Sponsored by BYU Studies—Everyone knows the story of Jonah and the whale, but no one knows it quite like Rabbi Steven Bob.
Who is Rabbi Steven Bob?
I am a retired congregational rabbi, currently serving as an adjunct faculty member at Wheaton College and Elmhurst College. For 35 years I served Congregation Etz Chaim in the far western suburbs of Chicago.
As a congregational rabbi I was a general practitioner with broad professional skills but without an area of expertise. I wanted to have a topic on which I had deep knowledge. I wanted a major. In place of a sabbatical every seven years, the congregation granted me a study leave every January which I devoted to the translating into English the medieval Hebrew commentaries to the Book of Jonah. I published those translations in an academic volume, Go to Nineveh (Pickwick Publications 2013).
In Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society 2016), I have written a chapter on each of the 48 verses in the Book of Jonah. Drawing on the most accessible of the commentaries, other biblical sources, traditional wisdom and illustrations from popular culture and my own life I present engaging lessons to guide us.
What would your life be like without scripture?
Without scripture my life would “be unformed and void.” Scripture forms the framework of my life.
In the Jewish community we follow an annual cycle of Torah readings. Each fall we begin again in Genesis 1:1 with the creation of the world. The weekly Torah portions define the year. I first learned this structure as a child attending the Junior Congregation of my synagogue in Minnesota. With my congregants and with my college students I have spent my career bringing the Torah to them and bringing them to Torah.
At Elmhurst College, a UCC affiliated school, I teach “Introduction to Bible” which includes the Hebrew scripture and the specifically Christian scripture. For years I have said one cannot fully understand the Hebrew Bible unless one reads it in the original Hebrew. In recent years I have been learning Biblical Greek so that I read Christian scripture in the original.
My friend, Rabbi Norman M. Cohen, and I are working away through the Gospel of John in Greek. We are in the middle of Chapter Four. Studying and teaching scripture remains at the center of my life.
What is the story of Jonah?
Most of the books of the prophets contain a brief bit of narrative and many words of actual prophecy. The book of Jonah is the opposite, it has 47 verses of narrative and only one of prophecy.
God directs Jonah to go to Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian Empire to prophecy. Jonah flees in the opposite direction boarding a ship to take him to Tarshish. God sends a storm to halt this flight. After some dramatic steps Jonah instructs the sailors to toss him over board in order to save themselves. Jonah expects that he will drown. But God sends a big fish to swallow him. From the belly of the big fish Jonah repents. God gives Jonah a second chance
When the big fish deposits him back on dry land, God again calls Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time he goes. In the city he declares, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned.” The people, the king and the animals all put on sack cloth and fast to repent from their sins. God gives the Ninevites a second chance. God decides not to destroy the city.
God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh angers Jonah. The final chapter contains God’s efforts to help Jonah understand why God forgave the Ninevites.
What questions does the book of Jonah answer?
This short book of the Bible, along with the explanations of the classic commentators, provides answers to the most important questions which people ask about their lives:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- Who are they?
- How should we respond to people of other religions?
- What provides meaning to my life?
Why do you use examples ranging from biblical commentators to pop culture references?
Many people are quite familiar with the story of Jonah but the approach of the traditional commentators will be completely new. They unfold previously hidden meanings of the text. They use the text as a means to present important ideas.
I use examples from popular culture and the events of my life to illustrate how the wisdom of the biblical text touches our every day existence.
After decades of giving sermons I know that people remember the stories I told more than they do the actual textual lessons.
What is the symbolism in Jonah 1:3, “He went down to Joppa”?
While most people today think of God as being everywhere, the Bible describes God as being “up.” Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the commandments. The Temple in Jerusalem is built on the Temple Mount. The prophet Elijah confronts the prophet of Ba’al on Mount Carmel.
In the Bible people go “up” to be closer to God.
As Jonah flees he descends. He goes down from mountains of Jerusalem to the coastal city of Jaffa. Then he goes down into the ship, down into the hold of the ship. Eventually in the belly of the big fish he reaches the bottom of the sea.
