What do Jonah and Noah have in Common?
There is a remarkable correspondence between the biblical story of Noah and the Book of Jonah. The clue lies in the name Jonah, meaning dove in Hebrew. The dove, of course, is the bird that Noah sends out of the ark to discover whether the flood waters have dried out. But the connections between the two tales are far greater than just this.
Noah is told by God that the world is about to be destroyed in a flood. He is commanded to build an ark to save himself, his family and the animal kingdom. He obeys the command, builds the ark and spends the next year peacefully floating above the flood. He is safe from the stormy waters.
Jonah is told by God that Nineveh, the greatest city in the world, is to be destroyed. Even its animals will be wiped out. He is commanded to travel there and urge its inhabitants to repent. Unlike Noah he disobeys the command, runs to Jaffa and boards a boat. Unlike Noah, his time in the boat is not peaceful. The boat is buffeted by a storm, Jonah realises it is his fault and he is ejected into the water. The motifs of destruction, water, storms, boats and God’s command in the Noah story are reversed in the Jonah narrative.
Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. A rabbinic midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10) says that a pearl in the fish gives him light. Noah is told to place a tzohar, translated as a light, into his ark. Another midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 31,11) explains it was a light emitting gem. The rabbinic commentaries seem to be drawing a parallel between the inside of the fish and the interior of the ark.
According to the Midrash in Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer, this is the third mission Jonah has been sent on (The first is recounted in the Second Book of Kings, 14,23). The dove in the Noah story is also sent out three times. After three days inside the fish, Jonah is spewed out onto dry land. He is about to conclude his third mission. The dove concludes its mission when it finds dry land.
When Noah does reach Nineveh and delivers his message the king proclaims a public fast. Even the animals are to fast. They too will be saved, just as they are in Noah’s ark.
These are just a few of the parallels and contradictions between the two stories. There are many more. The stories are also linked by common language, using the same Hebrew words in each narrative. In both stories God says that the people’s wickedness has come before me. In both the Noah and Jonah narratives God sends a ruah, a wind, to whip up the water. Noah’s rain falls for forty days. Jonah is told to proclaim to Nineveh that the city will be destroyed in forty days. God regrets making man. After the people of Nineveh repent he regrets his threat to destroy them.
The question of course is why these stories seem to be connected. Did the author of Jonah want his readers to be reminded of Noah when they read the book? If so, why?
Perhaps the solution lies in the plants. The dove completes its mission positively, showing Noah that the land is dry, by bringing him a leaf from an olive tree. Jonah completes his mission negatively, angry that after all his travails the city was not destroyed. He sits in the baking hot sun, hoping to die. When God makes a vine grow over him, he is glad. When the vine withers he becomes angry. God asks him why he pitied the vine but could not pity the city. The episode with the vine seems to symbolise Jonah’s petulance.
Both the Noah and Jonah narratives demonstrate that the wicked will not prosper, that God has mastery over the world. Perhaps the author of the book of Jonah wants to remind his readers that the threatened destruction of Nineveh was not the only time that the wicked faced divine judgement. And uses the parables of the plants to show his readers that the humble obedience of the dove, performing his mission quietly and diligently, is preferable to the petulance of Jonah.