Jonah the Jew

Why did Jonah say, "I am a Hebrew?"

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Some, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the essayist Milton Himmelfarb, have suggested that this is indeed the case, and that the point is for Jews to approach the conclusion of their own day of atonement on a universalist note. But wouldn't Rosh Hashanah, with its emphasis on the entire world's standing in judgment, make a better occasion for such sentiments than Yom Kippur, when the stress is on the Almighty's merciful love for His people?

What each of these discussions tends to overlook is not the end of Jonah but the beginning. For, if the rest of the story makes Jonah a prime candidate for reading on Yom Kippur, the very first chapter makes it the perfect candidate for the day's conclusion.

I am a Jew

Let us recapitulate. Seeking to escape God's command by fleeing the Holy Land, Jonah boards a ship bound for Tarshish. When the ship is struck by a storm, the sailors attempt to puzzle out the source of their ill fortune.  And here we are presented with the book's most problematic passage:

And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; what is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? And he said unto them, I am Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. [emphasis added]

They knew? Because he had told them? But if they knew from the beginning that he was fleeing from God, why now were they mystified as to the cause of the storm, and why, when the lot fell on Jonah, did they need to know his biography?

In considering this puzzling passage, we should observe that Jonah does not answer all of the sailors' questions about his identity. The only fact he supplies is "ivri anokhi," I am a Hebrew. But that is evidently enough. 

In his own analysis of the book's first chapter, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun notes that in the ancient Near East, most people believed in territorial divinities: local gods who exercised tyrannical rule over a country's inhabitants but were powerless beyond its borders. As far as the gods were concerned, an area that was not part of any particular realm was no man's land, a place where one could do whatever he wanted. In the Bible, by contrast, the God of the Hebrews is a God whose power is everywhere.

Thus, when Moses informs the Egyptian Pharaoh that the "God of Israel" has demanded the release of His people, and Pharaoh parries by claiming that the deity of a non-Egyptian land is of no relevance to him, Moses proceeds to instruct him otherwise. "The God of the Hebrews has sent us," he declares: that is, a God whose writ is not contained by borders.

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Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik is Associate Rabbi at Kehilat Jeshurun in New York. He is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, for whom he is currently working on a book about Judaism and Christianity.