The Book of Jonah: God’s Didactic Lesson on Repentance
The theme of repentance permeates the book of Jonah. YHWH is angry with the people of Nineveh due to their sins, and wishes to warn them that they will all be destroyed if they do not change their ways. When they receive this warning, the king puts on sack cloth, declares a fast, and commands his people to repent, in the hope of changing God’s mind:
יונה ג:ח ... וְיָשֻׁבוּ אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה וּמִן הֶחָמָס אֲשֶׁר בְּכַפֵּיהֶם. ג:ט מִי יוֹדֵעַ יָשׁוּב וְנִחַם הָאֱלֹהִים וְשָׁב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.
Jonah 3:8 “… Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. 3:9 Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”
The king’s plan works:
יונה ג:י וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה.
Jonah 3:10 God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.
But focusing on the people of Nineveh obscures the larger narrative framing: the book is not really about the Assyrians in Nineveh but about the Israelite messenger-prophet, Jonah. Indeed, the book is written in a form of Late Biblical Hebrew, or at least contains elements of LBH, thus the story dates to after the Assyrians were already gone as an empire, and the city of Nineveh already rubble. Assyria is chosen because it is no longer a real factor in the lives of the Judean audience, who are free to concentrate on the protagonist and his relationship with YHWH.
Jonah Flees from YHWH’s Mission
The book opens with YHWH’s command to Jonah to “arise” קוּם and go to Nineveh and warn them that their wickedness has caught God’s attention. The contrast between the divine command and the way it is executed by Jonah is described ironically, with a playful use of the conjunction “and” (vav in Hebrew). At the beginning of the next verse, Jonah indeed “arises,” but the continuation shows that Jonah is not obeying YHWH at all. Instead of heading to Nineveh, northeast of Israel, Jonah goes to the Mediterranean port-city of Jaffa and heads west:
יונה א:ג וַיָּקָם יוֹנָה לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה...
Jonah 1:3 Jonah arose to flee from YHWH to Tarshish…
As we know from elsewhere in the Bible (2 Kgs 14:25), Jonah is a prophet, and thus God’s command in the opening of the book is Jonah being appointed to fulfill a mission. Yet Jonah neither accepts the mission nor does he explain to YHWH why he is running. If he objects to the mission, why doesn’t he argue with God?
Jonah’s silence stands in stark opposition to the response of other prophets or leaders who are appointed to fulfill a mission. Such stories are built on a fixed dialogue (or type scene) between the Deity and the prophet-elect, in which God imposes a mission on the prophet-elect and the latter expresses fears or opposition. Jeremiah, for example, argues:
ירמיה א:ו וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְ־הֹוִה הִנֵּה לֹא יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי נַעַר אָנֹכִי.
Jer 1:6 I replied, Ah, Lord God, I don’t know how to speak, For I am still a boy.
Jonah, however, remains silent, and we need to wait until the final chapter to learn why he objects to the mission (Jonah 4:2). The text also fails to explain why Jonah thought he could escape YHWH by running to the sea. If Jonah thought that YHWH has less power outside the land, or that YHWH would simply turn to a new person, YHWH was about to teach him that he was mistaken.
YHWH Sends a Storm
YHWH could give up on Jonah at this point and send another messenger, but instead YHWH chases Jonah down with a storm. While all the non-Israelite sailors try to keep the ship from sinking in the storm, Jonah, completely oblivious, goes to sleep (Jonah 1:5). Eventually, he is awoken by the captain with the same verb YHWH used, קוּם, “arise!” He demands that Jonah, like everyone else, pray to his god to see if the boat can be saved (Jonah 1:6). Jonah does not respond.
The sailors on the ship then casts lots to determine whose sin is causing the divine fury against them, and Jonah is the person to whom the lots point (Jonah 1:7). They ask him his background (Jonah 1:8) and he tells them:
יונה א:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי וְאֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲנִי יָרֵא אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת הַיַּבָּשָׁה.
Joan 1:9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship YHWH, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.”
They panic and ask what he did wrong, and he doesn’t fully answer, noting only that he is running away (Jonah 1:10). When they ask him what they can do to appease his god (Jonah 1:11), he does not suggest that he will repent his sin, nor does he pray for mercy. Instead, he condemns himself to death:
יונה א:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל הַיָּם וְיִשְׁתֹּק הַיָּם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם כִּי יוֹדֵעַ אָנִי כִּי בְשֶׁלִּי הַסַּעַר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה עֲלֵיכֶם.
Jonah 1:12 He answered, “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you; for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.”
The text does not explain why he turns to such an extreme solution, but the sailors do not heed his suggestion, and try again to escape the storm (Jonah 1:13). When they see it is impossible, they agree to throw Jonah overboard, but only once they made it clear that they are not murderers, but are being forced to do this by Jonah’s god, who must take responsibility for this action (Jonah 1:14).
