Why Jonah Fled: Isaac Abarbanel

This post is a continuation of the previous one. I have been reading Steven Bob’s Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah. So far I have read Bob’s translation and explanation of Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and David Kimchi’s comments on the book of Jonah. All three of these commentators agreed that Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord, which they interpret to be away from the Shechinah, or prophetic spirit, to protect Israel from the indictment that a foreign nation repented from one word spoken by a  prophet of the Lord, though Israel persists in rebellion. Isaac Abarbanel, a student of Ibn Ezra’s, rejects this interpretation.

Abarbanel writes,

This is a very weak explanation. For perhaps in the repentance of the people of Nineveh the Israelites would be shamed. And they would repent from their sins turning to The Eternal who would have mercy on them for their personal acts of repentance (68).

He goes on to explain why Jonah fled, saying,

Jonah understands the truth of this matter and therefore concludes in his heart that he will not go to Nineveh so that the people of Assyria will not be saved from destruction by him. For what would be a reason for going to save children of Assyria and cut off the children of Israel? 

Abarbanel contends that it required no prophetic revelation to know the threat Assyria posed to the ten tribes of Israel. Insuring God’s destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, by refusing to prophesy, would prevent Israel’s destruction by Assyria’s hand. Jonah is willing to forfeit his life in the exchange, “And Jonah rose in order to flee from the presence of YHWH . . . hurl me into the sea” (Jonah 1).

I would certainly agree with Abarbanel, in part. It is clear that a deep enmity existed between Assyria and Israel. Israel’s political situation during the time of the Minor Prophets was precarious. She was threatened on all sides. It would seem an act of treachery for Jonah to spare the capital city of one of Israel’s greatest enemies. This is certainly motive enough to flee from God.

Abarbanel, however, has smuggled in the assumption that Assyria would conquer Israel. Consider the following:

  1. Jonah preaches a message of repentance due to Assyria’s extensive violence (חמס, “violence” is the evil of which God speaks according to Abarbanel and the others before him).
  2. Jonah desires the destruction of Nineveh because they are an enemy of Israel.
  3. The only means of deliverance is for Nineveh to repent from their evil deeds, violence.

According to the previous three points, Jonah has nothing to fear. Either God destroys Nineveh because they don’t repent from their brutal ways, or they do repent and no longer pose a threat. Of course, we know, according to Nahum, that God destroys Assyria because of their violence against Israel, but Jonah does not know this. Abarbanel smuggles in the assumption that Jonah knows that Nineveh will turn away from YHWH, turn back to violence, and destroy Israel.

Furthermore, his explanation does not account for the satirical contrasts the author establishes between Jonah and the sailors,  Jonah and Nineveh, and Jonah and the non-human characters in the book. All of creation, including the Gentiles, are ready, willing, and eager to respond, save the prophet. The narrator seems to take aim at Jonah at every opportunity.

Finally, this explanation does not account for the fact that the author’s original audience was Israel, not Assyria. The book of Jonah functioned as a message for Israel. What is that message? God has the freedom to save whomever he pleases according to his gracious and merciful nature. That same God has threatened punishment against his covenant people because of their covenant infidelity. Yet, God is ready to receive the repentant cries of his people. He is ready to forgive.

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