Jonah

The Jonah story has always bothered me. I get it at its simplest level — God asks Jonah to tell the Ninevites to clean up their act. He balks and sets sail, gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a whale, gets coughed up, tells the Ninevites to repent. Sits under a tree that dies, gets mad at God for killing the tree.

Each time I read it, the story’s ending leaves me hanging out there. “And should I not care about Ninevah,” God rebukes Jonah, “…a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

“And many beasts as well!” Is this a way to end a story? Isn’t there text missing? When Jonah complains about the disappearance of the shade tree God says, “Nu? You complain about a measly shade tree dying that you didn’t even plant and I can’t bemoan the potential destruction of my own people?” The two of them seem like grouchy old men, Felix and Oscar quibbling over repentance, shade trees and worms.

So, I never really had patience with Jonah. To be fair, I only read Jonah when I am crabby myself, fasting all day, my stomach as grumbly as our reluctant prophet. Each year I read Jonah after a long morning of confessing, a long morning of not wanting to face myself and my misdeeds any better than Jonah wanted to confront the Ninevites.

The Kabbalists work at understanding text guided by the acronym Pardes which literally means orchard. It is where we get our English word “paradise.” Peh, resh, dalet, samech. Peh for the pshat or literal meaning; resh for remez literally hints or understanding the allegories within the story. Dalet, or drash, concerns the midrashim, the stories that have been written to fill in the gaps in the text. Samech for sod, or secret. And each year, I try to get at the secret meaning of the Jonah story. Sod holds out the promise that if we can somehow crack open the true story of the text, it will reveal something we hadn’t considered or understood before. It is this thread, bolstered by strands of remez or hints, that I’d like to follow this afternoon.

The first question I had was why Jonah? No, not why this prickly prophet, but on an even simpler (or more complex level depending on your point of view) why was a prophet whose name means “dove” chosen for this particular task? What links might be found between the dove of our Yom Kippur story and the image and role of the dove in elsewhere in Torah?

As you might already have guessed the first appearance of the word YONAH is in the Noah story. We might imagine a big sign is being held up for us, “HINT! Find the links between your crabby prophet and this watershed story of Noah.”

It is water that I would like to focus on first in stitching these two stories together. Both the Jonah and the Noah stories are awash in water imagery both as giving life and destroying it. Water, by God’s direction, claims the lives of all humanity except Noah, his family and the animals he managed to herd upon the ark. When the waters recede it is the dove who brings back proof that life can begin anew upon dry ground.

Jonah flees to the sea to escape God’s command and it is into that same raging sea that Jonah is thrown by the reluctant sailors in hopes of saving their own lives. Within that sea, within the belly of great fish Jonah does his tshuva, he repents and vows to perform the deeds that God has asked of him, thus saving his own life and ultimately the lives of the Ninevites. The next big story in which water gives life and takes it away is in Exodus. Those who do not believe in the One God, (the Egyptians) lose their lives; those who do (Moses and his people) come out onto dry land and live.

It’s interesting to note that the word fish “dag” appears in Jonah in the masculine three times in Chapter Two: the Lord provided a huge fish; Jonah remained in the fish’s belly; the Lord commanded the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land.

What is telling is that the word fish also appears a fourth time, but in the feminine in verse two. We read, “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (dagah).” While Jonah was praying, he was transforming from someone who ran from God into someone who turned to God. Within our mother’s womb we transform from primordial strands of DNA into a nascent human being. Upon the waters of the rising seas, Noah and his family awaited rebirth onto dry land. The former slaves of Egypt had to pass through the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds before they could be reborn on the other side as the Children of Israel. Perhaps this explains why it was within the belly of a female fish that Jonah, through repentance, transformed himself from someone fleeing his humanity into a mentsch ready to take on God’s mission.

I also thought it was interesting from an evolutionary point of view to imagine a bird within a fish. Evolution teaches us that from fish came amphibians, from amphibians came reptiles, from reptiles came birds. There is something complete about the image of a bird within a fish. The beginning cradling the end, the end literally being brought out from the beginning.

There are other parallels between our prophet the dove and the dove in the Noah story. The latter’s dove returns to the ark with an olive leaf (not a branch as is commonly assumed and illustrated) but with a leaf, an aleh. Some rabbis use the image of olive oil to link Jonah and Noach. Olive oil is used to light lamps much as Jonah was chosen to be a light unto the people of Ninevah. A little tidy, but there you have it.

The dove has two major characteristics in the Bible according to James Ackerman in his article on Jonah in The Literary Guide to the Bible — it is easily put to flight and it moans and laments when in distress.” Sound familiar? Among several examples, Psalms 55 gives us this, “O, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest.” Ezekiel, among others, provides us the second image, “…they shall be like doves of the valley, moaning together — every one for his iniquity.”

Jonah doesn’t disappoint, does he? Well, he does, but not for the purposes of this examination. When we meet Jonah in verse three, we read, “Jonah, however, (in response to God’s request that he go to Ninevah) started out to flee to Tarshish. The minute we meet the prophet he is in the act of escaping, first towards Tarshish, then overboard and when he can no longer evade God’s command, he moans all the way there and back again — moaning that the people repented, moaning that God saved them, lamenting over the death of the shade tree that protected him from the sun.

The quality of Jonah’s lamenting struck me. It wasn’t just lamenting, but a call for his own destruction. He tells the sailors to heave him overboard, assuming he will drown. Later in the story, he is explicit. “Please Lord take my life, for I would rather die than live,” he cries, pained that the Ninevites did as he commanded and repented. Four verses later Jonah begs, yes begs, for death because he cannot tolerate the sun. God gives him a chance to reconsider, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” And again, Jonah replies that he is so deeply aggrieved that he “wants to die.”

What are we to make of a prophet of the Jewish people, a people commanded to choose life, who keeps asking for death? Some have written that Jonah did not want to be seen as a false prophet — he predicted the Ninevites would die, but they lived. This explanation doesn’t work for me. They lived not because Jonah didn’t know from prophecy but because they did exactly as he said. They turned from their evil ways so God renounced His punishment.

The last link I would like to draw is between the word oleh, the olive leaf carried in the dove’s beak to Noah, and olah, sacrifice which is how the dove figures so frequently in the Torah. Jonah was literally sacrificed by the sailors in hopes of calming the raging sea. He was frightened to confront the Ninevites because they had a long history of acting violently against the Jews. He was loath to be sacrificed by a murderous people for speaking God’s words.

So I guess I will end this talk as the story of Jonah ended — with a question or two of my own. What do we make of the human tendency to want out the minute things get rough? What do we risk when we tell others to change their ways? And a biggie: is it really possible to flee?

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