The moment they throw him into the sea, the storm dies down (Jonah 1:15). This makes such an impression on the sailors that they all offer sacrifices to the Hebrew God:
יונה א:טז וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים יִרְאָה גְדוֹלָה אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח לַי־הוָה וַיִּדְּרוּ נְדָרִים.
Jonah 1:16 The men feared YHWH greatly; they offered a sacrifice to YHWH and they made vows.
If Jonah thought he could escape YHWH this time by committing assisted suicide, he was mistaken again.
YHWH Sends a Fish
Instead of drowning, YHWH sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah whole:
יונה ב:א וַיְמַן יְ־הוָה דָּג גָּדוֹל לִבְלֹעַ אֶת יוֹנָה...
Jonah 2:1 YHWH provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah…
In the natural world, animals swallow things to eat them, but here, Jonah miraculously remains alive. One might imagine that he would, at this point, repent of his ways and promise to do God’s bidding, but Jonah remains silent, and must undergo another learning experience: three days in the fish’s belly (2:1).
יונה ב:א ...וַיְהִי יוֹנָה בִּמְעֵי הַדָּג שְׁלֹשָׁה יָמִים וּשְׁלֹשָׁה לֵילוֹת.
Jonah 2:1 …and Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights.
After three days inside the fish, Jonah finally opens his mouth and prays to God (v. 2), but he recites a formal psalm, with thanksgiving for being saved and promises of future offerings and vows. Jonah does not apologize for disobeying God, nor does he repent. Nevertheless, he is given another chance, since it turns out that the fish is God’s messenger—as were the sea and the captain before it. The big fish spits Jonah up onto dry land on God’s order (2:11). The irony is not lost on the reader: The fish, unlike Jonah, listens to God and fulfills the divine mission.
The Same Command Again
Chapter 3 marks the middle of the story and it opens with the same command as in chapter 1:
יונה ג:ב קוּם לֵךְ אֶל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה וִּקְרָא אֵלֶיהָ אֶת הַקְּרִיאָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר אֵלֶיךָ.
Jonah 3:2 “Arise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.”
Again, the verse opens with the same two words as before, but this time they aren’t being used ironically, since Jonah obeys:
יונה ג:ג וַיָּקָם יוֹנָה וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל נִינְוֵה כִּדְבַר יְ־הוָה...
Jonah 3:3 Jonah arose and went to Nineveh in accordance with the word of YHWH…
But subtle clues show that Jonah undertakes the mission halfheartedly. For instance, the text suggests that Jonah does not finish his job, since Nineveh is a three-day walk across, but Jonah walks for only one day:
יונה ג:ג ...וְנִינְוֵה הָיְתָה עִיר גְּדוֹלָה לֵאלֹהִים מַהֲלַךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים. ג:ד וַיָּחֶל יוֹנָה לָבוֹא בָעִיר מַהֲלַךְ יוֹם אֶחָד וַיִּקְרָא וַיֹּאמַר עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת.
Jonah 3:3 …Nineveh was an enormously large city a three days’ walk across. 3:4 Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one day’s walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Further, Jonah’s message says nothing about sinfulness and repentance, nor does it even mention God using the typical prophetic messenger formula כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הֹוָה “Thus said YHWH.” Yet, the Ninevites understand the message’s import on their own:
יונה ג:ה וַיַּאֲמִינוּ אַנְשֵׁי נִינְוֵה בֵּאלֹהִים וַיִּקְרְאוּ צוֹם וַיִּלְבְּשׁוּ שַׂקִּים מִגְּדוֹלָם וְעַד קְטַנָּם.
Jonah 3:5 The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.
Jonah’s mission succeeds despite his half-hearted effort, since the king soon hears the message, and commands all the inhabitants of Nineveh to fast and repent. As a result, YHWH is appeased.
Jonah Finally Explains
Jonah is unhappy about his success:
יונה ד:א וַיֵּרַע אֶל יוֹנָה רָעָה גְדוֹלָה וַיִּחַר לוֹ.
Jonah 4:1 This was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he was grieved.
At this point in the story, the reader is finally introduced to what has been bothering Jonah about this mission. For the first time, Jonah pours out his frustration by talking back to YHWH:
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, “O YHWH! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”
While words Jonah uses here, “compassionate,” “abounding in kindness,” etc., generally serve as praise in other biblical texts, here Jonah is laying out an implied contrast between YHWH’s compassionate and forgiving nature and what Jonah would have preferred to see, namely a wrathful deity who will punish the people of Nineveh, not giving them an opportunity to change their ways.
