Modern man is many things, but more than anything else, modern man is privileged. Had previous generations caught a glimpse of our lives they would have been in awe, convinced that we live in utopia. So much of the drudgework that constituted the majority of daily life in antiquity, the menial labor that made subsistence possible, has been conquered by automation. The convenience and luxury of modern life, which we often take for granted, transcend the imagination of the great thinkers of the past and put the wildest dreams of the wealthy and powerful of yesteryear to shame.
And yet, with all of this technology, with all of the ease and comfort, modern man is not happy. Are ad agencies and large corporations solely to blame? Can we attribute depression, anxiety and dysfunctionality to the billions of dollars they spend each year to make us constantly aware that we do not yet own the newest, sleekest, smallest (or largest), most powerful model? Can our malaise be merely the product of envy, or is something else missing?
Parashat Ki Tavo to a great extent deals with happiness. The opening paragraphs command the farmer, who has worked hard all year, to bring his first fruits to Jerusalem and express his thanks to God for this bounty. The prayer of thanksgiving is woven together with a brief re-telling of our national history: We recall our national origins, the period of slavery, the years of wandering and homelessness. We recall a time and place when we were threatened, and our very survival was uncertain. This display of historical consciousness is designed to give context to our current success. Our hard work has paid off, but it was built on the experiences of the past; moreover, when contrasted with the hopelessness of the past, our current success is that much sweeter.
There is, however, another aspect to the rite of the first fruits: We are commanded to thank God for His gifts, thus recognizing a type of partnership with God. Our material success is not ours alone; it is not only our hard work and our national or historical consciousness that has allowed us to achieve. Just as we are not alone when our prospects seem bleak, so too we are not alone when we succeed, through the sweat of our brow, to build and innovate, sow and reap, invent and improve our lives.
Modern man, intoxicated with his own success, is prone to hubris. He sees himself as a self-made man and worships his ‘creator’ every time he glances in the mirror. But tragically, despite all of his achievements, modern man quite often feels very much alone. Although we have at our disposal almost inconceivable tools of communication, we have lost touch with our selves. We have forgotten how to speak honestly with ourselves, and how to speak to God. The barrage of communication and information all but drowns out the sound of our inner voice, and we fall out of touch; authentic prayer is dismissed as a quaint, abandoned tradition from the past.
Like Narcissus gazing into the water while perched on a rock, modern man no longer recalls where he came from, and his own self-absorption mesmerizes him. He is isolated, and because he has forgotten the past, he has no humility, no perspective, no context. At the same time, he jeopardizes his connection with the future: Only when we transmit historical consciousness to our children, and live beyond the narrow confines of the present, do we stand a chance of being appreciated by our children – rather than being rejected, in turn, as a relic from the past.
The Torah gives us a formula to combat narcissism, hubris and the existential loneliness they cause – a recipe for happiness: Keep an eye on the past. Know that you are part of something much greater than yourself – a nation that has arisen through trials and tribulations. Remember where we come from. Bring God into the celebration of your success; celebrate in front of God and thank God for your good fortune. Share this perspective with your spouse, and with your children. Be generous; share your happiness and the gifts God has given you with those who are less fortunate:
And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Almighty God has given you and your household; you and the Levi, and the stranger in your midst. (Dvarim 22:11)
The recipe for happiness combines all these things: Hard work to keep you honest; historical consciousness to provide context for your success; family and community to provide perspective. Healthy communication, generosity, and humility will be inevitable dividends.
analysis of the Book of Jonah.By: Kahn, Paul, Judaism, 00225762, Winter94, Vol. 43, Issue 1
THE BOOK OF JONAH IS UNIQUE IN
BOTH form and content. It is one of the smallest books of the Prophets, and it
conveys its message through the medium of a story. Rarely does it fail to
captivate its reader, while it the same time it poses a variety of striking
questions of theme and narrative. Indeed, to the thoughtful reader, the Book of
Jonah is one of the most enigmatic writings of the Prophets. Jonah is a
rebellious prophet. Why? In view of his rebelliousness, why does God continue
to call upon him after his attempt to flee, and then reason with him about His
forgiveness of a repentant population? The earlier, remarkable repentance of
the ship's sailors is matched by an even more startling repentance by the
people of Nineveh. Perhaps the most significant and perplexing matter, however,
is Jonah's taking exception to God's forgiving the population of Nineveh,
articulated in opposition to a central Jewish doctrine of Divine mercy.
I suggest that the seminal
problem for the prophet Jonah is the threat of exile of the people of Israel.
Specifically, Jonah's flight is in response to the specter of the potential
destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of Nineveh/Ashur.
The issue of exile raised immense theological issues for Jonah, involving the
appropriateness of justice and mercy in God's world. We will attempt to trace
the development of the sub-themes related to this formulation, thereby
examining the many facets of the book's main theme.
