[Picture: Jonah, to be sure, is not an exemplary righteous fellow who always obeys God; rather he’s an ordinary person with weaknesses and errors, just like us. ... Source: Free Bible Images]
[For articles on “Yom Kippur" in Hebrew, click here]Updated on October 4, 2022
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.
Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem.
He now serves as rabbi at the Jewish Center in central Oregon.
* * *
At first look there’s something very appealing to us that of all biblical books, it is the Book of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur. Jonah, to be sure, is not an exemplary righteous fellow who always obeys God; rather he’s an ordinary person with weaknesses and errors, just like us. The Book of Jonah is viewed as
the ultimate story about repentance and penance and about divine forgiveness to sinners, the Assyrian
Ninevites. Hence, since God had forgiven them, perhaps, we too will be forgiven by God.
[Picture: since God had forgiven them, perhaps, we too will be forgiven by God... Source: Free Bible Images]
We can question the quality of the Ninevites’ repentance – was it shallow and well-nigh valueless because they resorted to it, only when their back was to the wall, in order to avert the demise of their kingdom?
Nonetheless, they did not know for sure if their repentance would be acceptable to God, so they stopped
tormenting each other just in case that God would take note of their actions. Still, the fear of divine
comeuppance drove them to repent. The people of Judea, by contrast, did not repent even upon hearing
Jeremiah’s admonitions that preceded the destruction that Babylon would bring upon them.
Nevertheless, was the Ninevites’ repentance solid enough to stop them from recidivism once their
kingdom averted the divine retribution that Jonah warned them about?
Indeed, Jonah’s doomsday prophecy on Nineveh was finally realized in 612 BCE. But the generation that repented was spared from an early demise. Evidently, later generations of Ninevites went back to their pre-Jonah ways of ''wickedness''.
[Picture: Jonah in Nineveh. Source: Free Bible Images]
Curiously, when we read the last verse in Jonah, it isn’t clear at all that God even forgave the Ninevites, though their city remained unscathed forty days after Jonah’s announcement that was made only in one section (out of three) of the large city. The book’s very final verse explains the city’s escaping ruination by the fact that its residents were akin to pre-adolescent children, who did not grasp the severity of their wanton actions, in-as-much as their numerous cattle were innocent to begin with. And God, in this one, albeit a rare case, was not going to permit these many non-human individuals to perish on account of man’s sins. Namely, this story isn’t about sinners who internalized the seriousness of their ethical failures, or at best their repentance was self-serving.
Jonah’s wish to see Nineveh punished is diametrically contrasted with Abraham’s stance regarding Sodom; both cities being foreign to these two Hebrew prophets. God sends Jonah to save a sinful city but he wants to see its demise that would wipe out the innocent individuals therein. Abraham sends God to Sodom and God is willing to listen to his prophet and spare the whole sinful city, if it only had 10 innocent inhabitants. Justice, for Jonah, is a collective doom and for Abraham it is a collective pardon.
Nonetheless, Nineveh is spared because it had at least a 40-day warning to morally revamp itself. In Sodom no official warning was given, though it is likely that even with such a warning no one would have taken it seriously, judging by the reaction of Lot's two sons-in-law who snickered at the idea of divine retribution against their city.
[Picture: n Sodom no official warning was given, though it is likely that even with such a warning no one would have taken it seriously... Source: Free Bible Images]
Unlike Abraham who knew that Sodom would not survive God’s retribution because it did not even have
ten righteous residents, Jonah told the Ninevites that they were going under, though he knew that
the city would not fall to harms’ way because of its popular penance.
Jonah conceded his opportunity to be known as a powerful ‘’good guy’’ by urging the Ninevites to repent knowing a priori that they would and consequently be spared of God's wrath. Instead, Jonah chose to be viewed as a sham fortune teller for prophesying about a doomsday that did not come because God relented in response to the Ninevites’ repentance. Unlike Jonah God merely judged them by where they were today, not yesterday, or tomorrow, as in 722 BCE, the year when these Ninevites would extinguish for good the Kingdom of Israel.
Indeed, in-as-much-as Ishmael survived his ordeal in the desert, even though his descendants would perpetrate evil on Jews, Ishmael himself was innocent. Similarly, the current repentant Ninevites were innocent even though their next generation will bring a disaster on the Kingdom of Israel – the exiling of 10 tribes from the land as it happened in 722 BCE.
Jonah, however, wanted to prevent that future event from happening by dooming the current generation of Ninevites. This despite the fact that the Bible advocates clearly not only for the true repentant to be spared, but also that persons should be judged by who they are now, and not by what their children or grandchildren would turn out to be (e.g., Ezekiel 18:23, Deuteronomy 24:16 respectively).
[Picture: Nineveh survived. persons should be judged by who they are now, and not by what their children or grandchildren would turn out to be... Source: Free Bible Images]
Hence, repentant Nineveh was not what it was when it was sinful – it was a different Nineveh. The people who changed their ways and fixed their wrongful conduct were not to be punished for their past, but have a new deal with God.
But unlike the Ninevites it is Jonah who refuses to change, oblivious of what one day, one George Bernard Shaw would say: “…and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Most of us resist change because changing is inconvenient to say the least. Hence, we, like Jonah, resist any adjustments to our mindset and actions, even just to observe issues from new perspectives and through different prisms, for we fear further discoveries that could unsettle us in our personal comfort zone, where we are always right.
Yes, Jonah unrepentantly clung to the obsolete belief that denied the option of repentance to anyone who had sinned, which meant even the death of many innocent Nenevite individuals (including cattle), due to the acts of sinners in their midst. But to his credit he was ready to die for his trite beliefs, rather than admit that it is he who was in the wrong, and not God as he saw it. Absurdly, Jonah, who had zero compassion for innocent humans and animals, felt utterly sorry for the demise of a gourd, whose shade he relished, that suddenly died. He has mercy for that which was good to him – why, he derived a personal favor from the gourd, a badly needed shade -- but no empathy for the elusive innocent Ninevites. Jonah sought to deny the Ninevites what we as Jews plea before God ourselves: '' Avinu Malkenu, tho we have no deeds to justify us, deal with us in righteousness and lovingkindness, and save us now’’ (from the liturgy). Jonah is embittered by the loss of his little bush, but he would not miss a heartbeat if Nineveh, as
a whole, disappeared into a puff of dust. Herein we find the root of injustice, of having double standards, of blind jealousy.
Is it any wonder why Jonah is such a popular story that reminds many of their own way of thinking? How we use this story for upgrading the quality of our spiritual living is everybody’s challenge and sacred destination.
[Picture: Is it any wonder why Jonah is such a popular story that reminds many of their own way of thinking? How we use this story for upgrading the quality of our spiritual living is everybody’s challenge and sacred destination. Source: Free Bible Images]
One thought on “
Yossi Feintuch: Why do we sympathize with Jonah? (He's so much like us)”
Pingback: מאמרי יום הכיפורים באתר 'ייצור ידע' - ייצור ידע