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Challenging God: Why Did Jonah Run?
Video 5 of 6
You have a dream that night, and in the dream, the Master of the universe himself comes to you and says exactly the same thing that the judge said to you “the show trail has gone on too long, I’ve talked to the defendant, the defendant is going to come to your home. I want you to call a press conference and dismiss the charges. This is the Lord signing out.” You wake up, it really was God and God is telling you to drop the charges. Now why is this nightmare even worst than the nightmare I described to you before?
In the previous scenario, as you walked away from the courtroom, you say to yourself “ the judge is nuts!” But you console yourself by saying “ but there is another judge - there is a judge in heaven and justice will ultimately be done. It may not be done in this world but it will be done in the next. There still is justice in the universe.” But in the second scenario, you can’t say that . God’s heavenly court is the supreme court. If God himself comes down and tells you to convene the press conference, it means that there is no justice. And then what do you want to do? As you wake up in the morning, what do you want to do? I think you want to run away - very far, out of the world if possible, out of this domain of the master of the universe. You want no part of this because somehow, if this is true, life doesn’t matter anymore. If there is no justice, why bother? I want to argue to you that the courtroom scenario I described to you before is real. Jonah had that nightmare.
God comes to Jonah and says “ the people of Nineveh, those guys over there, the really bad ones, I want you to go and accept their apology.” And Jonah says to himself “ and that’s it? They’ve done all these terrible things and then just say a few words and it’s over. What they’ve done doesn’t matter? There is no consequences for that?” Jonah is the son of Truth. Where is the truth in that? Jonah has the nightmare and he wants to run away. He’s not just escaping his mission, he want’s to escape God - as impossible as that can be. He knows he can’t escape God, but he feels like he has to run anyway. Look at the words of the text “Jonah gets up to run away to Tarshish”. What’s he running away from? It doesn’t say he’s running away from his mission, he’s running away melifnei Hashem, “he’s running away from before God”.
So he goes down to Jaffa, gets on a ship, and then there is a storm. Now the text tells us something very interesting. At the height of the storm, Jonah goes to the bottom of the ship to take a nap. Imagine yourself in a wooden fishing vessel, at the height of a divinely inspired storm - waves more than 50 feet high. Would you be able to sleep? And yet there is Jonah, sleeping like a baby. The storm is God; it’s God saying “Jonah, we have to talk.” And what’s Jonah’s response? “ I’m not talking to you. If you’re not going to let me run away unto a ship, if you are going to follow me with a storm, I’ll run away into sleep.” Jonah is on the second flight from God. But then along comes the sea captain and the sea captain rises Jonah from his slumber, wakes him up and says “hey lad. What are you sleeping for? Everybody is up on deck, they are all praying to their gods ; you go up also and pray to God.”
Jonah goes up to the top of the deck. Does he pray? He doesn’t. All these pagan sailors, everyone of them is praying . The one true prophet of God is not praying. Why is Jonah not praying? The answer is “ he has nothing to say to God.” You’re going to abrogate justice? You’re the supreme court. I have nothing to say to you.
Finally, all the sailors cast lots; they want to see who is responsible for the storm and the lots fall on Jonah. They say “ what should we do with you?” He say “ throw me overboard.” Why is he saying that? He doesn’t know there is a fish waiting for him. What does he thinks “throw me overboard” means? He thinks it means “I’m going to die in the sea”. And what is he saying with that “God, if you’re not going to let me run away onto the ship and you won’t let me run away into sleep; I‘ll run away into death! I’ll do anything to get away!” Jonah is thrown overboard; but then there is the fish. And then the Midrash says something very strange; they said there were actually two fish. You know why? Because the first time it says fish in the text, it says dag. But the second time it says fish, the fish is called a dagah, which is a female fish. The Rabbis are very bothered by this discrepancy and come to the conclusion that in fact there were two fish.
First, there was a male fish but Jonah wasn’t praying in the male fish so God had him spat out of the male fish into the female fish and the female fish happened to be pregnant and there wasn't much room ,so Jonah prayed his prayer in the female fish. Why are the Rabbis driving me crazy with such a strange story? The answer is - “the Midrash is speaking to, allegorically, about the deep meaning of what is going on”. The Rabbi saw the textual pattern that you and I are seeing.
Jonah ran away once onto a ship, twice into sleep,the third time into death and the Rabbis just take it one step further and say “even in the fish, Jonah was running away - he wasn’t going to talk to God until there was literally no more room - no more physical room, no more spiritual room, it was the end of the rope; then, only then, did Jonah speak with God.” So what did this man say to God? “ I call out in my distress to you” mibeten shol, “from the belly of the grave I call to you,” shivati shamata kol, “ you listened to my voice,” vatashlicheni metzulah bilvav yamim, “I was in the heart of the ocean,” v’nahar yesoveveni, “water was all around me,” kol-mishbareicha vegaleicha alai avaru, “All your breakers and your waves pass over me.” Afuni mayim ad-nefesh tehum yesoveveni, “water came and threatened my soul, the deep surrounded me,” suf chavush leroshi, “seaweed entwined over my head”. This is extremely vivid experience. And in that moment ani amarti, “I said to myself,” nigrashti mineged einecha “I’ve been cast out. You realise that I had slammed the door on you . I have no right to think that you would ever look back towards me. But now that you’ve saved me,” osif lehabit el-hechal kadoshecha, “I realise that I will come back to see your holy temple”. He concludes ani bekol todah ezbecha-lach, “with gratefulness I will offer to you,” yeshuatah laHashem, “salvation is of God.” It’s a prayer of thanksgiving and God heard Jonah and did save him and Jonah is grateful. But notice what’s not in this prayer. Jonah hasn’t changed his mind; he hasn't admitted he was wrong. He hasn’t done Teshuvah; he doesn’t think he has anything to do Teshuvah for. It’s a prayer of personal reconciliation between him and God; but it hasn’t changed his perspective. And when Jonah gets spat out of the fish on dry land, God comes to him and says “ it’s time to go to Nineveh to accept the apology of his terrible aggressor.” The nightmare is coming true.
We really only have one thing left to do -try to figure out how the ending of the book work with all of this. What was going on with Jonah in the sukkah with the big leafy plant and the worm? In understanding that, all of the remaining pieces of this book are going to come together.And I think we’ll be able to see why the Book of Jonah is such a profoundly meaningful book for us. Let’s come back and talk about this.
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