Jonah Struggles with God’s Compassion
Mid-afternoon on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day; having fasted for almost 20 hours, a worshipper chants the entire Book of Jonah during the afternoon (mincha) service. The hope is that the book’s message of divine mercy for obdurate sinners may rekindle God’s compassion toward those who have strayed from the straight path.
The well-structured story is well known: Jonah is dumped at sea when escaping his charge to deliver God’s message to Nineveh (ch. 1); he composes a psalm of remorse inside a fish (ch. 2); he foretells Nineveh’s doom, prompting its contrition (ch. 3); he is peeved and is lectured on the incapacity of mortals to understand God (ch. 4).
Despite its brevity (fewer than than 700 words), the tale shifts scenes readily: It features a prophet but gives him the briefest message to convey; it relishes confrontations but turns to baroque devices to resolve them; it parcels out realism and surrealism in (almost) equal measure; and it whimsically cites animals when dispensing profundities.
Jonah’s Two Missions
In the book of Jonah, God has the first and last words. The first leads the prophet to dodge a mission:
יונה א:א וַיְהִי דְּבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יוֹנָה בֶן אֲמִתַּי לֵאמֹר.
Jonah 1:1 When YHWH’s command to Jonah b. Amittay was…
The phrase וַיְהִי דְּבַר־יְהוָה, “when YHWH’s command was,” does not normally open prophetic or historical books; rather, it initiates episodes about prophets sent on missions. We might therefore presume that what we are reading about Jonah and his westward flight toward Tarshish is just one installment among other Jonah adventures heard in ancient Israel. We can verify this assumption when the same phrasing launches Jonah on yet another journey, this time eastward toward Nineveh:
יונה ג:א וַיְהִי דְבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יוֹנָה שֵׁנִית לֵאמֹר.
Jonah 3:1 When once more YHWH’s command to Jonah was…
An adverb, שֵׁנִית, “once more,” is added to patch together the two destinations. Jonah, therefore, may well have had several adventures; but sometime in the (post-)exilic period, a few of them were merged successfully into the book that has been read on Yom Kippur since the mid-first millennium C.E.
Several means integrate these two parallel tales, among them:
- Placing the only named character, Jonah, in each major scene;
- Citing Nineveh in all but the second chapter;
- Having Jonah recall in the final episode thoughts he (allegedly) had in the first one (at 1:2–3)—הֲלוֹא זֶה דְבָרִי עַד הֱיוֹתִי עַל אַדְמָתִי, “this certainly was my opinion, while yet in my own homeland” (4:2);
- Registering the voice of God at major turns of events;
- Distributing marvels in each section; and
- Allocating essential vocabulary and uncommon conjugations across several segments.
None of these techniques, however, proves as crucial to the coordination of events as the tweaking of one idiom in the two commands God gives Jonah.
Destroying or Warning Nineveh
Both commands begin with God telling Jonah: קוּם לֵךְ אֶל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה, “Set out for Nineveh, that large city.” Once directed toward Nineveh, however, Jonah is to carry out radically different missions. In the first, he is to trek to a distant megalopolis, notorious for its crimes, and announce that the Hebrew god has decided to terminate it:
יונה א:ב קוּם לֵךְ אֶל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה וּקְרָא עָלֶיהָ כִּי עָלְתָה רָעָתָם לְפָנָי.
Jonah 1:2 “Set out for Nineveh, that large city, and declare doom upon it; the wickedness of its citizens is obvious to me.” 
This is not the most sensible task to charge a prophet whose own god has hardly matched the success that Assur, Nineveh’s god, has had in delivering victories to his people. We all know that Jonah answers with a ticket to ride in the opposite direction.
In the second, Jonah is still to go to Nineveh, but this time he is to make the proclamation that God is delivering through him:
יונה ג:ב קוּם לֵךְ אֶל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה וִּקְרָא אֵלֶיהָ אֶת הַקְּרִיאָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר אֵלֶיךָ.
Jonah 3:2 “Set out for Nineveh, that large city, and report to it the message I tell you.”
The verb of commission in both commands is the same, קָרָא, with the meanings “to call, shout out (hence also read), proclaim,” or the like. But when construed with different prepositions (עַל, “upon” at 1:2 and אֶל, “toward” at 3:2), the resultant idioms can achieve radically different senses.
