Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Land and Sea, Natural and Supernatural in the Book of Jonah

September 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Holidays, Tanach

Jonah Cast Forth by the Whale, by Gustave Dore (Wikipedia)

Land and Sea, Natural and Supernatural in the Book of Jonah

by Daniel Reifman 

Like many texts that have been incorporated into the liturgy, the book of Jonah seems inseparable from the time it is read in the synagogue: the afternoon of Yom Kippur. As the day draws to a close, our thoughts turn to the final moments when our fate for the coming year will be sealed, and then inexorably to our uncertainty as to what that fate will be.

Two verses from the book capture this mood with particular poignancy. In chapter 1, the captain of the ship awakens the sleeping prophet and cries, “Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish.” (v. 6) In chapter 3, the king of Nineveh expresses an almost identical sentiment when he concludes his edict to the people by saying, “Who knows whether God will turn and relent, and turn back from his evil wrath so that we do not perish.” (v. 9) The characters seem almost to be speaking on our behalf at a moment when, after over a month dedicated to repentance and a full day devoted to prayer and fasting, we still have no idea whether our actions have had any impact on the divine will.

In contrast, Jonah’s claim against God at in chapter 4 is predicated on his knowing all about God’s behavior:

O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. (v. 2)

God does not respond immediately to Jonah’s complaint. Instead he orchestrates a series of events that demonstrate to Jonah just how much he does not understand. God’s ‘answer’, so to speak, is experiential rather than rational. Indeed, rather than trying to formulate the ‘moral’ of Jonah, we should note that the book ends with a question:

…And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well? (v. 11)

The thrust of God’s message, then, is theological humility, reaffirming the sentiment expressed by the ship’s captain and the king of Nineveh. Jonah may not understand God’s decision to spare Nineveh, but it is the human condition not to have all the answers. God does not need to account for Himself.

Natural and Supernatural Models of Divine Interaction

Yet in highlighting the parallel statements of the captain and the king, we have also ignored the specific contexts in which they appear. These statements are, of course, not uttered as abstract theological musings; each is embedded within a narrative—the storm at sea and the threatened destruction of Nineveh—and the differences between those narratives undercuts the simple comparison that we have drawn. A detailed analysis of the differences between these episodes complicates the simple message that we have drawn from the book thus far, and suggests that there may be more to Jonah’s complaint than meets the eye.

Both chapters 1 and 3 follow the same basic structure, a series of alternating divine and human actions which constitute a sort of unspoken dialogue: God threatens, man responds, God relents, man responds again. Yet the tenors of these two ‘conversations’ differ considerably: each stage in chapter 1 is marked by greater clarity and intensity than its parallel in chapter 3. For example, at sea the threat of the storm is palpable and immanent: “…such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.” (1:4) In contrast, God’s threat to destroy Nineveh is conveyed only through Jonah’s terse message; the people have not the slightest evidence of its truth. One might argue that this difference is immaterial, given the utter sincerity with which the Ninevites heed Jonah’s message. Yet the disparity in the clarity and intensity of the two divine threats is reflected in the emotional responses they elicit: the sailors “feared” (v. 5) and then “feared greatly” (v. 10), but the Ninevites merely “believed” (3:5).

Given the amorphous nature of the threat, the fact that the Ninevites heed Jonah’s warning is truly remarkable. (More than one commentator has remarked that the Ninevites’ response surpasses Jonah’s survival in the fish as the most fantastic event in the book.) But a close examination of the actual process of their repentance yields a more ambiguous picture. In describing God’s decision to pardon the city, the text (3:10) singles out the fact that they changed their sinful behavior—“God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways…”, wording which echoes the king’s final command to the people: “…Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty…” (v. 8) Yet in the overall scope of the Ninevites’ actions, the notion of changing their behavior comes across almost as an afterthought. The bulk of the text’s description of their repentance (v. 5-8a) focuses on ascetic measures—fasting and donning of sackcloth—that are not directly related to the “wickedness” (1:1) that has drawn God’s wrath and are not mentioned in God’s decision to pardon them. If the quantity of text devoted to these actions suggests that the Ninevites have somewhat misplaced priorities, that sense is reinforced by the way the text emphasizes that even livestock was compelled to fast and wear sackcloth (v. 6-7). While there is no doubting the Ninevites’ sincerity, one is left with the distinct impression that they don’t fully understand what God wants them to do.

Initially the sailors’ position is no different than that of the Ninevites; they don’t even know which divine power is causing the storm. But as the story progresses, they perceive, with increasing clarity, the hand of God controlling their fate. The key turning point comes when the sailors cast lots, which miraculously single out Jonah as the cause of the storm. As the events continue to unfold, the sailors come to realize the course of action God wants them to take: to throw Jonah overboard. As they prepare to cast the prophet into the raging sea, the sailors experience a moment of supreme awareness of the divine will; the startling directness with which they address God—“…for You are the Lord, You do as You wish” (1:14)—is almost unparalleled in Biblical narrative.

Perhaps the most revealing difference between these episodes lies in the way God’s clemency is perceived by the penitents. In chapter 1, the storm subsides instantly when the sailors throw Jonah overboard, confirming for them beyond any doubt that their fate lies in God’s hands and that they have done as He wished. Consequently, they react with “great fear of the Lord” (v. 16) and offer vows and sacrifices in thanksgiving. For all the uncertainty initially expressed by the captain, by the end of their ordeal, the sailors know. In chapter 3, however, God’s decision to stay the destruction of Nineveh is never conveyed directly to the Ninevites themselves. God offers no heavenly sign, not even a second prophetic message commending the Ninevites on their sudden turnaround. He simply, imperceptibly, spares the city, leaving the Ninevites to ponder the significance of their survival. Who’s to say whether they awoke on the morning of the 41st day and, finding their city still very much intact, wondered if it hadn’t been a hoax after all…

We can view the different experiences of the sailors as the Ninevites as representative of two models of God’s interaction with humanity. The Ninevites’ experience follows what we think of as a natural course of events. In the absence of any direct sign from God, they can discern God’s will only by reading between the lines of nature, by seeing divine significance in events—Jonah’s message, the fact that their city is not destroyed—that could easily be dismissed as nature running its course. In contrast, the sailors’ responses are shaped by precisely the sort of overt divine intervention—the outcome of the lots, the sudden cessation of the storm—that is absent in Nineveh. The sailors directly perceive the supernatural—the divine power that functions above the laws of nature in guiding their fate.

