Editor’s note: The following article is the third part of a series on Sefer Yonah, presented by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter. See the last two weeks’ editions of Kol Torah on Parashiyot Shemini and Tazria/Metzora for the first two parts.
It is truly remarkable that Nineveh was roused to immediate Teshuvah by Yonah’s five word speech. Nowhere else in Tanach do we find such a resounding response to a call to Teshuvah. Riders of the New York subway system are unfortunately familiar with people riding the trains proclaiming the end of the world. Reasonable people do not take such proclamations seriously. Why did the residents of Nineveh take seriously the dire declaration of a complete stranger? The Mefarshim endeavor to explain this most surprising and unusual reaction of the people of Nineveh.
Ibn Ezra and Radak - The Sailors
Ibn Ezra (to Yonah 3:2) and Radak (to Yonah 3:5) both cite a Rabi Yeshu’a explanation that the sailors from Perek 1 accompanied Yonah and authenticated his message. This fits with the Midrashic assertion that the sailors represented each of the nations of the world. Having such a wide variety of people support Yonah’s message would certainly lend to his credibility.
While this approach certainly fits with the overwhelmingly positive impression depiction of the sailors in Perek 1, there appears to be no evidence to this idea from the text. Indeed it is surprising if not shocking that a confirmed Pashtan (devotee of the straightforward explanation of the Tanach text) such as Ibn Ezra presents this as a viable explanation.
Midrash - Pharaoh
A very well-known Midrash claims that the king of Nineveh of Perek 3 is none other than Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim! Pharaoh was so traumatized by what he witnessed in Mitzrayim he knew not to once again pick a fight with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. While this Midrash solves two problems - the reason for Yonah’s success and the missing information regarding Pharaoh’s fate at the Yam Suf (according to this Midrash he escaped to Assyria where he became king) - it seems to be quite a fantastic claim. After all, the events of Sefer Yonah occur many centuries after Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.
Together with my Torah Academy of Bergen County students we developed a variety of approaches to explain this Midrash. It might mean that the king of Nineveh was a descendant of Pharaoh. In more mystical terms, he may have been a Gilgul (reincarnation) of Pharaoh. Torah Academy of Bergen County Talmid Moshe Papier suggests that the king of Nineveh had read of Pharaoh’s experiences with Hashem in Mitzrayim and thus vicariously “was Pharaoh” and learned a vital lesson thereby.
The Da’at Mikra suggests that the reputation of the Jewish prophets had reached Nineveh and therefore Yonah was taken seriously. This seems to be a viable approach, as Chazal (cited by Rashi to Melachim II 9:1) present Yonah as a Talmid of Elisha. Elisha certainly made quite an impression on the leaders of neighboring Aram, such as Chaza’eil, Ben Haddad and Na’aman as is well known to readers of Melachim II. Thus, Yonah might have been riding on the coattails of Elisha’s exceptional reputation in the region.
One could question this approach, though, since there was no one (according to Peshuto Shel Mikra, the plain meaning of the text) to vouch for the credibility of Yonah and Yonah had no prior interaction with Assyria and Nineveh to have established credibility with them.
Nikkarim Divrei Emet
I suggested that perhaps we can take our cue from the Gemara (Sotah 9b) which explains why Delilah believed Shimshon’s explanation that cutting his hair would eliminate his great strength (Shofetim 16:18) . After all, Shimshon had fooled her repeatedly with false explanations of the source of his supernatural abilities.
The Gemara explains that Nikkarim Divrei Emet, truthful words are self-evident. The Rashbam (Bereishit 40:16) takes his cue from this Gemara and uses this principle to explain why the Sar HaOfim realized that Yosef properly interpreted the dream of the Sar HaMashkim.
Similarly, Yonah was so sincere and so authentic that his words and persona made a deep impression on the people of Nineveh. Truly spiritual individuals make an impression even on those who are not tuned in to Jewish spirituality. I recall a relative who was not observant tell me of the deep impression made on him by the following deeply spiritual giants - Rav Yitzchok Cohen Shlita of Yeshiva University, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rav Yosef Singer zt”l of the Lower East Side. Indeed, the Bnei Chet recognized Avraham Avinu as Nesi Elokim B’Tocheinu (Bereishit 23:6). Bat Pharaoh recognized that the Shechinah was with baby Moshe (Rashi to Shemot 2:6).
Abarbanel notes that Yonah 3:5 states that the people of Nineveh believed in Hashem and does not state that they believed in Yonah. This conveys the message that they grasped that Yonah was an authentic transmitter of the message of Hashem. It was the authenticity of the Godly message that convinced the people of Nineveh, not the result of a seductive and intoxicating manipulation by a gifted speaker.
A Bold Suggestion - A Manipulation from Hashem
We boldly offer a suggestion based on the approach that Yonah delivered such a short speech in order to sabotage the chances of its success. If this assumption is true then we can apply the principle of “Lamah Zeh Atem Overim Et Pi Hashem V’Hi Lo Titzlach”, why are you violating the word of Hashem - it will not work! (Bemidbar 14:41). Outsmarting Hashem never works, in fact it backfires (as is also evident from Shemot 1:12). Perhaps we can explain the astounding Teshuvah of the people of Nineveh as a backfiring of Yonah’s to subvert the mission on which Hashem placed him.
However we explain it, Nineveh’s Teshuvah stands as an example of a communal Teshuvah that the Jewish people will perform which will initiate the arrival of Mashiach (Devarim 30:1-10 and Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5). Nineveh’s one hundred percent participation sets a powerful example for our people, an important message year round but especially as the day of Yom Kippur draws to a close.
 The more mystically inclined Torah commentaries such as Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachayei embrace the belief in Gigullim whereas the more rationally inclined authorities such as Rav Saadia Gaon and Rambam are less inclined to do so. One may question the application of the Gilgul idea to this context since it is not generally assumed that a Gilgul is actively aware of the events that occurred in his prior lives. On the other hand, perhaps the King of Nineveh might be understood as subconsciously motivated by that which transpired in a prior Gilgul.
 The power in reading lies in vicariously experiencing situations and learning lessons in a safe manner, thereby avoiding the need to repeat the mistakes of the protagonists.