Flight From God--and Return:
A Modern Commentary on the Book of Jonah
Thus begins the book of Jonah, which we will draw upon when, several hours from now, we shall be reading the customary passage from the prophets at afternoon service, but which we now would like to expound with you. For our common study period we shall avail ourselves of the old exegetical Midrash Jonah as well as of the Biblical text. At the very outset the former puts the question that irresistibly occurs to all: “Why is Jonah in flight?” We shall seek to answer it but not at the very outset. Another question has prior claim, namely: “Whither and how does this man, this Hebrew prophet, flee from the presence of the Lord? What are the stations of his flight?”
The first station is the amorphous element, the sea, in whose bosom the figures of Creation become indistinguishable. The Midrash hints that perhaps Jonah flees straight into the tempest which has been raging for the two days he has been waiting on the coast of Joppa for a ship. A leaky ship, unable to cope with the mountainous waves, noses about and comes back to port. Jonah boards it, mistaking the vouchsafed postponement of its sailing as a sign of divine sanction of his flight. He sets his mind at ease with the thought that in contrast with earth and heaven, which in Holy Writ are closely bound up with God’s Glory (“Heaven echoes forth His glory”; “The Earth is filled with His glory”), the sea furnishes no corresponding ground-text for God’s teaching. He is therefore in a great hurry to get aboard, and as zealously bent on flight as Abraham was to obey the Divine command to bind up Isaac: Abraham himself saddled the ass for the journey, and, analogously, Jonah pays the whole fare in advance or, as the Midrash emphasizes, actually buys the ship outright in order, as it were, to flee God’s earth for a domain of his own.
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