An unusual, sometime bizarre, but interesting interpreter


Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (also spelled Abravanel, 1437-1508) was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, Bible commentator, advisor to kings, and a wealthy financier. His many Bible commentaries generally begin with incisive questions. He was a clear thinker, but opposed philosophy and the rationalism of Maimonides, although he sometimes agreed with his views. He disliked the use of allegory and preferred to take the biblical text literally; thus he was convinced that the huge fish swallowed Jonah. He was unafraid to borrow the commentaries of Christians if they made sense to him.

            Abarbanel opens his discussion of Jonah by raising six questions.[1]

  1. There were many evil non-Israelite nations. Why did God send Jonah to Nineveh to prompt them to change their behavior and not Egypt, Babylon, or other wicked nation?
  2. Why did Jonah flee from the divine mission to speak to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Abarbanel notes that ancient rabbis suggested answers that he found unsatisfactory. (a) Jonah saw that the Ninevites were close to doing penetrance and did not want to embarrass the Israelites who he thought would not repent. But, Abarbanel argues, isn’t it possible, even likely, that once Israel sees the pagans repent, they would be prompted to repent as well? (b) Another rabbinical solution was that Jonah thought if the Ninevites repent, God will not slay them, and the Ninevites will call Jonah a false prophet. But, wrote Abarbanel, if the Ninevites repented, it shows that they believed Jonah, and if they believed him, they certainly wouldn’t have called him a false prophet. Also, what difference should it have made to Jonah if they thought he was a false prophet? After giving the Ninevites the divine message, he was returning to Israel and wouldn’t see them again? (c) Additionally, Jonah had no reason to flee, God did not tell him the prophecy in chapter one when God instructed him to go to Nineveh. At the outset, he is only told to say that God noted their improper behavior. God did not speak about destroying Nineveh until chapter three. So why did he run from the divine mission and take a ship to Tarshish?
  3. Why were the sailors on the ship unusually excited and fearful about the storm that suddenly struck their ship thinking it was a divine punishment? Storms at sea are common natural occurrences. Why did the sailors think the storm was caused by a single person and not more than one individual? They cast lots to determine the guilty part, but how could a lottery reveal the person who caused the storm?
  4. Why did the captain of the boat interrogate Jonah after his lottery identified Jonah as the culprit? What was the relevance of some of his queries, such as what is your work and from where did you come? Why was Jonah’s short response seemingly not an answer to his questions? Why after Jonah gave an answer did the captain continue questioning him?
  5. When Jonah realized that God was powerful and caused the storm, why didn’t he repent and go to Nineveh as God demanded? Why didn’t he listen to the ship captain and pray to God to stop the storm?
  6. Since Jonah never repented of his refusal to obey God, why did God order the fish that swallowed him after the sailors hurled him into the sea to cast Jonah out?[2]

Abarbanel followed his initial six questions with a general statement before he detailed his view of the book. He wrote that the book of Jonah teaches that the divine power exists throughout the entire world, not as Jonah thought – that he could escape it – and to teach that divine prophecies are true. In saying the latter, he differed with Maimonides who in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:32-48 contended that prophecy is not miraculous but the result of a person with a higher level of intelligence viewing current events and communicating the observations to others by means of a highly developed articulation skills and imagination. It is also contrary to the view of Tosafot to Yevamot 50a that states that a prophet does not foretell what will be, but what ought to be.

Abarbanel followed his general statement with an eleven page interpretation of the book which includes ideas such as the following.

