Friday, July 17, 2015

Gerstein, Mordecai. Jonah and the Two Great Fish
(Simon and Schuster, 1997).
There is a small grammatical discrepancy in Jonah 2:1-2 (although not apparent in English, Jon 1:17-2:1). The great fish that swallows Jonah is masculine (dag gadol, דָּג גָּדֹול) while the fish from which he prays is feminine (ha-dagah, הַדָּגָֽה ). How do we account for this?

The feminine form does not always refer to a feminine fish, as we see it used to denote the collective noun in Exodus 7:18 ("And the fish in the river will die...").  Clearly that doesn't seem to be the case here, however.  Or perhaps it is an elegant form, as we find it in Mishnaic Hebrew. 

However, I find the most interesting solution to be that presented by Rashi, among others.  Jonah was comfortable in the belly of the fish since, being great (and masculine), it was too roomy to compel Jonah to call out to God. He even had a nice view, as the eyes served as windows. 

When God saw this, he said, "I made him a spacious place in the belly of the fish so that he would not be in pain, but he still will not pray to me!  I shall prepare for him a pregnant fish carrying 365,000 fry, so that he will be in pain and pray to me."  The male fish is then commanded to spit the unfortunate prophet into the mouth of a second fish, already full of baby fish or roe.  Now cramped and uncomfortable, the distressed Jonah was moved to prayer.

While entire shelves could be filled with children's books entitled 'Jonah and the Whale,' or 'Jonah and the Big Fish,' the one I like best is Mordicai Gerstein's Jonah and the Two Great Fish, in which he follows this Midrashic account of Jonah's life, including the Ninevites laughing at him (which I discussed in a previous post). Not only is it well-written and illustrated, it demonstrates the variety of the traditions concerning Jonah (as do his books about Noah, Moses and Esther).

  • Gerstein, Mordecai. Jonah and the Two Great Fish (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
  • Bob, Steven M. Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah Translated and Explained (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013)
  • Simon, Uriel, and Lenn J. Schramm. Jonah = [Yonah] : the Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia, Pa: Jewish Publication Society, 1999)

Isaac M. Alderman
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