Tale without a whale? Beit Tikvah holds Shabbat service on Jonah and prophecy

(Courtesy of Towson University)
Barry M. Gittlen is a professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Towson University (Courtesy of Towson University)

Does the book of Jonah have any thing to do with a whale? Worshippers who attend Congregation Beit Tikvah’s Aug. 14 morning Shabbat service will have the chance to find out, during a presentation on the story of Jonah and the nature of prophecy.

“What one comes up with normally, when thinking about such things, is the book of Jonah, which, interestingly enough, is not a fish story,” said Barry M. Gittlen, a professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Towson University, who will be giving the presentation.

Commonly, retellings of the book of Jonah focus too much on the tale’s oversized fish, said Gittlen, a resident of Pikesville and member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

“We foist this story off on kids,” Gittlen said, “and as adults people rarely go back to Jonah because they figure, ‘Ah, we heard that when we were 5, 6, 20, 12, whatever, years old and we know all about the big fish!’

“But there’s much more to it than that,” Gittlen continued. “This is a very, very serious book that focuses on, and explains, what it means to be a prophet, and how prophets operate and what prophets are supposed to be doing.”

When asked about the choice of subject matter, Gittlen explained that this week’s Torah portion focuses on a section of Deuteronomy that mentions how one recognizes a prophet sent by God.

“That sparked my interest in not talking about the whole parshah in my talk,” Gittlen said, “but to relate directly to this particular mention, and how it is that one could recognize a prophet in ancient Israel, and what exactly was the duty of a prophet … [and] how were you supposed to know if some guy babbling in front of you is truly sent by God or not.”

Prophets are the watchmen of God, sent to raise an alarm loudly and clearly while something terrible was happening or about to happen, commonly after the Jewish community had transgressed in some way, Gittlen explained. He said that biblical prophecy has an immediacy to it, concerning future events taking place in the coming days, weeks or months, rather than years or centuries into the future.

“Prophecy is immediate,” Gittlen said. “It’s for the people of the time that that prophecy was made. It relates to them, it relates to their activity. … Prophecy is not about any distant future.”

Gittlen views the book of Jonah as a type of “prophet’s handbook,” detailing what it means to be a true or successful prophet. From Jonah, readers learn that while prophets are not always interested in being prophets or in carrying out their divinely mandated instructions, in the end there is no getting away from God.

Despite their roots in antiquity, there is plenty in these stories of ancient prophets that can relate to our modern world, Gittlen said.

“One can always draw these connections,” Gittlen said. “Ideas [of] justice, of morality, of kindness, these are central figures in prophecy, and they are as alive with us today, as meaningful for us today, as they were in antiquity. Our situations are different, but the positives of life remain the same.”

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