Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos, by Rabbi Israel Drazin; Gefen Publishing House, 2016; ISBN-10: 9652298859; ISBN-13: 978-9652298850By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Depiction of Jonah and the “great fish” on the south doorway of the Gothic-era Dom St. Peter, in Worms, Germany (Wikipedia)
CHULA VISTA, California — I would like to begin this book review with a conversation I had with the publisher of San Diego Jewish World, Don Harrison. He asked me whether there was any truth to the story that a whale swallowed Jonah? Let me share with you a story that might surprise you. James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale. He was found days later in the stomach of the whale, which was dead from constipation. … The news spread beyond the ocean in articles as “Man in a Whale’s Stomach.”
Did Jonah’s whale get constipated and vomit Jonah?
Sometimes fact can seem stranger than fiction, or as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Yet as colorful as the Book of Jonah is as sacred literature, it is a book that contains profound theological and psychological insight. Its inclusion in the Yom Kippur services is not fortuitous.
You could say that it is one whale of a tale! (Oy, did I really say that?)
And it is perhaps because of the sensational imagery of this book, many people on Yom Kippur often have only a facile grasp of the story. One of the newest commentaries I have encountered recently was written by Brigadier General, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, entitled, Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos.” Due to my limitation of time, I will focus on Jonah for now and later write about his treatment of Amos in another article in the near future.
Rabbi Drazin’s book certainly lives up to its title! In his introduction to Jonah, the author immediate confronts the reader with a series of compelling questions that require thoughtful reflection and answers.
- Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? How did Jonah communicate his message to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Did he speak their language? How did the king hear about his prediction? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that “every” inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required being punished? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong? Why in Jonah’s message to the Ninevites did he not mention that if the people repented they would be saved?
Perhaps the most important question he raises is “Did the author give the prophet this name to indicate that the book contains a profound truth? What is the message of the book?”
From the outset the author points out that it is no fluke that Jonah means “dove” for the dove has come to personify peace and its role in the Noah story symbolizes how God’s war with the antediluvian world had come to an end. I would only add doves are known for their devotion to their mates, and Jonah’s devotion to Israel is so powerful, Jonah is willing to defy God to show his faithfulness to Israel. As a patriot of the Hebrew people, he would much rather see the Assyrian capital of Nineveh crumble into dust for their belligerence against Israel (based on the medieval commentaries Rashi and Kimchi, p. 3).
He also cites approvingly the 19th
century German biblical scholar Arnold Bogumil Ehrlich who states that this book is a parable “because it states that Jonah tried to hide from God and everybody knows that this is impossible. He understands that Jonah felt it was improper to prophesy to non-Israelites. Ehrlich adds that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel, and the author of this tale wanted to stress that God cares for everyone
In the first chapter, R. Drazin mentions some very interesting interpretations predicated largely on Maimonides’ psychological view of prophecy, and one of his latter defenders, R. Joseph Caspi. Caspi reinterprets the Book of Jonah in light of Maimonides’ view of prophecy, which he regarded as a visionary experience or a dream-state vision. Maimonides himself says that whenever God speaks to a prophet, the prophet is never in a wakeful state of mind, but is in what moderns call “an altered state of consciousness.” R. Drazin utilizes Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and explains that whenever you see something unnatural in a dream, odds are that object symbolizes something you have thought about during the daytime.
Caspi’s idea of the whale as a parable or a dream, along with his Freudian insight made me start to think. R. Drazin’s insight reminded me a little bit of the insights of a little known German anthropologist named Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), as well as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961). Each of their insights bear a striking similarity, despite the fact that Frobenius intuited these ideas first. In any event, as Campbell commented about Jonah in the belly of the whale’s symbolism, “The belly is the dark place where digestion takes place and new energy is created. The story of Jonah in the whale is an example of a mythic theme that is practically universal, of the hero going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed.”
Jung also viewed this symbol is a kind of Journey into Hell comparable with the journeys described by Virgil and Dante, and also a sort of journey to the Land of Spirits, or, in other words, a plunge into the unconscious.
Like Jung, Frobenius also thought that Jonah’s ordeal represents on a psychic level a rebirth of the individual.
In psychological terms, Jung expanded this thought to incorporate the sudden changes that engulf a person’s life, leaving him completely disoriented and confused, as though he were swallowed by a whale, who has spat him out into a new world and reality. As the protagonist learns to redefine himself, he comes to a new understanding of self and eventually develops a whole new personal identity.
So while the story about Jonah and the large fish or whale is mythic as R. Drazin noted, bear in mind that myths are symbolic stories that go beyond the surface meaning of its narrative. As Jung noted, “When we take a myth literally, we do injustice to the myth. Indeed, such an argument is decidedly ridiculous because it takes the myth literally, and today this seems a little bit too naïve.”
In another important section, R. Drazin examines the meaning of Jonah’s attempt to flee God, where he sees Jonah as attempting to flee his prophetic obligation to preach to the people of Nineveh. Throughout the commentary, he combines a peshat (or contextual interpretation of the verse), valuable Hebrew word studies, along with some very keen moral insights associated with derash (a homiletical approach to the Scriptures). Throughout the book, he brings in modern scholars—Jewish and non-Jewish—and his running commentary is keeping with the finest commentaries written by bible scholars today.
The theme of Jonah’s rebirth is certainly symbolic of the kind of rebirth we all need to undergo on Yom Kippur.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) felt so inspired by the story of Jonah that he developed a theory called, “The Jonah Complex.” Maslow argued that like Jonah, many people have a fear of being successful and choose poorly with respect to life choices. All of this ultimately prevents a person’s self-actualization, or the realization of one’s potential. It is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents. Jonah, from Maslow’s perspective, is his own worst enemy, much like many of us, I suppose.
I give this book 5* rating and it will enliven any serious discussion on this very important text.
Arnold B. Ehrlich. Mikra ki-Pheschuto
, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, first published 1901.
Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth
(New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 180.
Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols
(New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), pp. 228-229.
Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols
(New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), p 229.
Carl G. Jung, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), p. 592.
Abraham H. Maslow, Maslow on Management
(Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 1990), p. 149.