“We have turned away from Your commandments and from Your redeeming laws, and we have gained nothing from it.”
Jonah has been depicted in ancient floor mosaics and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He is a figure of interest in the three major Western faiths, and scholars have been piqued for centuries by this strange aquatic tale. The book bearing his name is one of the shortest in the Bible, and the only one that ends with a question. Its pages depict the defiance of a prophet, Jonah’s resignation to accept a mission, and his eventual failure to carry through the task. In Christian polemics, Jonah is regarded as a disturbed Hebrew prophet who pales in religious commitment to the sailors and citizens of Nineveh, all of whom seem more contrite than one of God’s anointed. It is reported in a Hadith that Muhammad once said, “One should not say that I am better than Jonah, son of Amitai.”
This negativity shows a lack of insight into the true struggle in the book: the battle between justice and compassion. On one level, Jonah turns away from God’s command, gains nothing, and loses everything, just like the confession we read every Yom Kippur: “We have turned away from Your commandments and from Your redeeming laws and we have gained nothing from it.” Virtually all of the sins that follow are a result of a deeper chasm; we have turned away from God and our lives begin to fall apart. But on another level, Jonah runs away because, in his stark and rigid view of good and evil, he has little room for compassion for others but demands it for himself. His is a struggle that the prophet and God wage that also rages within us all.
The book of Jonah throws the reader immediately into the prophet’s call and his resistance. The word of God comes to Jonah, who is told to rise and go to an ancient city first mentioned early in Genesis (10:12). The story does away with the usual genealogical background because we have met Jonah earlier, in II Kings. There Jonah is mentioned as a prophet under King Jeroboam II of Samaria, a ruler who, we are told explicitly, did not depart from the sins of his ancestors. In the eighth century before the Common Era, Jonah’s singular contribution to the reign of Jeroboam was to help the king recover territory lost to Israel: “It was he who restored the territory of Israel from Lebo-hamath to the sea of the Araba, in accordance with the promise that the Lord made through His servant, the prophet Jonah, son of Amitai, from Gath-hepher. For the Lord saw the plight of Israel, with neither bond nor free left and none to help Israel” (II Kings 14:25). God here is depicted as a compassionate ruler who helped Israel when its people lacked all other advocates. The prophet worked within the political confines of his day as an agent of God’s mission.
Gath-hepher, Jonah’s hometown, is near the city of Nazareth today, which explains why Jonah had to go down to Jaffa onto a ship: Jaffa was located to the south of his hometown. This passage may also help us understand Jonah’s hesitation. Thus far, Jonah had been involved solely with strengthening and recovering the boundaries of Israel at a time of Israelite vulnerability. To task him with going to an enemy nation – one that had turned on the Jews time and again – in order to strengthen them morally could only undermine responsibilities he fulfilled in his past. Jonah was figuratively at sea and would soon be literally there as well.
Jonah’s descent into Jaffa and then into the boat presages the deeper descent that he experienced; he also went down into the recesses of the ship and then down into a deep sleep. The Hebrew root y-r-d (“descend” or “go down”) is repeated as the prophet sinks lower and lower into what today might be categorized as depression. He lacked even the most basic instinct of self-preservation, as he fell into what is nearly a comatose state while the ship was at breaking point. The captain was so intrigued by Jonah’s behavior that he left his urgent responsibilities to wake the sleeping prophet with the question that rings in the ears of every penitent this season: “How can you be sleeping so soundly?” (Jonah 1:6). Many commentators see the ship’s captain as the ultimate metaphor for God Himself. The captain gave Jonah the same command as God did earlier: Get up!
But Jonah was not able to rise to the occasion or help the sailors save themselves and the ship. His compassion for them was masked by his self-absorption. He had no room for pity, only self-pity. Instead, Jonah gave them enigmatic answers to very clear questions. Earlier, when asked what he did, he could not offer a straight answer. He said, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made both sea and dry land” (1:9). This is hardly a job description. The only directive he was able to muster was the command that they throw him overboard. This is the ultimate statement of passivity, not even taking responsibility for one’s own death. At a time when the sailors were focused on salvation, he asked them to be murderers, rather than just jumping overboard himself. They pressed their oars harder into the sea but to no avail. The tempest heightened in scale and intensity, and with a plea that God forgive them for any transgression of innocent blood spilled, they threw this odd man into the sea. When the sea ceased raging, the sailors offered sacrifices to Jonah’s God, fearing Him in a way that Jonah did not. The chapter ends with their vows to God, an odd bookend to Jonah, who never paid his pledge and was now edging towards the bottom of the sea.
