The Sullen Prophet: A Commentary on the Book of Jonah

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.

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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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