Yvonne Sherwood’s A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives represents the very best of interdisciplinary biblical scholarship. One might be hesitant to call her work mere “biblical studies” at all: Contrary to Roland Barthes, whose claim that “Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new subject that belongs to no one” serves as the book’s opening invocation, Sherwood seeks to show how disciplines may be used against each other—like iron sharpening iron—to “destabilize and expose the myopia of one another” (p.5). Biblical studies challenges popular conceptions of “The Bible” as a singular, univocal entity, while Jewish studies and cultural studies each offer challenges to Western mainstream biblical studies for its inherent Christian bias and overly simplistic interpretive methods that attempt to smooth out the rough edges of a given text’s history of reception. Using the text of the biblical prophet Jonah as an exemplar, Sherwood drops a handful of chum into the interdisciplinary exotic fish tank and watches as these disciplines writhe and flail against one another, battling it out for a morsel of food </OverwroughtMetaphor>.
Sherwood’s thesis, as it pertains to Jonah, is that “biblical texts are literally sustained by interpretation, and the volume, ubiquity, and tenacity of interpretation make it impossible to dream that we can take the text back, through some kind of seductive academic striptease, to a pure and naked original state” (p.2). Such a claim seems fairly obvious; after all, any living text relies on continuous interpretation as its very life support; lacking the ventilator necessary to breathe fresh air and meaning into its lungs, the text dies on the table and is relegated to the graveyard of other dead “historical” texts. In chapter 1, Sherwood parades before the reader a number of “Mainstream” interpretations of Jonah (which she invariably equates with Anglo-European Christian colonialism), tracing its history among Christian interpreters from the very earliest disagreement regarding the meaning of Jesus’s “sign of Jonah” (cf. Matt. 12:38-40 and Luke 11:29-30). From there, the hapless yet indignant Jonah is imagined by the early Church Fathers as a proto-Christ figure whose three days in the belly of the fish prefigure Christ’s three days in the tomb. Medieval interpreters morph the book into an anti-Jewish tale about Christian supersessionism, and Reformation figures like John Calvin and John Hooper locate Jonah’s body as the site of divine physical punishment, drowning, beating, and burning him into submission as the ideal “docile disciple”.
In chapter 2, Sherwood explores Jonah’s reception history among Jewish communities, in addition to other less recognized interpretations representative of the “ex-centric, the marginalized, the ones that got away” (p.91). Such a pursuit is admirable, as it seeks to acknowledge and affirm those readings judged implicitly by mainstream scholarship to be irrelevant. These various readings of Jonah poke and prod the text, questioning (and approving) Jonah’s motives in fleeing to Tarshish, traveling along with him as he suffers one indignity after another at the hands of a calculating anthropomorphic deity. Following the midrashic tradition, they tease out minute details into entirely new narratives. In one reading, Jonah is swallowed by two fish—a male and a female, respectively—due to a gender-flipping error in the Hebrew text. In Wolf Mankowitz’s one-act play, It Should Happen to a Dog, Jonah becomes a sort of biblical Rodney Dangerfield—“No respect, I tell ya!”—who recognizes the ludicrousness of his situation and conveys that absurdity by way of pithy one-liners. And Norma Rosen’s “Justice for Jonah, or a Bible Bartleby,” a midrash from a post-Shoah worldview, challenges the very core of the text’s message of a merciful God, inviting Jonah effectively to sit shiva with those still living in the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty.
Sherwood’s methodology, bouncing around from history to theology to the visual and performing arts, is enthralling. At the same time, however, she dismisses altogether readings of the text that exhibit what she calls a “Sunday school morality” (pp.95-96). It is clear from A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives that Sherwood much prefers the so-called “Backwaters” of exotic interpretation to the (mostly Christian) “Mainstream”. And yet, strangely, in her rush to castigate overly simplistic moralizing readings, she overlooks the ending of one of her favorite midrashim—the Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer—Jonah’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea adventure in which the gaping interior of the fish becomes a synagogue lit by pearl-light. After encountering and chasing away the Leviathan by showing him the marks of his circumcision (i.e. “the sign of the covenant”) and exploring the primordial waters in his piscine submarine, the midrash ends with a sweetly simplistic reflection on the conversion of the pagan sailors to the worship of YHWH: “And because of them, we pray for the welfare of the righteous converts” (Rachel Adelman, “The Poetics of Time and Space,” p.380). If one wishes to take seriously the reception history of a given biblical text, one must also take these moralistic readings into account, no matter how boring or repulsive we find the “Mainstream” to be.