Study of the Prophets: #14 Jonah (Cont.)
In the beginning verses in Chapter 1:1-2, we read that G-d specifically assigns Jonah to go to Nineveh. Why this city specifically? There are many explanations offered and I will discuss a few options.
According to the rabbinic literature, the Ninevites had only recently become wicked and they did not worship idols. Their repentance did not involve smashing altars or destroying idols. It seems their wickedness was confined to moral and social sins. Therefore, G-d had compassion and gave them a chance to repent (Ibn Ezra).
According to Radak, the sin of the Nenevites lay in their robbery and oppression, paralleling the evil of the Flood generation and the Sodomites who were destroyed because of it (Gen. 6:11, 13; 18:20). This type of behavior is detrimental to the social order. Therefore, for G-d to preserve His Creation, He intervened.
Another explanation is that G-d intended Assyria to be the rod of His anger (Is. 10:5), to punish Israel by destroying the Northern Kingdom would not have permitted the thieving, violent Assyrians to be used by G-d to punish Israel. Therefore, G-d dispatched Jonah to cause Nineveh to repent and become worthy of its future mission. I submit there is some truth to all of the above explanations and some truths that we may not be privileged to know just now. However, I want to focus on the major points or lessons to be learned from this writing rather than attempting to figure out why Nineveh was singled out for Jonah’s prophecy:
As we discussed in the last class, the concept of the Book of Jonah is to:
1. demonstrate that G-d means what He says,
2. He cares about Jew and Gentile,
3. that He is all powerful and can do anything He wants at any time with His creation,
4. and that we must get over our egos and look at the bigger picture; a concern for people’s repentance and ultimate salvation whether or not our egos are hurt along the way.
Verses 4-5: HaShem is used to reflect His mercy rather than “Elohim” which reflects attribute of strict justice. Note each of the sailors cried out “each to his god.” According to Rashi, the crew represented 70 the Seventy Nations, although we have no proof of this statement. Regardless, none of the gods of these men answered their call. Perceiving the ineffectiveness of their prayers, the sailors threw their wares into the sea. We are not told what these wares were but it was not germane to the story, lest G-d include it in the writing. Jonah did not pray. This is an interesting point. Instead, he went below. Laid down, and even went to sleep. Perhaps G-d allowed him to fall asleep so He could communicate further with him in this state of mind.
Verses 6-8: All too soon, the ship’s master calls on him to ask his G-d to intervene for everyone. The sailors cast lots to try and determine who was at fault, and Jonah was singled out. The sailors start a barrage of questions to try and figure out why this calamity had befallen them and what Jonah was all about. He reveals himself in verse 9 as a Hebrew. This term was used for Jews when contrasted to non-Jews. Joseph identifies himself in this way also (Gen. 40:15). And G-d used the designation G-d of the Hebrews (ivrim) in His command to Moshe to visit Pharaoh (Ex. 3:18) After the Exile of the Ten Tribes, when the remaining tribe of Yehudah was the principle branch of the nation, Yehudi for Jew came into general use. As Jonah described G-d as “the G-d of the Heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land,” we might ask ourselves if Jonah was finally acknowledging that he could not run and hide from G-d. Perhaps this was an “aha” moment for Jonah.
The sailors were frightened because Jonah had told them that he was fleeing from G-d. They naturally ask him what must be done to correct what he had done.
