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Tribalism vs. Universality: The Triumph of Jonah and Ruth

Solveig Eggerz
Winter 1997

During the sixth century B.C.E. Babylon and Egypt competed with one another for control of Judah. The inhabitants of Jerusalem resisted the powerful Babylonian army for two years. When Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C.E. the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple and sent the people of Jerusalem to Babylon, which marked the beginning of the Exile. During the Exile, the faith in Yahweh developed into Judaism. Without a state of their own, Jews retained their identity by focussing on their writings, their laws, their records of the past. For this reason scribes became important. The exiles also listened to prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It was in Babylon that the priest Ezekiel had his vision of a resurrected Israel.  

In 539 B.C.E. after the Jews had been in exile for a little over 50 years, the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon which included the annexation of Jerusalem. He issued the Edict of Cyrus which permitted the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild Solomon’s Temple. Bust most Jews were comfortable in the Diaspora and chose not to participate in the reconstruction of a Jewish state.  

According to the Bible, 42,360 exiles returned to Jerusalem in the year 520 B.C.E. under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a member of the davidic line who became Persian Governor of Judah. A religious exclusivity, which manifested itself in an intolerance of foreigners, characterized these years after the return from Babylon. This early group of returning exiles discriminated against Samaritans as well as against other Jews regarded as heretical. Partly because of this expressed hostility, the new colony faltered. But in 458 B.C.E. Ezra the scribe and priest brought more exiles. And in 445 B.C.E. Nehemiah, a powerful Persian official, arrived and took over the governorship of Judah. He had the authority to build Judah into an independent political unit within the Persian empire.  

Returning Exiles  

The returning exiles were serious about the purification of Judaism as described in Nehemiah 8: "And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly . . . And he read from it facing the square before the Water gate from early morning until midday . . ."  

What he read was the essence of the xenophobic strain in Judaism. In exile it had been the task of Ezra, as befitted a scribe, to study and copy the writings of the Jews. Creativity, and inspiration are the characteristics of prophets, not scribes. When the exiles looked to a scribe to shape the new Jewish nation, they looked to one whose interest is in a dogged preservation of the letter of the law. It was this kind of inflexibility coupled with nationalism that motivated Ezra to demand the dissolution of all marriages between returning Jews and those who already dwelled in Israel. Chapter nine of Nehemiah describes the need for Jews to separate from "foreigners" and chapter thirteen ends with the condemnation of all foreign marriages.  

Ezra’s laws were a return to an isolationist tribalism of an earlier period of Judaism. The reason for the ban on intermarriage was not strictly religious, for the Samaritans had accepted the religion of Judaism. Rather the cause was rooted in a racial, ethnic, nationalistic chauvinism. So natural was intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Jerusalem at this time that a grandson of the high priest had married the daughter of the governor of Samaria during a period when Nehemiah was in Babylon. Upon his return, Nehemiah insisted that this marriage be dissolved. The bridegroom refused, and was expelled from Jerusalem which led to the final split between the Samaritans and the Jews.  

Countervailing Force  

The countervailing force to the rigidity of Ezra and Nehemiah manifests itself in the teachings of two little books in the Bible — the books of Jonah and Ruth. The conflict between the nationalistic viewpoint on the one hand, and the universalistic on the other, has been described by Dr. Julian Morgenstern, former president of Hebrew Union College, as that between universalism and particularism. He states:  

"‘Particularism’ is the emphasis upon a rigid and strict adherence to those things which separate Jews from others. ‘Universalism’ on the other hand, concentrates upon those aspects which unite Jews with others. The ideas are not mutually exclusive of each other. The particularists say that Judaism must be separate and distinct in order to preserve the identity of the Jews. When this has been achieved then they can concern themselves with other people. The universalists also feel that Jews must remain Jews, but they emphasize seeking ways and means of working with all men."  

The Book of Jonah supposedly refers to the Israelite prophet Jonah who prophesied during Israel’s expansion under King Jeroboam II (785-745 B.C.E.). God commands Jonah to prophesy to the people of "that great city" of Ninevah, so that its wayward people may repent of their evil ways. If they will do this, God will forgive them. During the time of the prophet Jonah the Assyrian empire was in a period of decay. Ninevah was but a small provincial town, and the capital of Assyria was Calah. Yet the memory of the hated Assyrian empire, whose leaders were known for their cruelty to those whom they conquered, lived on. That memory was certainly vivid enough to make preaching forgiveness to a despised enemy a hateful enterprise to an Israelite prophet.  

