The Sullen Prophet: A Commentary on the Book of Jonah

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by Mark Kleiman

The holiest day in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with its theme of repentance. And one of the synagogue readings for Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah (in Hebrew, sefer Yonah). It is the custom in some communities to ask a stranger to offer a commentary—called a d'var Torah—on that text. A d'var Torah isn't quite a sermon, if a sermon is understood as a discourse that starts out from a text to draw a moral; it's more like a French explication de texte.

When Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel invited me to give the d'var Torah on Yonah a couple of years ago, prudence would have counseled refusal. But I'm under several kinds of obligation to Chaim, and allowed that to serve as an excuse to give in to my natural hamminess.

If Chaim wanted a fresh view of the text, he could hardly have done better; as far as I can recall, I had never read it before, and my Hebrew is minimal-to-nonexistent.

The result is after the jump. It turns out that I more or less missed the point of the story; fortunately, I had friends to straighten me out. Still, if you're looking for a solemn reading of what may in fact be a comic text, mine is perhaps as good as another.

A couple of footnotes:

Observant Jews refrain from pronouncing the proper name of the Hebrew God. In English translations, the Name is usually replaced by "The Lord," which translates the traditional Hebrew substitution, Adonai. (To prevent students from mistakenly pronouncing the Name, in Hebrew the vowels of Adonai are used with the consonants of The Name; if you try to pronounce the word as written, you get a nonsense combination pronounced something like ye-ho-va, which is where we get the Lord Jehovah.) More contemporary practice uses HaShem (literally, The Name) in place of Adonai, and that's the convention I followed.

Kaparot is a Yom Kippur Eve repentance ritual in which the penitent's sins are transferred to a rooster, which is then killed and eaten. In making the offering, the penitent waves the rooster over his head, chanting, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and peace."

D'var Torah on Yonah

Yonah is a strange prophet, and Sefer Yonah (the Book of Jonah) a strange book. The theme of repentance nominates it for being read on Yom Kippur, but it has less to say about repentance than it does about prophecy.

What makes a prophet? Four things: insight, foresight, compassion, and courage. Insight to see what underlies observable phenomena and understand what is happening. Insight gives, and is demonstrated by foresight: the capacity to predict what will happen. Compassion: the prophet must care enough about what happens to want to intervene. Courage: the knowledge of what is to be feared that makes someone willing to speak truth to power, or to the multitude, where the truth is the unwelcome truth that the current course of action will lead to disaster and must be changed.

On this analysis, Yonah is a strange prophet: without insight, without foresight, without compassion, and without courage. Most of all, he is without energy and without initiative: throughout, he seems oddly passive. A modern diagnosis might be depression, or at least dysthymia.

By the same token, Sefer Yonah is a strange document, carrying the narrative economy characteristic of the Tanakh to such an extreme that we are left with more questions than answers.

Who is Yonah? We're not told. The text makes no attempt to establish its own historicity, not even giving a date. The Second Book of Kings mentions Yonah the son of Amittai parenthetically as having prophesied the restoration of Israel's borders that took place in the reign of the second King Jeroboam. Perhaps the contemporary reader or hearer of the story would have recognized the name of Yonah ben-Amittai, and known when he lived. But our text is silent.

While Second Kings calls him Yonah ben-Amittai ha-Navi, "Yonah son of Amittai, the prophet" and Sefer Yonah is counted among the prophetic books, The Book of Jonah itself never refers to Yonah as a "navi," and aside from the name of his father tells us nothing about his life before (or after) his visit to Nineveh.

We learn about Yonah only from the descriptions of his actions in the text, and they are uniformly puzzling.

"The word of HaShem came to Yonah son of Amittai: 'Go to Nineveh, the great city, And denounce it, for its wickedness has come up before Me' " (or perhaps we should translate that last phrase "Its wickedness is in My face").

What sort of wickedness? We're not told. The other readings for Yom Kippur, from Leviticus, Numbers, and Isaiah, suggest the range of possibilities, with Leviticus and Numbers focused on cultic loyalty, sexual impurity, and proper sacrifice, and Isaiah focused on injustice.

Why does Yonah run away? Perhaps he sees no reason to do any favors for Nineveh, the national enemy. Perhaps he fears ridicule: he doesn't want to be the absurd hairy character in a New Yorker cartoon carrying a signboard saying "Repent! The end is nigh." Perhaps his reluctance to carry out his commission reflects his general passivity; but then we would expect him to stay in place rather than running away. Or maybe Yonah is just contrary, like an adolescent: having been told to go one way, he goes the other way.

Or perhaps, although the Word of HaShem came to Yonah the son of Amittai, Yonah the son of Amittai didn't recognize it as the Word of HaShem but thought it some crazy idea of his own. Maybe he said to himself, or his friend or his wife or his psychiatrist or his rebbe said to him, "Yonah, you're hearing voices. This isn't good. Are you overstressed? Maybe a nice cruise would help you relax and get a grip. Tarshish is nice this time of year." What's actually going on here? We're not told.

