The Bible has no shortage of characters who heed divine calls. At God’s behest, Noah builds an ark, Abraham leaves his homeland, Moses returns to Egypt (where he is wanted for murder) to free the Israelite slaves. And this is not to mention all of the Biblical prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and more than a dozen others — who immediately act on God’s command. Not so, Jonah.
The book of Jonah opens like other prophetic books of the Bible, with the formulaic “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Just as “once upon a time” signals a fairy tale, this biblical formula signals a book of prophecy. But unlike other prophetic books, what follows is not an account of the divine words that Jonah received, but instead a story about Jonah who, it turns out, was a very reluctant, even recalcitrant prophet.
At the opening of his story, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of the largest cities in ancient Mesopotamia, and the capital of Israel’s most dangerous enemy, the Assyrian empire. It is rife with wickedness. Jonah is to warn the Ninevites that because of their sinfulness they now face divine destruction.
Rather than heed this call, Jonah flees in the opposite direction on a ship to Tarshish, across the Mediterranean Sea (in ancient terms, this is basically the other side of the world). Not one to let a prophet pull a disappearing act, God sends a storm to threaten Jonah’s ship—and it is a doozy. The crew, terrified out of their minds, throw all the cargo overboard and each prays individually to his own god, to no avail. Meanwhile, Jonah sleeps in the hold of the ship, oblivious to the clamor and uproar. Indeed, it must have been a kind of willful obliviousness — for who could sleep through the tumult of a storm threatening to overturn a ship and a crew of sailors crying for their lives?
Amid the commotion, the captain finds Jonah, wakes him, and demands that he join the effort to save the ship by calling on his God. Here, Jonah — a prophet who likely understood what was happening — might, indeed should have taken responsibility for the storm and prayed to his God to save the innocent sailors. But he gives no response, risking the lives of everyone onboard.
The men decide to draw lots to see who is responsible for the storm and the lot falls on Jonah. They question Jonah more closely and though Jonah’s responses are minimal and cagey, eventually the sailors are able to pull from him the whole story of how he has run away from a divine directive.
At this point, Jonah has not only disobeyed God’s command to go to Nineveh, he has willfully endangered a ship full of innocent strangers. Perhaps because he cannot see a way out of this hole of wrongdoing, and perhaps because he would probably die anyway, Jonah tells the crew that their only option is to throw him overboard — an act that will supposedly appease God and save the ship from the storm. The crew, decent men, insist on trying once more to row to shore, a desperate attempt to save the man who had callously endangered their lives. But their rowing is futile and the storm continues to rage, so they reluctantly toss Jonah into the sea, instantly calming the waters.
Throughout the telling, Jonah’s disobedience and iniquity is highlighted by repeated use of the verb “down.” Rather than follow God’s instruction, Jonah goes down to the port city of Jaffa, then down onto the ship on the way to Tarshish, then down to a lower deck. He falls asleep, and then is thrown down into the sea. The message couldn’t be clearer: Jonah is going in the wrong direction.
God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah had wanted to die rather than face his mistakes and complete his mission, but God won’t permit it. There’s an irony here that can’t be seen in the English. The city of Nineveh is represented in Cuneiform by a symbol of a fish within a house. Jonah did his best to escape one great fish, only to be swallowed by another.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah finally descends as far as possible and hits (literal) rock bottom — the bottom of the sea. He spends three nights in the belly of the fish and with nowhere left to run, not even death, he finally repents. Jonah’s repentance is expressed in a long, strange, and beautiful poem that is spoken within the fish’s belly, and the language indicates that he is ready to change direction:
The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.
Yet You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God!
Three days later, in a figurative rebirth, the fish spits Jonah up onto the land. Now, with a quick divine reminder, the reluctant prophet heads straight for Nineveh and delivers the intended prophecy: Nineveh is wicked and will be destroyed in 40 days.
It turns out that for wicked bad guys, the Ninevites are awfully good at repentance. Their change of heart is immediate and total—from the king on all the way down to the animals who fast and don sackcloth and ashes (signs of mourning and repentance) right alongside their human masters. The cartoonish image of animals fasting and wearing sackcloth is meant to emphasize the totality of the city’s repentance.
We might have expected Jonah to be pleased. His prophecy has been believed, the city has responded magnificently to his words, and the people are turning their lives around. But Jonah is not pleased. In fact, he is furiously angry—and directs his outburst at God. To paraphrase: God, I told you they would just repent and you, being a merciful God, would forgive them. Why oh why did you send me on this mission? I wish I were dead! Rebirth, it seems, is short-lived.
Why was Jonah disappointed in the repentance of the Ninevites? Did he fear that their redemption would make a mockery of his prophecy (that the city would be destroyed)? The text doesn’t say. What is certain at this point is that Jonah is in need of more repentance himself.
A raging Jonah leaves the city that is actively turning to God (thanks to his prophecy) and wanders into the wilderness. It may be that he is trying to die again (first time by drowning, now by dehydration). Once again, God won’t permit him to perish without facing his mistakes and, where previously God sent a giant fish to save him from the water, this time God sprouts a plant to shelter Jonah from the burning sun. Despite his death wish, Jonah is relieved to have the plant’s protection.
But the plant wasn’t an act of divine mercy — it was part of a divine lesson. As soon as Jonah has settled gratefully into its shade, God sends a worm to chew the roots of the plant, killing it so that Jonah is left exposed once again. Under the intolerably beating sun, Jonah cries out to God in anger, and this time simply begs for death. In the final lines of the book, God speaks once again to Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant? You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow. It appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?!”
The Book of Jonah is read in synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. It presents two very different stories about repentance. On the one hand, there are the Ninevites, the evil
villains of the ancient world whose sins are so terrible they merit destruction. And yet, the minute they genuinely repent — even though that repentance is, admittedly, self-interested — God is merciful. Their story highlights God’s benevolence, the quickness with which God wishes to forgive people who want to make a genuine change, whatever their motivation.
And then there’s Jonah, the prophet of God, who is supposed to be an exemplary person, yet finds repentance nearly impossible. Indeed, he never really repents, just continually runs from his mistakes — even repeatedly prefers death over repentance. Even his forced timeout in the belly of the fish does not affect true repentance. His case is never resolved.
Both messages resonate on Yom Kippur: repentance is staggeringly hard — but God’s mercy is generous and swift.
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