The present investigation will
attempt to demonstrate the value of a literary analysis of structure[ 1] in trying to solve the enigma
presented by the Book of Jonah. Literary analysis assumes that communication in
literature may take place through ideas as conveyed not only by words directly,
but also by the use of symbols, the attribution or withholding of motives, the
reprising of motifs and thematic key words, and subtle modification of
near-verbatim repetition of phrases. This methodology, it will be recognized,
is quite similar to accepted Rabbinic exegesis.[ 2] The Rabbinic method is
frequently generated by philosophical or historical considerations, and this is
especially so in the Rabbinic approach to Jonah, which is limited in its textual
base. The present literary approach is more anchored in the text. Moreover,
while Rabbinic exegesis may focus on a single phrase or symbol, the present
approach is more reliant on a pattern of meanings, all pointing to the same
interpretation. What is, therefore, essential is the pattern of symbols and
images that are evoked and, additionally, their interplay with context and
ideas more openly articulated.[ 3] Patterns of language as well as
images will, thereforc, be explored to clarify ideas that are being
A second aspect of literary
analysis is the technical "point of view"--that is, from whose
standpoint and in whose voice is the story being told. The book is structured
through the use of three main voices: the voice of God, that of Jonah, and that
of the Narrator. Each will be identified, often to clarify a literary pattern
being developed, or to note the emergence of svmbolic patterns.
Yet a third aspect of literary
analysis is required in interpreting Jonah: intertextuality. The present
analysis assumes that it was written for an audience that was fully conversant
with other Biblical texts[ 4] and with an ear finely attuned
to detecting similarities and differences in context and phraseology. More
specifically, in identifying and interpreting symbols and significance of
language, emphasis will be placed upon reference to the Five Books of Moses.
The Book of Jonah can be seen as
structured along various lines. It is divided into four logical chapters: the
first describes Jonah's flight; the second relates his being inside the great
fish and the resultant prayer; the third, his encounter with Nineveh and its
consequences; and the fourth chapter relates the dialogue between God and Jonah
after God's forgiveness of Nineveh. The Masoretic structure, however, suggests
a different organization, of two main cycles,[ 5] with the possible delineation
of an epilogue.[ 6] The first cycle includes
Jonah's flight, his being swallowed by the big fish and his prayer (Chap.
1:1-2: 10). This is followed by a pivotal single verse (2:11) reporting the
vomiting of Jonah upon dry land.[ 7] The second cycle (3:1 to the
end)[ 8] tells of Jonah's prophecy to
Nineveh and God's forgiveness, followed by the dialogue between God and Jonah.
Now the word of the Lord came
unto Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying: (1:1)[ 9]
The name Jonah ben Amittai is
significant, having been noted in 2 Kings (14:25-26), where there is a
description of Jonah's involvement with the northern Kingdom of Israel,
prophesying the King's restoring the border of Israel. To the knowledgeable
reader, an historical background to the Book of Jonah is thus established.
Jonah's name is quite fortuitous,
for, in addition to the historical reference, his Hebrew name, Yonah, would
have elicited a number of images.[ 10] First, the sounds of the word
itself have a distinct softness to them. More significantly, yonah, in Hebrew,
means dove. The main image of a (love for the Biblical mind is the dove of the
Flood of Noah, that signaled the end of the deluge and destruction, the
beginning of rebirth and peace (Genesis 8:8-12). But the image of the soft dove
stands in sharp contradistinction to the images elicited by the name "son
of Amittai." Amittai is a derivative of the word emet, meaning truth.
Truth is a stark image, verging upon uncompromising justice or din."
Indeed, the tension between Yonah and Amittal articulates a basic conflict in
the book, the conflict between love and justice.
An extension of the symbol of the
dove can be noted here. In the sacrificial order of the Temple, a dove could
substitute for a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). The ram/lamb is a popular symbol of
Israel, derived from the ram that was sacrificed in Isaac's stead. The dove,
therefore, represents Israel.[ 12] Thus, the name Yonah associates
love specifically with the people of Israel, while, at the same time, it
reminds us of the story of Noah and the destruction of the world, a manifestation
of God's justice. Jonah's name thereby introduces the tension of Israel versus
universal concern, of love versus justice, in the story to come.
"Arise, go to Nineveh, that
great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before
Me." But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the
Lord; and he went down to Jaffa, and found a ship going to Tarshish, from the
presence of the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind into the sea, and there
was a mighty storm in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken (1:2-4).