Jonah is not only upset about this, but does not want to live with the burden of being the person who helped save the people of Nineveh; he thus requests that YHWH kill him:
יונה ד:ג וְעַתָּה יְ־הוָה קַח נָא אֶת נַפְשִׁי מִמֶּנִּי כִּי טוֹב מוֹתִי מֵחַיָּי.
Jonah 4:3 And now, YHWH, please take my life for I would rather die than live.
The text implicitly compares Jonah to the people of Nineveh, to his disadvantage: The Assyrians can change their ways when they learn that YHWH, a foreign deity, is unhappy with them, but Jonah, when faced with the knowledge that his wishes oppose that of YHWH, his own deity, does nothing to change himself. Moreover, while the Assyrians learn of YHWH’s anger from an outsider, who does nothing miraculous to back up his claims, Jonah experiences multiple miracles himself, but this has no effect on his views.
Jonah Remains Opposed: A Survey of His Actions
Jonah remains consistent in his thinking from the beginning of the book to the end. In the book’s opening, Jonah tries to flee. Finding that impossible, he does not repent or change his ways, but tries to die. First, he has himself thrown into the sea, and then he sits quietly inside the giant fish for three days before he finally prays.
This prayer, however, is not repentance. Jonah likely comes to the conclusion that YHWH will keep him alive in the fish’s belly until he agrees to perform the mission. Thus, it is discomfort, not regret or even fear that motivates Jonah to cooperate. And now that he has cooperated, he returns to his earlier wish to die.
YHWH’s immediate reaction to this unrepentant and even petulant behavior is initially quite muted.
יונה ד:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה לָךְ.
Jonah 4:4 YHWH said: “Are you that deeply grieved?”
Returning to his old ways, Jonah doesn’t answer. Perhaps he realizes that he has no good response, but in any event, he simply walks off and sits under a booth (sukkah) at some distance from the city to see what will happen to it. Part of him, it seems, hopes YHWH will relent his relenting and will destroy the city anyway.
God’s Final Didactic Challenge
Once again God works through actions rather than words and sets up another didactic challenge for the prophet. YHWH had earlier sent the storm and the fish. Now YHWH sends three things in a row, using the same verb root מ.נ.י/ה meaning “send, provide, appoint,” used earlier about the fish:
a. The ricinus plant
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 YHWH God provided a ricinus plant, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant.
b. The worm
יונה ד:ז וַיְמַן הָאֱלֹהִים תּוֹלַעַת בַּעֲלוֹת הַשַּׁחַר לַמָּחֳרָת וַתַּךְ אֶת הַקִּיקָיוֹן וַיִּיבָשׁ.
Jonah 4:7 God provided a worm the next day at dawn, which attacked the plant so that it withered.
c. The east wind
יונה ד:ח וַיְהִי כִּזְרֹחַ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיְמַן אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ קָדִים חֲרִישִׁית וַתַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ עַל רֹאשׁ יוֹנָה וַיִּתְעַלָּף...
Jonah 4:8 And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint.
After God provides these three things, Jonah repeats his previous wish to die:
יונה ד:ח ...וַיִּשְׁאַל אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ לָמוּת וַיֹּאמֶר טוֹב מוֹתִי מֵחַיָּי.
Jonah 4:8 … He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.”
These are the same words Jonah said above to express his discontent at YHWH’s forgiving Nineveh (Jonah 4:3). This time, however, his negative response is not out of principled disagreement: Jonah is simply physically uncomfortable because it is hot and unshaded outside as he waits to see what will happen with Nineveh. YHWH responds again with the same exact words as before (4:4), but adds one new phrase:
יונה ד:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל יוֹנָה הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה לְךָ עַל הַקִּיקָיוֹן...
Jonah 4:9 Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?”
Unlike last time, Jonah does not stay silent but answers the question directly:
יונה ד:ט ...וַיֹּאמֶר הֵיטֵב חָרָה לִי עַד מָוֶת.
Jonah 4:9 … “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”
This is almost the end of the book and now, for the first time, YHWH rebukes Jonah and tells him what he thinks of his attitude towards the people of Nineveh:
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 Then YHWH said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. 4:11 And should not I 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!”
The rebuke is ironic and meant to sting: Jonah is not morally outraged at the death of the plant, but is upset about the consequences of its death to him: he was comfortable, but now he is hot. YHWH uses the irony of Jonah’s mourning for the plant as an opening to show Jonah that he has failed to see things the way YHWH does.
The people in Nineveh are not simply Jonah’s (=Israel’s) enemies, but they are people in their own right. God is willing to destroy them, but would rather they lived on, as long as they stopped sinning so grievously. Jonah should stretch beyond the self-interested love he had for the plant and try to see the people and animals of Nineveh as worthy creations of God in their own rights.
