Jonah, every year

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Tomorrow Your Humble Blogger will be one of the people reading Jonah at the Yom Kippur service. It’s my second-favorite Yom Kippur joke, you know.

Jonah is a very odd book. It has, essentially, two stories: the first part, in which Jonah tries to flee from the Divine presence, is caught in a storm at sea, swallowed by a fish and returned to dry land; and the second part, in which Jonah causes the people of Nineveh to repent, and then he sulks under the shade of a giant gourd, which the Divine destroys. There’s a lot of humor in the story, and a lot of, well, perplexity.

The funniest part, in my arrogant opinion, is 1:5-6. There’s a mighty tempest in the sea, the ship is foundering, the sailors are terrified, and Jonah… is napping. The rav khovayl, the chief of the sailors, goes down to where Jonah is laying down in the ass-end of the ship and he says ma-l’kha nir’dam: what the fuck, sleepyhead?

That’s my own translation. The KJV has What meanest thou, O sleeper? and the NASB has How is it that you are sleeping? But I image the guy probably swore a little more than that, anyway.

Anyway, this time around I clicked on the concordance for nir’dam and looked into it a little more. It’s not the ordinary word for sleep, which is probably yashan or shenah. I think nir’dam is more like passed out or unconscious. I looked at who else is described as asleep using nir’dam (or tar’demah from the root). For actual named people, there are four: First, there’s Adam, who is put into a deep sleep in Genesis 2 so that the Divine can perform a little rib extraction surgery. Then there’s Sisera in Judges 4, who slumbered so deeply that Ya’el was able to nail his head to the ground with a tent peg. Then there’s Daniel 8, where the prophet had a distressing vision asleep with his face on the ground and had to have it explained to him, and which left him worn out for days afterward (and then it’s all repeated in chapter 10). And then there’s our man Jonah. Other people are described as nir’dam, either because they are miraculously asleep (such as Saul’s guardians in 1 Sa 26 or the horses in Psalm 76) or because they are Proverbially slothful but they aren’t actual characters with names or anything.

I think it’s implied, then, that Jonah isn’t actually just napping. He’s not unconcerned about the storm; he’s out cold. Is he drunk? The text doesn’t say so, and Scripture isn’t generally shy about calling out people who have looked on the wine when it was red. Did the Divine impose a sort of miraculous slumber on Jonah through the first part of the storm? That seems to be what is implied by the use of nir’dam, but whatever for? What purpose would it serve, to knock out Jonah for half the storm, only to let the shipmaster wake him up?

I don’t have an answer to it at all. Maybe I will by this time tomorrow—although if I do, I will probably have a different answer by next year, and more questions.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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