  1. It is wrong to suppose that there were two distinct prophesies given to Jonah, one in chapter one and a second in chapter three. Although the full prophecy is not contained in chapter one, but only stated in full in chapter three, it is characteristic of the Bible to mention something briefly at first and elaborate upon it later. Although he Bible does not say so, Jonah received the entire prophecy in chapter one, before he fled, and God repeated the same prophecy after the fish ejected him onto dry land.
  2. God wanted to spare Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria, so that Assyria would exist later in full power to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.[3] Abarbanel accepts this idea, which Midrashim mention for homiletical reasons, as a fact – Jonah somehow knew that several decades after his mission to Nineveh, the Assyrians would crush Israel. How could he know this? Assyria at that time was not yet powerful. No biblical text confirms the existence of such a prophecy. More importantly, this notion assumes that God could not arrange the destruction of Israel in any other way but through a war between Assyria and Israel.
  3. Jonah ran from this mission because he knew that Assyria would ultimately raze Israel and didn’t want to be the means through which Assyria would be saved and be able to wipe out his nation. He believed that prophecy does not exist outside of Israel[4] and by leaving Israel he could escape the divine mission. He felt that if God wanted to save Assyria, let God do it with someone else.
  4. Both the storm and the fish were sent by God to show Jonah that he was wrong to think that divine power does not exist outside of Israel. Just as being swallowed by the fish was unusual, so too was the storm, so much so that the sailors realized that it must be from a god. The sailors saw that only their ship was affected by the storm; ships sailing nearby sailed on calm water. Abarbanel notes that this interpretation is in Midrash Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer, but claims it is not derash, but the plain meaning of the text for the book speaks about the tempest hurled against “the” ship, indicating against the ship containing Jonah, but no other ship.[5]
  5. When the sailors prayed to their gods to cause the storm to abate, Jonah went below hoping that the storm would continue, sink the ship, and kill him so that he would not have to fulfill God’s mission.[6]
  6. It is possible that the sailors cast multiple lots, for each passenger, but the multiple lots constantly revealed that the culprit was Jonah.
  7. But despite the many lots, the sailors were still unsure – perhaps the lottery fell upon Jonah by chance. So they spoke to Jonah. Despite the wording in the book, the questions should be understood as follows: Did you commit a crime for which the punishment is death? Did you act improperly at your job? Were your parents evil for which God is punishing you?[7] Did you harm your land in any way or your nation? Since all of the questions focus on a single point: did you act improperly? – Jonah gave a single response: I am a Hebrew, meaning I and all my people did all that God commands us to do. But then Jonah told the crew the truth that he was running from God’s mission.
  8. Despite Jonah’s admission of wrong, the righteous sailors did not want to harm him. They asked him what they should do. Jonah responded: hurl me into the sea. I’d rather die than save Nineveh. Once I am dead, the storm will cease. The sailors did not want to kill him. This was murder. They tried to sail to shore to place Jonah on land, but God continued the tempest because God wanted Jonah to repent and go to Nineveh. The sailors could not sail to the shore, and Jonah didn’t change his mind. The sailors prayed to God: Do not kill us who are innocent because of one guilty man and do not force us to kill him for you; surely you can find another way to punish him without getting us involved.
  9. Left with no other choice, the sailors hung Jonah overboard until his knees. The storm ceased, so they pulled him back on board, whereupon the storm resumed. So they hung him a second time until his neck. Again, the storm ceased, again they pulled him back, and again the storm resumed. So they dropped him into the sea, and the storm ended.[8]
  10. Jonah was only able to survive in the fish that swallowed him because of a divine miracle.
  11. Jonah use the past tense in the hymn of deliverance in chapter two, indicating that he had been saved, when it is clear that he is still in the fish and has not yet been saved. Abraham ibn Ezra, cited by Abarbanel, notes that the Bible frequently uses the past tense when it is referring to a future event. Abarbanel, however, rejects the notion that Jonah is speaking about being saved from the fish. He is speaking about having been saved in the past from former difficulties and hopes to be saved from this one as well.
  12. Contrary to the belief of many that Jonah never changed his mind and did not want to save Nineveh, and contrary to chapter four where Jonah is still pinning over Nineveh being saved, Abarbanel sees Jonah repenting his prior decision not to go to Nineveh; he now wants to obey God. When God saw that Jonah agreed not to run again, God told the fish to spew out Jonah. The fish traveled 965 parsangs to reach land and did what God commanded.[9]
  13. When Jonah warned Nineveh that the city would be destroyed in forty days, he must have told them that this decree would be nullified if they changed their behavior. Unless we say this, we would have to say that the prophecy that the city would be destroyed was not realized.
  14. Nineveh and its suburbs were huge. It would take a person forty days to walk from one end to another. God said that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days to give Jonah time to traverse and warn the entire city.[10]
  15. Abarbanel gives a second interpretation to the “forty days.” “Days” here means years, and adds other numbers to the forty, yielding 120 years. Thus God was foretelling that in 120 years Assyria would be destroyed by the Babylonians. Abarbanel’s 120 years is incorrect. Ignoring the questionable years added to the forty, according to II Kings 14, Jonah prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II (about 786-746 BCE). Nineveh was sacked in 612 BCE. Thus Nineveh was destroyed 134 years after Jeroboam’s death.
  16. When the Ninevites fasted to plea to God not to destroy them, they didn’t allow their cattle to eat so that the cattle would also cry to God to save them.
  17. Jonah lived 102 years after he prophesied to the Ninevites, but never received another prophecy because God punished him for how he handled his mission to Nineveh.[11]
  18. Although the Ninevites changed their behavior, they continued to worship idols, and this bothered Jonah. Jonah felt that as long as the Ninevites continued to worship idols, even though they otherwise acted properly, God should have destroyed them, for idol worship is the greatest wrong. He felt that the only reason that God spared the Ninevites is that they could later destroy his nation Israel. Jonah, Abarbanel writes, argued with God: You aren’t saving the Ninevites because you are merciful; just the opposite: you are sparing them so they can kill Israelites. This is terrible! Kill me, for I don’t want to see my nation destroyed.
  19. While most commentators understand God’s statement about “120,000 people” in the book’s final verse “I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than 120,000 people that cannot distinguish between their right and their left hand, as well as much cattle” as referring to innocent children who lack the ability to distinguish right from wrong and should not be punished. However, Abarbanel sees the number referring to the adults who because they lack the Torah, are like dumb animals; they do not know that idol worship is wrong, and therefore should not be punished for their worship. God, Abarbanel continues, is not saving the city because of children. God is unconcerned about the death of children, as we see in regard to the Israelite city condemned because of the worship of idols (ir hanidachat – Deuteronomy 13:13-19, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 2a) where the Bible demands that all the inhabitants of the city be killed including children and animals.
  20. Yet despite what he stated previously, Abarbanel concludes that God did not pardon the Ninevites completely, God deferred the punishment and had the Assyrians and their capital Nineveh annihilated 120 years later by the Babylonians.


