Rabbi Jackie Tabick
High Holy Days 2019/5780
I used to love the fairy tale nature of the story of Jonah, a man swallowed by a whale and according to legends (and my children’s story book) carried around to see the great underwater wonders of the world. Then I grew up and assumed that the story was being read to teach us how great this prophet of God was. Such powers to make people repent! If only we had prophets who could do the same for us! Then I really grew up and realised that actually, Jonah was presenting us with a negative example: how not to approach God on the Day for Atonement. And then, of course, I became a rabbi, and yet more possibilities emerged, looking at the myriad of commentaries written about the book, I came to understand that like any good symbol, the figure of Jonah and his story can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways.
Was Jonah only a reluctant prophet (we have many of those including Moses)? It does seem he was a thoroughly disagreeable person. Maybe a depressive, which would explain his wish to die when the Kikayon (maybe a gourd?) that sprang up overnight giving him shade, dies the next night, leaving him in the sun. Certainly stubborn beyond what was good for him; someone who liked to avoid taking responsibilities for his actions unless absolutely forced into it and someone who was very aware of his own status, how people should kowtow to him and how he guarded how he saw his own dignity; a self-centred individual, caring more about preserving his reputation than saving human lives. And to make it worse, as a prophet associated with Yom Kippur, someone who could just not change his actions, his beliefs or his character. In short, was Jonah a Hero or an anti -hero? A good or bad example to us sitting there in the pews?
One construction placed on Jonah not wishing to prophecy against Nineveh is that the Assyrians were the sworn enemies of Israel and either the people of Israel or Jonah’s life would be in danger if the people of Nineveh repented. After all, their repentance would adversely reflect upon the Israelites who despite repeated prophetic warnings down the ages had not repented. Or, if the conditions of the prophecy were not fulfilled, and Nineveh was not overturned, then Jonah himself might be considered a false prophet or even worse God’s Word itself might appear false or God seem ineffective.
Or should we take a completely different tack and see the story as God attempting to educate just one individual. If God is prepared to take so much time and effort with Jonah, maybe there’s hope for us that God cares about our future as individuals too. And do we have to ask ourselves are we as stubborn, refusing to change?
Or maybe the story is not about repentance at all? Jonah seems hell-bent on punishing the wicked, even if they repent. But it seems God takes a different approach. God tries to teach Jonah that everyone needs mercy, even if undeserving, and that love should override pure justice. Repentance allows for erasure of destruction because love trumps pure justice, which may explain the strange ending of the book which doesn’t say that Nineveh was saved from destruction because the people changed their ways, but because it was so full of vulnerable people ‘and much cattle’.
A wonderful little story, packed full of contradictory possible lessons for us, which deserves our attention and study.
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