I have been teaching Sefer Yonah several years. There are some questions
with which I struggle every year as I teach the
My first question is: Commentators tell us that Yonah ran away from Israel
because he knew that he would not get prophecy outside of the land of
Israel. But he did get it in Ninveh in the third chapter, and other prophets
also got prophecy outside of Israel, such as Yirmiyahu and Yecheskel.
Can you explain this apparent discrepancy?
I am honored that an experienced teacher would find new insights in this
lecture series. At the same time I appreciate you sharing this basic and
very important question with us, for it allows us to review some of the
issues so far as we conclude the first chapter of Yonah. You may want to
review some of the lectures at the archives at http://www.torah.org/learning/yonah.
The book of Yonah is like a labyrinth with many hidden passageways, rest
stops, nooks and crannies, and intersecting paths. It is the job of the
interpreter to bind the various strands together and to uncover the
message within. One cannot hope to begin to succeed upon this task without
setting forward the working assumptions and clarifying the methodology to
be employed. Among these the most important is: What is the main message
Several different answers to this question have been expressed over the
ages. An excellent discussion of advantages and disadvantages of these
approaches can be found in a book length essay, A. Rivlin, Yonah: Nevua
V'Tochacha, published by Yeshiva Kerem B'Yavne, 1999 on pp.64-85. They are:
1. An epistle of national repentance. The view that the book of
Yonah is a
call to repentance is found in numerous Midrashic passages. The Sages
explain that Yonah runs away because he did not want his people to
fail. "Yonah said: I know that the nations are quick to repent. Now they
will repent and the Holy One Blessed be He will send his anger against
Israel… I shall run away instead (Pirke D.Rabbi Eliezer Ch. 10)." "Yonah
said: I will go outside of the Land of Israel, to a place where the Divine
Presence is not revealed, so as not to render Israel guilty (Mekhilta of
R. Ishmael, Pischa,1)." The commentators, such as, Metsudat, understand
it to mean: "place where prophecy does not rest upon the prophets",
setting the stage for the question that you ask.
It is important to realize that there exists another version of this
statement, "to the sea, place where the Divine Presence does not rest". As
explained in Class 6: Of Rebels [Yonah 1:2-3], Yonah thought that G-d is
found only in places where human beings live, in order that they may sense
his Presence and be drawn toward Him. He thought that at sea he might
escape the awareness that disturbed and agitated him. According to this
version, your question does not even arise.
Rashi, however, conflates the two versions. It seems to me that an answer
would build on Class 4: Running Away [Yonah 1:2). Briefly, we explained
there that Yonah was not prepared to accept and understand the message
that he could not accept. Thus, all he heard was a command to go to
Nineveh and prophesize there. Because his heart was closed at that time
(please see the original lesson for an explanation of how this relates to
the mechanics of receiving prophecy), he did not fully understand the
message. In actuality he ran away from himself, so as not to acknowledge
the command that he already carried within him. This is supported by
Yevomos 78b where the second command to Yonah in 3:1 is explained to be
the same one as in 1:1.
As such, his escape was not from prophecy but from himself. In fact, if
not so, how could Yonah run away from the prophecy that he had already
The question of Ezekiel and other prophets has been dealt with in
classical sources; some of them discuss the question of Yonah as well as
Moshe, who also began his prophetic career outside of the Land of Israel.
Due to space limitation I will simply list them for farther study: Moed
Katan 25a; Moreh Nevukhim II, 36 and Shmone Perakim, 7; Abarbanel,
Introduction to Amos; Radvaz Responsa 2, 842 and 6, 2206, Kuzari 2, 14.
Those interested are invited to email me personally for elaboration.
2. Universalism versus Particularism. We did not adopt this
reasons explained in Class 17: Jews and Gentiles[Yonah 1:6-16].
3. To teach about Repentance. While this is an important motif
story (see Megilah 31a and Taanit 16a), it does not appear, at least to
me, to have sufficient explanatory power to satisfactorily encompass and
account for many details in Chapter 1 and 2 that do not relate directly to
repentance. In addition, it would be peculiar for a book centered on
repentance to offer us only examples of flawed and incomplete repentance.
Neither Yonah nor the people of Nineveh ever repented fully, as we will
discuss in the future.
4. Justice versus Mercy. This approach was first offered by R.
Ibn Shoeb, a 14th century rabbinic scholar, whose sermons have only
recently been published. He writes: "The prophecy of Yonah came to teach
that the Almighty has mercies for all his creatures, even the nations of
the world (who rebel against Him), certainly the people of Israel…. We
learn from this work that G-d is merciful; even though the nations stole
and conducted themselves with great violence, G-d accepted their
repentance. So certainly we, the nation of his amity and the sheep of his
pasture … (Cited in S. Y. Agnon, The High Holidays; Daas Mikra ,
Intoduction to Yonah #7; Y. Bachrach, Yonah V' Eliahu, p. 75). It appears
to be based on Midrash Yonah, ed, Jellinek, p. 102. This is the approach
that we have adopted in this series. Please see Class 2: Yonah, the
While the national message is of utmost importance and is rightly stressed
by the classical commentators, the approach that sees Yonah as one
struggling with the concept of Divine Mercy as foundation of life and
faith, speaks directly to modern man, who so often feels alienated form
history, community and, even himself. Our struggle so often is to draw
from within that which our forefathers effortlessly absorbed from their
mother's milk and the sounds, smells and customs of their community.
Modern man is in flight from himself and from his inheritance; to a great
degree because he or she does not perceive the Mercy behind the Creation.
Surely, Hashem also has a message for our times in His Book.It is almost a
miracle that Scripture has something to say to every type of person, in
every historical circumstance and situation, a consequence of Divine
Inspiration that breathes from its pages.
At the conclusion of Chapter I, Yonah has learned that he cannot run away
from G-d for He is in his blood. He is a Jew and a prophet and he cannot
escape his destiny on either count (see Class 18: The Education of Yonah
[Yonah 1:6-16] and Class 11: False Refuge [Yonah 1:3]). He still, however,
does not agree that the Quality of Mercy should run the world. As many of
us, he could not figure out how to translate knowledge into inner change.
But… G-d knows what we need. He sent Yonah a refuge and a womb within
which to be reborn.
And G-d sent a great fish to swallow Yonah and Yonah was in the womb of
the fish three days and three nights (2,1).
Praise and thanks to Hashem who allowed and assisted us to finish the
first chapter of Yonah.