Tuesday, October 3

How Should We Approach Jonah?

Yesterday was, of course, Yom Kippur. During the musaf service during this holy day, Jews read the book of Jonah.

Especially when viewed against the lens of the text we read during Rosh Hashanah, the Akeidah, the book of Jonah is a very difficult text. In Jonah, we read the story of a prophet who appears mean, vindictive and insubordinate to Hashem.

As compared against Abraham, who argued with Hashem over the life of the inhabitants of Sodom, Jonah "sat on the east side of [Nineveh], and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city." I imagine him popping a bowl of popcorn so he may be entertained by the big show.

In Jonah, we have a prophet who refers to what are normally referred to as the positive attributes of G-d (gracious, compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy) as a negative!

In addition to the contempt that Jonah seems to show for life, in Jonah we have a prophet who makes every effort to disobey Hashem. When instructed by Hashem to go to Nineveh (present day Baghdad) to proclaim against it, he hurries to try and hide out in Tarshish (present day Spain). He is only dissuaded by his attempt to run away from G-d when he is swallowed into the belly of a fish.

After being spit up by the fish, he doesn't rush to do as he was instructed; G-d had to instruct Jonah a second time. As I mentioned above, the reluctant prophet then castigates G-d for being merciful.

What are we to learn from Jonah? I look forward to your thoughts.


Joel said...

Since you asked, here's how we should approach Jonah: as mythology. We should recognize immediately that the story of Jonah didn't actually happen, that the genocidal, slavery-approving, vicious god of the Old Testament doesn't exist. Just as Noah didn't get every species on earth (including 650,000 species of beatles alone!!!) onto his Ark. Jonah should be in the same category as Hercules, Dionysis, Prometheus, Persephone, etc...

Treasure State Jew said...


I appreciate your perspective. However, even if you solely approach Jonah as mythology, don't you think that there are ethical lessons to be learned here?

You reference the Greek myths. Why read those myths if we cannot learn anything from them? Even if you deny any holiness in the Bible, don't you think that books, like Jonah, have something to teach us?

Joel said...

A fair point. The problem is that the story of Jonah, like other biblical mythological stories are not, in general, treated as stories, but treated as real events that did, in fact, happen, going back all the way to the Adam and Eve myth. They are thus taught from that perspective.
There can be ethical lessons learned from Greek myths, Hindu myths, Native American myths, Aesop, and the Brother's Grimm. If we treat the god of the old testament as a fictional character, like Zues or Zoroaster or even Gilgamesh, we are better able to distinguish the moral of the tale.
Let me ask you: What then does the story of Jonah teach us as a mythology?
The story of Jonah seems to be historically used to teach lessons about running from God, or being disobedient to God. I'm not sure how the particular story of Jonah has a real-world lesson to teach. I could be wrong and would be interested in what you think.

Treasure State Jew said...


One of the lessons that we can take from Jonah is that justice must be diluted with compassion.

Why did Jonah run from Hashem? Well, it "displeased [him] greatly; and he was angry" that G-d "repented of the evil which He said He would do unto [Nineveh]."

We do not know what sin was committed by the Ninevites. However, Jonah ran to Tarshish in order to ensure that G-d would strike down the city; a metropolis of "more than sixscore, a hundred and twenty thousand persons."

To me, the heart of this story is not the running, it is not the fish, and it is not really the redemption of Nineveh. It is the story of the gourd and the worm.

When we mete out Justice, we must be compassionate. I submit that is one of the most important lessons we can glean from Jonah.

Treasure State Jew said...

Another lesson that can be gleaned from this story is one of tolerance and a rejection of jingoism; the Chosen people are not the only ones can live good, moral lives.

Once the Ninevites foresake their evil ways (whatever they were); Hashem withdrew His sentence against them. All people's have merit and we are all obligated to pursue justice.