We are not told why God alters his approach. A few days in the belly of a fish have obviously transformed Jonah, however, for he delivers his charge with alacrity, on the first day of arrival. His message is likely the shortest in prophetic history—just 5 words:
יונה ג:ד וַיָּחֶל יוֹנָה לָבוֹא בָעִיר מַהֲלַךְ יוֹם אֶחָד וַיִּקְרָא וַיֹּאמַר עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת.
Jonah 3:4 Hardly had Jonah gone into town a day’s journey when he called out, “Forty more days, and Nineveh (becomes) נֶהְפָּכֶת.”
I have not translated the relevant word because its construction (a niphal participle of הָפַךְ) allows for two contrasting meanings: Nineveh could “overturn” (= “be undone, destroyed”) or “turn over” (= “be rehabilitated”).
This ambiguity has been debated since Talmudic times. For example:
בבלי סנהדרין פט: לא ידע אי לטובה אי לרעה.
b. Sanh. 89b [Jonah] did not know if [the sentence] would be for the good [as their corruption would be overturned through repentance], or for the bad [as the city would be overturned through destruction].
The Ninevites have only one understanding of the prophecy—as “destroyed.” They therefore take prompt, extraordinary, and desperate actions to escape their doom. Jonah, too, foresees only devastation for the city, if only because God had previously cited Nineveh’s evil ways (at 1:2). We too might think the same, because the identical root (ה.פ.ך) is used when God overturns Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:21, 25, 29; Deut 29:22; and elewhere), cities whose depravity had become proverbial.
Game of Words
What Jonah does not realize (nor do many of us when reading his book on Yom Kippur) is that the language God has him bring to Nineveh is amphibolous, capable of two meanings, so that whatever will happen to Nineveh—destruction or deliverance—is already encoded in Jonah’s words.
Nonetheless, what eventually transpires—Nineveh’s salvation—must not be attributed to blind fate; it was foreordained by a precognitive and omniscient God who also knows well how to play word games. Still, Jonah’s failure to understand the subtlety of his own language will lead to the great confrontation in the final chapter.
Unlike the previous episodes that may well have had oral lives, the last chapter is certainly a learned composition, not least because of the precisely balanced number of words in the exchanges assigned to the two protagonists, God and Jonah:
God’s query (unanswered)
Jonah’s query (sotto voce)
A vexed Jonah alleges to have diagnosed God’s magnanimity long before he headed to Tarshish:
יונה ד:ב וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל־יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמַר אָנָּה יְ־הוָה הֲלוֹא זֶה דְבָרִי עַד הֱיוֹתִי עַל אַדְמָתִי עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה.
Jonah 4:2 He prayed to YHWH, saying, “Please, O YHWH, this certainly was my opinion, while yet in my own homeland; accordingly, I planned to flee toward Tarshish because I realized then that you are a gracious and compassionate God, very patient and abundantly benevolent, who would also relent from punishment.”
Having eagerly accepted his mission the second time around, he was only to be deceived. Feeling misused, he incongruously asks the god he had just praised as compassionate and merciful to kill him:
יונה ד:ג וְעַתָּה יְ־הוָה קַח נָא אֶת נַפְשִׁי מִמֶּנִּי כִּי טוֹב מוֹתִי מֵחַיָּי.
Jonah 4:3 “Now then, O YHWH, take away life from me, because for me death is better than life.”
Jonah, it seems, has enough chutzpah to presume that his threat will successfully goad God into annihilating Nineveh:
יונה ד:ה וַיֵּצֵא יוֹנָה מִן הָעִיר וַיֵּשֶׁב מִקֶּדֶם לָעִיר וַיַּעַשׂ לוֹ שָׁם סֻכָּה וַיֵּשֶׁב תַּחְתֶּיהָ בַּצֵּל עַד אֲשֶׁר יִרְאֶה מַה יִּהְיֶה בָּעִיר.
Jonah 4:5 Jonah then left the city, but remained just east of it. He made himself a shelter there and, sitting beneath it in the shade, he waited to see what would happen to the city.
