Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ha’azinu-Shabbat Teshuva 5770/ September 26, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Flight From Himself—The Book of Jonah


 Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn


Department of Bible


Many explanations have been given for the choice of the book of Jonah as the haftarah reading for the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement. [1]  Clearly the idea of repentance plays a part in this book:  a person (and even an entire nation) that had sinned and then had had a change of heart and shown regret for his/their actions was immediately forgiven all his/their transgressions. [2]   But the place of repentance in this book is not very prominent, and is focused primarily in the third chapter. [3]   Therefore, one ought to look for additional reasons for reading this book at the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement.

Closely analyzing the text in all sections of this book leads us to the personal aspect.   From the very beginning the book of Jonah stresses the theme of an individual running away from his mission, from his destiny, even from himself (Jonah 1:1-3):

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:   Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.   He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the Lord.

Person or Prophet?

These verses do not speak of a prophet (Heb. Navi), for the Hebrew root n-b-’ is not mentioned even once in the entire book of Jonah.   Rather, we are dealing with an ordinary human being who refuses to heed G-d’s word and fulfill the mission given him (in this instance, to publicly proclaim a prophecy).   Instead of heading eastward to Nineveh, he heads as far west as possible, to Tarshish. [4]   Jonah does not flee from G-d to the sea, for he himself proclaims that he fears the Lord, G-d of Heaven, “who made both sea and land” (Jonah 1:9); rather, he flees “away from the service of the Lord [mi-lifnei Hashem],” from the personal conversation with the Lord that delegated him to perform a mission. [5]   Jonah refuses to hear the word of the Lord and to accept the role destined for him.

In the beginning of the book, no mention is made of the reason for Jonah’s flight.  It is explicitly mentioned only in the last chapter – “That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish.  For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious G-d” (Jonah 4:2).   Here we have deliberate flash-back. [6]   At the outset, the author is interested not in discussing the reason for Jonah’s flight, rather in examining whether a person can escape from his destiny.  Indeed, this is an existential question, worthy of occupying our attention on the Day of Atonement.

The book of Jonah describes with great drama the stages of Jonah’s flight to Joppa – to the ship and Tarshish, on one hand, and to sleep – to apathy and death, on the other. [7]   The captain and the sailors try to rouse Jonah from his “slumber” and bring him back to reality so that he will follow the path that had been set out for him, but alas, their efforts are to no avail.  And so Jonah ends up in the belly of a huge fish, where he is cut off from society and wrapped up in himself.  The person who did not want to accept his destiny in life and tried to flee in the opposite direction, now finds himself in a quandary; he does not know how to free himself from his difficult situation.


Deliverance comes through the means of prayer.   Prayer in the Bible, which has provided the foundation for Jewish prayer throughout the generations, serves as a way for a person to take stock of himself in the presence of G-d. [8]   Jonah’s prayer is a sort of self-analysis.  Jonah understands that if he does not accept himself, but continues to follow a way that leads to nowhere, he will fall into a life of nothingness; therefore he accepts the function that has been delegated to him.  At the beginning of the book, the Lord had said to him, “Go at once (Heb. qum)… and proclaim (Heb. qera)” (Jonah 1:2).   The captain repeated this exhortation, “Up ( qum), call (qera)” (Jonah 1:6), but only now, at the beginning of his prayer, does Jonah respond affirmatively to this exhortation:  I cried out (qarati)” (Jonah 2:3).

In mythological tales of ancient times (and even in classic children’s stories), usually the monster releases the person he has swallowed after he is attacked from without and killed, [9] whereas in our story Jonah is saved by a divine command to the fish, in the wake of Jonah’s prayer, to spew Jonah out.  The fish (like the sea, in the first chapter) obeys the word of G-d, unlike Jonah, who tries to flee from it.  And so, after three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah is set free by virtue of his prayer, which led him to examine himself and his destiny.   Dialogue with G-d made it possible for him to be saved.  This is a typical story-line in Scripture:  deliverance from frightful forces of nature is achieved not through physical strength, but through prayer.  Such has been the case, from the splitting of the Reed Sea through the plight of Daniel in the lion’s den.

Looking at the first part of the book of Jonah, one might ask whether Jonah had free choice and whether his path in life was not imposed on him from without.  The answer intimated by the book is stated explicitly elsewhere in the Torah:   “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life” (Deut. 30:19).  A person can choose a way of life that runs contrary to his unique being, that will lead him to frustration and perdition; but the Lord advises us to choose life, to accept the responsibility of filling our lives with content and meaning that suits our personality.

Justice and Mercy

Further on in the book, Jonah fulfills his role, and thanks to him the people of Nineveh repent.  Jonah is not happy about his “success.”  Quite the contrary, he is “displeased … greatly” (Jonah 4:1), and again he wishes to die, this time not because of the mission assigned to him, but because of the merciful way in which G-d runs His universe.  Jonah’s anger has nothing to do with the tension between Nineveh and Israel:   the name “Israel” is not mentioned in the book even once. [10]   Likewise, Jonah’s anger has nothing to do with being a prophet whose standing has suffered because his prophecy did not come to pass; after all, as we mentioned above, the book does not speak in terms of prophecy at all. [11]   Jonah’s displeasure has to do with the Lord running His world with compassion instead of harsh justice, thus making it more difficult to bring about the Lord’s kingdom on earth.   In Jonah's view, only the strict measure of justice can deter sinners and assure obedience to G-d’s commandments. [12]

