Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

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Jonah speaks only five prophetic words throughout the book of his name and these are they:

 עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת    In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.

 Not only are the words few but apparently false as Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days.

The rest of the book of Jonah is story, without the oracles which appear in all the other books of the prophets. In this way, he resembles the earlier prophets of the book of kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories are characterised by miraculous incidents.

The editors of Yamim Noraim, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Lionel Blue, explain the choice of the book of Jonah for Yom Kippur. It shows the power of repentance and is associated with fasting because the people of Nineveh fast and repent.

Verse 1 – 2

The prophet Jonah ben Amittai is mentioned  in  2 Kings 14,25, during the reign of Jeroboam II, who reigned in the kingdom Israel between about 825 and 790 BCE.  The Assyrian Empire was approaching the height of its power although it had not yet destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, which fell in  722 BCE.

In the book of Jonah, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh – the heart of the evil empire – and proclaim against it. Usually Hebrew prophets are sent to prophesy to the people of Israel or Judah.

We know from the book of kings that Jonah was from the North, from Gath-hepher in the region of Zebulun. According to midrash, Jonah was descended from Zebulun,[3] which is particularly appropriate because of Jacob’s prophecy: Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; he shall be a haven for ships.[4] Jonah is not called a prophet in the book of Jonah although he has a prophetic mission.

The name Jonah  means dove.  Interestingly, the monastery on the Hebridean island of Iona was founded by St Columba, which also means dove – Colum, in his native Ireland and colombe in French. The name Iona must be a tribute to the biblical Jonah, when Columba – the dove – was washed up on to its shores.

 Jonathan Magonet, quoting the Zohar, ascribes another meaning to the name  Jonah:  ‘troubled’, a participle of  י  נ ה, to oppress.[5]

Verse 3 

 Jonah heads for the port of Joppa, nowadays called Jaffa, and boards a ship heading as far as possible from Ninevah, to Tarshish, which we have seen is identified with Spain, the western extremity of the known world. A midrash in the Talmud says that Jonah was so eager to get away that he financed all the passengers on the ship.[6]

Why does Jonah refuse his commission and flee? The text does not give us an answer in so many words. Redak commented that Jonah fled from the land of Israel as he believed that, outside of Israel, the spirit of prophecy would desert him, deriving this from an early, perhaps third century midrash, the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael:

[Did he think he] could (really) flee from the presence of the Lord? Does not Scripture already say ‘Where can I go from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?[7]

The author of the Mekhilta then relates a parable: a priest’s servant fled to a cemetery, thinking that he would be beyond his master’s reach, but the master said ‘I have other servants who can come after you.’ Similarly, Jonah fled from the Land of Israel, intending to flee from God, but God caused a great tempest to bring him back.[8]  The Mekhilta also makes the point that Jonah thought that the Ninevites were more prone to repentance than the Israelites, and that God would be angry at Israel, who were slow to repent.

The author of the midrash Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (eighth or ninth century CE) explains that  Jonah had been sent to Jerusalem to announce its destruction but Israel repented and God did not destroy the city. Consequently Jonah  acquired  a reputation as a liar. When God sent Jonah to Ninevah, he refused, not wanting  to appear a liar again.[9] Deuteronomy 18 warns of  false prophets whose prophecies do not come to pass:

When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.[10]

Commentators have noticed the repetition of וַיֵּרֶד, he went down; we also have the repetition of קוּם, to rise up, in verses 2 and 3. We saw in verse 3 that Jonah went down to Joppa and down into the ship; in this verse he goes down to the ship’s hold and his falling asleep, from the root ר ד ם, is a pun on  going down when the yod prefix is attached to it.

Verse 4 – 5

Note the word רוּחַ which means spirit as well as wind; later on, east of Nineveh, Jonah will again be afflicted by severe weather.

