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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Jonah runs away because he cannot resolve two contradictions: between the categorization of prophecies that do not come to pass as "false prophecies" (Deuteronomy 18:21-22) and the revocation of the verdict against Nineveh, in response to its repentance; and between the concept of God as unchanging and resolute (see Numbers 23:19) and His attributes of compassion and forgiveness.

Nevertheless the Lord compelled him to prophesy against Nineveh to teach him the paradoxical nature of true prophets, who "foretell punishment to make it unnecessary" (St. Jerome in his commentary on Ezekiel 33:1).

Such a definition of the prophet's role is undoubtedly an appropriate and weighty theme for a prophetic narrative, but there is no real sign in the Book of Jonah of the prophet's anguish that his prediction did not come to pass, nor anything like this elsewhere in the Bible. This is why the author of the midrash quoted above had to assume that Jonah had previously been mocked by the people of Jerusalem.

4) Compassion: Justice Versus Mercy

The fourth view is that Jonah argues on behalf of strict justice --  against the merciful God, who repents of His sentence (upon the Ninevites). To the advocate of strict justice it is clear that wickedness abounds not only because of the viciousness of evildoers, but also because the Judge of all the earth does not treat them with the full severity of the law.

He (Jonah) must learn that the world can exist only through the unfathomable amalgam of justice and mercy, that fear of sin is produced not only by fear of punishment, but also by awe at the sublimity of salvation ("The men feared the LORD greatly" [1: 16]; see Kings 17:24) and by fascination with grace and absolution ("Yours is the power to forgive so that You may be held in awe" [Psalm 130:41).

Jonah foresaw both the submission of the evildoers of Nineveh, terrified by their impending destruction, and the acceptance of their repentance by the merciful God; but he was totally wrong to believe that he would be allowed to escape to Tarshish. Subsequent surprises undermine his pretense to knowledge‑-the fish that saves him from death but imprisons him in its belly until he gives up his flight and begins to pray; and the plant that saves him from his distress but vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, so that he can feel the pain of loss and open his heart to understand the Creator's love for His creatures.

Jonah Must Realize His Own Need for Mercy

Only when the proponent of strict justice realizes his own humanity can he understand the fundamental dependence of mortals on human and divine mercy. The midrashic sages had Jonah express this recognition, in body language and words, in the answer they report he gave to the Lord's rhetorical question that concludes the book:

Then he fell on his face and said: "Conduct Your world according to the attribute of mercy, as it is written: 'To the LORD our God belong mercy and forgiveness' (Daniel 9:9)” (Midrash Jonah).

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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.