[1] Perush Abarbanel Ketuvim, Elisha, 5720.

[2] Abarbanel asks an additional six questions later in his discussion, which I will not repeat here. I mentioned the first six to show his incisive style.

[3] Which they did in 722 BCE.

[4] This was also the view of the famed poet Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) which he mentions in his book Kuzari.

[5] Despite Abarbanel’s claim, this is certainly derash. What did Abarbanel expect the book to say, the storm hit “a” ship?

[6] According to this interpretation, Jonah was so solipsistic that he sought the death of innocent sailors so that he could ignore God.

[7] Hopefully, Abarbanel is ascribing this notion of children being punished for their parent’s misdeeds to the pagans, but not believing it himself. However, see item 19 below.

[8] This episode is not in the book, but is in Midrash Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer, and Abarbanel is convinced it is a fact that can be deduced from wording in chapter two.

[9] This hyperbolic event of the fish’s travel is also derived by Abarbanel from Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer, but this time he does not mention that he sees it in the wording of the text. A parasang is a Persian measure. Herodotus spoke about traveling five parasangs in a day.

[10] The Bible states that size of Nineveh was a three-day journey. Abarbanel supposes that it had a suburb that was 37 days journey. This is not in the book. The book states that the people accepted the prophecy at the end of Jonah’s first day in the city.  Wasn’t God able to foresee this and there was no need for a forty-day delay? And since we can assume that God who knows all foresaw the changed behavior, Abarbanel’s interpretation is incorrect.

[11] There is nothing in the Bible, not even a hint, of how long Jonah lived or whether he prophesied after his Nineveh experience.