Friday, August 08, 2008

An Interview with Mark Futato, and the Entire ESVSB Notes on Jonah Online

Today Crossway has posted online the entire book of Jonah in the ESV Study Bible. Thus far a number of introductions and sample notes have been posted, but this allows you to see a whole book from start to finish. Perhaps of special interest will be the city plan of Nineveh, included on the final page.

More sample PDFs will be released over the next couple of months, helping you to "look inside" as much as possible.

James Grant, who blogs at In Light of the Gospel, has interviewed Dr. Futato about his work on Jonah. The interview is included both at James's blog and below.

* * *

Mark Futato is the Robert L. Maclellan Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orland, FL. Dr. Futato received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Semitic Languages from the Catholic University of America, and he is a minister in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America). Dr. Futato contributed to the ESV Study Bible by providing the study notes for Jonah.

How long have you been interested in studying the book of Jonah, and what led to your interest in this particular book?

I first read the book of Jonah in Hebrew in the summer of 1974. As a college student I had just finished my first year of elementary Hebrew and read the book of Jonah with Willem VanGemeren, my first Hebrew professor. That was the beginning of my fascination with the book. I started teaching Hebrew at the seminary level in the fall of 1988 and have read the book of Jonah with Hebrew students every year since.

We might be tempted to think that you do not get much out of Jonah since you have been teaching it so long. How would you respond to that type of idea? Do you still see new insights in Jonah?

I have often likened the book of Jonah to the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis. On one level the storyline is very simple, so that young children can enjoy the book and understand its message. On another level the book of Jonah is a highly sophisticated piece of literature that continues to yield new gems with each read. I continue to learn from the scholarly writings of colleagues in the field, and I also learn much from the fresh questions that students bring to the text each year.

What particular areas of research have you enjoyed concerning the book of Jonah?

For me the greatest fascination with the book of Jonah is how paying careful attention to the literary features of the book yields tremendous theological insight. For example, a proper understanding of the structure of the book invites the reader to compare and contrast Jonah's grateful prayer in 2:2-9 with Jonah's angry prayer in 4:1-4. Such a comparison and contrast shows Jonah’s grateful prayer to be rather self-centered and hypocritical. Similar examples could be multiplied.

You explain in the study notes that the theme of Jonah is the boundless compassion of the Lord. Why do you see that as the central theme?

The primary reason for understanding the main theme as the boundless compassion of the Lord is the end of the book (4:5-11). The overall structure of the book leads us to see that this final scene is the culmination of the book. There are seven sections in the book, with the first three being paralleled by the second three. The seventh section (4:5-11) stands apart from this parallel structure, signaling that it is the goal toward which the whole story is driving.

(click to enlarge)

The story ends with the Lord asking Jonah for permission to have compassion on the Ninevites. At the heart of the message here is that God's compassion is not just for "us" it is also for "them," whoever "them" may be.

How does that particular message speak to our current historical situation in the church?

It seems to me that "Jonah" is alive and well in the church. The spirit that focuses on "us" without much concern for "them" is not hard to find. We need only ask ourselves how grateful we are for God's grace to us and then honestly look at how begrudging we can be toward God extending his grace to "them." For example, what is our fundamental attitude toward Islamic terrorists? They are quite the analog for the Assyrians of Jonah's day. Is our fundamental attitude one that wishes for them God's just judgment or his boundless compassion? That is indeed an important message for us.

As we read the book of Jonah, what advice would you give us? What else do we need to keep our eyes on? What do we need to know?

I think one key is repetition of vocabulary and ideas. Most of us were taught to vary our vocabulary when writing lest we be boring. Ancient Hebrew authors were taught the opposite: repeat your vocabulary so that readers will get your point. Paying attention to repetitions in the book of Jonah invites us to compare and contrast various scenes, which often yields key insights into the message. Closely related to this is a sensitivity to irony. There is perhaps more irony in the book of Jonah than in any other book in the Bible. Getting the irony means getting the message.

I can see how that advice would be helpful for preaching. What else would you say that to someone who will preach through Jonah?

My primary advice would be to remember that this is a narrative and not a Pauline Epistle. The author embeds meaning in the text in a way that is quite different than the way meaning is embedded in one of Paul's letters. Paying attention to the literary techniques of the author is the key to understanding his message.

Thank you so much for your time Dr. Futato, and thank you for your contribution to the ESV Study Bible.

You are welcome. Thank you.