Jonah: Reluctant, Rebuked and Remembered
A Yom Kippur Reading
Jonah would not be an interesting protagonist if his story was just about a reluctant prophet who demurs when called by God to deliver a message. There are great prophets in TANACH, like Moses and Jeremiah, who were called by God to speak truth to power, to warn rulers and nations, and who, at the moment of revelation, were reluctant. God says to Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people” and Moses understandably says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites?” (Exodus 3:10-11). God tells Jeremiah, “I established you a prophet unto the nations” and the reluctant prophet says, “I do not know how to speak for I am just a youth” (Jeremiah 1:5). In hindsight, who could blame them for their reluctance? Moses faces a rebellious people and doesn’t enter the Holy Land, and Jeremiah is threatened, stoned, imprisoned, and taken forcibly to Egypt by the exiles, his own people.
Jonah, unlike Moses and Jeremiah, doesn’t argue with God, he offers no modest, “Who am I,” no plea of youthful inexperience. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a big city, and call on the people to repent. Instead, Jonah goes to Jaffa to find a ship that would take him to Tarshish. Nineveh, where he is supposed to go is the largest city in the ancient Assyrian Empire located on the eastern side of the Tigris. Tarshish, Jonah’s flight destination, is considered a far away maritime place at the end of the world. Unlike Moses or Jeremiah, Jonah does not explain his reluctance; his motive to take a ship to Tarshish is yet to unfold.
God rebukes Jonah by sending a strong storm that almost drowns the ship. As the sailors pray each to their own divine Jonah sleeps. When they angrily confront Jonah for his passivity he tells them that he is a Hebrew who is running away from God the Creator of the heaven, the sea and the land. Jonah’s confession is followed not by contrition and prayer, but a dare, Jonah encourages the shipmates to throw him off the ship, which they reluctantly do. For all they could tell, they would be spared and Jonah would drown.
This is clearly a more complicated story than a mere reluctance followed by rebuke. God is not done with the reluctant Jonah who is swallowed by a big female fish, dagah in Hebrew, the precursor/foreshadower of the modern submarine, a tight space, under water where Jonah can still function but in great distress. He prays to God in a most intimate beseeching poetic language, echoing the psalmist. “I called in my distress to God and God answered me.” (2:3). “I cried out –You heard my voice,” (2:3) says Jonah from inside the belly of the big female fish.
We begin to see elements of Yom Kippur emerge. Jonah’s prayer, his crying out, his anguish and his promise, “As for me, with a voice of thanksgiving I will make sacrifice to You.” God El Maleh Rahamim, a God full of compassion hears Jonah, and the fish spits him out on dry land. But there is still the sticky issue of Nineveh and God says to him for the second time, “Go to Nineveh the big city and make my announcement,” and Jonah calls out, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned,” not destroyed, but overturned, as in reversed, a word that can be seen as foreshadowing the fate of Nineveh.
The Puzzlement of Jonah’s Reluctance
The second time God tells him to go to Nineveh is an opportunity to reveal the motive for Jonah’s reluctance. He could use a Moses response of “Who am I?” Jonah could be reluctant because he fears for his life. The unfolding events, however, undermine the presumption of fear for life. Jonah, unlike Jeremiah and countless prophets, faces no persecution. Instead, his prophesy is taken seriously, “The people of Nineveh believed in God, so they proclaimed a fast and donned sackcloth, from their great to their small” (3:5). The people initiated repentance and the king followed, “The matter reached the king of Nineveh; he rose from his throne’” and “covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes” and declared, “Both humans and animals shall cover themselves with sackcloth; and they should call mightily to God. People should turn away from their bad ways and from their unclean hands.” (3:8)
God, reasoned the Ninevite king, might show compassion, “And God saw that they have made Teshuvah turned away from their bad ways and God relented.” (3:10). The Ninevites offered Tefilah, prayer, they fasted, and offered Tzedakah by dealing honestly with others, with clean hands.
Jonah should rejoice. Here is a dream-come-true of every prophet: that the people would receive God’s message, will actually have a moment of self-awareness followed by change, the essence of Teshuvah. Instead, he is so angry/frustrated that he wishes to die. This is a moment when Jonah’s reluctance begins to take shape: it is not fear for his life but fear that Nineveh would actually do Teshuva, would repent that, as he says “was…my concern when I was on my own land, Because of this I had hastened to flee to Tarshish.” Jonah doesn’t say why he is angry at Nineveh’s Teshuvah and is so aggrieved at God’s compassion for the city that he would rather die. Jonah enumerates God’s attributes that we read in the Yom Kippur Musaf service, “God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and forgiveness. And now God take my soul from me, for death is better than life.”
The day in Ninveh is hot and God provides a tree, a Kikayon, to gives Jonah shelter from the sun; Jonah who just declared he would rather be dead, “rejoiced over the Kikayon, a great joy” (4:6). God causes the Kikayon tree to dry and Jonah who is without shade faints and asks again to die, “Better is my death than my life.” When God asks how he feels about the disappearance of the tree Jonah says, “I am greatly grieved to death.”
Jonah is remembered first because his reluctance offers a mirror for us. His refusal to take on a mission is familiar, all of us have been called to do Tzedakah, to do something for the larger good and found reasons not to take it on. Let someone else worry about poverty, racism, and violation of human rights.
Jonah, however, is remembered most significantly because God has the last word, asking a rhetorical question, “You took pity on the Kikayon on which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow. And I shall not take pity on Nineveh, the great city in which there are a hundred and twenty thousands persons who do not know their right hand from their left and many animals as well?! (4:10-11)
Much attention can be given to the tree parable, yet what is of utmost significance for why Jonah is remembered is not his short comings, but God’s last words of compassion for Nineveh, which reminds us that God is the Creator of the world and all the peoples, the God who says to Jeremiah, “I established you a prophet unto the nations,” and to Isaiah, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isaiah 56:7).
Framed in a larger theological conception of God’s universality, Jonah emerges as a nationalist who would like to see an exclusively Hebrew God, as a prophet who does not want to extend Teshuvah to the non-Israelite people of Nineveh. Jonah is remembered on Yom Kippur because he provokes in all of us, Jews and non-Jews, the exclusivist, the nationalist, and the zealot patriot. As we pray on Yom Kippur in synagogues around the world we need God’s response to Jonah, a reminder of God’s universal compassion.