ever; yet hast Thou brought up my life from the
pit, O HaShem my G-d.
B. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered HaShem; and my
prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy temple.
The overall chiastic symmetry of the chapter is striking for the first
sentence "Jonah prayed unto HaShem his G-d out of the fish's belly"
corresponds to the last one "And HaShem spoke unto the fish, and it
vomited out Jonah upon the dry land". Thus in overall structure the first
sentence serves as prologue and the last as after-word. The second
sentence is the introduction: "And he said: I called out of mine
affliction unto HaShem, and He answered me; out of the belly of the nether-
world cried I, and Thou heardest my voice." The next to the last sentences
is a summary and it responds to the introduction: "They that regard lying
vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the
voice of thanksgiving; that which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is of
HaShem". This chiasm draws us to the middle sentences and indicated to us
that the meaning of the chapter is to be sought there.
The overall effect is to center our attention on the A B C A' B' sentences
and what they mean. This structural device moves us along a process of
development and growth as the A B transforms into A' B', similar but
crucially different. How exactly this is accomplished and to what purpose
must unfortunately wait until the next lesson.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.