Land and Sea

One of the most basic—and overlooked—distinctions within Jonah concerns the setting: the entire first half of the book (save the first two verses) is set at sea, while the entire second half is set on land. The dichotomy of sea and land is accentuated by Jonah himself, who refers to the Lord as the One who “made the sea and the dry land” (1:9).

Juxtaposition between land and water features prominently in several Biblical narratives. The most conspicuous example is the splitting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, where the text emphasizes the fact that God “turned sea into dry land” (14:21) and that the Israelites “walked on the dry land within the sea” (14:29, 15:19). Other such episodes include the separation of land and sea during Creation (Gen. 1:9-10), the Flood story (Gen. 7), and the crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites (Joshua 3) and again by Elijah and Elisha (II Kings 2). In all these cases, the contrast between land and water is accentuated by the use of the terms yabashah or haravah—‘dry land’—instead of (or, in some cases, in addition to) the more common eretz or adamah.

It is significant that in all of these cases, the relationship between water and land revolves around the creation and/or destruction of an environment fit for passage or habitation. For example, the gathering of the waters on the third day of Creation permits the growth of plants later that day, and the parting of the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan allows for the safe passage of the Israelites. Conversely, the covering of land with water results in the destruction of life. The waters of the Flood destroy all the earth’s inhabitants, and the Egyptian army is annihilated when the waters of the Red Sea return to their place. Likewise, in the first half of Jonah, the sea constitutes a threatening, inhospitable environment. In the Bible, water is generally portrayed as a source of life, but in these episodes it is precisely the absence of water that permits life to exist, while an overabundance of water suppresses, suffocates, drowns.

I would like to propose that the sea/land dichotomy takes on a figurative dimension in Jonah, one suggested by the following midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 28:2):

“Let the waters be gathered (yiqawwu) into one area” [Gen. 1:9]: “Let the waters hope (yeqawwu) for Me, for what I am about to do with them.” This is like a king who built a palace and settled dumb people in it. They would rise up early in the morning and greet the king in sign language. The king said, “If these dumb people rise early to greet me in sign language, how much better it would be if they could speak!” So the king settled speaking people in his palace. They rose up and took over the palace. They said, “This palace does not belong to the king, it belongs to us.” So the king said, “Let the palace return to its previous state.” So, too, in the beginning, God’s praise rose up only from the water, as it is written, “From the voices of many waters.” And what did they say? “God is majestic on high.” [Psalms 93:4] God said, “If these waters, which have no speech, praise Me, when man is created, how much more he will praise Me!” The generation of Enosh arose and rebelled against him; the generation of the Flood rebelled; the generation of the Tower of Babel rebelled. God said, “Let these be removed and let those who were here before come in their place.”1

Underlying the midrash’s concept of speech is the notion of free will. The waters express absolute, unequivocal praise of God because they cannot invent language of their own, while the man’s subordination stems from his ability to create and utilize words that deny God’s supremacy. For the midrash, the Flood represents not only the destruction of the physical world but the crushing of human will, as the vast abundance of water fills the world with silent, absolute acquiescence to the will of the divine.

This notion of the sea as a place of existential suppression reinforces our analysis of the differences between chapters 1 and 3. In the book of Jonah, sea and land constitute parallel worlds in which similar chains of events unfold in dramatically different ways. At sea, the sailors are able to perceive God’s immanence; as a result, they are able utterly to negate their will to His. On dry land, God does not impose His presence. Land constitutes a stable, non-threatening environment where man can pursue his desires—for good or evil—free from the immediate judgment of the Almighty. Man may feel remorseful, even undergo sincere repentance, but the sense of utter and complete submission to the divine will is necessarily lacking.

Jonah’s Struggle

I would suggest that the discrepancy between these two manifestations of God and how man responds to them lies at the very core of Jonah’s struggle. At sea, Jonah experiences a sublime world in which man’s desire is in perfect agreement with God’s. In such a world, the concept of divine mercy is not so much reasonable as irrelevant: it is possible to predicate man’s continued existence on his acquiescence to the divine will for the simple reason that man has no choice but to acquiesce. What Jonah cannot accept is a world in which man’s moral freedom is at odds with his ability to comprehend God’s design. Here man’s desires will necessarily be in tension with God’s; even sincere and earnest repentance will necessarily fall short. It is here that Jonah issues his complaint against divine mercy: why does God allow this flawed existence to persist?

As we stand before God in the waning hours of Yom Kippur, we, too, understand Jonah’s struggle. Not only do we wonder if we managed to achieve what God expects of us, we cannot even be sure that we have perceived correctly what those expectations are. Yet we take solace in God’s final rhetorical question, where He affirms that even our imperfect world—full of “people who do not yet know their right hand from their left”—can be the recipient of His boundless mercy.2

  1. Translation based on Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, Genesis: the Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995) 47-8. []
  2. This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and chavruta, Sara Duker hy”d.  The final time Sara and I studied together was the afternoon of Yom Kippur 5756, and the ideas that we shared that day became the kernel of this essay. []
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