Under whatever compulsion, Yonah sets off for Tarshish, variously interpreted as a seaport near Tyre or as Tartessus, on the Atlantic Coast of Iberia just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Neither is on the way to Nineveh from Jerusalem; Tartessus lies about as far as possible in the opposite direction. What does Yonah intend to do there? We're not told, though he explains to the sailors that he is trying to escape HaShem.

When the storm arises, Yonah sleeps through it until the captain awakens him. Why? We're not told. Perhaps he is simply indifferent to his own life. When the captain urges him to pray, we're not told whether he prays or not. When the lots are cast and the lot falls on Yonah, he doesn't try to weasel out of it; he says frankly that he is the cause of the problem, and that the only solution is to throw him overboard. This, then, is his first prophetic moment: he says the thing that is, whatever the cost to himself.

But Yonah also says that he fears HaShem, which seems to be a strange thing to say under the circumstances. Clearly when he went to Jaffa instead of Nineveh he feared something else more than he feared HaShem, or he would have been carrying out his commission rather than running away from it. Is his newfound fear of HaShem the product of the storm? Or is he merely identifying himself as someone who, as a Hebrew, ought to fear HaShem? We're not told.

Astoundingly, the sailors are reluctant rather than eager to get rid of their "Jonah," their source of bad luck. They don't make kaparot with him, spinning him over their heads and chanting "This is my atonement, this is my compensation, this is my redemption" before tossing him into the drink. They fear blood guilt more than they fear the storm, and try vainly to row to land. What gives the sailors their courage and their compassion? We're not told.

In any case, they do act out of courage and compassion. In the book that bears his name, only Yonah is named, and only Yonah acts badly: the four other groups of characters—the captain, the sailors, the people of Nineveh, and their king—all seem to be eager to do the right thing.

Yonah is cast overboard, and swallowed by a fish. From inside the belly of the beast Yonah offers, not a prayer to be saved, or a declaration of repentance, but a hymn of thanksgiving, as if his salvation were already an accomplished fact. Is he gaining insight and foresight? Or is he simply relieved to have regressed to the womb? We're not told.

Yonah is told again to go to Nineveh, and this time he complies. He makes what is undoubtedly the most efficient prophecy on record, if we measure prophetic efficiency in units of behavior change effected per word spoken. Yonah's prophecy, in Hebrew, is only five words long: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed." ("And Nineveh" and "will be destroyed" require only one Hebrew word each.)

In the face of this unadorned warning, the Ninevites, like the sailors, behave astonishingly well. They respond at once, proclaiming a fast. Why? How? We're not told. But the text makes it clear that the action comes up from the people and not down from their ruler. The King of Nineveh acts only after "the word reaches him" of what the people have already done.

Again, we're not told what sort of evil will otherwise bring down destruction on the city. The royal proclamation simply tells the people to turn aside from their "wicked ways" and the hechamas—variously translated "violence" or "unjust gain"—that is "in their hands."

Perhaps it is precisely the spare and unspecific nature of the prophecy that gives it such power. Say to someone, anyone, you, me: "You know, you really ought to cut that out" and he will know what you're talking about, even if you don't.

In any case, the people turn away (shavu) (a word which shares its root with t'shuvah, "penitence") from their "evil course" and God backs off: Elohim va-yinachem, which could be translated either "God repented of" (His intention to destroy the city) or "God took pity on" (the city He intended to destroy). The root is nachem: "mercy." Elohim turns aside from His intention to destroy Nineveh, that great city.

Yonah is angry that Nineveh is not destroyed. Why? We're not told. Presumably, because he feels that he has been made to look like a fool: he predicted disaster, and no disaster happened. Instead of rejoicing that his prophecy averted destruction, thus vindicating his insight, Yonah mourns that destruction was averted, thus casting doubt on his foresight.

This is a moral failing not unknown among those of us who take on the contemporary versions of the prophetic role: editorialists and columnists and bloggers, televangelists and political activists and documentary film-makers and social scientists and policy analysts. Having made a prediction of catastrophe, we're at least a little dismayed if no catastrophe arrives. That, truly, is an inconvenient truth about those of us who claim, in prophetic accents, to speak truth to power.

The good news is that Nineveh repents. The bad news is that Yonah apparently does not. His prophecy falsified, he says that it would be better for him to die than to live. And he sets up a "booth" outside of town, seemingly hoping to see the destruction of Nineveh, that great city.

HaShem, by first giving Yonah a gourd tree for shade, which he prizes, and then sending a worm to destroy the gourd tree, causing Yonah to mourn, tries to convince him of how much greater a disaster would be the destruction of Nineveh, that great city, with its innocent people and innocent beasts. But if Yonah gets the message, we're not told. In our last glimpse of the prophet, he's still sulking.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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