Quoting God's command, the second
verse uses a number of phrases which will be repeated later, thereby
establishing a semantic unity to the book. The formula "Nineveh, the great
city," is repeated numerous times, emphasizing the importance of the
metropolis and its universal character. But not only is Nineveh a
"great" city; the wind and the storm (1:4), God's creations and
punishing instruments, are equally "great." Nineveh and nature are both
great, both being creations of the Lord, reflective of His Power and justice,
and His Love. This is later reflected in the story of the gourd, created and
then destroyed, evoking a parallel to Nineveh and its masses. Additionally,
Jonah Is not told what to say. The reason for this ambiguity will be discussed
below, after further thematic development. In response to the command,
"Arise ... call," the narrator, perhaps ironically, notes that Jonah
does rise, but not to obey God; rather, "To flee unto Tarshish from the
presence of the Lord" (1:3).
And the sailors were afraid, and
cried every man unto his god; ... But Jonah went down into the innermost parts
of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep (1:5).
In response to fear, every man
prayed to his god. This suggests that the ship, containing its diverse group of
sailors, microcosmically represents humanity. This is enhanced by the image of
the ship upon the sea as reminiscent of the pre-creation spirit or wind of God
moving over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The image is one of chaos
about to be changed by creation. It is likewise reminiscent of Noah and his ark
upon the vast waters during the great flood. Again, the image is one of chaos
as a prelude to a demonstration of Divine power, control and order in the world.
The image of an entity above chaotic waters becomes a universal salvation
symbol.[ 13] Jonah's mission to Nineveh has
been associated with saving universal man from danger.
The story of the ship moves
quickly from introducing the motif of universal man to presaging Jonah's coming
encounter with Nineveh. While the frightened sailors cried every man to his
god, Jonah went down to the recesses of the ship. This heralds Jonah's later
dissociation from the prayers of Nineveh's population. Moreover, this is the
first instance of Jonah's proclivity for retreating into an enclosed space,
later in a fish, and eventually reprised in his retreating from Nineveh into a
The introduction of the ship's
captain further develops the Nineveh encounter. The captain of the ship says to
Jonah, ". . . what meanest thou that thou sleepest? Arise, call upon thy
God so that God will think of us, that we perish not" (1:6). It is interesting
to hear the captain exhort a prophet. By reporting the actual words of the
captain, "Arise, call," the Narrator alerts us to the very same words
in Hebrew used by God in His initial command to Jonah to "arise ...
proclaim." The Narrator indulges once more in a favorite device--the
ironic/verbal echo. The captain, too, commands Jonah to act like a prophet.
Taking the metaphor of the sailors representing all humanity and the ship
representing the world, the captain of the ship, in a sense, represents God
Himself. There is, however, a dual quality to this representation. While the
Hebrew words used for "captain," rav ha' hovel, may be captain or
shipmaster, the literal meaning is far more ominous, namely, "master of
injury." The Narrator thereby identifies God as the God of punishment, as
indeed He is in terms of the threatening storm that He has hurled against the
ship (1:4). However, the captain wants Jonah to pray for the innocent sailors,
just as God wants Jonah to be compassionate for the innocent of Nineveh. He
even uses the same language as the King of Nineveh will later use: ". . so
that we perish not" (3:9). The ship's captain thereby represents the
attribute of justice, demanding that Jonah be a messenger of mercy and love.
But Jonah's response is, "Throw me overboard," like his later request
for death (4:3,8,9) rather than accepting Nineveh's redemption. The eventual
contention between God and Jonah regarding Nineveh has been introduced on a
The developing story begins to
present, Jonah's position in his conflict with God. The ship is in danger, and
the sailors throw lots to identify the cause of their impending destruction.
They then ask Jonah to identify himself fully. Jonah's response is instructive:
"And he said to them, I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of
heaven, "Who hath made the sea and the dry land" (1:9). But this
assertion of a central tenet of Judaism--here as later in Nineveh (4:2)--stands
in apparent contradiction to his attempt to escape the command of the God Whom
he fears (1:3), the Almighty, Who is inescapable. We must conclude, then, that
Jonah's flight was not from God's authority, but from His presence, that is to
say, His compassionate providence.
Jonah's concern for the Hebrew
people is developed as a challenge to God's universal perspective. Jonah's
response, "I am a Hebrew (Ivri)," associates[ 14] with Abraham (the archetypal
Jew) (Genesis 14:13), and with Joseph, who is referred to as a Hebrew three
times in Genesis (39:14,17;41:12; in related fashion 40:15). Additionally, the
name "Hebrew" is used seven times in Exodus (2:6,11,13; 3:18, 5:3,
7:16, 9:1) in reference to Israel under Egyptian slavery. All of these
allusions are to Israel caught in a Gentile world of war,[ 15] imprisonment and tyranny.
After Jonah is thrown overboard,
a great fish appointed by God swallows him. For a second time, Jonah finds
himself in a hidden, enclosed space. The midrash describes Jonah's entering the
fish's mouth as one entering a great synagogue.[ 16] "I called out unto the
Lord ... and He answered me. . . " (2:3) cries Jonah. This suggests that
Jonah perceives a more positive image than one would have expected in this
strange dungeon.[ 17] It becomes a kind of holy
enclave in the midst of terror. In the middle of his prayer, he says: ". .
yet I will look again toward Thy holy Temple" (2:5), and again,
"...and my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy Temple" (2:8).
