Yonah, the Prophet.
The role of a prophet was to awaken and guide the people. As prophets that
came before him, Yonah naturally expected to play this same role for his
own people, the Nation of Israel. Always until his time, the great themes
of Biblical prophecy related to the special status of Israel as a party to
the covenant, its responsibilities under this covenant and the
consequences of violating its provisions. The prophets often found
themselves in an ambiguous position of standing on both sides of the
covenantal divide. As representatives of the nation they could and often
did argue to defend it and to lessen or postpone the consequences of its
disobedience or backsliding. On the other hand, they were Hashem's
messengers, necessarily zealous for His sake. Whereas prophets sometimes
sent missives to foreign kings and rulers (see Ishaiah 13-23, Yirmiah 46-
51, Yechezkel 25-33,Amos 1-2), they were always in the context of the
events that were taking place in the Jewish kingdoms. Yonah also expected
to be a prophet to his own people; instead he was called to deliver a
message to Nineveh. He was the only prophet charged with delivering a
prophecy solely to Gentiles. Yonah was asked to step outside of the
traditional prophetic paradigm but he did not wish, he could not agree to
give up his privilege to advocate for Israel.
The Sages commented on the tension of this double role as follows:
Three prophets - one defended the honor of the father and of the son, one
defended the honor of the father but not of the son and one defended the
honor of the son but not of the father. Yirmiah defended the honor of the
father and of the son, as it says "we sinned and transgressed. You did
not have mercy (Eicha 3) "...therefore his prophecy was doubled ...Eliahu
defended the honor of the father but not of the son - , as it says: "I
was exceedingly jealous for Hashem, the Lord of Hosts". What does it say
(regarding this)? "You go back... anoint Elisha ben Shafat in your stead
as prophet over Israel"(Kings 1, 19). Yonah defended the honor of the son
but not of the father. What does it say?" And the word of Hashem came to
Yonah second time". (He spoke to him) second time and no more (Mechilta
Eliahu defended the Father, so, the Sages point out, he lost the right to
represent the son Israel. Yonah took the side of the children of Israel
and sought to escape G-d, the other party to the covenant - that was his
error. Yirmiah defended the people by offering a confession on their
behalf but he also defended G-d's right to not accept it just yet; his was
the way of which G-d most approved.
The Sages described the motivation for Yonah's flight as stemming form his
concern that were the Ninevites to reprent, it would reflect poorly upon
the Jewish people. Yonah said: "I will take myself outside of the Land of
Israel, so as not to render Israel guilty - because the Gentiles are quick
to repent (whereas Jews have been repeatedly called to repentance and
refused to do so) (Mekhilta ibid). This explanation for Yonah's flight is
adopted by Rashi, Radak, R. Yosef Kara and Ibn Ezra. Abarbanel questions
it: " This is in truth a very weak interpretation since the repentance of
the people of Nineveh might shame Israel for their sins so that they
return to God who will have mercy on them".
It seems that Yonah was guided by honorable considerations; where has he
then gone wrong? After all, many other prophets resisted the initial call
to prophecy, among them Moshe, Yirmiah, Ishaiah and Amos. Yonah could
hardly be faulted for following in the footsteps of his predecessors in
this matter; neither can we view his noble self sacrifice on behalf of
Israel with anything less than admiration. But...... "The heart is
deceitful above all things, and it is exceeding deep--who can know it?"
(Yirmiah 16,9)". The verses themselves reveal to us that there was more to
this decision to escape Divine Presence than zealous defense of the Jewish
people. Undoubtedly this is what "Yonah said" to himself as he ran away;
yet, the true motivation did not become apparent to him until later. "And
Yonah was exceedingly troubled and he said: Behold, L-rd G-d, is this not
the thing that I said while still upon my land, therefore I hurried to
escape to Tarshish -for I knew that you are a merciful and forgiving G-d,
slow to anger and very benevolent, and you repent of causing evil" (Yonah
4,2). Underlying the noble self-perception there lay the real reason -
Yonah could not abide G-d's way in the world. Yonah did not want to carry
out the Divine command because he did not approve of all this "excess"
The experiences that followed humbled the prophet. The privations and
suffering broke his certainty. In the depths of his despair, pain and
frustration, imprisoned in the belly of the fish, at the depths of the
sea, he grew ready to receive and to be guided. He learned that Mercy is
good for it allows for repentance, as it permitted him to rise up from the
very depths of failure. Only humility allows real learning and real
humility is gained in the school of hard knocks. Yonah praised Hashem for
teaching him this truth for he saw that all this time, as he suffered, he
was also being guided.
"Good and upright is Hashem, therefore he guides the sinners upon the way.
He leads the humble with justice and will teach the humble His way"
(Tehilim 25, 8-9)
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.
Meir Levin, an author and Torah teacher lives in Monsey, NY.