Moral Message  

Although the story of Jonah alludes to an ancient city, and to a prophet of an earlier time, it is not an historical account but rather a parable that contains a moral message. But it is also a story of a fish in a long tradition of such stories. Elsewhere in the Bible we encounter Leviathan, the monster of the deep. In mythology fish frequently swallow humans. An ancient Egyptian account tells of a shipwrecked traveler who is swallowed by a serpent and thus carried to land. The fish that swallows Jonah is often referred to as a whale, perhaps because a whale is a mammal with warm blood and lungs, rather than a true fish with cold blood and gills. The imagination, already straining to envision the prophet discovering God within the fish’s belly, would presumably snap at the vision of a frigid hiding place. But the only type of whale with a throat large enough to swallow a man is the sperm whale, and these do not exist in the Mediterranean. Thus the story of Jonah is a fantasy, which has inspired many writers.  

Herman Melville in his classic story, Moby Dick, describes Jonah as "the God-fugitive," guilty of "wilful disobedience of the command of God." Jonah is a man wrapped up in the notion that he can escape the presence of God. Melville’s preacher describes him thus:  

"See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee world-wide from God? Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the sea. So disordered, self condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck."  

Narrow Nationalism  

Written sometime between 500 and 250 B.C.E. the book of Jonah is generally seen as a polemic against the narrow Jewish nationalism embodied in the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. It posits tolerance of non-Jews in contrast to Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s stress on a pure blood race of Jews under an exclusively Jewish God.  

Jonah is one in a long line of Biblical figures who argue with God. When Abraham learned that God planned to punish Sodom, he protested that there must be at least 50 good people in the evil city. Abraham bargained with God to spare the city on behalf of even so few as ten righteous people. The suffering Job accused God of injustice, and proclaimed his own innocence. Moses tried to evade his mission of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, begging God, "Send I pray some other person."  

And when God calls Jonah, "Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it," Jonah flees to Joppa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish, thinking he can thus escape the presence of the Lord.  

Tribal God  

Here Jonah is depicted as erroneously viewing God as a tribal God of so limited power that his hand would not stretch as far as Tarshish at the western end of the Mediterranean. He thinks that God’s jurisdiction extends only over Palestine. But the first two chapters of the Book of Jonah proclaim that God is everywhere. As Jonah hurries from God’s presence:  

"The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up." The sailors were frightened, "and each cried to his god." Jonah, perhaps to ensure that he would escape God’s voice, had hidden himself in the inner recesses of the ship and fallen asleep. To determine who was the cause of the storm, the sailors cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.  

When they had cast Jonah into the sea, "the sea ceased from its raging." The Lord then arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he stayed in the belly of the fish for three days. It is this part of the story that fascinates mythologists as well as some psychologists. Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, refers to the event as a "practically universal" mythic theme, featuring a hero "going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed."  

The descent into darkness represents the conscious personality being overwhelmed by the unconscious. Campbell notes that, "Metaphorically, water is the unconscious, and the creature in the water is the life or energy of the unconscious, which has overwhelmed the conscious personality and must be disempowered, overcome and controlled." It is indeed inside the belly of the fish that Jonah submits himself to the will of God. "But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay." And the Lord commands the fish to vomit Jonah out on the dry land. After this Jonah fulfills God’s command to go to Ninevah and deliver God’s request for repentance as well as his promise of forgiveness to those who repent. Jonah prophesies so successfully that the entire populations of Ninevah puts on sackcloth and begins to fast as an act of repentance.  

Mercy and Repentance  

Here Jonah assumes the role of prophet not only as a deliverer of oracles but as a persuader, as a proclaimer both of God’s mercy, and the power of repentance. It was the beginning of the sense that deeds make atonement for a man.  

The figure in the story, Jonah, accepts the concept of atonement, but not the extension of God’s mercy to other peoples.  

When the people of Ninevah repent, God forgives them, and spares the city. "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry." The prophet complains to God for having spared Ninevah. The book ends with God’s chastisement of Jonah: "And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"  

Thus, the Book of Jonah demonstrates that God is merciful. But it also shows that God is universal both in the sense of being everywhere, as well as in the sense that all humans, not just the Jews, are his concern. This last point runs counter to the beliefs of the reluctant prophet, Jonah, for his view was closer to the primitive conception of God presented in I Sam. 15 where Samuel demands that Saul totally destroy the Amalekites, men, women and children, as revenge for earlier acts by the Amalekites against the Israelites. For Jonah, like Samuel, views God as a tribal deity who favors Israel over its enemies.  

