Jonah's Lesson in Divine Mercy

Scholars have long disagreed on the central message of the Book of Jonah; a strong contender is that Jonah plays out the ancient drama of Divine Mercy vs. Strict Justice.

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Universalism Versus Particularism

 The second view is that Jonah preferred loyalty to his people Israel over his duty to obey the Lord of the universe, his master. For this approach, the key to the story is that it is set exclusively among gentiles, who are presented in a positive light. Against this background, the Hebrew prophet's refusal to go to Nineveh is explained by his fear that the anticipated repentance of the gentile city will cast a heavy shadow on the stiff‑necked Israelites.

In the modem scholarly version of this exegesis, the Book of Jonah is described as a polemic against the narrow exclusivism prevalent among the returnees to Zion that resulted from the travails of the destruction of the First Temple, the exile, and Persian domination.

According to this position, the election of Israel  requires the Jews to turn away from members of other nations and even justifies disdain for them. Jonah is accordingly taken as the representative of this antipathy toward gentiles, and his flight is explained as a refusal to show them the way to repentance and salvation.

The forceful blocking of his flight, by contrast, is meant to point us toward the true meaning of election: Israel was chosen to serve as the carrier of faith in order to disseminate it among all nations. To demonstrate that this awesome mission can be realized, the humble spirit and open heart of the gentiles aboard the ship and in Nineveh are juxtaposed with the arrogance of the prophet who rejects his mission.

This universalist view, too, cannot be anchored in the text of Jonah, unless one can show that the prophet is characterized as the embodiment of such Israelite exclusivism, whereas the sailors and people of Nineveh are cast as faithful representatives of the pagan gentile world and its openness to the call of faith. Jonah's anger at the pardon extended to Nineveh might be taken as an indication that he is a xenophobe who longs for the destruction of idolaters.

But this explanation is refuted by his conduct during the storm: instead of trying to force his pursuer to drown all those aboard the ship on account of his own transgression, he acts to prevent their being dragged into his quarrel with his God. In view of the absence of any manifestation of hatred for gentiles and idolatry (the book contains no condemnation of the sin of idolatry), it is impossible to interpret his self‑stated reasons for running away (4: 2) as a protest against the display of divine mercy toward idolaters.

3) Prophecy: Realization Versus Compliance

The third reading, which focuses on Jonah's stubborn refusal to prophesy against Nineveh and his anger at its deliverance, grounds the story on Jonah's jealous concern for the veracity of prophecy and his apprehension Iest his credibility  be undermined.

According to this view‑-which was adopted by (many earlier scholars including) Saadiah Gaon (Beliefs and Opinions 3,5), Rashi, David Kimhi (who combined it with the second theme reviewed above), Abravanel, and many modem scholars‑--the Book of Jonah seeks to teach us about the educational purpose of prophecies of doom (see Ezekiel 3: 16‑21 and 33:1‑9) through the medium of a story that criticizes a prophet who viewed announcing future events as his role and full realization of the prophecy as his only test.

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Uriel Simon

Uriel Simon is Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar Ilan University. He is a founder of Oz v'Shalom, the Israeli religious peace movement, and the author of books on the topics of Biblical Prophecy and Psalms.