As I would have known if I ever went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, one of the day’s readings is the Book of Jonah, and some congregations observe the custom of having someone (not the rabbi) do a commentary on Jonah as part of the afternoon service. This year, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel invited me to give that talk, despite my ignorance both of Hebrew and of the interpretive tradition surrounding the text, and a combination of obligation and vanity induced me to accept.
I don’t think I’d ever read the text before; if I had, it didn’t stick with me. I knew about running away from delivering a prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed, and of course about the fish, but that was about it. (Not counting the rather pointed commentary of R. Yeshuah, contrasting the repentance of the Ninevites with R. Yeshua’s own chilly reception in Jerusalem.)
The text turned out to be both mercifully brief and full of interesting puzzles. My (thoroughly amateur) commentary at the jump.
Update James Wimberley writes to say that I’m misreading a comic text as a serious one:
I think you are missing the point that Jonah is funny: a Jewish yarn about a man on the run from God. Against his will, he gets the job done in the end – he has to, like the Elephant’s Child. The sulk at the end is a brilliant satire on the professionally godly.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but James could well be right, and it makes sense of other portions of the text. The King’s command that not only the people but the animals must fast is hard to parse except as comic exaggeration. And the sudden ending of the story makes more literary sense as a punchline than as the conclusion of a serious tale.
As someone who firmly believes that most traditional readings of Plato consist primarily of missing the joke, I acknowledge that possibility as a risk of reading any text from a radically different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. If any Hebraists among the readership can confirm or deny that there are verbal marks of humor in the text, I’d be grateful.]
Second update Yes, there’s an untranslatable verbal joke in the text. A reader wrotes:
The best part of Jonah is a bit of Hebrew language legerdemain that the translations can’t pick up. The closest thing I can think of in English literature that works in sort of the same way is the prediction by the weird sisters in Macbeth that no man born of woman can kill Macbeth – only to have Macduff, born by C-section, do the killing. It sounds one way but actually has a different meaning. You see, in Hebrew, Jonah’s prophecy is “od arbaim yom v’ninveh nehpechet” – “another forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” “Nehpechet” literally means “flipped upside down” or “made into the opposite” (Purim works on the principle of “nahpoch“, too).
At first reading, it strikes the reader to mean the city will be reduced from prosperity to rubble. But that’s not the only possible reading of the word. So Jonah was wrong at the end of the book to be bitter about his prophecy being false – it was not falsified because it couldn’t be. If the Ninevites repented, then they would have been overturned from a sinning city to a righteous one. If they didn’t, then the city would have been physically overturned.
One quibble: of course as a logical — rather than theological — matter the prophecy could have been falsified, as most prophecies of doom are falsified: Nineveh could have kept on sinning and not been destroyed. From a tactical viewpoint Yonah’s mistake was setting a deadline.
Third update James adds another point I hadn’t appreciated:
The choice of Nineveh is another sign of satirical intention. The Assyrians had the justified reputation as the ultimate bad guys in a tough neighbourhood; if Sennacherib had captured Jerusalem, he wouldn’t have dragged the Jewish élite off to exile like the Babylonians, he’d have killed all the men by flaying etc. and raped and enslaved the women and children. You can more or less read “Nazis”. So the joke is a black, Schindler’s-list one; the reader knows that in practice Assyrians would not change their spots.
D’var Torah on Yonah
Yom Kippur 5768
Yonah (Jonah) is a strange prophet, and Sefer Yonah (the Book of Jonah) a strange book. The theme of repentance nominates it for being read on Yom Kippur, but it has less to say about repentance than it does about prophecy.
What makes a prophet? Four things: insight, foresight, compassion, and courage. Insight to see what underlies observable phenomena and understand what is happening. Insight gives, and is demonstrated by, foresight: the capacity to predict what will happen. Compassion: the prophet must care enough about what happens to want to intervene. Courage: the knowledge of what is to be feared that makes someone willing to speak truth to power, or to the multitude, where the truth is the unwelcome truth that the current course of action will lead to disaster and must be changed.
On this analysis, Yonah is a strange prophet: without insight, without foresight, without compassion, and without courage. Most of all, he is without energy and without initiative: throughout, he seems oddly passive. A modern diagnosis might be depression, or at least dysthymia.
By the same token, Sefer Yonah is a strange document, carrying the narrative economy characteristic of the Tanakh to such an extreme that we are left with more questions than answers.
Who is Yonah? We’re not told. The text makes no attempt to establish its own historicity, not even giving a date. The Second Book of Kings mentions Yonah the son of Amittai parenthetically as having prophesied the restoration of Israel’s borders that took place in the reign of the second King Jeroboam. Perhaps the contemporary reader or hearer of the story would have recognized the name of Yonah ben-Amittai, and known when he lived. But our text is silent.
While Second Kings calls him Yonah ben-Amittai ha-Navi, “Yonah son of Amittai, the prophet” and Sefer Yonah is counted among the prophetic books, The Book of Jonah itself never refers to Yonah as a “navi,” and aside from the name of his father tells us nothing about his life before (or after) his visit to Nineveh.
We learn about Yonah only from the descriptions of his actions in the text, and they are uniformly puzzling.
“The word of HaShem came to Yonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to Nineveh, the great city, And denounce it, for its wickedness has come up before Me’ ” (or perhaps we should translate that last phrase “Its wickedness is in My face”).
What sort of wickedness? We’re not told. The other readings for Yom Kippur, from Leviticus, Numbers, and Isaiah, suggest the range of possibilities, with Leviticus and Numbers focused on cultic loyalty, sexual impurity, and proper sacrifice, and Isaiah focused on injustice.