YHWH’s Didactic Approach
Throughout the book, YHWH responds to Jonah’s negative behaviors with actions. When Jonah runs, YHWH sends a storm; when Jonah tries to have himself drowned, YHWH sends a fish. When Jonah is returned to dry land, YHWH repeats the command without mentioning Jonah’s former actions.
When Jonah half-heartedly complies, and then complains, YHWH just asks him if it really upsets him so much. When Jonah ignores the question and sits on his own, YHWH sends the plant, the worm, and then the scorching wind, and only at that point, when Jonah complains again, does YHWH finally tell him what has been wrong with his attitude the whole time.
YHWH’s earlier responses are through action instead of words. YHWH ignores Jonah’s outbursts, and only responds verbally once Jonah has been set up in such a way as to make him understand. This underlines the text’s didactic message. The Deity presents Jonah with a series of challenges or experiences whose aim is to educate him (or we might say "to teach him a lesson"), without preaching, and setting things up with the death of the plant so that Jonah will undergo what he requires in order to hear YHWH’s message.
YHWH’s behavior is an instantiation (or interpretation) of the wisdom aphorism:
משלי כב:ו חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.
Prov 22:6 Train a lad in his own way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.
In other words, train the child according to his personality, abilities, etc. Jonah has trouble hearing YHWH’s message, so YHWH keeps nudging him in the right direction, making him act correctly, and eventually using the best moment to try to teach him the lesson. As we might now say, “God spoke to Jonah in language which Jonah could understand.”
A Message for Jonah or a Message for Us
The book ends with YHWH’s rebuke. We are never told how Jonah responds, or even if he responds at all. Given that Jonah’s most common response in the book is silence, the ending may imply that here too he does not respond. If so, the message may be that even with all of YHWH’s work to teach Jonah, the lesson fails. For Jonah, there is no room for repentance, regret, contrition. If so, Jonah would be the anti-hero of the book which bears his name – perhaps even a zealot or an extremist.
Every possible means is used to return Jonah from his extreme ways, including teaching by example: the sailors repent; the people of Nineveh repent; the Deity appears as merciful and forgiving, Jonah’s position as caring about the plant but not the people is so morally untenable that he must see it. He was given every chance, and thus the failure is his rather than YHWH’s. But if YHWH’s message is lost on Jonah, it is not lost on the audience.
On the narrative level, YHWH’s didactic lesson is aimed at Jonah, but through telling this story, it is aimed at the readers as well. We, too, are meant to internalize the message: 1. God is universal; 2. God is merciful; 3. Repentance is possible.
The Yom Kippur Message of Jonah
The book of Jonah is read as the haftarah during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur (b. Megillah 31a). While the Talmud does not explain why it was chosen, R. Simcha of Vitri (11th cent.) says it is משום תשובת אנשי נינוה “because of the repentance of the people of Nineveh.” A similar, if slightly broader explanation was offered by R. Eliezer ben Joel haLevi (Raʾaviah ca. 1140–1225), who writes שהוא מענין התשובה “for it deals with repentance.”
A variation on this theme was suggested by R. Yehoshua ben Shuib (early 14th century) in his derashot “homilies” (in the Yom Kippur derasha):
ולכן באה נבואת יונה בן אמיתי להורות, כי השם ית' רחמיו על כל מעשיו, ואפי' על אומות העולם כל שכן בישראל, ולכן אנו מפטירין אותה בזה היום בשעת מנחה שהיא שעה רצויה
Thus, the prophecy of Jonah ben Amitai teaches that the LORD, may He be praised, “his mercy is upon all his creations” (Ps 145:9), even upon the non-Israelite nations of the world, and certainly upon Israel itself. Therefore, we read it as a haftara during the afternoon service [of Yom Kippur], since that is an auspicious time.
The method used to educate Jonah—learning through doing—is aimed at the reader as well as at the hero. Its connection to Yom Kippur is in the message that God prefers forgiveness and repentance over punishment and revenge.
Ironically, Jonah himself cannot hear this message, even though throughout the book YHWH works to bring about his repentance and avoids punishing or even rebuking him for his rebelliousness. This irony is lost on the protagonist, but should not be lost on the audience, who will take the message to heart to improve their ways.
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Prof. Yitzhak (Itzik) Peleg is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible Studies at the Gordon Academic College, Haifa, Israel. He was the Chair of the Department of Bible and Jewish Culture at Beit Berl Academic College and the editor of MOED, Annual for Jewish Studies. Peleg holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, and is the author of לך לך: מסעי האבות בסיפורי המקרא [‘Go Forth’: The Forefathers’ Journeys in Bible Stories] (Resling, 2013); Going Up and Going Down: A Key to Interpreting Jacob’s Dream (Bloomsbury, 2015); "And You Shall Tell Your Son" – Identity and Belonging as Shaping by the Jewish Holidays (Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2022).
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