The contrast could not be greater. The sailors became a niggling foil for Jonah’s recidivism. Later, the citizens of Nineveh would serve the same purpose, prompting ancient Christian scholars to take the critical view of this ancient prophet, arguing that it shows the fault lines of Jewish leadership.
The complexity of Jonah’s inner battle is exquisitely captured in an engraving by French artist Gustav Doré (1832–1883). In the engraving, Jonah looks back in horror as he grips a scrim of dry land, the shore’s edge of Nineveh, while the great leviathan of the sea turns to make its way back to the heart of the ocean.
It has just deposited Jonah on dry land. In Doré’s engraving, the prophet’s feet are only inches from the water and make a straight and invisible line to the great fish’s tail, as if man and beast are aligned in mission. But Jonah finds himself alone in this artistic composition, clinging to the shore with a muscular arm; the folds of his tunic and the curls in his hair blend into the seamless flow of undulating dry land and cresting sea waters. The prophet looks as if he might lose his hold and slip into the sea’s inky blackness. Jonah was no stranger to the waves, willing as he was to submit to them to quell the ocean squall that bubbled over when he ran away from God. Jonah, slipping back into the sea that saved him, is an apt metaphor for a man running far from his destiny, looking backwards without advancing, doubting his competence. He is painfully lonely.
But God’s message was unambiguous: You cannot run. You cannot hide. Wherever you go, I will find you. I will use all of the natural world to force you to confront your self-doubts or your doubts about the sincerity of others: the big fish, the small worm, the East wind, the fast-growing tree, the burning sun. All of these were in God’s arsenal to stop the prophet from his great escape. Jonah needed to go to Nineveh to deliver a message of destruction that would evolve into a charge of deliverance. God was willing to invest every resource to ensure that Jonah engaged his task. He used them all. God’s insistence was not a form of punishment. It was an ongoing gift of compassion for the prophet to help model, nurture, and grow an impulse of grace that Jonah sorely lacked.
Doré shows us the moment of immense fright that leaves Jonah submerged with every one of his fears. The fish’s fins are up as it rides off into the horizon. Water curls in two looping fountains from the fish’s submerged head. The great fish has dropped Jonah off at the original destination, a mission Jonah tried to sail away from by boat. Deposited on the shores of Nineveh, Jonah glances back at this unique transportation service with what almost looks like longing. Jonah’s eyes may either reflect the terror of what he has been through in this mammal’s insides or the worry of leaving the protection of the great beast for the complicated task ahead. The artist leaves us to decide what troubles the prophet confronts on this foreign soil. Perhaps Doré took his cue from chapter two, Jonah’s prayer inside the great fish.
Chapter two of Jonah has been regarded by many Bible scholars as a literary interpolation of a psalm-like passage, oddly interrupting the narrative arc of the story. And yet, Jonah’s prayer itself offers great insight into the interior of a person running away from his mission. Jonah takes us on a virtual tour of the drowning process, frightening as it was. He first relays how the flood water swallowed him on the crest of the waves as he was heaved over. He then describes how “breakers and billows swept over” him. At that moment, at the initial descent, he presents his mental state: “I thought I was driven away, out of Your sight. Would I ever gaze again upon Your holy Temple?” (2:5). He understood for the first time the consequences of dying when the reality of the water’s perils finally engulfed him. This was it. Life was nearly over. All of the consequences of non-existence faced him squarely. He descended further: “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” (2:6–7). Finally, there was nowhere he could run. Seaweed twisted about him as he sank lower and lower. He had literally sunk to the base of the earth. The waters closed in on him and then the sand bars at the sea’s very bottom. There was no lower place for him to go.
Many of us fail to realize Jonah’s point of salvation because we never ask when the fish swallowed Jonah. But the prayer tells us. He was at the lowest possible point before being saved. Like so many who run far away from their life’s purpose, he needed to sink to the very bottom before the text could record his praise of God: “Yet You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called to the Lord” (2:7–8). Life was ebbing away. He was saved suddenly and unexpectedly but only when he had nowhere else to go. That is when God showed him ultimate compassion and sent an agent of salvation.
Jonah translated the compassion he received into a commitment to fulfill his mission. The fish transported him to Nineveh, and he surfaced on dry land ostensibly a new man, dedicated to God’s word. Doré’s only other depiction of Jonah is in Nineveh itself. The prophet’s arms are outstretched, and the look of woe on his face communicates to those seated all around him that life is soon to be dramatically altered. His pronouncement is not long and flowing, as in the words of prophets like Ezekiel or Isaiah. It is short and to the point: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned” (3:4). In Four Strange Books of the Bible, Elias Bickerman notes this change of prophetic message.1Elias Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1985). The new, direct, and abbreviated style causes the prophet even further worry. Unlike the parables and similes of other prophets, Jonah’s directive contains no blurring or fogginess. Nothing is left open to interpretation. Jonah articulated a message that is cutting and sure: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned.”
