"Jonah and the Whale" by Pieter Lastman (Museum Kunstpalast/Wikimedia)

Jonah: Following God’s Example

God also repents in the Book of Jonah.


“O Lord, this is precisely what I predicted when I was still in my own land; I therefore hastened to run away to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient, abundant in kindness, and relenting of evil.” (Jonah 4:2 )

“The Lord, the Lord is a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth; He keeps mercy for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and pardoning.” (Exodus 34: 6-7)

The Book of Jonah has been assigned a climactic role in the liturgy of the Days of Awe by being selected as the Haftarah [prophetic reading] for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. In other words, it is the final biblical reading of the Ten Days of Penitence. Why?

Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and to proclaim judgment upon it because of Nineveh’s wickedness. But Jonah boards a ship and flees westward to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. God thwarts his escape by whipping up a violent storm which threatens the boat. When the passengers cast lots to discover on whose account the storm has arisen, Jonah owns up that he is fleeing from the service of the God of Heaven and suggests that they throw him overboard in order to quiet the storm. They finally comply and there follows the famous episode of Jonah’s survival in the belly of the Big Fish.

Having learned the lesson that he cannot avoid the Lord, Jonah arrives in the city of Nineveh and proclaims: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned.” When he is no more than a third of the way through the city, the people believe God’s word and go into mourning. The king himself proclaims comprehensive rites of penitence and commands all to turn back from their evil ways and the injustice of which they are guilty.

The Ninevites’ reform works: The human turning produces a divine turning. When God sees that they have abandoned their evil ways He renounces their punishment. This repentance of God distresses Jonah greatly, and he expresses himself: “That is why I ran away the first time. For I know that You are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment.”

Why did Jonah flee from the mission God had given him? Jonah says he knew God would forgive the Ninevites and cancel their punishment. But what objection could Jonah possibly have to the forgiveness of the truly penitent? The oldest Jewish interpretation of the book holds that Jonah fled because he wished to protect his credibility. Since the Ninevites were sure to be forgiven, Jonah who was to predict their doom, would look like a false prophet. A variation on this view holds that it was God’s credibility that Jonah sought to protect. God’s willingness to forgive and forget would destroy the fear of God; His word would become a mockery and men’s trust in Him would be shaken if His threats were so easily evaded.

It is not clear from the book itself whether Jonah is really concerned about credibility, but it is clear that God is not. God is willing to risk humiliation, to allow His word to be discredited, for the sake of compassion. Seen from this perspective, the Book of Jonah teaches that God is able and willing and even desirous of annulling His own word.

This new concept, opposed by Jonah but advocated by his biographer, has gained a foothold in Judaism. “God wants not the death of the sinner, but that he turn away from evil and live,” as the High Holiday prayer book, quoting Ezekiel (18:23), puts it. Further, Judaism has gone so far as to twist the words of the Torah itself in order to make the point. The list of God’s merciful qualities that is recited at almost every opportunity in the liturgy of the Days of Awe is highly reassuring to the Jew facing the Heavenly Court in this season of judgment. To anyone who knows his Bible, however, the list must appear downright scandalous. It is a blatant example of a quotation lifted out of context, interrupting a sentence of the book of Exodus in the middle of a phrase for the sake of omitting the inconvenient sequel. For the last word on the list, “pardoning,” is actually part of a phrase that reads in full, “but He does not pardon absolutely.”

The rabbis have given the Book of Jonah prominence among the biblical readings of the Days of Awe to emphasize that at times God does pardon absolutely. It is an attribute of both God and man to repent.

Reprinted with permission from Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins and published by Jason Aronson Inc.

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