When the wondrous qiqayon plant—never mind its nature—sprouts to shade his shelter, Jonah has every reason to feel worthy of God’s trust:
יונה ד:ו וַיְמַן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים קִיקָיוֹן וַיַּעַל מֵעַל לְיוֹנָה לִהְיוֹת צֵל עַל רֹאשׁוֹ לְהַצִּיל לוֹ מֵרָעָתוֹ וַיִּשְׂמַח יוֹנָה עַל הַקִּיקָיוֹן שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה.
Jonah 4:6 In order to deliver him from his distress, YHWH-God directed a qiqayon plant, that then rose above Jonah to form a shade over his head. Jonah was absolutely delighted over the qiqayon plant.
A series of divinely launched disasters, however, disabuse Jonah of his fantasy: a worm kills the qiqayon; a fierce wind carries away the shelter; the sun is merciless; Jonah swoons and again voices a hope to die (vv. 7–8).
In a final soliloquy, God tries to reason with him, offering an argument that draws us into its (dubious) logic:
יונה ד:י וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל הַקִּיקָיוֹן אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ שֶׁבִּן לַיְלָה הָיָה וּבִן לַיְלָה אָבָד. ד:יא וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה.
Jonah 4:10 YHWH then said, “You yourself were fretting over the qiqayon plant, on which you did not labor, nor did you cultivate it, a plant that came up one night and perished the next; 4:11 yet I myself am not to have compassion on Nineveh, that large city, where there are more than twelve myriads of human beings, who cannot discern between their right and left hands, and animals galore?”
It is too bad that we do not have Jonah’s response, for he might have set God straight on several matters: First, contrary to God’s assertion, Jonah hardly cared about the qiqayon’s fate and so could not link the brevity of its life to potentially that of human existence. Why would God have him lament the withering of a plant when a powerful wind and a hot sun played no lesser roles in creating his severe discomfort? How could God treat his servant so scornfully?
Second, does omniscient God not know that Nineveh will resume its predatory behavior once its acts of penitence are memory? Finally, has God not suspected that the target of forgiveness Jonah anticipated as he was boarding a Tarshish-bound ship (4:2) might apply not just to Nineveh but to a recalcitrant prophet as well?
These are among similar kvetches that Jonah might have voiced had another of his adventures been preserved. They are surely not too out of character for someone of Jonah’s temper. In Jewish lore there is no lack of fanciful complications that Jonah experienced in his post-Nineveh life, several directly resulting from bad judgments or from efforts to redeem his wounded pride. 
Still, to contrast with the kind of brazen comebacks I have foisted on Jonah, it is good to cite one from the several midrashim on his book:
מדרש יונה באותה שעה נפל יונה על פניו ואמר הנהג עולמך במדת הרחמים דכתיב לה׳ אלהינו הרחמים והסליחות.
Midr. Jonah At that very moment, [Jonah] fell flat on his face saying, “Direct your world according to the attribute of mercy, as is written, ‘To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness’” (Dan 9:9).
Since the late Middle Ages—not a particularly happy period for many Jews—the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur ends with a passage from Micah:
מיכה ז:יח מִי אֵל כָּמוֹךָ נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וְעֹבֵר עַל פֶּשַׁע לִשְׁאֵרִית נַחֲלָתוֹ לֹא הֶחֱזִיק לָעַד אַפּוֹ כִּי חָפֵץ חֶסֶד הוּא. ז:יט יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ יִכְבֹּשׁ עֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִּמְצֻלוֹת יָם כָּל חַטֹּאותָם.
Mic 7:18 Who equals you as a god, in removing iniquity and disregarding transgression from what remains of his bequest [Israel]? He does not perpetuate anger endlessly, for he is indeed desirous of benevolence. 7:19 Once again [God] will be compassionate with us, obliterating our iniquity. You will hurl into the deepest sea all their trespasses.
The verses from Micah reinforce the sentiments attributed to Jonah without raising any of the potentially troubling follow-ups I have just offered. Incomparable grace, they insist, is forever there to be had even by the most obdurate offenders.
Comforting words indeed.
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Prof. Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor (Emeritus) of Judaic and biblical Studies at Vanderbilt University as well as Kenan Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. Sasson’s publications include commentaries on the Biblical books of Ruth (1979), Jonah (1991), Judges 1-12 (2014), and Judges 13-21 (forthcoming). His most recent monograph is From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters (Eisenbrauns, 2015).
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