Verse 12: Jonah acknowledges his sin, perhaps for the second or third time in his mind and asks that the men throw him over the side. Interestingly, the men hesitate and try to row the ship to shore until it was clear that things were getting worse. Only now do the men turn to the G-d of Israel, putting two and two together; realizing Jonah’s G-d was not happy and that He controls the dry land and the sea. They ask HaShem to not hold them accountable for Jonah’s sin and not to hold them responsible for what they were about to do, throw him over the side, at which time the sea immediately calmed. The men still felt a great fear of HaShem and the Torah states in verse 16 “ Then the men felt a great fear of HaShem; they slaughtered a sacrifice to HaShem and took vows.” Could this have taken place on a ship? Ibn Ezra postulates that they vowed to offer a sacrifice (Radak) after they would return to the shore. But, as it was a large decked vessel and bound on a long voyage, they had live creatures on board, which they could offer in sacrifice. But this was not enough for their thankfulness; “they vowed vows.” They promised that they would do thereafter what they could not do then; “that they would never depart from Him whom they had begun to worship.” This was true love, not to be content with aught which they could do, but to stretch forward in thought to an abiding and enlarged obedience, as G-d should enable them. And so they were probably among the people of G-d, firstfruits from among the pagan, won to G-d Who overrules all things, through the disobedience and repentance of His prophet, Jonah. These men could even have been witnesses among the pagan, and their account of their own wonderful deliverance prepared the way for Jonah‘s mission to Nineveh. We can only speculate, but these speculations are based on a credible backdrop and the knowledge that G-d uses His creatures in many ways through some very unusual circumstances.
Chapter 2:1 “HaShem designated a large fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah remained in the fished innards for three days and three nights.” The scripture says “designated a large fish.” This would imply that the fish had already been created and that a special fish creation was not necessary. For example, to designate a leader in a classroom implies there are already people from which a leader can be chosen. We discussed the possibility that a Great White shark could have been such a fish as it is found in the Mediterranean and has been photographed eating a six-foot shark whole. G-d could easily have calmed its natural aggressiveness for Jonah’s sake. Another less possible choice could be a Sperm Whale, rarely noted to be in the Mediterranean. Again, the type of fish is not germane to the lesson G-d is trying to convey to the reader, so we can sit and ponder this subject all day or consider the lessons G-d intended for us to learn. Let’s move on!
While Jonah was in the “think tank”, he prayed to HaShem from inside the fish, the prayer written in verses 3-10. How poetic is this prayer describing Jonah’s life as he recalls it during his “time-out.” Jonah expressed a confidence that although he sinned against G-d, he would be restored and eventually saved because of a repentant heart and love for his G-d.
Jonah 2:3-10 narrates a deed of deliverance in answer to prayer. He describes his distress and supplication, and the divine answer received. In fulfillment of a vow most likely made in his moment of distress, he praises the One who answered the prayer by recounting the deed of deliverance. The full resources of ancient Hebrew poetry are employed to depict the dramatic turn of events. Jonah 2:3-10 is a splendid example of ancient Hebrew verse.
As often, the long forms of the prefixed conjugation in v. 10 are performative. The repeated reference to the G-d’s “holy temple” along with the mention of a sacrificial offering about to be made suggest the psalm was designed for use in a cultic act in the context of a temple dedicated to G-d.
Since the psalm is not prayer but praise in answer to prayer with an account of the prayer and the reason for it included, it suits the context only approximately. Nevertheless, the highly figurative description of distress contained in the psalm fits the circumstances Jonah faced on both the literal and metaphorical levels. The experience of Jonah is a literalization of the metaphors of the psalm.
The piety which the psalm embodies and to which it alludes in vv. 3, 8 and 10 runs like a red thread through the book of Jonah (1:6, 10, 14, 16; 2:2-10; 3:5-9; 4:2-3, 8). The embedding of this psalm in its present context was an inspired choice.
Verse 11: After this heartfelt prayer of supplication and thanksgiving, HaShem in His mercy addressed the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land. Yes, vomited from the Hebrew tells us that this was probably part of Jonah’s suffering as well. It wasn’t a neat disembarking like soldiers leaving the back of a C-130 plane. This event is described in unflattering terms as though Jonah were a filthy object to be expelled from the fish’s insides. Being vomited out also implies a forceful exit , possibly being shot out from the fish in an explosive power-vault and tossed up on the shore.
This is a good place to end the lesson; on dry land. We will pick up at Chapter 3 next week.
Rabbi Tamah Davis
Study of the Prophets: #14 Jonah (Cont.)