While Radak and Ibn Ezra interpret the phrase, "holy Temple," to
refer to the heavens, to this writer the term more likely refers literally to
the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Targum and the Midrash postulate.[ 18] Jonah's focus upon the holy
Temple, and the possible significance of enclosed spaces as holy enclaves,
suggest an interpretation of spatial "support" as significant and
necessary. This interpretation will be developed further.
The next verse, in a sense, is
the fulcrum of the Book of Jonah itself. It is short, deceptively simple, yet,
upon analysis, complex and explosive. As previously mentioned, in the Masoretic
Text this verse occupies a central and separate section. It summarizes the
developing themes of the Book--Jonah versus God; justice versus mercy;
universality versus the particularity of the Jewish people; inevitability of
history versus the possibility of avoiding it--and looks forward to the
Narrator's resolution of these confrontations. The text reads, "And the
Lord spoke unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land"
(2:11). The word "vomited" (vavakei) is surprising and intense. It is
found in only one other context in the Bible--referring to the expulsion from
the Land of Israel, especially of a sinful Israelite people (Leviticus
18:25,28;20:22). It is the term that introduces the consequences of exile to
the Jewish people.[ 19] With this pivotal sentence, the
Narrator solidifies Jonah's misgivings about saving the great city of Nineveh,
and confronts us with the future of the Jew in a non-Jewish world--exile. With
self-sacrifice, Jonah has attempted to evade God's mission to Nineveh so that
Nineveh will not repent, but will be destroyed, so that the Kingdom of Israel
will not be destroyed eventually by the forces of Ashur/Nineveh. But Jonah the
dove/ram/lamb, the defender and representative of Israel, has been vomited out
from his enclosed, holy place. Does this suggest that its very enclosedness and
over-inclusiveness has undermined its holiness? Moreover, is this symbol
telling us that the destruction of the Land of Israel and the ensuing exile has
already been ordained? Is this the truth (Amittai) that Jonah has been evading,
that he finds so frightening?
The word of God now comes to
Jonah a second time. As at the time of the first command, the same formula is
used. "Arise, go unto Nineveh the great city and call unto it the call
that I say to thee" (3:2, my emphasis). Again, the "arise ...
call" formula is used, perhaps to show that God's intentions have not changed,
and to communicate to Jonah that God is Master. Again, the content of the
message is not divulged. Jonah goes to Nineveh, but it is no longer simply the
"great city", it is now gedolah lelohim (3:3). While the meaning
might well be "exceedingly great city," literally it reads, "a
great city unto God." Perhaps this is to suggest that Nineveh, indeed the
entire world, is God's creation.
In fulfillment of God's command,
Jonah called and said, "Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be
overturned" (3:4). These are perhaps the strangest five words (in Hebrew)
ever proclaimed by a prophet. They certainly had a most dramatic effect upon
the masses of Nineveh and, the Narrator probably hoped, on his readers as well.
Biblical echoes abound. "Forty days" reminds us of the flood in the
time of Noah (Genesis 7:12), when a whole generation refused to repent and
suffered total destruction. God's decision to destroy the world with the flood
is introduced with the statement, "And the earth was filled with violence
... for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth" (Genesis
6:11-12, my emphasis), precisely the terms used by the King of Nineveh:
"Let every one turn from his evil way, and from the violence that is in
their hands" (3.8, my emphasis).[ 20] As for the word nehepakhet,
"overturned," it is strongly associated with the destruction of Sodom
and Gomorrah.[ 21] "And He overturned those
cities. . . " (Genesis 19:25)--cities like Nineveh literally called,
"the cities of God." A similar phrase to the term nehepakhet is used
a few times in reference to the destruction of Egypt (Exodus 7:15,17,20; 10:19
and perhaps 14:5), another great nation, again like Nineveh, that was warned,
and suffered the consequences of not heeding. An intriguing association of
linguistically-rooted terms is to be found in the Bible's description of
Adam's, i.e., universal man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden:[ 22] "So He drove out the man;
and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming
sword which turned every way (hamithapekhet), to guard the way to the tree of
life" (Genesis 3:24). This connects the story of man's sin and expulsion
from Eden with the problem of Nineveh. Nineveh's guilt and possible destruction
are associated with original, universal man and his tragic failure.
Nineveh's response to Jonah's
call is dramatic; the people of Nineveh proclaimed/called a fast (3:5) and the
king commanded them to call to God (3:8). What Jonah had failed to do in
response to God's initial command and to the call of the ship's captain, the
people of Nineveh now did in response to the prophet and in response to their
king. Indeed, an ironic comparison is being made between Jonah, the
representative of an apparently righteous Israel, and the King of Nineveh, the
symbol of the sinful world, to the detriment of Jonah.