One must not make light of Jonah’s contention, stemming from a deep devotion to faith.  But in a world of wavering and failing, in a world of existential questioning and seeking, one needs understanding, forgiveness, and a continual possibility of correcting and renewing.  Therefore, one needs an attitude of compassion and mercy on the part of the Creator.   Indeed, on the Day of Atonement a person must ponder his ways, the responsibility that he must accept, and the possibility of realizing his destiny and mission, putting his special talents to practice.  It is not easy for a person to live with his weaknesses and to accept himself with all his limitations.   But this is the act of faith that is required of every Jew on the Day of Atonement:  to recognize one’s inner capabilities and to put them to use in a suitable way in order to improve the world, called in the piyyutMa'aseh Elokenu" (the handiwork of G-d), in which we live.

The inner struggle that took place in Jonah’s soul, a paradigm for any person, was described well by the Hebrew poet, Yaakov Fichman.  One should not go seeking afar after fata morgana.  In the final analysis, people cannot escape their destiny, their responsibility, their very selves, for such is the will of the Creator:

You said:   I shall flee from G-d!   A person flees but from himself – then he sets sail for Tarshish, wondrous landscape, and fears not the tempest of the seas.

But where can he flee, his dark side always with him?  The deepest depth thunders, unseen; expanse of land, hidden isles – no refuge there from one’s own blood.

Son of Amitai!  Suffering seer!  To flee from your soul you sought – tromped by a blind and misleading star! 

Arise and flee unto yourself!  Quit Nineveh, forget Tarshish!   And this flame, which licks at your blood, do love, suffer, -- and prophesy! [13]



[1] For example, Yehoshua Bachrach, Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu, Jerusalem 1959, pp. 73-81; Hayyim Hamiel, Sefer Yonah, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 67-78; Issachar Yaakobson, Hazon ha-Mikra vol. 2, Tel-Aviv 1959, pp. 377-388.  Scholarly interpretations of the book of Jonah tend not to deal extensively with this question, which belongs to the world of Jewish prayer.

[2] Even the Sages were of different opinions regarding the essence of the repentance done by the people of Nineveh.   See Ephraim E. Urbach, “Teshuvat Anshei Nineveh ve-ha-Vikuah ha- Yehudi-Notzri,” Tarbiz 20 (1950), pp. 118-122.

[3] Other parts of the book as well contain oblique allusions to the theme of repentance, especially the last chapter, which deals with the theoretical foundation for repentance:  the quality of mercy in the Holy One, blessed be He.

[4] Tarshish is described as a city “at the ends of the earth,” and the prophet Isaiah even emphasizes that this city is among the places “that have never heard My fame” (Isa. 66:19).  What more suitable place for a person who does not want to hear the word of G-d?

[5] Lifnei Hashem   (literally, “before the Lord”) is an expression denoting personal presence before the Lord, generally in the context of accepting prophetic mission.  Thus Elijah says in his prophecy, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve (literally: “before whom I stand”)” (I Kings 17:1; 18:15).

[6] The idea of flash-back has been discussed at length in many works on biblical narrative.  See for example Frank Polak, Biblical Narrative: Art and Design (Hebrew), Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 167-174.

[7] Ernst Simon, “Flight from G-d – and Return,” Commentary 16 (1953), pp. 214-218.

[8] The root p-l-l means to sit in judgment (“If a man sins against a man, the Lord may pardon [p-l-l] him,” I Sam. 2:25), thus the reflexive form of the verb (hitpallel) could be interpreted as meaning self-judgment or self-assessment.  This idea was summarized by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:   “The word le-hitpallel – from which tefillah, the word for prayer, is derived – means to judge, to judge myself and to aspire to a true judgment of my self, including all my relations with G-d and with the world, as well as the relations of G-d and the world to myself.  By instilling this power of judgment in my heart and soul, I return to a life of pure actions, elevated and strengthened” (Horev, Pirkei ha-Avodah, beginning of section on prayer).

[9] As in the classic case of Heracles and Hesione and Perseus and Andromeda.  See Joseph Campbell, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, New York 1949.   In children’s stories this motif reappears in such famous tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, and many others.

[10] Nationalist approaches to the book of Jonah date back to midrashic literature (“Jonah fought for the honor of the son, not the father,” Mekhilta, Tractate De-Pishah 1), and was taken up as a possible explanation by most of the medieval biblical exegetes, including Rashi, Joseph Qara, Radak, and Ibn Ezra.

[11] However, the approach that Jonah disappointed a s a prophet is also found in the Sages (“Not only am I called a false prophet by Israel, but also by idolaters,” Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 10).  Several commentators, from Saadia Gaon to Abarbanel, interpret Jonah’s flight in this light.

[12] Research on the book of Jonah contains many literary approaches to the subject, including Leah Frankel’s article, “Ve-Rahamav al kol Ma‘asav,” Perakim be-Mikra, Jerusalem 1981, pp. 223-237, and more recently, Uriel Simon, The JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah. Philadelphia: JPS, 1999.  So too my book, Das Buch Jona im Lichte der Biblischen Erzaehlkunst, Studia Semitica Neerlandica 12 (Assen 1969).

[13] Yaakov Fichman, "Jonah", Pe’at Sadeh, Tel Aviv 1948, p. 144.