Contrast Jonah’s surety to two strange appearances of doubt that appear in two of the book’s four chapters. When the boat carrying Jonah is about to capsize because of the tempest at sea, the captain tells Jonah to pray because perhaps they will all be saved as a result. Later, the king of Nineveh commands his entire city and its animals to fast and improve their ways: “Who knows but that God may turn and relent?” (3:9). Both authority figures bank on God’s compassion, a compassion that God eventually extends. In contrast, Jonah, trapped in the black-and-white mindset of justice alone, is sure that there is no chance of salvation. The compassion God extends to Jonah has no long-lasting impact on the prophet’s capacity for compassion.
When Jonah barks out his prophecy, he has only one meaning in mind. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned” can only mean, in his mind, that the city will be destroyed. But the clever semantic understanding of “overturned” in Hebrew implies reversal as well. In forty days, destruction can become salvation if everyone repents. In Doré’s Nineveh, some of the town’s citizens look at the prophet with visible tension. Others cup their heads in their hands in despair. Some look bored, as if Hebrew prophets regularly visited the area with apocalyptic messages; one listener in Doré’s engraving stands at the prophet’s feet with one hand on his hip as if to say to the prophet, “I do not believe you.”
And there is another troubling detail, so small we might easily overlook it as yet another subtle statement of Jonah’s hesitation. Nineveh, we learn in chapter three, was “enormously large, a three days’ walk across” (3:3). Details like this rarely appear in the Bible and make us question their necessity – until we are told that Jonah made only one day’s walk into the city when he proclaimed the prophecy that swept like wildfire through this vast, ancient city. Jonah walked no further into Nineveh. He stepped out of it quickly, doubting the authenticity of the city’s repentance. Arguably, Jonah did not need to journey deeper into the heart of Nineveh because his word traveled quickly, penetrating the immoral surfaces of person and animal alike. But perhaps he could not go any further. He tried to muster the courage and resilience to abide by a mission he never asked for and initially rejected. But he could not carry it through. His hesitation appears in his footsteps – or lack of them. He had no love for these foreigners, no desire to see them transform themselves. He wanted to leave the city with haste before God did to Nineveh what he once did to Sodom and Gomorrah. In Jonah’s mind, justice would prevail.
Jonah’s name is mentioned in the book whose title bears his name; he is also referred to in II Kings as the son of Amitai, a figure we do not encounter in the Bible. The notion of being the “Son of Truth,” playing off the root e-m-t (“truth”) of Amitai’s name, offers the reader a paradox. Jonah, a child of truth, ran away from his God-given destiny. As such, his end could come to no good. Later, in the fourth chapter, as he offered a puzzling explanation for his escape, he reviewed God’s qualities as listed in Exodus 34:6, namely that God is compassionate and long-suffering. But whereas in Exodus the list ends with God as faithful or truthful, Jonah omitted the word “emet” in his description. Jonah was angry; he believed that God was much more compassionate than honest. An honest God would have held the Ninevites accountable not only for their many sins but for a repentance that seemed shallow and incomplete. In the Exodus verse, this inequality of descriptors bears out. God is described as truthful only once but as merciful multiple times.
We review this set of verses again and again during the seliĥot period and in our recitations on Ne’ila:
The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, yet He does not remit all punishment. (Exodus 34:6–7)
On Yom Kippur, we ask that God display this mercy in abundant ways, pushing aside our wrongs and extending grace to us, even though we do not deserve it. Herein lay Jonah’s greatest flaw as leader. He wanted justice for others and compassion for himself. He almost called God a liar for being too merciful when God should have judged harshly. Jonah judged God, believing that God’s compassion was a weak impulse when justice should have been served instead. Jonah could not face the truth of his own leadership failure and projected it onto God.
But when it came to truth-telling, God showed Jonah that true leadership lies in balancing justice with compassion. Jonah moved east of Nineveh and made a sukka for himself, a small booth that symbolized his removal and enclosure from the place he left; from this observation point, he watched what would happen to the city, convinced that if God gave the city forty days until it was destroyed He would indeed destroy it. But then God gave Jonah a kikayon, a tree described in the Talmud as offering shade and medicinal properties. It was not as sparse as his sukka. Jonah was happy for the first time in his recorded history. The only happiness Jonah expresses in the entire book was over this tree.