The climax of the book presents
God's forgiveness of Nineveh and Jonah's explosive reaction. "And God
relented of the evil which He said He would do unto them; and He did not do
it" (3:10). God invokes the same formula of forgiveness as applied to
Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf: "And the Lord relented of the
evil which He said He would do to His people" (Exodus 32:14 my emphasis).[ 23] God's position is clear: the
same forgiveness is applicable to both Jew and non-Jew alike. Significantly, it
is after this statement of God's forgiveness that the Narrator notes, "But
it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry" (4:1). Jonah's
objection to God's forgiveness can be tentatively formulated as follows: In relation
to the Golden Calf, the forgiveness was "to His people;" as to
Nineveh, it was "to them." Regarding the Golden Calf, forgiveness was
given within the context of a second set of tablets (Exodus 34:1) signifying an
affirmation of the covenant; as to Nineveh, no holding structure existed. To
Jonah, this was a tremendous error. Jonah is astonished by the fact that the
language used by God to forgive the Jews at the time of the Golden Calf is now
applied to forgive an alien people--indeed, a people who will presently destroy
the Kingdom of Israel.
The next few verses repeat the
word "evil" five times, but with change of nuance and meaning.[ 24] In a book examining justice,
mercy, and human culpability, it is not surprising that we are treated to a
discourse on evil. The king commands the people of Nineveh to repent, to
"turn every one from his evil way" (3:8, my emphasis). The Narrator
tells us, "God saw" that they repented "from their evil way; and
God relented of the evil which He said He would do unto them" (3:10,
emphasis mine). Now Jonah speaks. He describes God as "relenting of evil
(4:2). This comes, however, after the Narrator uses the identical word
"evil" to describe Jonah's feeling when God forgave the people of
Nineveh: "But it displeased Jonah greatly" is translated more
literally as "And Jonah perceived it as evil, a great evil." Jonah
appears to judge God's action as a great evil. It appears that evil is, in
fact, multifaceted, depending upon one's perspective.[ 25] In addition to the difference
between the human and Divine view of evil as explored in Job, we are introduced
to a difference between a Jewish and universal perspective of evil.
Jonah's words are described as a
prayer, but the content and purpose are quite different from his previous
prayer from the belly of the fish. With shocking intensity and barely contained
exasperation, if not actual anger, Jonah "explains" himself. He
begins his prayer with the formula, "I pray Thee, O Lord" (4:2), the
same ritualistic phrase that was (surprisingly) used by the non-Jewish sailors
of the ship (1:14) and similar to the prayer of Moses to save Israel after the
sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:3 1). Jonah proceeds, "Was this not my
saying, when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto
Tarshish" (4:2). Jonah is going to clarify the great puzzle: he will
explain his thinking and motivation in fleeing from the Lord: ". . for I
knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, long-suffering, and great in
love, and relents of the evil" (4:2). This declaration of Jonah is
obviously a rephrasing of God's attributes of mercy as given in Exodus
(34:6-7), the "Thirteen Attributes" associated with God's forgiveness
of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. Jonah ends his prayer with the
plea, "Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for
it is better for me to die than to live" (4:3), like when he was on the
ship. But do we now know why Jonah fled? To what does he object? Jonah appears
to obscure as much as he reveals![ 26]
It has been suggested that
Jonah's objection denies the appropriateness of mercy and forgiveness in this
world,[ 27] or, at best, denies their
applicability to the non-Jewish world.[ 28] Neither interpretation,
however, is tenable. Does he deny the validity of God's attributes of mercy and
compassion? Obviously not.[ 29] The graciousness and mercy of
God are among the most wonderful and beautiful of Judaism's teachings. Jonah
himself seems to say it with love and affection. Moreover, the institution of
the Temple worship, at least in part, is founded upon the possibility of God's
mercy and forgiveness. Jonah himself has stated his commitment to the Temple
(2:5,8). A prophet of Israel would not deny such a central tenet of Judaism,
which Jonah himself attests to when he says, "For I knew that..."
To suggest that Jonah denied the
applicability of mercy to non-Jews as a general category suggests a rebellion
against a universal historical principle of Judaism. Abraham's prayer for Sodom
indicates his concern for non-Jews.[ 31] Solomon's dedication of the
Temple specifies (2 Kings 8:41-43) that His House is a House for all people.
Jonah himself volunteers to be thrown overboard so that the ship's sailors
(originally, at least, non-Jews) may live (1:12), suggesting internal evidence
of the prophet's universal concern.
