The truth about Jonah

In her book “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet,” Dr. Erica Brown accepts the view held by many scholars that Jonah son of Amitai is the same man who in II Kings 14:25-27 gave King Jeroboam II the divine prophecy to expand his kingdom in the eight century BCE. She accepts the biblical story in the biblical book Jonah as a true happening except for the huge fish swallowing the prophet, which she understands as a psychological metaphor, “it is the monster of the deep, the fear-inducing tool of self-confrontation.” Jonah was trapped in the monster for three days of internal struggle, “allowing him to either die in the leviathan or emerge and be reborn.”

Her book is part of the splendid Maggid series on the biblical books which explores the texts, themes, and personalities of the Bible. Each volume is composed by a different scholar. Dr. Brown enlightens us about Jonah, to his personality and acts, by referring to and explaining the views of classical and modern Jewish and non-Jewish sources, literal readings and midrashic. The book is published in cooperation with OU Press. Dr. Brown calls her book “the most psychologically and theologically charged book in the Bible.”

Scholars date the book to around the fifth or early fourth century BCE, reflecting occurrences of several centuries earlier. Yet, we can see these kinds of events still happening today. We, like Jonah, employ an enormous variety of clever devices to run away from our responsibilities and from ourselves. We are reminded also of the story of Noah who saved his family and thereby future civilization in an ark. But Jonah was different. He sat in an ark-like structure in self-containment in a fish and later under the shade of a tree – “but [his salvation] only had room for one.”

While only four short chapters, the biblical book Jonah was chosen to be read during the midst of the solemn Yom Kippur service, the time of self-refection. It challenges readers. Is it “a parody, a cautionary tale, a relational struggle of a Hebrew prophet with his God”? Is the first century historian Josephus correct that the book is not the story of a failed prophet but the story of a good king – the king of Nineveh? Was the repentance by the people of Nineveh shallow, superficial, and short-lived as some rabbis claim? What wrong did Nineveh commit that required repentance? How did they obliterate that wrong? How can we do so? How could Jonah think that he could escape from God? Why does the tale end so abruptly without Jonah’s response to God’s critique of him? Why does the deity insist that God cares for even people who cannot differentiate their right hand from their left, and even animals? Did Jonah come to realize that he did not understand God and what God desires? Was Jonah a hero? What does his book teach us? Dr. Brown’s book is both thought-provoking and enlightening, and should be read.

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