Jonah’s flight reminds of a question Chubby Checker asked in his song Limbo Rock: “How low can you go?”
If God is “up,” Jonah is as far from God as one can be. Nevertheless, when Jonah calls out to God from the belly of the fish, God responds.
Why can Jonah be more relatable than prophets like Abraham or Moses?
Abraham is “God’s knight of faith,” doing whatever God commands. When God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave everybody and everything they know and move to a new place, Abraham does not ask a single question. He gets up and goes. When God directs Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham gets up early in the morning to comply.
But when God calls Jonah, Jonah runs away.
I do not know anybody like Abraham, so perfect in faith. But I know lots of people, who like Jonah, become overwhelmed by fear.
I have never met any one who fearlessly takes on any challenge as Abraham does. The people I know more resemble Jonah, seeking to avoid the most difficult tasks in their lives.
What is the role of exaggeration in the book of Jonah?
We should not read the Book of Jonah as a story depicting actual events. It is a tall tale meant to convey important truths.
Exaggerations fill the book. The people of Nineveh are the most evil. The storm is bigger than any other storm. A large fish swallows Jonah, he survives and is able to calmly pray. Everybody else in the Bible ignores the repeated messages of prophets to change their ways, but he people of Nineveh hear one short phrase from Jonah and they turn their lives upside down.
Just in case the readers are missing the point, as part of the description of the repentance in chapter three, we are told that the animals of Nineveh follow the example of their owners by putting on sack clothe and fasting.
I spend three weeks in Wisconsin every summer. I have never seen a contrite cow.
While many people in the Bible may exaggerate in expressing themselves, no other book of bible uses exaggeration as a central narrative structure.
What can we learn about God’s nature from Jonah’s second chance?
In the Book of Exodus we read that God is “endlessly patient.” The book of Jonah provides two examples of God’s patience with human beings. God gives Jonah a second chance and God gives the people of Nineveh a second chance.
And to be sure that we get the point, in Chapter Four, Jonah reminds God—and us—that God is “endlessly patient”.
When Jonah, in the belly of the big fish at the bottom of the sea, turns his heart back to God, God forgives him. When the people of Nineveh turn from evil and directs themselves toward God, God forgives him.
When we turn back to God, God will receive us. We need to gather the strength and wisdom to take that first step of turning, but whenever we turn we can be confident that God will be ready to take us back.
What can readers miss if they spend their time obsessing about whether Jonah was swallowed by a fish or a whale?
While I enjoy this “riddle” of understanding what swallowed Jonah, I realize that it may lead people away from the main messages of the text. Many people do not pay enough attention to the final chapter of the Book of Jonah.
As chapter four opens, Jonah expresses disappointment that God has not destroyed Nineveh. God attempts to help Jonah gain a more proper perspective on life through the example of the kikayon plant. God provides the plant to shade Jonah from the sun.
When the plant dies after one day Jonah grieves. God says to Jonah: You grieve for the kikayon plant which you did not sow or raise. Should I not care for the people of Nineveh who do not yet know their right hand from their left?
The book ends abruptly. It does not include a response from Jonah to God’s challenge.
It leaves it to us to respond.
How has your understanding of the book of Jonah evolved over time?
At first, the surface story held my attention. But as I read the medieval Hebrew commentaries to the Book of Jonah I felt like I was sitting down at a table with those sages participating in a ongoing conversation about the meaning of each of the 48 verses in the Book of Jonah. Too many twenty first century readers tend to move quickly wanting to know “what happens next.” I have learned go slowly examining the subtle messages to be found in each word.
In Pirke Avot 5:26 Ben Bag Bag teaches, “Turn it Turn it for it contains everything.” While most people take these words to describe the Torah, for me they describe the Book of Jonah. This short book of the Bible along with the explanations of the classic commentators provides answers to the most important questions which people ask about their lives.
My ongoing encounter with the Book of Jonah connects me over time and space to those who have studied this book and those will study it in the future. It also connects me the Eternal God who calls to us all.
We may each hear that call in our own way but the One God calls all of us to turn back, to walk in the path of blessing.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.