Why does Yonah run away? Perhaps he sees no reason to do any favors for Nineveh, the national enemy. Perhaps he fears ridicule: he doesn’t want to be the absurd hairy character in a New Yorker cartoon carrying a signboard saying “Repent! The end is nigh.” Perhaps his reluctance to carry out his commission reflects his general passivity; but then we would expect him to stay in place rather than running away. Or maybe Yonah is just contrary, like an adolescent: having been told to go one way, he goes the other way.
Or perhaps, although the Word of HaShem came to Yonah the son of Amittai, Yonah the son of Amittai didn’t recognize it as the Word of HaShem but thought it some crazy idea of his own. Maybe he said to himself, or his friend or his wife or his psychiatrist or his rebbe said to him, “Yonah, you’re hearing voices. This isn’t good. Are you overstressed? Maybe a nice cruise would help you relax and get a grip. Tarshish is nice this time of year.” What’s actually going on here? We’re not told.
Under whatever compulsion, Yonah sets off for Tarshish, variously interpreted as a seaport near Tyre or as Tartessus, on the Atlantic Coast of Iberia just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Neither is on the way to Nineveh from Jerusalem; Tartessus lies about as far as possible in the opposite direction. What does Yonah intend to do there? We’re not told, though he explains to the sailors that he is trying to escape HaShem.
When the storm arises, Yonah sleeps through it until the captain awakens him. Why? We’re not told. Perhaps he is simply indifferent to his own life. When the captain urges him to pray, we’re not told whether he prays or not. When the lots are cast and the lot falls on Yonah, he doesn’t try to weasel out of it; he says frankly that he is the cause of the problem, and that the only solution is to throw him overboard. This, then, is his first prophetic moment: he says the thing that is, whatever the cost to himself.
But Yonah also says that he fears HaShem, which seems to be a strange thing to say under the circumstances. Clearly when he went to Jaffa instead of Nineveh he feared something else more than he feared HaShem, or he would have been carrying out his commission rather than running away from it. Is his newfound fear of HaShem the product of the storm? Or is he merely identifying himself as someone who, as a Hebrew, ought to fear HaShem? We’re not told.
Astoundingly, the sailors are reluctant rather than eager to get rid of their “Jonah,” their source of bad luck. They don’t make kaporot with him, spinning him over their heads chanting “This is my atonement, this is my compensation, this is my redemption.” They fear blood guilt more than they fear the storm, and try vainly to row to land. What gives the sailors their courage and their compassion? We’re not told.
In any case, they do act out of courage and compassion. In the book that bears his name, only Yonah is named, and only Yonah acts badly: the four other groups of characters — the captain, the sailors, the people of Nineveh, and their king — all seem to be eager to do the right thing.
Yonah is cast overboard, and swallowed by a fish. From inside the belly of the beast Yonah offers, not a prayer to be saved, or a declaration of repentance, but a hymn of thanksgiving, as if his salvation were already an accomplished fact. Is he gaining insight and foresight? We’re not told.
He is told again to go to Nineveh, and this time he complies. He makes what is undoubtedly the most efficient prophecy on record, if we measure prophetic efficiency in units of behavior change effected per word spoken. Yonah’s prophecy, in Hebrew, is only five words long: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” (“And Nineveh” and “will be destroyed” require only one Hebrew word each.)
In the face of this unadorned warning, the Ninevites, like the sailors, behave astonishingly well. They respond at once, proclaiming a fast. Why? How? We’re not told. But the text makes it clear that the action comes up from the people and not down from their ruler. The King of Nineveh acts only after “the word reaches him” of what the people have already done.
Again, we’re not told what sort of evil will otherwise bring down destruction on the city. The royal proclamation simply tells the people to turn aside from their “wicked ways” and the hechamas — variously translated “violence” or “unjust gain” — that is “in their hands.”
Perhaps it is precisely the spare and unspecific nature of the prophecy that gives it such power. Say to someone, anyone, you, me: “You know, you really ought to cut that out” and he will know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.
In any case, the people turn away (shavu) (a word which shares its root with t’shuvah, “penitence”) from their “evil course” and God backs off: Elohim va-yinachem, which could be translated either “God repented of” (His intention to destroy the city) or “God takes pity on” (the city He intended to destroy). The root is nachem: “mercy.” Elohim turns aside from His intention to destroy Nineveh, that great city.
Yonah is angry that Nineveh is not destroyed. Why? We’re not told. Presumably, because he feels that he has been made to look like a fool: he predicted disaster, and no disaster happened. Instead of rejoicing that his prophecy averted destruction, thus vindicating his insight, Yonah mourns that destruction was averted, thus casting doubt on his foresight.
This is a moral failing not unknown among those of us who take on the contemporary versions of the prophetic role: editorialists and columnists and bloggers, televangelists and political activists and documentary film-makers and social scientists and policy analysts. Having made a prediction of catastrophe, we’re at least a little dismayed if no catastrophe arrives. That, truly, is an inconvenient truth about those of us who claim in prophetic accents to speak truth to power.
The good news is that Nineveh repents. The bad news is that Yonah apparently does not. His prophecy falsified, he says that it would be better for him to die than to live. And he sets up a “booth” outside of town, seemingly hoping to see the destruction of Nineveh, that great city.
HaShem, by first giving Yonah a gourd tree for shade, which he prizes, and then sending a worm to destroy the gourd tree, causing Yonah to mourn, tries to convince him of how much greater a disaster would be the destruction of Nineveh, that great city, with its innocent people and innocent beasts. But if Yonah gets the message, we’re not told. In our last glimpse of the prophet, he’s still sulking.