During the storm, the sailors feared for their lives, each calling to his god. Where was Jonah during this time of mortal danger? Going down to the innermost part of the ship, he fell into a deep sleep: וַיֵרָדַם. This is from the verb ר ד ם  although ישן is the more usual word for sleeping). Jonah’s tardemah can be seen as a biblical motif: a sleep which occurs at a point of significant change: for example, the deep sleeps of Adam[11] and Abram,[12] or it can be regarded as an elaboration of the narrative to emphasise something about Jonah’s state of mind: perhaps his flight from God or even his trust in God.

The version of Jonah in the LXX actually says ‘he was asleep and snoring’: εκαθευδε και ερεγχε, to convey the deep sleep.

 Verse 6

The captain is like a messenger of God because he repeats to Jonah the words of God’s call: קוּם קְרָא, ‘Arise and call.’

Verses 7- 16 

The sailors draw lots, to see who on board has brought the storm upon them and the lot falls on Jonah. They question him and Jonah himself tells them to throw him into the sea, so that the storm will abate. They are humane and  row hard to save themselves without casting Jonah overboard, but eventually they throw him into the sea and the storm ceases.The sailors are awed and they make vows, נְדָרִים, a word which has special resonance on Yom Kippur.

 The word for sailors is מַלַּחִים, ‘salts,’ perhaps.  According to BDB it is a loan word from Assyrian[14]  They draw lots – goralot – which fall on Jonah.  Goralot, probably stones, are well attested elsewhere in the bible and are used by Aaron in connection with the scapegoat, providing a seasonal connection:[15]

When the sailors question Jonah he identifies himself as a Hebrew – Ivri anochi – and a God-fearing man. The sailors are not Hebrews but they are God-fearing.  Jonah seems to have an unconscious proselytising force; the sailors are or become pious in his presence, as do the people of Nineveh.

In the LXX, which, until this point, closely matches  the Masoretic Text, Jonah does not say he is a Hebrew but δουλος Κυριου ειμι εγω ‘I am a servant of the Lord.’

The sailors ask Jonah how they can calm the sea and it is Jonah himself who tells them they must throw him overboard. Note that he has courage for this, though not for the mission to Nineveh. When the sailors fail  to save Jonah  by rowing for the shore, they call on God, using the tetragrammaton.[16]  A midrashic work called Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, composed in the ninth century CE, tells that the mariners threw their idols overboard to lighten the load during the storm.[17]

After they have thrown Jonah overboard and the storm has abated, they sacrifice and make vows (nedarim, another seasonal word) to God. The Hebrew text tells us that they feared fear, sacrificed sacrifices and vowed vows:[18]

וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים יִרְאָה גְדוֹלָה אֶת יְהֹוָה וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח לַיהֹוָה וַיִּדְּרוּ נְדָרִים

This is the last we hear of them, but their susceptibility to Jonah’s words is something they have in common with the Ninevites.

 Chapter 2, verse 1

God has prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, who survives three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. God prepares (מ נ ה) four things in the book of Jonah: a great fish, a gourd, a worm and an east wind.[19]

 A midrash relates that, on the fifth day of creation, God gave the fish the commandment to vomit up Jonah at the appointed time.[20]

Midrash has quite a lot to say about the fish: that its interior was a beautiful synagogue; that the fish was about to be devoured by Leviathan, but  Jonah frightened Leviathan away but revealing it was destined to become plat du jour  at the feast for the righteous in the time to come. There is also a midrash that, whereas Jonah was comfortable inside the fish, he was then swallowed by a female fish, where he was uncomfortably squashed as the female fish was pregnant. In chapter 2:1, the fish is called a dag,a male fish, but in verse 2 it is called dagah, which is feminine. In the LXX, the fish is ketos, which seems to be the generic term for a sea monster, cetacea being the zoological term for aquatic mammals.

If we look again at the creation of sea creatures on the fifth day of creation:

 God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds[21]

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים

We should note that the LXX, for this verse says that God created ta kete ta megala:

Και εποιησεν ο Θεος τα κετη τα μεγαλα.

The Hebrew word taninim, sometimes dragons, sometimes sea monsters, is translated into Greek as a creature which is perhaps a whale but which, whatever it is, matches the creature which swallowed Jonah. 

