Tuesday, December 16, 2008

1:6:142: What One Does in the Belly of the Big Fish

15 December 2008

Today’s reading (well, Monday’s, actually) is one long stitched-together midrash on the book of Jonah. Before getting to the substance of the story, the editor in me just wants to note what Bialik and Ravnitzky do in publishing a long midrash in its entirety, rather than presenting it in smaller segments as they do in other chapters. To be more accurate, I suspect that the editorial work they did here was actually sewing together various midrashic accounts, if the source footnote is any clue (although I have not checked the originals). As a reader, the experience of reading one midrash like this, where the whole story is retold as a piece, is a very different one than the disjointed pithy fragments of other chapters. The book of Jonah is a story told in one breath, from one voice (the omniscient narrator sympathetic to Jonah), and as such, it’s fascinating to see a gloss on the story that changes the tone by interspersing of viewpoints of other characters, as well as explaining Jonah’s motives and telling the requisite truly fantastic tales.

Our midrash opens with a couple paragraphs that gloss the first few sentences of the biblical account. I’d not realized that Jonah is mentioned in II Kings by name, nor that the commentators identify him with the “false prophet” in the story of Ahab. What’s more intriguing is the motive that the midrash attributes to Jonah: his fear or reluctance to be labeled a false prophet, should the citizens of Nineveh repent and thus not be destroyed. This very human motive sounded like a bit of a jab at the very job of a prophet, a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” acknowledgement of the ungratefulness of those who hear prophecy. We traditionally interpret Jonah’s reluctance to prophesy as a cold-hearted belief in justice. I smiled at the rabbinic attribution of this mundane character trait—the reluctance to be seen as bad at one’s job—to the high and mighty prophet of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

This tendency to humanize continues in the midrashic retelling of the sailors’ attempt to discover the cause of the storm. As told in the biblical text, while the sailors all pray to their gods, Jonah sleeps, and when they rouse him and ask his help, he gives himself up. What follows in the fourth paragraph of the midrash is a slowly-described immersion: as Jonah is lowered into the sea to knee-level, the storm slows, and when he is pulled out, the storm rages anew. This reluctance to drown the lazy prophet speaks well of the sailors, as they do their best to keep from shedding innocent blood without cause. Here, as in the text of Jonah itself, the very humanness of the non-Jews is made obvious and is praised, as is their willingness to acknowledge that “the God of the Hebrews is great.”

Up until this point, the story in the midrash is an explication, an expansion of the biblical story, adding new viewpoints and details but not changing the plot. What follows in the second half of the long midrash is a totally fantastical interaction between Jonah, the big fish, and the Leviathan itself. I’ll just comment on two images from this incredible story and leave y’all to read the rest yourself. First, the image of Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish while they swim around the ocean, looking at “everything that is in the sea and in the depths below,” depicts the rabbinic cosmology with vivid colors. The foundations of the world and the foundations of our faith live under the oceans, whether they be physical water-related sites, such as the paths in the Red Sea, or the deep core places of our belief system, such as the afterlife and the foundation stone of the world. Were I to think geographically about rabbinic cosmology, I would not necessarily think that all these places are found in locations to which fish can swim--some of them seem to more likely be in the air or on land--but this is not any ordinary fish, clearly.

And finally, the denouement of the midrash when Jonah earns God’s favor is a classic rabbinic transformation of the plot of a relatively straighforward story. In the biblical account, Jonah is spit out when he agrees to follow his calling and beseech Nineveh to repent. The midrash takes his “that which I have vowed, I will perform” to refer to Jonah’s new vow to slay the Leviathan, a story which the midrash seems to have constructed out of whole cloth. Perhaps by giving Jonah a bigger mission, the midrash is minimizing the pettiness of his earlier-discussed reluctance: Ninevah is a small task, but there are bigger jobs afoot for Jonah. Additionally, this twist in his motivation connects the whole story to bigger issues of redemption and messianism. Maybe by helping Nineveh to repent, Jonah is moving the whole world closer to the Messianic Age. A fitting tale for Yom Kippur, where each person’s repentence can help shape the fate of the world, recreated each day.


BZ said...

This tendency to humanize continues in the midrashic retelling of the sailors’ attempt to discover the cause of the storm.

Yeah. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this midrash bucked the rabbinic trend of transforming non-Jewish characters into one-dimensional bad guys. I had never thought of the sailors as anything more than bit parts to advance the main plot of Jonah's journey (like the man who said "They went that way"), but in this version of the story, throwing Jonah overboard was a complex decision that they only arrived at after exhausting all possible alternatives.

yaelalan said...

Thinking back on the Torah's account of Jonah, the sailor's actually do try to do everything within their power to save the boat, before they decide to throw Jonah in.
So the Midrash is not the only humanizer of the Sailors.
--Alan Livingston