The biblical story of Jonah and the whale (actually a big fish, in the Bible) is a part of the Yom Kippur liturgy and the subject of many children’s books. God commands Jonah the prophet to go to Nineveh and proclaim the city’s downfall. Jonah refuses, fails in his attempt to flee to Tarshish, is swallowed by a giant fish, and eventually is vomited up and reluctantly agrees to fulfill God’s original command. When he finally tells Nineveh that their sin will lead to destruction, they immediately repent and are saved. Jonah is famous for initially refusing God’s direct instructions, and so is commonly known as the tradition’s most reluctant prophet. Today, we get to find out what the rabbis thought of him.
On today’s daf, we learn that Rabbi Akiva taught that the biblical verse “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying” (Jonah 3:1 — right after he has been regurgitated from the fish) implies that:
The Divine Presence spoke with him only a second time. However, a third time the Divine Presence did not speak with him.
Jonah the famous prophet, says Rabbi Akiva, only received two prophecies during his lifetime: an initial command from God to talk to the people of Nineveh, and then a repetition of God’s command after he is vomited up by the fish.
Reading only the book of Jonah, Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation makes sense (assuming we ignore the conversation between God and Jonah in chapter 4, after Nineveh repents, perhaps because that was not prophecy in the same way). But, as the rabbis well know, Jonah also appears elsewhere in the Bible! The Gemara asks:
Isn’t it written with regard to King Jeroboam ben Joash: “He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet” (2 Kings 14:25)?
It certainly sounds like Jonah prophesied at least once more, as recorded in 2 Kings. So how can we reconcile this with Rabbi Akiva’s assertion that Jonah only prophesied twice? The rabbis offer two different resolutions to this apparent contradiction:
Ravina said: Rabbi Akiva was saying that Jonah did not prophesy a third time about the issue of Nineveh.
According to Ravina, Rabbi Akiva knew that Jonah prophesied plenty, but was pointing out that only two of those prophecies were aimed at the people of Nineveh.
Rabbi Nahman bar Yitzchak then offers a different interpretation:
Just as the fortune of Nineveh turned from bad to good, so too, in the days of Jeroboam ben Joash, Israel’s fortune turned from bad to good.
Rabbi Nahman bar Yitzchak insists that no, Jonah did in fact only prophecy twice, both times about Nineveh. But smart listeners were then able to extrapolate from those prophecies to other issues going on in their lives. Thus in the days of Jeroboam ben Joash, those who knew about Jonah’s prophecies — and that hard times could be turned aside through repentance — were able to draw a parallel to their own time and turn aside hard times without receiving their own tailor-made prophecy.
The Gemara doesn’t pick a side, so we are left not knowing whether the rabbis thought that Jonah prophesied only twice in his lifetime or many more times than that.
Notice that the Gemara here is interested in the question of Jonah as prophet. Not Jonah as refuser of God’s command, and not Jonah as potential (or actual!) fish food. Their close readings of the Bible are designed to fully understand exactly what kind of prophetic work he actually did.
Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice initiative, and the subject of the 2019 film Just Mercy, famously stated: “I believe that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” Our biggest mistake does not define us. But then what does?
In the case of Jonah, on today’s daf, the rabbis tell us that actually, what characterizes Jonah is his relatively brief role as a prophet — how he learns to follow God’s command, and to actually prophecy to the people of Nineveh. What defines Jonah is his willingness to learn from his mistakes, and to actually function as a prophet. And as we know from the Book of Jonah, Jonah might actually be one of the most successful biblical prophets of all. After all, the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s message and, uncharacteristically of so many sinners in the Bible, repent immediately.
Read all of Yevamot 98 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.