--By Judith Shulevitz
The Book of Jonah has always struck me as a strange choice for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. It reads more like a short story by Sholom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer than a traditional book by or about a prophet. To the modern ear, at least, the story of Jonah sounds very modern: ironic, ambiguous, inconclusive, darkly comic. To begin with, consider how Jonah differs from all the other prophets in the Torah. This prophet is no hero; he's an antihero. He's a perverse and stubborn rebel whose every instinct propels him to do exactly the opposite of what God wants him to do. God wants Jonah to go east, to Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh, to prophesy its imminent doom? Well then, Jonah will head west, to Tarshish, a Phoenician city in Spain, which is about as far west as a man could go in those days. When God sends a storm to sink his ship, Jonah ignores God's message, which he appears to understand, and goes down to the ship's hold and drops off to sleep, even though all the sailors on the ship are wailing to their gods for mercy. In an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the text even has Jonah snoring-which he must have been doing loudly indeed if it was audible over the storm.
Now, in the prophetic literature, you will sometimes find a prophet who is reluctant to take the job. But all prophets except Jonah yield to the Lord eventually. Jonah never surrenders. Sure, God gets him to do this one thing for him-to prophesy to the Ninevens-but only by giving him no choice. It's that or spend the rest of his life inside the belly of a whale.
And look how ungraciously he performs his one task! After being vomited up by the whale, Jonah goes to Nineveh and utters five perfunctory words: Od arbaim yom vnineveh nepachem! Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown! This is the shortest piece of prophecy in the Torah, and it's another way in which the book of Jonah differs from the other prophetic books: Those books are filled with oracular poetry; the book of Jonah has five words of prophecy. But they are very effective words. No sooner does our unwilling prophet make his begrudging little speech then to his and everyone else's astonishment, the entire city repents and hundreds of thousands of citizens put on sackcloth and pray and the place is saved!
Of course, after God saves Nineveh, Jonah goes into a sulk. There's no other way to put what he does. He takes the salvation of the city as a direct personal insult, and goes outside its and sits down in a field and refuses to budge, like a child who won't walk any further because his parents won't buy him something he wants. Jonah is upset that God has made his prophecy into a false one. He thinks God has made a fool of him. God, who is being amazingly indulgent at this point, sends him a plant under which to sit, so his head won't get sunburned. But then God decides to tease Jonah a little, to teach him another lesson. He sends a worm to kill the plant. Now Jonah is really upset, and announces that he's had it-he wants to die.
And here's another way the Book of Jonah stands out from all the other books of prophets: Instead of ending with an answer or at least a clear moral lesson, the book ends with an unanswered and possibly unheeded question. Jonah has entered a suicidal frenzy, and God asks him why he, God, shouldn't care as much or even more about Nineveh, which he created and is full of innocent people, than Jonah cared for a mere plant, which he never even tended? Jonah never replies. Did he get God's point? Does he get over his bad mood? We don't know.
And that's where we leave Jonah, this petulant, obtuse, self-pitying, eminently ridiculous man, the archetypal prophet without honor, alone in the wilderness. As far as we can tell, he's learned nothing from his experiences. He's as bullheaded now as he was at the beginning of the book, as unwilling to listen to God as ever. Who is this character? Some scholars believe that he is intended as a parody. They read the Book of Jonah as a satire of prophetic literature, a warning against prophets who behave badly. He's the Bible's comic foil, its schlemiel. But that raises the question of why we are reading satire on Yom Kippur, this most solemn of days. Indeed, if this book follows the traditional laws of satire, then we have to give up on the sullen Jonah as a hopeless case. He's a caricature, a cartoon, and the whole point of cartoons is that they never change, never grow. How can this apparent buffoon help us in our work today, in our efforts at growth and change and t'shuvah?
The one scholar I found who takes on this question has no answer other than to say that the rabbis must have failed to get the joke. And it's true that some of the messages traditionally extracted from this book ignore its humorous qualities completely. One lesson Jonah is said to teach us is that sometimes gentiles are noble and fear God while Jews ignore Him, and let that be a reproach to us! Incidentally, this interpretation found many enthusiasts among the Christians, who even today read the Book of Jonah as a parable of universalism, as a foreshadowing of how receptive gentiles would be to Christ's message, while the Jews would remain stubbornly hostile. But this interpretation rings false to me. You have to understand that when this book was written-probably somewhere between the 7th and 5th centuries before the common era--the Israelites hated Assyria with a deep and abiding hatred. Assyria and its capital Nineveh were responsible for the destruction of the northern half of Israel. The prophet Nahum devotes an entire book to vilifying Nineveh. Any Israelite listening to this story would have understood the basic comic idea here-that an Assyrian king is as likely to change his ways because some Israelite told him to do so as, say, a Taliban leader would be to embrace America because George Bush asked him to. The conversion of the Assyrians is the author's little joke, or perhaps God's joke, on the schlemiel Jonah. There's evidence for this in the text. Look closely at what the king of Nineveh says when he decides to repent. He doesn't just demand that his people fast and wear sackcloth-he says the animals have to too. This is a very silly idea, of course, that cows and sheep should wear sackcloth and fast. I take it as a wink from the author, a signal to take the incident as a joke, or at least as humorous exaggeration.
And I rather doubt that our rabbis failed to get the joke. Our rabbis were great readers of Biblical literature, and I don't think they would have missed the fairly broad fun being poked here. I think they knew what they were doing when they gave it to us to read on Yom Kippur. But what were they doing?
The effort to figure out what they saw in Jonah drove me back to the text, again and again, until I fastened on an incident that takes place in the first chapter. The storm besetting the ship going to Tarshish is getting worse and worse, and the sailors notice that one man on board is not praying-Jonah, naturally. "Who are you?" they demand. "I am a Hebrew," he replies. "I fear the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both the sea and the dry land." And immediately, this being the phantasmagorical world of the Book of Jonah, these gentile sailors understand clearly without being told that he is fleeing from the all-powerful God, who has sent this storm. "What shall we do to make the sea calm around us?" they ask. And here Jonah rises to heights of moral grandeur we have not seen from him before and will not see from him again. "Lift me up and cast me into the sea," he says. He offers himself as a human sacrifice. It should be noted that self-sacrifice of this kind is not prized in the Jewish world, not if there are better options available. It would have been far easier for Jonah simply to pray to God right there and then and tell God that he was ready to do his bidding. If God could have a whale vomit Jonah out of his mouth when the man finally prayed to God from inside the whale, how much more likely would God have been to calm the sea when Jonah prayed from the deck-had Jonah prayed from the deck? But Jonah refuses to pray. Still, he's not so evil that he's going to bring the poor sailors down with him.
And here, at last, are two things to admire in Jonah: He is honorable in his miserableness and he is consistent in his refusal to heed the word of the Lord, even unto death. Only when God refuses even to let him die-after three days and nights of life inside a whale--does Jonah give in and pray. You can almost see God's thought-process here: If Jonah can bring such will and determination and even a certain nobility of spirit to ignoring me, how much more valuable will he be once I turn him to my ways? The further Jonah runs, the more he convinces God that he's worth chasing after. And that's what I think the satire is meant to get across in the Book of Jonah: We can go to any lengths, make ourselves ridiculous as possible, in your efforts to escape God, but the very intensity and absurdity and even the painfulness of our flight shows God how much potential passion we have lacked inside us, to say nothing of how much we must actually want and need him. And seeing that, God may laugh at us a little, but he will not abandon us.
Judith Shulevitz is a literary critic.
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