Yom Kippur 1982

Dvar Torah

Megilat Yonah- Book of Jonah



By David Steinberg








The Book of Jonah has to be understood as a lesson in divine forgiveness and mercy.  Jonah tried to escape his mission because he knew that God often relents after decreeing punishment.  In the event, God renounced his punishment, after the repentance of the city, out of mercy for the inhabitants.


The Book of Jonah also stresses the need for people's acceptance of God's word.  Jonah did not want to follow God's order but was prevailed upon to do so after having seen that he could not avoid doing so because God is master of the entire universe.  Jonah did not want to accept God's world-order but was persuaded to do so after having seen that human life is impossible without god's mercy.  The book begins and ends with the word of God.


In form, the Book of Jonah is a sermon or midrash on Jeremiah 18:8 -

"If that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil I thought to do to it."

The Book of Jonah uses allegory.  For example, it is possible that Jonah (meaning "dove") represents Israel, the fish represents Babylon, the time in the fish the Babylonian exile and the expulsion of Jonah from the fish represents God's return of Israel to its own land in the late 6th century BCE.


From a critical perspective, it is clear that the Book of Jonah is non-historical and was written long after the period in which it was set.  It is a serious moral-theological story told in an amusing folk-story way with references to the earlier books of the Bible. 


In chapt. 1:3, in discussing Jonah's intention to flee to Tarshish, Rashi says that Jonah thought that, as Tarshish was outside of the Land of Israel, God's presence would not reside there.  But God pointed out that He had messengers whom He could send to bring Jonah back.  Rashi compares it to a cohen's servant who flees to a graveyard which is forbidden territory to the cohen, but the cohen points out that he can send another non-cohen servant into the graveyard to bring the first servant back.  Rashi goes on to ask - why didn't Jonah want to go to Nineveh?  He answers that Jonah thought that the idolaters were near repentance and would repent if he went to preach to them.  This would show the Jews, who were then refusing to listen to the prophets, in a bad light.


In chapt. 1:16 it is written that the gentile sailors made vows to God.  Rashi, says that this means that the sailors converted to Judaism.  Radak and Metzudat David, on the other hand take this to mean that the sailors pledged to give tzadaka i.e. charity to the poor.  So once more we see how God can turn in repentance even pagans - how much more so Jews!


In chapt. 3:4, commenting on the word nehpakhet = "overthrown" Rashi asks why didn't the author use nekheravet = "overthrown".  His answer is that nehpakhet also means "to change into something else."  In other words, the people of Nineveh had the choice between teshuva = "repentance" and life or persistence in their old ways and death.


Chapter 4 is in many ways the key and crowning touch to the book.  Jonah's words of disappointment reveal his character and his motivation.  He had fled from his mission because he foresaw that God would have mercy on the Ninevites if they repented.  Now, he has been proved right!  From God's point of view, Jonah's mission has been a success.  However, from Jonah's point of view, it is a bitter disappointment.


When Jonah said "take my life from me," he felt that God had robbed his life of all meaning by showing mercy rather than blazing wrath to the Ninevites.  Jonah's plea for death echoes that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4.  The story of Elijah and that of Jonah show a number of parallels.  In both there are marvelous interventions of divine power and the use of the physical world as the instrument of the divine will - e.g., crows to feed Elijah and a great fish to swallow the drowning Jonah.  The picture of Jonah's sulking in the shade of his vine (Jon. 4:6) is reminiscent of the picture of Elijah in the shade of his broom tree.  It is possible that the similarity was deliberate. However, there are several significant differences between the two stories.  The marvels of the Jonah story surpass those of the Elijah narrative.  The characters of the two prophets and their relationships to God are also very different.  Elijah remains a hero to be admired even in his moment of despondency under the broom tree.  The reason for his low spirits was the infidelity of the king and people to whom he had been sent.  he lamented for God's sake, not for his own.  God's response to Elijah's plea was an angelic visitation and divine encouragement.  In Jonah, the situation is different.  Sulking in the shade, Jonah is no hero; his disgruntlement is ridiculous.  His misery results from his own narrow-mindedness.  God's response to Jonah's plea is a tantalizing question.  Detail after detail underscores the contrast between Elijah and Jonah; Jonah fleas from God whereas Elijah seeks God; Jonah rebels whereas Elijah obeys; Jonah asks for death because his message has been heeded, and he echoes the words of Elijah, who asked for death because his message was rejected.


God answers Jonah by questioning whether he has reason to be angry.  God probes to the heart of the matter: can one who has been the recipient of divine mercy begrudge it to others?  This question, in the form of a rebuke, expresses the core of the religious message intended by the author.