Yonah

The next book I wish to tackle is that of Yonah (Jonah), even though it is not next in the cannon.  As I mentioned in my second post about Yoel, the themes of Yoel and Yonah make the two books good companions, and I am treating them as such here.

According to 2 Melechim (2 Kings) 14, Yonah ben Ammitai was approximately contemporary with Yerovam II (Jeroboam ben Joash) of Israel, and his prophecies were the basis of Yerovam’s successful military campaigns to enlarge Israel’s borders, leading to a period of material prosperity.  Although, the book of Yonah does not record any prophecies directed to Israel, 2 Melechim tells us that such prophecies existed and were fulfilled in Yerovam II’s time.  Such information is interesting, though, in that this time period was also the time of Yoel, Amos, and Hoshea, none of whom encourage conquest or have anything positive to say about the elites of their time (granted, Hoshea is the only one of those three who was, like Yonah, from the northern kingdom).

Other than his name, paternity, and birth place, not much is told us of Yonah himself–much like the other prophets of his time.  Yonah means “dove,” but is similar to a word meaning “mire,” “oppressor,””destroyer,” or “without a foothold.”  Ammitai, the purported name of Yonah’s father, means “truth” or “verity.”  While Ammitai is a perfectly plausible name, “ben Ammitai” is also a perfectly plausible title for a prophet, much like the paternal names of other prophets.  The apparent dual meaning of Yonah is especially fitting for the actions and prophecies attributed to him.

In the story related in the book of Yonah, Yonah is instructed by Hashem to deliver a message of condemnation and destruction to Nineveh.  Fearing that Nineveh will repent and avert judgment, Yonah tries to flee to Tarshish on a ship leaving from Yafo (Jaffa).  Naturally, Hashem knows what Yonah has done, and afflicts his ship with a storm.  The sailors pray to all their own gods, ask Yonah to plea with his, and Yonah tells them to throw him overboard to appease Hashem.  The storm abates, and Yonah treads water until he is exhausted, at which point Hashem sends a great fish to swallow him.  Three days later, the fish regurgitates Yonah on a beach, and Yonah proceeds to Nineveh.  He delivers the prophecy, and the city thoroughly repents, averting catastrophe.  Yonah, disappointed with the result, mopes on a hill overlooking the city, where Hashem chides him for his petty, petulant behavior.

The imagery of this story is rich, and the play between Yonah’s role and the meanings of his name intricate.  One of the ubiquitous myths of ancient near eastern cultures is that of the F lood.  In various iterations, the story is one of conflict between a pro-human sky god and an anti-human sea god represented by a sea monster or serpent.  The TaNaKh makes various oblique references to this dichotomy in other local belief systems.  For instance, the snake that tempts Eva in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), rather than being a hostile snake god, is simply a mischievous creation of Hashem.  The Flood in the story of Noah is caused by Hashem, who is displeased with his creation, rather than by a competing god who disapproves of humanity.  More obscure references to this difference are made in Yov (26) and by various prophets.  In this case, Yonah’s intractability leads Hashem to send a storm and a sea monster (great fish) to enforce His will.

Interestingly, the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians believed in a demigod named Uanna.  Uanna was imagined in the shape of a fish, but transforming to that of a man to visit human cities and impart knowledge.  Yonah, through the employment of the imagery it uses, is thus yet another example of the adoption of foreign mythological imagery both to enforce the primacy of Hashem among His people (who were notoriously prone to following foreign gods), and to impress upon foreign peoples the authority of his message (as demonstrated with great effect in the Exodus story).  Yehezkiel (Ezekiel) and Zechariah would later perfect this technique.  It is also interesting that Yonah departed for Tarshish from Yafo, as Yafo was believed by the Greeks to be the site where Andromeda was chained to the rock, sacrificed to a sea monster by her father, and rescued by Perseus.

Foreign references aside, Yonah, the deliverer of militant instructions to Yerovam, appears to see himself as a “destroyer” or a deliverer of destructive truths.  He enjoys the prospect of Nineveh’s destruction.  However, he is “mired” in that role, and his instruction to give Nineveh a chance to repent, to act as a “dove” (a symbol of peace and safety and HaShem’s forgiveness in the story of Noach) sets him to flight, acting rashly, like a startled dove.  When cast into the sea, he struggles (“without a foothold”), not only to stay afloat, but with Hashem.  Yonah’s struggle is archetypal to Jewish thought.  He struggles with Hashem, just as Adam, Moshe, David, and the patriarchs did (among others).

Once restricted in his movements to the innards of a fish, Yonah no longer has the freedom to defy Hashem.  Much like Yoseph and Samson before him, Yonah’s period of imprisonment is an opportunity for him to let go of his own ego and rededicate himself to his faith and his confidence in Hashem’s Will.  Thus humbled and renewed (because, in Judaism, all periods of renewal are also times of humility, and vice versa), Yonah is delivered to the coast, where he sets off for Nineveh–Hashem’s messenger, delivering the possibility of redemption. 

It is worth noting that the writer of Yonah feels it necessary to clarify that Nineveh is a large city, detailing its extent.  The author does not assume that his readers will be familiar with Nineveh.  While scholars generally date the authorship of Yonah to the fifth or fourth centuries BCE, due to its subject matter, such a late date is not consistent with the need to clarify how big Nineveh was.  Any post-exilic Jew would have known that information, especially since the Babylonians and Persians spent time talking about it in their own literature.  My bet is that at least some of the story is older, with the book being finalized in the fifth or fourth century.  Either way, the story is intended to be pre-exilic.

That said, when Yonah arrives in Nineveh and delivers his prophecy, the ruler orders fasting and repentance.  Even the animals fast.  In return for the Ninevens’ contrition, Hashem decides against destroying the city, just as Yonah had originally feared.  Yonah’s prophecy is averted, and thus fulfilled (although later commentators would argue that the prophecy’s fulfillment was simply delayed).  At this point, Yonah’s humility wears thin, and he goes to pout on a hillside, where Hashem demonstrates the silliness of Yonah’s bad attitude.  Here, the story abruptly ends.  My suspicion is that the book that has come down to us is incomplete.

My interpretation is that the repentance of Nineveh is an explanation for why Assyria was chosen as an instrument of Hashem’s judgment against Israel.  Israel, which consistently would not repent its wrongdoing, will be ruled by foreigners and idolators who are willing to repent wickedness when confronted with it–idolators who respect the authority of Hashem’s prophet, even when Israel won’t.  This is why Yoel’s prophecy is a companion piece.  Like Nineveh, Jerusalem repents when faced with the stark reality of Hashem’s judgment in Yoel.  Nineveh is rewarded for its repentance with the expansion of the Assyrian Empire and the use of Assyria by Hashem to humble Israel.  However, like the vine Hashem makes to grow as both shade and an object lesson for Yonah, Assyria’s blossom eventually fades, and it is destroyed for its hubris.  Israel and Yehudah, on the other hand, are judged for their hubris and wickedness (as abundantly explained by several prophets), but ultimately blossom again under Persian rule.


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