The rabbis said that הַתַּנִּינִם refers to leviathan.[22]

A Babylonian godddess called Tiamat took the form of a sea monster and her name has been associated by some with the  Hebrew word תְהוֹם, the deep. Ugaritic literature has a sea beast called lotan, which is connected with leviathan, evidence for this being that the adjectives applied to the Ugaritic lotan match the adjectives used of leviathan in Isaiah:

In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon (tanin)that is in the sea.[23]

The motif  of three days  will appear again, in the three days in takes to cross Nineveh. The authors of  the New Testament were very interested in Jonah’s three days in the whale:

 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.[24]

They may well have been picking up the motif of three days as a significant period, which is well attested  in the Tanakh.     

Chapter 2, verses 2-10

Jonah prays inside the whale, thanking God for saving him. Some scholars have regarded Jonah’s prayer as external to the book, in the way that Hannah’s prayer, in 1 Samuel 2, has the appearance of an addition. However, the opposite opinion is also well represented.

 For Jonah, the belly of the whale is Sheol, and not a well-appointed synagogue, as in the fanciful imagination of the midrashic author. He speaks of being cast into the depths of the seas, of despair, of remembering God and giving thanks to God who saves him. Essentially the prayer tells Jonah’s story.  It is set very nearly in the middle of the book, so to speak, in the very bowels of the book: there are 18 verses in the book of Jonah before the psalm and 21 after it. The epicentre of Jonah’s story is 2,7, a verse which encapsulates the mood of Yom Kippur :

 I went down to the bottom of the mountains; the earth with her bars closed upon me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.

לְקִצְבֵי הָרִים יָרַדְתִּי הָאָרֶץ בְּרִחֶיהָ בַעֲדִי לְעוֹלָם וַתַּעַל מִשַּׁחַת חַיַּי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָי

 Nineveh 

Chapter 3, verses 1 – 3

 God speaks to the fish who vomits Jonah on to dry land.  The word of  God comes to him  again, telling him to go to Nineveh and proclaim its imminent fall. Jonah is not back to square one because he has experienced strange events and suffering, and now he sets out for Nineveh.  

 Verses 4 – 6

Here Jonah speaks his five prophetic words:

 עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת    In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.

 In the LXX, Jonah says ‘In three days, Nineveh will be overthrown.’

 The book  of Jonah distinguishes between the mission of the prophet and the fulfillment of his prophecy. Ninevah is not after all overthrown, but still Jonah must speak his five  words in the appointed place and, in spite of his procrastination, no doubt at the appointed time.

 The people of Nineveh responded at once: they fasted and put on sackcloth. When the king of Nineveh heard of it, he proclaimed a fast and said ‘Let every man turn  from his evil way, and from the violence of his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent…?’

The sins of Ninevah are not specified and the king of Nineveh is not named.

  Nineveh is an extremely large city, three days walk across. After Jonah has delivered his prophecy and emerged on the east side of the city – which we know is the far side because he  approached from the west – he has, one might infer, spent three days crossing Nineveh, just as he spent three days in the dag gadol. The proliferation of the king’s command to wear sackcloth will have taken a certain amount of time, perhaps the three days in which Jonah crosses the city.

Verse 3,7

The king includes animals in the fasting and the wearing of sackcloth, even decreeing that cattle and flock should not graze. (Al yiru) According to Herodotus, including animals in mourning was customary in the Persian empire.[34] Pagan gods and mythological creatures often had animal attributes, being, for example, part jackal, part bull, part fish or part horse. Attributing human attributes to animals may be the converse of such a perspective. More prosaically, the sackcloth on the animal may be simply a sign of the mourning of the owner. Dr A Cohen[35], in his translation of the Trei-Asar, cites the Apocryphal book of Judith, where, in response to the threat of the mighty Assyrian army, every man of Israel and their wives, children,   servants and cattle put sackcloth upon their loins.[36]

 Verse 9

    Who knows whether God will not turn and repent?