While Jonah's words appear to
obscure his thinking and motivation, a review of patterns of images shows that
the Narrator has been quite effective in conveying the issues of contention
between God and His prophet. One such pattern is the following: the destructive
flood of Noah, the destruction of Sodom, and the punishment of Egypt. They all
depict situations of monumental evil, involving universal man deserving punishment,
and, eventually, being punished or destroyed. With a background of concern for
the threatened future of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the
very kingdom that he is sent to save, Jonah formulates a theological position
differentiating between error on the one hand and vicious brutality on the
other. The potential of such evil to cause immense suffering to others must be
considered. Mercy and forgiveness must have limitations, and Jonah argues that
brutality should not be forgiven.
A different pattern of images
communicates a further development of Jonah's argument for limiting the
universal application of mercy. Jonah has sought protection and found solace in
enclosed places. He will continue to seek protective shelter under the booth
that he will later build upon leaving Nineveh. This pattern of symbols
signifies the holiness of God that is "contained" in the Temple as
well as the uniqueness of the Jewish people versus universal man. Moreover, it
indicates that, in order for good to triumph and for evil to be contained,
there must be a holding frame, a structuring quality that supports man. Man can
repent, but if' there is no set of mores or values that protect him from the
temptation to backslide, like an enclosed space to which he may go, the choice
for good is temporary. This is Jonah's position: The Sinaitic Covenant provides
Israel with a holding quality--an enclosed space for the Jewish people, then
and forever, ensuring their repentance. For non-.Jews, a degree of
righteousness, of ethical and moral sensitivity, provides a protective frame.
Violence, tyranny and brutality destroy the frame. The repentance of Nineveh is
quick but temporary, that of Jews is long lasting. To forgive brutal and
dangerous Nineveh for a short lived repentance that would bring about the
destruction of Israel is untenable to Jonah, and would constitute the
corruption of mercy and 'justice. For Jonah, life is no longer bearable.
Returning to the text, Jonah's
attack can now be understood more fully. From the beginning, Jonah had been
fearful that God would apply the same thirteen attributes of mercy and
graciousness to Nineveh that He had applied to Israel. "Therefore I fled
beforehand unto Tarshish" (4:2). We can understand Jonah as explaining his
flight on another level as well, one of symbolic communication. He fled from
"before God" (1:3, literal translation), a phrase used twice and
therebv emphasized by the Narrator. Jonah never doubted the authority or power
of the God Whom he feared, "The God of heaven, Who hath made the sea and
the dry land" (1:9). But, Jonah implied, God must admit that there is a
lack of sanctity outside the Land of Israel, since it is not "before
God." That is why there can be no prophecy there.[ 32] If that be the case, there
arises the unspoken question in his mind, "How can You consider forgiving
and saving Nineveh, through a prophet?" For Jonah, there is neither
righteousness nor holiness to hold and guide them.
Jonah's articulation of the
thirteen principles of mercy clarifies previously noted problems with the term
"call:" 1) Why is the term "call" repeated, especially in
God's commands to Jonah (1:2, 3:2)? Why is there continual vagueness in the
content of the call? Does the very vagueness of the charge suggest that there
might be another hidden call involved? To an audience attuned to Biblical idiom,
the best known use of the term "call" is to be found precisely in the
thirteen attributes of God to which Jonah referred. "And the Lord
descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and he called the name of the
Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and called, `The Lord, The Lord, God,
merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and
truth'" (Exodus 34:5-6, my emphasis). This is the possible hidden
"call." God commands Jonah to call to Nineveh, but the call is ambiguous
and will depend upon man's interpretation, upon Nineveh's response. If they
remain evil, the call will be one of destruction, "And he (Jonah) called
and said, `Another forty days and Nineveh shall be overturned'" (3:4
emphasis mine). But if they repent, the call shall be the call of forgiveness,
"The Lord, The Lord, mighty, merciful and gracious. . ."
Interestingly, the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 89b) develops a similar idea but
focuses upon the ambiguity of the phrase "Nineveh shall be overturned."
The Talmud relates that, originally, Jonah was told that the city would be
nehepakhet--a Hebrew word which can mean either "transformed" or
"overturned," i.e., destroyed.[ 33] The Book of Jonah demonstrates
that God's call to mankind is frequently ambiguous, and its ultimate
interpretation is dependent upon man's moral and ethical response to the
The ensuing "dialogue,"
until the end of the book (4:3-11), appears to constitute an epilogue.[ 35] Jonah's mission has been
completed. Nineveh has repented and been forgiven, and, Jonah has explained his
Position. What is there left to do?[ 36] The answer lies in the
necessity of elaborating God's response to Jonah's attack. The existence of the
epilogue demonstrates that it is the philosophical controversy between God and
Jonah regarding the universal application of mercy that is the central theme of
And the Lord said: "Thou
hadst had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither madest it
grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have
pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than one hundred and twenty
thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left
hand, and also many animals?" (4:10-11)
Traditionally, the Book of Jonah
has been read on Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement." The relationship
between the two can now be seen as relating to a set of similar issues:
destruction and salvation on the one hand, and particularism and universalism
on the other. Like the Book of Jonah with the call to Nineveh, the theme of Yom
Kippur is one of threatened destruction and a call for repentance and
forgiveness. In retrospect, the Day of Atonement theme had been evoked by the
lots cast by the sailors of the ship (1:7), leading to Jonah being thrown overboard.
