Yonah - Chapter 1:3
The location and identity of the city to which Yonah sought to escape is
of utmost relevance to understanding the meaning and significance of his
flight. Unfortunately, it has remained a mystery and a subject of intense
speculation over the ages. This is so even though there is a great deal of
evidence in the Tanach and contemporary sources that one could use to
throw light upon this question - only it doesn't, at least not
conclusively. Let us consider some traditional identifications of Tarshish
and thus seek to approach the real interest of our inquiry - why Yonah
elected to specifically escape to there. Here are the leading contenders:
1. Josephus ("Ant." 1. 6, § 1), apparently reading "Tarshush," identifies
it with Tarsus in Cilicia, Asia Minor.
2.Others argue for the region and city of Tartessus, a Phoenician
settlement in Southern Spain.
3. In the genealogical table of the Noachides, Tarshish is given as the
second son of Javan and is followed by Kittim and Dodanim (Gen. 10. 4).
Accordingly, Trashish may refers to a settlement or colony of these
4.With Pul, Tubal, and Javan, it is mentioned as one of the remote places
that have not heard of Hashem (Isa. 46:19, comp. 40:9; Ps. 42: 10; Ezek.
5. Tarshish appears to have had a considerable trade in silver, iron, tin,
and lead (Ezek. 27:12). It gave its name, besides, to a precious stone,
which has been variously identified
6. The Targum of Jonathan often renders the word "Tarshish" in the
prophetical books by "sea," which rendering is followed by Saadia.
Moreover, the term "ships of Tarshish" is rendered as "sea-ships" (Isa.
2:16). Jerome, too, renders "Tarshish" by "sea" in many instances; and in
his commentary on Isaiah he declares that he had been told by his Jewish
teachers that the Hebrew word for "sea" was "tarshish." In Isa. 23:1 the
Septuagint, and in Ezek. 27:12 both the Septuagint and the Vulgate,
render "Tarshish" by "Carthage," apparently suggested by Jewish tradition.
Indeed, the Targum of Jonathan renders "Tarshish" in I Kings 22:48 and
Jer. 10:9 by "Afriki," that is, Carthage.
7. To my mind the deciding clue can be found in Kings I, 10:22 and 2
Chron. 9:21 - For the king had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of
Hiram; once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold,
and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks. This verse suggests that
Tarshish was located somewhere off the coast of Africa, where ivory,
peacocks and apes could be procured.That this city was so distant should
not be surprising for Herodotus reported that the Phoenicians had
circumnavigated the African continent which feat took them three years.
The location in Africa is consistent with the three years the trip to
Tarshish is said to take - For the king had ships that went to Tarshish
with the servants of Huram; once every three years came the ships of
Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.
Modern scholars, basing themselves on the fact that shipwrecks have been
found almost exclusively in shallow waters, tended to doubt the ability of
the ancients to traverse open sea. The mariners of old were seen as
hugging the coast, mostly keeping in sight of land and the heroic tales of
exploits in the midst of oceans were thought to be no more than idle
boasts. Recent evidence, however, is disproving these claims and
supporting the supposition that the ancients regularly made long voyages
over the open sea without the benefit of astronomical tables or compasses
That Tarshish was literally at the end of the known world would not be
lost on the contemporary readers of Yonah; nor would they be likely to
overlook the length of this trip and the low likelihood of catching the
direct boat to Tarshish in the secondary port of Jaffa. As we had seen
last week, Tarshish vessels generally sailed out of Tyre and not from
Jaffa. Thus, attempting to go to Tarshish would be seen as, as we say
now, "getting away as far as possible", to the very edge of the inhabited
The Rabbis commented on the implausibility of Yonah's success and the
miracle therein as follows: "The ship in which Yona went out to sea was
two days travel away from Jaffa, in order to test Yonah. What did the Holy
One Blessed be He do? He sent a storm and returned it to Jaffa. Yonah saw
this and he was filled with joy. He said: I see that my way is proper in
front of Him. Yet, he did not know that G-d brought it about to make known
that His Glory (also) is found at sea." These comments may at first glance
appear gratuitous but consideration of the ancient realia, that is the
actual circumstances of daily life, demonstrate how deeply they are rooted
in the text. There is in them also a subtle irony for Yonah was, yes,
running, but not away, rather into G-d's very hand. What's more, in some
deep part of his soul, he also knew it.
This rabbinic saying, in addition to explaining difficult passages,
contains important lessons. First, it points out to us that G-d is always
in charge and that He uses the best intentions and most well layed out
plans of men for Hiw own purpose. "He turns wise men backwards and their
plans he makes foolish(Isaia 44,25)." In addition,it makes vivid an
important psychological detail.
What the Sages tell us here is that a truly religious man remains
inextricably connected to G-d, pines for Him, and relies in Him, even as
he rebels against Him. So also Yonah, as he was running away from G-d,
could not free himself from dependance on Him. He was filled with joy when
he felt His hand's touch in the miraculous return of the ship to Jaffa.
Yonah rejoyced for he did not really want to abandon or divorce his
Master. "A thief, in the midst of breaking in, calls upon G-d (Ein Yakov
to Berachos 63a)". This true metapshysically (see Tanya L"A 14) as well as
psychologically. It is a self delusion and a sham to think that one can
escape from G-d for even in the very depths of denial, we remain connected
and dependant in Him. Though Yonah fled from G-d, he kept on glancing
backwards. In this there is a lesson for all of us for what it means is
that our distancing from the spiritual is naught but a self deception for
it is a part of us from which we can never escape. We are free to at any
moment throw away the bounds of self-delusion and discover the Maker of
all things who has been patiently waiting for us - "today, if you hearken
to his voice" (Psalms 95:7)
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.