The syntax brings to mind David’s words, after he had fasted and prayed for the life of his infant son.[37]

Even closer are the words of the prophet Joel:

“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.  Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him.[38]

 Verse 10

For God repented of the evil which He said He would do…

The idea of God relenting in this way is not unusual in Tanakh; we have seen it in the case of David’s census,[40]  in an oracle of Jeremiah,[41] in the prayers of Amos on behalf of Israel,[42] as well as in Moses’ many dialogues with God.

The Mishnah tells us that God responded to the change in the behaviour of the Ninevites, rather than to the display of repentance:

Concerning the men of Nineveh, [it does not say] ‘God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way.[43]

The passage goes on to quote the prophet Joel: Rend your heart and not your garments.[44]

Chapter 4

Verses 1-2

God does relent towards Nineveh but Jonah is distressed, and angry. He quotes Exodus 34: A God gracious and merciful, slow to anger…[45] the words which God proclaimed to Moses on Sinai and which appear in the liturgy of all the services on Yom Kippur. Jonah knows God’s attributes of mercy and compassion and he seems to feel that his  mission was pointless from the outset; furthermore Ninevah was potentially a dangerous place for an Israelite troublemaker.

 Verse 3

Why does Jonah plead for death? Does he feel that his reputation as a prophet is damaged because Nineveh was not destroyed?

Jonah’s argument with God is the reverse of Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah: Abraham wants God to save lives in Sodom but only Lot and his daughters are saved. Jonah wants to see the destruction of Ninevah, but all are saved.

Verse 4 

Previously, God spoke to Jonah in commanding mode. Now He enters into a dialogue  with him, with the question: הַהֵיטֵב הָרָה לָךְ – ‘Does your anger do good?’. Jonah does not reply, or his reply is  unrecorded.

Verse 5

Jonah has arrived from the west and walked through the city; when he leaves he is to the east, but not too far to be a spectator. He has been on the run, one way or another through most of the story, with the exception of his time in the whale. Now he makes himself a succah and sits under its shade.

Verse 6

Just as God prepared a fish, He now prepares a gourd, a קִיקָיון, to shelter Jonah and Jonah  feels great happiness: שִֹמְחָה גְדוֹלָה, perhaps because God is sheltering him.  A gourd is said to be a squash, pumpkin, marrow, melon,all of which are cucurbitaceae, of the cucumber family, but  Ibn Ezra says rightly of the קִקָיון: One need not know what species of plant this was, to understand the lesson.

As Jonah has already made himself a succah for shelter, why does the gourd make him happy? Possibly it provides additional shade, but perhaps also it is a sign of God’s protection, of which Jonah has not been sure until now, even when saved from the whale.

Verse 7-8

Jonah had gone out on the east side of the city and turned to watch events while there was still enough sunlight for him to require shade. He would have seen the sun set over the city. At dawn, the worm, prepared by God, struck the gourd which dried up. The sun rose behind Jonah, striking his head. The word struck or smote, וַתַּךְ is used of the worm which attacked the gourd and the sun which beat down on Jonah’s head.The driving wind reminds us of the great wind which prevented Jonah’s getaway from Joppa.

 Again, Jonah wishes to die.

 Verse 9

God asks again if Jonah is right, הַהֵיטֵב, to be angry about the gourd. angry, עַד־מָוֶת.

Verses 10-11

God replies to Jonah with an a fortiori argument: if Jonah, who did not labour over the plant, cares about its survival, how much more so should God care for the 120,000 persons of Nineveh, whom – it is implied rather than said – God created and and preserved.

  As  Jonathan Magonet and Lionel Blue point out in their commentary, Jonah cared for the gourd as a tool for his safety rather than as the work of his hands. The gourd actually saves him  and Jonah depends on it. The attachment which Jonah feels for this plant is therefore a very strong emotion and serves as an analogy for God’s care for Ninevah.

 120,000 is one of the biblical numbers which signifies many; it is found elsewhere in connection with men fallen on the battlefield [47] and sheep offered for sacrifice by king Solomon.