Universal God  

Throughout this fantastical story, Jonah remains a man not quite right with God. And that is the whole point. He is the narrow-minded nationalist of the post-exilic period while God emerges as a truly universal God, one who cares for Jew and Gentile alike.  

Written at a similar time as the Book of Jonah, the Book of Ruth presents the same message of tolerance and universality. Ruth was a Moabite who had married a Hebrew, the son of Naomi. When her husband died, Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi: "Entreat me not to leave thee and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people will be my people, and thy God, my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried;; the Lord do so to me and the more also, if aught but death part thee and me." (Ruth 1:16)  

Ruth returned with Naomi to Judah and married the Hebrew Boaz and gave birth to a son, Obed. This child was viewed as Naomi’s grandson and she became his nurse: "And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name saying, ‘a son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David." (Ruth 4:17) Thus, Ruth, a Moabite woman, was the great grandmother of David, the greatest king of the Hebrews.  

Intermarriage Not Forbidden  

In his book, Not By Power: The Story of the Growth of Judaism, Rabbi Allan Tarshish writes: "This is a bombshell; for it informs us that David . . . the man from whom the Messiah is supposed to come, was a descendant of a Moabitish woman. The great-grandmother of David was not born a Jewess. Thus the story shows that even in those early days intermarriage on a racial or national basis was not forbidden. It makes the important point that Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s ban on intermarriage with Samaritans or those of other lands who had become Jews, was a policy opposed to basic Jewish practice."  

This, Tarshish points out, is another aspect of an important message: "As God was a universal God, so Judaism was a universal religion, not merely a tribal or national religion. Any person of any nationality group who wished to become a Jew could do so, and marriage should not be based upon national or racial criteria, but upon the criterion of religion. The Book of Ruth won out over the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah, for it was placed in the canon of the Holy Scriptures."  

Rabbi David Goldberg, in his book The Leaven of Judaism, declares that, "Ruth constitutes a repudiation of the racist views expounded by Ezra, denouncing them by implication as anti-Torah, hence anti-Jewish . . . In contemporary terms, Ezra could be properly characterized as a Jewish isolationist, a chauvinistic nationalist, perhaps even a racist. Fortunately, the narrow aspect of Ezra’s Judaism did not register with the learned of his own generation. Ezra’s racist nationalism was repudiated."  

Xenophobic Ideas  

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a respected Conservative rabbi in Encino, California, sharply criticizes Judaism’s xenophobic ideas, going back to Ezra, and including the 18th century classic "Tanya," by the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Shneur Zalman, which contends that the souls of gentiles "emanate from unclean husks that contain no good whatever." He cites a more recent source, the Orthodox rabbi and philosopher Michael Wyschograd who argued in his 1983 book The Body of Faith that Judaism is a "carnal election," claiming that God chose to elect a biological people that remains elect even when it sins.  

"Too many of our people," writes Schulweis, "do no appreciate the universalism in Jewish life. Apparently, it has not registered that it was the Book of Ruth not the Book of Ezra that the rabbis selected to be read on the festival of revelation, Shavuoth. Ruth is celebrated as the spiritual heroine of that text — astoundingly for Ruth is a Moabite . . . . Jews, even those who pray, seem not to be aware that the 13th blessing of the Amidah, recited thrice daily, asks that God’s tender mercies be stirred toward the righteous proselytes. Do we mean what we pray? . . . Too many of our people are not even aware that the first convert to Judaism was none other than Abraham, who opened his tent and, with Sarah, converted pagans to Judaism. Who are we Jews but, as the Haggadah reminds us, children of idol-worshipers?"  

Message of Tolerance  

Those who continue to assert the narrow, tribal nature of Judaism are ignoring the outcome of the struggle between the opposing viewpoints during the fractious post-exilic period. Today, it is the lesson of Jonah, not that of Samuel, that is read as the prophetic portion on the Day of Atonement, a message of universalism. Similarly the rabbis did not select the Book of Ezra to be read on Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation, nor did they select the passage from Deuteronomy 23:3, "no Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord," but rather they chose the Book of Ruth, the book of the Moabite woman, symbol of tolerance, and great-grandmother of King David.  

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