As we begin to explore Yonah's flight, we discover that the prophet's
interaction with the sailors, the captain and ultimately the men of
Nineveh cannot be separated from a consideration of his personality.
Careful reading reveals to us a truly remarkable man, a person of great
inner nobility and truth, an enormously charismatic leader, and a man of
impressive strength and resilience. Yonah made an impression and without
appreciating this fact, much of what is described in the book remains
mysterious and difficult to fathom.
Before we do so, however, it is worthwhile to think for a few minutes
about prophecy in general.
How does one become a prophet; how are Divine messengers chosen? A cursory
examination of Tanach reveals no clear pattern. On the one hand, some of
the greatest of prophets suffered from physical deficiencies or came from
modest means and circumstances. Moshe, the greatest of the prophets,
stuttered and Amos says of himself: "I am not a prophet nor a son of a
prophet for I am a herdsman and inspector of wood (Amos 7,14)." As a
matter of fact, quite often we get an impression that G-d plucks a man out
of obscurity and endows him with supernatural gifts to use on His mission.
On the other hand, some prophets, and Eliahu and Isaiah come to mind,
appear before us fully formed; in no way average human beings, perhaps
angels more than men.
R. Saadia Gaon (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, III: 4) maintained that as
a rule G-d did not select outstanding individuals for prophecy, for had He
done so, the message could be ascribed to the genius or giftedness of the
messenger. One could confuse the messenger with the message; the genius
of the prophet could obscure the genuineness of the prophecy.
Maimonides (Guide II,32), on the other hand, adopts the view that prophecy
is a natural attainment of a pure human being at the pinnacle of moral,
spiritual and intellectual perfection. Any person possessing the requisite
achievements will receive prophecy, unless G-d denies it for some reason.
This is certainly a more philosophically satisfying formulation and it
appeals to a certain contemporary sense of egalitarianism. It is important
to realize, however, that it detracts in some measure from Divine
There is, however, also a middle way. As the Malbim in the beginning of
Amos points out, both impressions can be reconciled. Prophecy can be
personal, that is restricted to the prophet himself or a close circle of
prophets, or it can be communal, destined for the nation as a whole,
perhaps even for all humanity. The former kind of prophecy would only come
to a recipient worthy of it. The latter kind may even be sent to an
average man. The very fact that he is average and the least expected to
voice inspired content or perform miracles and signs, validates the Divine
origin of the prophecy.
The Sages clearly saw Yonah as being a remarkable individual. They
comment: "The Holy One Blessed be He does not rest his presence except on
one who is strong, wealthy and wise… How do you know that all prophets
were wealthy? From…Yonah for it says: 'and he gave its price...' R.
Yochanan said 'The price of the entire ship.' R. Romanos says: The price of
the ship was 4000 gold coins" (Nedarim 38a).
Now, imagine for a moment that you were a New York City driver and a well-
dressed man of obvious sophistication and influence rushes into your
vehicle, pushes 4000 dollars into your palm and breathlessly asks you to
immediately drive him to Mexico. What would you think? What would you
wonder? What would you do?
Let us consider this scenario for a week and let us begin to examine the
relationship between Yonah and the sailors in the week to come.