The Book of Jonah is one of the most misunderstood stories of the Jewish tradition. There is no whale. And it is not about the capacity of humans to repent.
Drowned out of our Yom Kippur teachings about this reluctant prophet of Nineveh is its radical theological message, which we read toward the end of our fast. At this juncture we are light-headed, counting down the hours and minutes until the final blast of the shofar, which echoes heavenward our final pleas for forgiveness.
Jonah, famously, ran away.
Perhaps Jonah was merely returning to the scene of God’s original sin, to clue us in – with a wink, even – before he becomes the foil for god-washing the very notion of punishment and forgiveness in the Torah.
Jonah slumbers through the great storm, one that threatens the very lives of the innocent sailors. And his voyage is intended to deny the people of Nineveh the opportunity to save themselves by repenting. How callous and self-righteous can this prophet of Israel be?
And Jonah does not fear drowning, for he knows that the God of the Hebrews is forgiving. Splash! Three days later, he is vomited onto the sands of the eastern Mediterranean coast and proceeds cantankerously to fulfill his prophetic duty so that the people of Nineveh repent and are forgiven.
But there is something theologically fishy here. For up until now, the Almighty is not naturally forgiving, not abundantly merciful. No, the King of Kings is quick to anger, unparalleled in jealousy and absolutely brutal with retribution for the wicked.
Who really is this benevolent god in the Book of Jonah, and why does this strange, strange story take center stage at our most spiritually and physically vulnerable point in the year?
Hint: Jonah’s Hebrew name is Yona, meaning “dove.”
Yes, Yona – one of the last prophets – is finally the corrective to one of the most ancient and disturbing of Jewish and universal stories, the story of Noah. Of the Ark. Floating safely on the stormy waters as a guilty mass of humanity is severely punished and is drowned below by an angry Creator above. The storm subsides, and finally the dove, the yona, provides the all-clear signal.
Indeed, biblical names are not random.
While the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance are about our seeking forgiveness from one another and then from the Creator of the universe, the Almighty may be using the final hours of Yom Kippur to both rebrand away from being The Ultimate Executioner and seek our forgiveness.
For while we mortal creations, of course, wrestle with our inclinations and sometimes sin, perhaps our very Creator – the King of Kings, the Judge of Judges, the Ruler of the Universe – also wrestles with sin, also seeks forgiveness, also fears the judgment of the judged.
We are commanded to walk in the ways of God, which could also be daunting when God stomps. Perhaps even when we sin, we follow in the not-always-glorious footsteps of the Infinite One, who may also leave sin prints in the sands of creation or, at least, in the pages of our Torah.
Consider the fast-trigger punishing character of God in the soon-to-be-read first chapters of Genesis, and contrast that with the god of Nineveh, who twice sends a messenger with a warning, who believes in the ability of humanity to repent and who graciously accepts and forgives.
As we now stand individually and communally in judgment on the Day of Judgment, we do not read of the lack of God’s mercy for humanity when the rains washed away the sinners. Noah was not tasked with being God’s messenger to bring about repentance; he served as The Destroyer’s unquestioning co-conspirator in this unforgiving and perhaps unforgivable – yes, unforgivable – death drama.
Abraham, we are taught, merited fathering some nations because he, unlike the passive Noah, actually stood up to God when the plan was revealed to him to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But there is no hint in the text that a change in human behavior of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah was even possible. Instead, the mission was to just try to find and salvage pillars of the community who wouldn’t turn into salt.
And the furious and jealous God of Moses, who did finally hear our cries in Egypt, was also ready then to commit the first recorded genocide of the Jewish people – if not for Moses’s intervention after the golden calf. The mainstay of Yom Kippur’s service is the admonition by Moses to an angry God, “Adonai, Adonai, You are compassionate and gracious, endlessly patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, showing mercy to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin – and granting pardon.”
And so the Angel of Death gave way to the Angel of Forgiveness in the wilderness of the Sinai; meaning, ultimately, that God was changed by the interaction with Moses. The verdict of the Judge of Judges was overturned by partnership, by intervention, by reminding God of God’s highest God-self. A deadly sin turned into a learning experience for both the Jewish People and our universal God. What Noah and Abraham didn’t accomplish, Moses pulled off.
And so why, just as we hope to clear our slates, does a prophet whose name means “dove” ask to be thrown into the depths of the waters to avoid providing the people of Nineveh the opportunity to redeem themselves?
Jonah, on our behalf, wants to hold off on showcasing the forgiving God. “Don’t you remember the god of the Great Flood?” he seems to taunt us as he is being thrown overboard. And with a twist of a Hebrew letter, Jonah’s “sailors” (malachim) become Abraham’s “angels” (malachim), who scoot Lot and family out of the way of destruction. “Don’t you remember the god of Sodom and Gomorrah?”
With the Book of Jonah, we see how far God has come from Genesis. We see in the Book of Jonah the teshuva, the repentance of the Creator, asking creatively for forgiveness from the survivors of the Great Flood – humanity – and of Abraham and Sarah, representing the Jewish People.
Jonah is the one who is callous and unforgiving, not God.
So if God can change this much, so can we.
And just like after the Great Flood, in the final hours on the Day of Judgment, Yona provides the all-clear signal. To God and to each of us. • The writer, a member of Kehilat Kol Haneshama, is CEO of solar developer Energiya Global Capita.