The concept of intertextuality has made its way from the study of
literature to the field of Biblical interpretation and midrash studies.
Jewish interpreters have increasingly utilized it in recent years. We also
have at times invoked this method when comparing similar prophetic
passages. Before we contrast Yonah's formulation of Divine Mercy with
those of other prophets, it is appropriate that we discuss the legitimacy
and applicability of this method for those who uphold the traditional
understanding of Tanach as Divine Revelation.
Intertextuality as defined in literary criticism should not, in my
opinion, be applied to sacred texts. Once you get past the jargon what it
means in literary criticism is that all texts are, in main, unconsciously
in dialogue and conversation with earlier texts. In other words, whatever
a writer has ever read affects how he or she formulates the aims of his
writing, what expressions and devices he uses, and how he shapes his
materials into a coherent and meaningful narrative. This definition is
clearly unacceptable for a believing Jew, for prophecy derives of God and
not from the prophet; besides, it is from beginning to end a conscious and
supernaturally endowed endeavor.
Is it legitimate, however, to suppose that prophets may have had some
influence on how they phrased and parsed the message that was revealed to
them? Is it conceivable that they may have purposefully invoked previously
revealed prophecies that they read or heard in order to broaden or sharpen
the impact of their own message by incorporating allusions into their own
prophecies? Could G-d Himself have done so? If yes, intertextuality can be
admitted into the Sacred as a conscious prophetic technique, albeit in a
sharply limited and carefully monitored form. If not, it is a foreign
offshoot that feeds of polluted waters and we should leave it to those
outside the boundaries of traditional Jewish exegesis.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 89a writes: "R. Yitshak said: One formulation
comes to multiple prophets but no two prophets prophesize in the same
language. Obadia (1, 3) said: The evil of your heart lifted you. Yirmaih
said: It will frighten you, the evil of your heart will lift you (49,
16)." This goes back to the fact that prophets other than Moses received
their prophecy in the form of a vision accompanied by its interpretation;
this necessarily set narrow parameters of sentences and paragraphs but
presumably allowed them some latitude to choice of words and what specific
words and word order to use (See Maimonides, Laws of Yesodei Hatorah 7,6).
It seems that intertextuality, if properly defined and used, may indeed
turn out a legitimate technique.
Yonah said: "…for I have known that You are a compassionate and gracious
God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil". This choice
of Divine attributes is identical to that found in as in Joel 2:13-14 -
"For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness, and renouncing punishment. Who know but He may repent and leave
a blessing behind."
This contrasts with the prayer of Moses in Exodus 34,6-7 and Numbers 14,18
where both attributes of mercy and justice are listed together. Outside of
the Pentateuch, however, prayer appears to invoke solely attributes of
mercy (See Psalms 86,15; 103,8; 145,8; Nechamia 9,17). The sole exception
is Nachum 1,3 where attributes of Justice predominate but there it is in
the context of G-d of vengeance who is described as overturning the power
Yonah's allusion to Joel and Psalms is likely deliberate. Listing only the
attributes of Mercy farther emphasized the prophet's discomfort with Mercy
as the operating principle in the affairs of the world. How did Yonah know
when he says "I have known"? Both from his own life and the prophets
before him. His personal awareness is now backed up with a long standing
prophetic tradition and it is referenced to an established record of
revelation. In this fashion, Yonah's argument takes on the power and
strength, not only of his individual experience and sentiment, but the
combined authority of the entire prophetic community.