When God removed the tree that Jonah had not planted or nurtured, Jonah was so despondent that he questioned his very life:
He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.” Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.” (4:8–9)
Jonah’s request is shocking. How can it be that Jonah felt so aggrieved over a plant that he did not enjoy for more than a day? Jonah’s plant spared him discomfort, the text tells us, but it symbolized much more. It was a sign of God’s grace and love. When it was removed, Jonah felt the blazing sun beating on his head and felt faint.
Then the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left and many beasts as well?” (4:10–11)
Jonah wanted the protection of a tree he did not deserve. The tree made him happy. He wanted the gift of something he did not deserve.
A prophet who runs away from the Lord should not get presents; he should get punished. God understood Jonah’s anguish and sought to relieve it by teaching Jonah the most basic lesson of compassion. Jonah wanted pity, mercy, nurturing, and protection – all aspects of love and caring that we receive from others – which he did not merit. Yet he could not extend that gift of mercy to others. And in that failure, he betrayed his job as a prophet. A prophet can give a sincere message only when he feels the intensity of its repercussions and wants only the best for those he berates. The ideal prophet and leader wants to praise people more than he wants to criticize them. Jonah wanted love but could not give it. We, the readers, have no idea if Jonah was ever able to muster that mercy because God gets the last word in the book.
Jonah is everyman. We, too, want the gift of grace, a present we do not deserve, a reprieve from a crime that merits punishment. We want the police officer to forget about the speeding ticket and just issue a warning even though we know we drove over the limit. The officer is justified in giving us that ticket. It is only our good luck on occasion when he smiles instead and tells us to be careful next time.
Jonah continues to confound. Yet a flawed prophet’s tale of rejection, hesitation, and acceptance found an important place in the biblical canon and plays a central role on Yom Kippur afternoon. We, the penitents in Jonah’s shadow, know all too well the challenge of change. We, too, reject our calling and question it, resist destiny, hesitate, drag our feet, capitulate, and stand back in anguish looking at the sum total of our accomplishments. We question God’s ways, sometimes evading the questions we must really ask ourselves. We all have moments when we judge the loyalty of a friend, the commitment of a spouse, the responsibility of a child, the purpose of our existence. When we enter these dark spaces, we rarely see the sin of it. We experience self-pity. In the space where self-pity lives, teshuva cannot live. There is no room for change when we feel sorry for ourselves. And like the book of Jonah, we close Yom Kippur with God’s question: Can we really hope for change when we want compassion for ourselves but demand justice for others?
• We are all running away from something. Is there something you are running away from facing right now? Why? What would it take to do an about-face and confront the problem? Think about having the strength this season to do that.
• Now think of a situation this past year when you needed more compassion. What did it feel like to be denied the nurturing that compassion brings with it? Consider someone who needs compassion from you right now. Why are you withholding it? Transfer your need for compassion to the person you are denying compassion to who needs it from you. Hold back on judgment for the moment and try to imitate the grace we associate with God in our prayers during these Days of Awe. Imitating God, our mandate from the first chapter of Genesis, means having a deep well of compassion.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 5:4
Were God to decree that an individual would be righteous or wicked or that there would be a quality which draws a person by his essential nature to any particular path [of behavior], set of ideals, attributes, or deeds, as imagined by many of the fools [who believe] in astrology – how could He command us through [the words of] the prophets: “Do this,” “Do not do this,” “Improve your behavior,” or “Do not follow after your wickedness?”…. What place would there be for the entire Torah? According to which judgment or sense of justice would retribution be administered to the wicked or reward to the righteous? Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly!
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 25: “The Manner of Acquiring Fear of Sin”
Once it has become clear to one that wherever he may be, he is standing before the Presence of the Blessed One, there will come to him of itself, the fear and trepidation of going astray in his actions so that they do not accord with the majesty of the Blessed One. As it is stated (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1), “Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and a book in which all your deeds are inscribed.” And they are all inscribed in a book, whether they be in one’s favor or against him.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 7:5
At the time that a man sins he is in “the world of separation,” and then every detail stands by itself, and evil is evil by itself and it possesses evil and harmful value. When he repents out of love, there immediately shines upon him the essential light of the “world of unity,” where all is interwoven into one form. In the general relationship there is no evil at all, for evil combines with virtue to facilitate and exalt even further the significant worth of goodness. Thereby are intentionally evil deeds transformed into veritable deeds of merit.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• We have to have the freedom to run away if we believe in free will. We also have to understand the consequences of free will. How do the sources above contribute to our understanding of free will?
• How does “knowing what is above you” force compassion?
• What does it mean to repent out of love?