Rashi comments that the people of Nineveh resembled cattle as they were too clueless to know their right hand from their left.

There is an episode in Genesis involving an apparent confusion about the left and right hand; this is when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph says:

Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head[50]

Jacob’s act of blessing the younger child with his right hand and the older with his left has echoes of Jacob’s own youth, when he obtained the firstborn Esau’s birthright, but Jacob does not speak of this when he replies to Joseph. Instead, he looks to the future:

I know, my son, I know; he [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.[51]

The descendants of Ephraim were indeed so numerous that the name Ephraim is used by  the  prophets[52]   to represent the whole of of the Northern Kingdom. The ‘multitude of nations’ which Ephraim became were vanquished by descendants of those Ninevites who did not know their right hand from their left. In 722 BCE, about fifty years after Jonah’s lifetime – if he was contemporary with King Jeroboam II, as stated in 2 Kings 14 –  the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians. The Assyrian capital city Nineveh would be destroyed by the Babylonians in 612, fulfilling the prophecy of Nahum.[53] If Jonah had not specified forty days, he, like Nahum, would have got it right.

Lastly, the cattle. We saw that they were included in the fast and the wearing of sackcloth. Jonathan Magonet suggests that the words וּבְהֵמַה רָבָּה contribute to a  numeric balance of Jonah’s words and God’s words in this chapter.[54] He also points out that animals and nature, in the Jonah story, are proactive in the service of God.

I suggest that the ending of Jonah is particularly memorable because, uniquely among  books of the bible, it ends with a question. However, the question is not about the cattle;  it is something more pertinent to the mood of Yom Kippur:  ‘Shall I not feel pity?’  וַאֲנִי לא אָחוּס

September 2008  Ellul 5768

  

 

 

 

 


[1] Megillah 31a

[2] 2 Kings 14,23-25

[3] Genesis Rabbah 98,11

[4]

 Genesis 49,13

[5] A Study in the book of Jonah, J Magonet, Guild of Pastoral Psychology, Lecture 208

[6] Nedarim 38a

[7] Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Bo 1

[8]  ibid

[9] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 10

[10] Deuteronomy 18, 22

[11] Genesis 2,21

[12]

 Genesis 15,12

[13] NT Matthew 8,24  NB  Peter the disciple is called Bar Jonah in Matthew 16,17

[14] BDB p572

[15]

 Leviticus 16, 7-10

[16] Jonah 1,14

[17]

 PRE 10,31

[18] Jonah 1,16

[19] Jonah 2,1; 4,6; 4,7; 4,8

[20] Genesis Rabbah 5,5

[21] Genesis 1,21

[22] Bava Batra 74b

[23] Isaiah 27, 1

[24] NT Matthew 12,40,

[25] Genesis 22,4

[26] Hosea 6,2

[27] Genesis 42,18

[28] Exodus 19,16

[29] Joshua 2,16

[30] Esther 5,1

[31] Genesis Rabbah 56,1

[32] Surah Saaffat chapter 37, 145-148

[33] Jonah in Ninevah, H Clay Trumball, Journal of Biblical Literature vol 11, no 1 1892

[34]The Histories 9,24: ‘They shaved their heads and cut the manes of their horses and mules.’

[35]

 The Twelve Prophets trans Rev Dr A Cohen, Soncino Press 1957  p146

[36]

 Judith 4,9

[37] 2 Samuel 12,22

[38] Joel 2,14

[39] Exodus 32,14

[40] 2 Samuel 24,16 and 1 Chronicles 21,15

[41]

 Jeremiah 18,7-8

[42]

 Amos 7,2-6

[43] Taanit 2,1

[44] Joel 2,13

[45] Exodus 34, 6-8

[46] 1 Kings 19,4

[47] Judges 8,10; 1 Chronicles 28,6

[48] 1 Kings 8,63

[49] Matthew 6,3

[50] Genesis 48,18

[51] ibid verse19

[52] Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Obadiah, Zechariah

[53]

 Nahum 1,1ff

[54] Yamim Noraim p1016

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