Whale of a tale

The many unusual elements of the Jonah story tell us we are in allegory county.

jonah and whale 88 (photo credit: )
jonah and whale 88
(photo credit: )
One of the highlights of Yom Kippur is the reading of the Book of Jonah at the Minha (afternoon) service. The book purports to tell of the teshuva (repentance) of the people of Nineveh, who are saved thereby from the utter destruction predicted for them by the prophet Jonah. This example of teshuva is difficult to understand. What is the significance to us of a pagan people doing repentance? Is it that they suddenly acknowledge the Hebrew God and, even if they do so, will their repentance last for any significant time? Have they suddenly seen the light and thrown away all their idolatry in the face of one small warning of five words from the Hebrew prophet? Moreover, not only do the people and the king start putting on sackcloth and ashes and fasting, but even their animals go in for these forms of repentance! This is really stretching credulity a bit too far. The Midrash attempts to explain the circumstances by saying that Jonah went first to Jerusalem to warn the people to repent, but they ignored him. It was then that he was sent to Nineveh, the city of ultimate idolatry, and was able to make them do what the Jerusalemites had refused to do. Thus we have a nice moral tale, an example to all of us. But the book does not say that, and the Midrash fails to explain all the weird happenings experienced by Jonah. Why in the first place does Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? Why does he catch the boat to Tarshish and why is his boat struck by a storm, so that he has to be thrown out and be swallowed by a big fish? When he does get to Nineveh, why is Jonah so angry when they heed his call and do teshuva? When he sits outside the city why does his shelter, the succa, disappear and why is the magical kikayon plant that replaces it destroyed in one day by a red worm ? And above all, why is God so keen to save Nineveh? THE NICE answer to this last question is that God’s mercy applies to all His creatures and if they get away from their evil ways, then He will love them, even the people of Nineveh, the worst idolators of all. But that is a Christian idea, that Israel is not special and that God’s mercy extends to all. No other Hebrew prophet is concerned with the salvation of distant nations, at the most it would be nations who live next to Israel, like the early chapters of Amos about the people who affect life in Israel, but Nineveh is a thousand kilometers away. The introduction of so many unusual elements, like the big fish (that the Midrash tells us was created for this task bein hashemashot, in the split second before the end of Creation, the kikayon plant and the red worm, the animals putting on sackcloth, and Jonah’s fainting under the fierce east wind, should warn us that we are in allegory country, but allegory for what? In the prophet Hosea, the east wind is a metaphor for Assyria (12:2 and 13:15). Is it so here? And what is this constant emphasis on “evil,” particularly the evil of Nineveh “that has come up before God?” This evil that hangs over the whole story, is this real evil or is it also allegory for an “evil” related to Israel and perhaps Assyria? The unusual elements in Jonah all fall into a logical sequence if we understand that the evil of Nineveh is the “evil” of the Assyrian army, whose capital was at Nineveh, on the River Tigris. Now, for this “evil” to be of interest to a Hebrew prophet, it must be evil in relation to Israel, either by attacking Israel or, possibly, by abandoning Israel to its fate. If that is so, then one glaring example comes to mind. It is the terrible siege of Samaria, capital of northern Israel, by Ben-Hadad of Aram (Syria) in about the year 803 BCE. This was a time when the Assyrian army was holed up in Nineveh, and not interfering in the affairs of its satellite kingdoms in the west (as they called it). That enabled Aram to attack Israel and besiege Samaria, as described in II Kings 6:24. That siege is the worst recorded in the Bible. The poor women are reduced to eating their children, and the rich have to do with bird-dung for a delicacy. The king of Israel is powerless. The situation is so shameful that he is not named, but he is clearly the grandson of Jehu, called Joash or Jehoash, whom we are told is constantly harassed by Aram, but finally rescued by a “savior” (II Kings 13:5). That savior was Assyria. In previous years Assyria had come to restore order among its satellite kingdoms in the west but now Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian army, is staying at home and Israel is at the mercy of Ben-Hadad of Aram. Enter the young Jonah ben Amitai, of Gat Hahepher, pupil of Elisha, later to be court prophet to Jeroboam II, great-grandson of Jehu. Jonah is entrusted with the mission to get help for Samaria. The nearest ally is Phoenicia, which runs the famous fleet of ships to Tarshish (Ezekiel 27:25). But Jonah is prevented by the storm, or the god of storm Adad, in other words Ben-Hadad. So he turns to another neighbor, the Philistines, who worship the Dagon, the mighty fish god (Judges 16:23). But they can only help for a short period (three days) and Jonah is forced at last to go to the Assyrian army, whose headquarters is at Nineveh. That was a thousand kilometers away, but he may have been able to contact them through their local garrison at Beit Adin, north of Syria, a journey of three long days, as described in Jonah 3:3. There he persuades the people, that is the army, to put on sackcloth, which is the sack-like material that soldiers in antiquity used to protect their skins against abrasion from the iron-leaf armor. Their animals, the army auxiliaries, also “put on the sack.” They all fast, as soldiers do before battle, as Saul forced his soldiers to do before fighting the Philistines. And thus the Assyrian King Adadnirari III, whose army is recorded in his official annals as being 120,000 strong, leads his soldiers to the west toward Damascus. When the Syrians hear of this, they abandon the siege of Samaria to rush to the defense of their capital (II Kings 7:7). The siege is lifted, Samaria and Israel are saved, Assyria has done teshuva. BUT JONAH is not happy. He, the prophet, sees that one day Assyria will turn from savior to aggressor. Jonah’s booth, the dynasty of Jehu, has come to an end, after the glorious reign of Jeroboam II and his weak son Zachariah. Jeroboam was in alliance with Assyria, but now its taxes are weighing too heavily on Israel. The regicide Shallum ben Jabesh assumes the throne and looks to Egypt for help to throw off the Assyrian yoke, and Israel, represented by Jonah, rejoices. But Shallum reigns for only one month (15:13). He rises and falls as quickly as the kikayon, a plant that grows only in Egypt according to the Greek historian Herodotus. Shallum in turn falls to the murderous Menahem, the cruel red worm, who restores the link to the heavy hand of Assyria. Jonah is mightily upset and cries to God that he wants the kikayon, the protective shade of Egypt, back. But God will have none of it. The Assyrian army of Nineveh, 120,000 strong (as in Jonah 4:11), is the greatest power in the world and Israel must submit to it if it is to survive. Assyria, “evil” or not, rules the world, and for the present God is on the side of the big battalions. That is the message of Jonah, just as years later the message of Jeremiah was to tell Judah to submit to Babylonia or to be destroyed by it. JUDAH DID not listen to Jeremiah, and Israel did not listen to Jonah. Twenty-four years after the death of Shallum, Hoshea, the last king of Israel, again tried to join with Egypt against Assyria. But his treachery was discovered and Assyria swept in and destroyed Samaria, this time in the fatal and final siege of 722 BCE that saw the end of the northern kingdom. Jonah had seen it coming and warned against it in his cryptic way, but his warning was ignored just as that of Jeremiah was ignored 136 years later. Jeremiah warned Judah openly and he was put in prison for it. He was not afraid to defy King Zedekiah, but Jonah was different. He made his prophecy in old age, in the reign of Pekah ben Remaliah, who was pursuing an aggressive anti-Assyrian policy. Jonah saw that as fatally flawed. To defy Assyria would lead to disaster, but to speak out plainly would have been treason and, for the old man, certain death. So he hid his message in allegory and gave us one of the most colorful books of the Hebrew Bible. The writer is a fellow of Albright Institute of Archeology, Jerusalem.