This is reminiscent of the lots used by the High Priest in the Temple service
of Yom Kippur to choose between the scapegoat to save the Jewish people
destined for the "wilderness" (destruction), and the goat designated
for sacrificial service in the Temple (Leviticus 16:8-10).[ 37] In addition, the image elicited
by the phrase "forty days" (3:4) need no longer be limited to
destruction (Noah's flood). Indeed, Moses' ascent to Mount Sinai to commune
with God for three periods of forty days is also brought to mind. This suggests
a complex image of threatened destruction after the tragedy of the Golden Calf
(Deuteronomy 9:9-16) and then forgiveness associated with Moses' third ascent
to Sinai (Exodus 34:28).[ 38]
Particularism and universalism
relate to the Day of Atonement as well as to the entire High Holiday period
including Succot. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is universalistic in its
commemoration of the creation of the world and the challenge to humanity
generated by this awareness. The Day of Atonement, on the other hand, begins
with a marked shift to the Jewish people. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
suggested[ 39] that it was in order to return
the congregation's experience to univeralistic concerns that the Book of Jonah
was introduced into Yom Kippur's afternoon service. This focus continues
throughout the holiday of Succot, demonstrated by the seventy sacrifices
brought during this festival as a symbol of concern for the "seventy nations
of the world" (B. Succah 55b). The Book of Jonah not only expresses the
Yom Kippur call for repentance, but reveals the High Holiday themes of
responsibility, Divine forgiveness, and the vision of universal compassion.
This literary, symbolistic, and
conceptual analysis, with emphasis on the patterning of images, analyzed in
Jonah and extended by intertextuality, has provided a many-faceted but
ultimately unified theme to the book. The analysis of the pivotal verse of
Jonah being vomited out upon dry land has reinforced the significance of
Israel's threatened exile, and has supplied us with the motivation of Jonah for
his flight from "before God." For Jonah, however, the issue of the
destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the ensuing exile has raised
the much broader issue of the appropriate applications of justice, mercy and
forgiveness in this world. Jonah has argued that a culture of brutality,
coupled with a lack of parameters of societal ethics and morality, does not
provide for satisfactory repentance. Therein, argues Jonah, lies a significant
difference between universal man and Israel, for whom the Sinaitic covenant
provides such a frame. God does not repel Jonah as His prophet but, rather,
sustains His charge to him, thereby demonstrating a tolerance of Jonah's
position. But God counters Jonah's argument by demonstrating the universal
human potential for good, and by defending the universal application of mercy
1. For Biblical studies
using literary analysis, see: R. Alter and F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary
Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987) and R.
Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981). For a
literary analysis of Jonah, see J. Magonet, Form and Meaning: Studies in Literary
Techniques in the Book of Jonah (Frankfort, 1967). Also see G.H. Cohen, Gisha
Historit VeGisha Al-Historit Lamikra in Hagot Hamikra (Jerusalem: Dept.
Education & Culture, 1977) pp. 79-89.
2. For a discussion of the
relationship between midrash and literary analysis, see A. Berlin, Poetics and
Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983), pp.
17-18; R. Alter, Biblical Narrative, p. 11; and K.P. Bland, The Rabbinic Method
and Literary Criticism in K.R.R. Louis Gross, J.S. Ackerman, and T.S. Warshaw
(eds.), Literary Interpretation of Biblical Narratives (Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 1974), p. 16.
3. See C. Brooks and R.P.
Warren, Understanding Poetry, 3rd ed. (New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1966),
p. 56; C. Brooks, J.T. Purser, and R.P. Warren, An Approach to Literature, 4th
ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1964), p. 281; and Magonet, Form and
Meaning, pp. 67 and 81.
5. So according to the Koren
Bible (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 1966).
6. So according to the
Leningrad Codex, Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographa, Codex Leningrad B19[A]
(Jerusalem: Makor Publishing).
7. The delineation of the
epilogue (4:4 to end) as a separate section according to the Leningrad Codex
(note 6) does not detract from the pivotal nature of verse 2:11.
8. So according to the Koren
Bible (note 5). According to the Leningrad Codex (note 6), until 4:3.
9. Translations are from the
Jewish Publication Society edition of the Bible, 1st ed. (except where I have
offered my own translation to highlight the original Hebrew).
10. See Midrash Ruth, 2:5.
Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Korha would interpret names.
