The book of Yonah is unique for, alone of the Biblcal books, it revolves around the interactions of a Jewish prophet with the non-Jewish world. What’s more, the prophet is obstinate and recalcitrant while the gentiles are uniformly good-hearted and obedient. This salient fact has not passed unnoticed by non-Jewish commentators and scholars.
Many modern scholars are fond of the idea that along with Ruth, this book somehow represents a response to the narrow particularistic outlook that must have prevailed among the returning exiles as typified by Ezra’s rejection of the Samaritans and his abhorrence of intermarriage. In this view Biblical works represent disparate and sometimes dueling schools of thought and it is up to the reader to adopt or reject them as basis for personal philosophy. In itself this approach is not new for it can be traced to the Church Fathers who disliked the book of Esther for its “Judaising” tendencies while extolling Jonah for its supposed criticism of the Jews and exultation of Gentiles. Ephrem Syrus, a Church father (306-373, had this to say about this book: “Praise be to God who mortified Jews by the means of Gentiles”.
Clearly, such approaches are unacceptable to believing Jews and, in truth, to believers of all religions. As Jews we see the Bible as the particular heritage of the House of Israel; while it has much to say to the world, it speaks first and foremost to the Jewish People. It is precisely for this reason that it can afford to be so brutally honest, perhaps exaggeratedly so, about the failings of the chosen people for they, above all other nations, can accept and learn from searing criticism and unsparing rebuke. More importantly, we must perceive the unifying strands among the many different and disparate works that make up the Bible. As pointed out in the introduction to this series, for reasons of belief and as basic method we adopt the view that all Biblical works are inspired and fashioned with the same Spirit and, consequently, speak of the same Truth. The principle of intertextuality requires the assumption that all Biblical writers drew from the same spring and in fact, were aware of their predecessors’ work. This principle is amply supported by linguistic and theological allusions to other books scattered throughout prophetic literature.
When trying to understand the setting of Yona’s story we immediately notice a striking feature. The Gentile characters are clearly not the main actors but, rather, supporting cast. This is evident from their one- dimensional representation within the narrative. An astute observer realizes that the structure and even the phrasing of Chapter 1 parallels Chapter 3. In both Yonah receives G-d’s call, is reluctant to discharge his mission, and escapes to the boat or into the booth. In both the Gentiles fear G-d and repent as soon as His message reaches them, expressing their acceptance in an almost identical language. The captain/ mariners and the King of Nineveh/ his people are two dramatic pillars that support and frame the action that centers on the main character, the prophet Yonah. The focus is on Yonah and his story and not on the Gentile bystanders.
Why is the book then set outside of the Land of Israel and in Gentile surroundings? These many years I had been carrying this question around in my head. I knew that the facile explanations of modern scholars were not acceptable and not tenable; yet, I did not how to explain it in a way that was both theologically true and exegetically sufficient. Quite by accident I recently came across a Midrash that illuminated the entire issue in a novel and profound way.
We had previously discussed the significance of the prophet’s name Yonah, dove in Hebrew, for the deeper meaning of his mission (Lecure entitled Jaffa). R. Mordecai Kornfeld in his “Torah from the Internet, Judaica Press, 1998 (Ha’azinu) cites the following Midrash from Song of Songs Rabbah, 1:15.
“The Sons of Israel are compared to yonah (dove) in a number of ways:
1. Just as yonah’s walk is a pleasure to behold, so too, Israel’s walk is pleasure to behold when they come out for the yearly pilgrimages.
2. Just as yonah is modest, so is the Jewish nation.
3. Just as yonah stretches out its neck to be slaughtered, so do the Jews, as it states “For you (Hashem) we have been slaughtered every day.”
4. Just as yonah (sacrifice) atones for sin, so do the Jews atone for the nations…
5. Just as you find that yonah, even if you take away its young, will never leave its nest, so do the Jews continue to quest for the Temple Mount even after it had been destroyed.
6. Finally Rebbi said: “There is one type of yonah which when fed, gives off a scent that attracts other pigeons to its nest. So also, when the Elders of Israel expound on the Torah, they attract many Gentiles who hear them and become proselytes.”
Rabbi Kornfeld demonstrates that all of these 6 points were manifested in the story of Yonah.
Seen in this way, the prophet Yonah’s destiny was inherent in his name. We might say it as follows in the idiom of the Midrash:
Just as Yonah brought the message of repentance to the men of Nineveh, so will the Jewish nation soon carry its ideas to the entire Gentile world. The central drama of religious life is between the reluctant prophet and his Sender but the backdrop for it is the world of the Gentile. The ideas of morality, compassion for the weak and the responsibility of the state for its less fortunate citizens are not our inheritance from the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome but diffused throughout the world from the Jewish people. The Biblical concept is that nature is governed by sensible and understandable laws of nature given by the one Creator. The world is not a battleground of diverse and unrelated powers and it can therefore be understood. This insight ultimately gave us Science and the idea of human progress. The Classic world was full of glitter but, at its essence, it was a nasty, brutal and conscienceless world. It is the Jew who gave it the ideas which make life worth living and impart meaning to an otherwise senseless, materialistic and empty existence. Far from being an accident of composition, Yonah’s travails in the world of the Gentile are central to its meaning and to the message that it imparts. May we merit to see it carried to its conclusion in the very near future – “then I will turn all peoples (to have) pure speech to call all of them upon the Name of Hashem and to serve Him as one (Tsephania 3:9).”
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.