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    Jonah & the goyim

    Jonah is one of the subjects discussed by Elias Bickerman in his “Four Strange Books of the Bible” (Schocken, 1967). Jonah is indeed a strange book.

    Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, by Gustave Dore

    On that, the average Jewish reader sides with Bickerman. But that average reader is attracted by the book for less serious reasons than those Bickerman traverses – the storm, the sailors, the big fish and the gourd that came and went.

    High drama, human interest, people and their passions – no wonder it rouses a nearly somnolent Yom Kippur afternoon congregation.

    If this is all that makes Jonah interesting, we can already be thankful for small mercies. But is there nothing deeper that accounts for the strangeness that Bickerman sees in the story?

    I believe there is, and it is Jonah’s, and the book’s, attitude to gentiles.

    We are struck by the decency of the gentile characters in the story – the ship’s captain and crew, and the people of Nineveh. Not just their decency, but their piety.

    They fear God and make vows to Him: according to RaDaK and Metzudat David, vows to give charity to the poor. They repent of their sins and resolve to improve their conduct. The theme of the book, then, is the gentiles.

    True, we also learn about Jonah’s character. We discover that a prophet can try to evade his task but in the end is brought back to his duty.

    But this may be a sub-text, and the main theme is still the gentiles and Jonah’s attitude to them.

    We do not find him doing many particularly Jewish things – no Shabbat, no kashrut, no circumcision, no references to Biblical heroes like Moses, Aaron, David or Solomon, no reflection of Israelite history.

    Yes, Jonah admits to being a Hebrew (Ivri anochi), but only when the gentiles ask him to identify himself. He agrees that he worships the God of heaven, but says nothing about the God of Israel.

    He yearns to escape from the big fish in order to go to the Temple, but that may simply be a conventional idiom.

    It is not his Jewish connections that fill the story, but his relationships with gentiles.

    The author uses the story to show that God’s care and mercy are for all. He is a universalistic God, and all His creatures are His people.

    With such a majestic message, why is Jonah such a reluctant prophet?

    The sages have an answer. Jonah is a nationalist, not a universalist. He runs away from duty because he loves his own people. What a disgrace if the gentiles returned to God but the Israelites didn’t! If Nineveh repented whilst Israel were stiff-necked, Israelite self-respect would be shot to pieces!

    What is strange about Jonah is that he begrudges the gentiles their salvation. Which leaves an even stranger question: who is more representative of Jewish ethics – Jonah himself, or the Book of Jonah?

    Most of us would opt for the second answer.

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