11. Abarbanel also takes the
name as synibolic, but suggests that the name describes Jonah's words as always
being truthful. All citations of Abarbanel are from the Tel Aviv: Elisha Ltd.,
1950 reissue of the Pizzaro, Amsterdam publication, pp. 124-130. Also see
Ackerman in Alter and Kermode, Literary Guide, P. 234, and T.S. Warshaw,
"The Book of Jonah," in Louis Gross, etc., Literary Interpretation,
12. For a midrashic
association of the dove with Israel, see Midrash Tanhuma, Tezaveh 5.
13. A more distant image is
that of the infant Moses being put in a box and placed in the water (Exodus
2:3). This, too, may be a potential salvation image.
14. Abarbanel (ad loc.)
suggests that, in addition to identifying himself, Jonah is admitting that he
is a sinner (avaryan).
15. Abraham is called a
"Hebrew" (Genesis 14:13) when being informed of the war involving the
four kings and the five kings and the resultant capture of his nephew, Lot.
Interesting is Rashi's comment (ad loc.) that the word Ivri alludes to Abraham's
coming from the "other side of the river," thereby emphasizing the
opposition between Jew and non-Jew.
17. In order to explain
Jonah's ability to remain alive in the belly of the fish, Abarbanel and Malbim
(New York: Torat Israel Publ., 1941), Vol. 9, pp. 66-71, evoke the parallel of
a fetus in the womb of its mother. Such an image may be interpreted not as a
psychoanalytic symbol, but, rather, a statement of closeness and protection in
relation to one's Creator. This idea will be developed further.
18. Yalkut Shimoni, Op. cit.;
Pirkei de R. Eliezer, Chap 10.
19. Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik in lecture on 5-22-79 at Yeshiva University, Rebbetzin Tanya
Soloveitchik and Shmuel Soloveitchik Yahrzeit lecture, recorded on audio cassette:
Relationship Between Sidras and Haftoras--Sefer Vayikra (M. Nordlicht series,
nos. 5019 & 5020), no. 5019, side A.
21. So Ibn Ezra and Radak (ad
loc.). All citations of Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Rashi on the text are from
Mikra'ot Gedolot (New York: Tanakh/Shulsinger, 1935), pp. 1206-36.
22. It is suggested that we
consider the possibility of multiple images as well as multiple levels of
images. Furthermore, a pattern of images appearing on the same level may have
23. L. Frankel,
"Verahamav Al Kol Ma'asav" in H. Hamiel (ed.), Ma'asef Le'inyanei
Hinukh Vehora'ah (9) (Jerusalem: Zionist Org., 1968), p. 199.
26. For discussion of these
issues, see Y. Bachrach, Yonah ben Amittai VeEliyahu, (Jerusalem: Zionist Org.,
1959), p. 42; Magonet, Form and Meaning, p. 8; and Frankel, "Verahamav Al
Kai Ma'asav," p. 200.
27. J.S. Ackerman in Alter
and Kermode, Literary Guide, p. 240. See also T.S. Warshaw, "The Book of
Ruth" in Louis Gross, ctc., Literary Interpretations, p. 191.
28. B.B. Trawick, The Bible
as Literature (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963, 2nd ed. 1970), p. 305;
Magonet, Form and Meaning, p. 105.
33. For elaboration on the
ambiguity of the terminology, see Rashi on the Talmud (ad loc.) and on the
verse in Jonah (3:4). Also see H. Hamiel, Sefer Yonah, p. 133.
34. Rav Nahman bar Yizhak (B.
Yebamot 98a) extends the meaning of the verse "Nineveh shall be overturned"
and its prophetic intent much further. According to him, the prophetic call and
its results (the transformation from evil to good) were not limited to Nineveh,
but applied to the northern kingdom of Israel as well, thereby explaining
Jonah's role in the enigmatic verses of 2 Kings (14:25-26). The call for
repentance, and the ambiguous results dependent upon man's actions, may thereby
be seen as universal, unlimited prophecy. That it is eventually applied to the
northern kingdom of Israel is startling, and may be the ultimate irony of
Jonah's struggle. An analysis, however, of the relationship between Ray Nahman
bar Yizhak's opinion and our interpretive approach is beyond the scope of this
35. According to the
Leningrad Codex, the epilogue is delineated as a separate section. See note 6.
37. This theme was brought to
my attention by my son, Rabbi Ari Kahn. Interestingly, The Tikunei Hazohar
(Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1978), p. 57b, associates Yom Kippurim to Purim,
the day when lots were cast for the destruction of the Jews.
38. Interestingly, the third
ascent culminates with the return of Moses to the people on Yom Kippur. See
Rashi on Exodus 34:29.
39. In lecture. Recorded in
A.R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World--Reflections of the Rav, Vol. 2
(Hoboken, NJ.: Ktav, 1989), Chap. 15, pp. 141-147. Specifically, see p. 146.
By PAUL KAHN
PAUL KAHN was Rabbi of the Young
Israel of Mapleton Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., and now lives in Jerusalem.