Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Jonah, Yom Kippur 2021

Posted on: September 17, 2021

The strictures still imposed on us by the covid situation means that we are not in the synagogue this year and there is no Minchah service which would include a Torah reading followed by the haftarah, the book of Jonah.

So we miss out on Jonah but can take this time, via Zoom, approximately when the afternoon service would have been, to think about Jonah.

Hebrew prophets are often reluctant to hold prophetic office: Moses didn’t want it, Amos thought he wasn’t worthy of it, Jeremiah knew it would bring him trouble, the visionaries Isaiah and Ezekiel had prophecy thrust upon them and Elijah, a different kind of prophet, had to do a runner when King Ahab took against him.

Jonah was about the most reluctant of them all. As soon as he heard God’s command, ‘Go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim against it’ – he made for the port of Jaffa and boarded a ship bound for a western extremity which is called Tarshish. This is likely to refer to what we now call Spain, possibly the straits of Gibraltar.

There are two unusual things about the prophecy delegated to Jonah. One is that, rather than prophesying to the people of Israel or Judah, he is being sent to the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, to bring a foreign people to repentance.

The other unusual thing is that, as we shall see, the prophecy doesn’t come true.

Deuteronomy is quite dismissive about prophets whose prophesies don’t come to pass.

…if the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the LORD; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him. (Deuteronomy 18:22)

Did Jonah know that his task was to utter a prophecy which wouldn’t come true? Is this why he attempted to run away from God?

On board the ship, Jonah didn’t hang out with the mariners but went down into the innermost part of the ship where he fell into a deep sleep. A life-threatening storm blew up, and the sailors prayed, each to his own god. Eventually the captain went down to Jonah, woke him up and told him to pray to Eloheykha, ‘your God,’ so that they wouldn’t be drowned.

The sailors had worked out, by a system of casting lots, that Jonah’s presence was the cause of the storm, so they questioned him, but didn’t lay hands on him or behave threateningly towards him. Jonah explained that he was a Hebrew who had fled from his God and advised the sailors to throw him into the sea, which was getting increasingly tempestuous.

Reluctant to do this, they tried to steady the ship, to no avail and they then began to pray to God, using the name Adonai, which is the name that we Hebrews, like Jonah, call our God.

It is almost as if the sailors were converted. Perhaps we’ll park that idea and come back to it later.

They threw Jonah into the sea which immediately stopped raging and, awed by everything they had seen, they made a sacrifice to God – to Adonai, says the text – and made vows, which is what we do on Kol Nidre.

You might think that, with the storm stilled, Jonah might have had some sort of chance of swimming to dry land, but as we all know, he was swallowed by a great fish, a dag gadol, not apparently a whale although the ancient Greek translation does use the word ketos which suggests an aquatic mammal, cetacea being the zoological term for such.

There is an enormous amount of midrash about sea monsters of the bible, Leviathan being a primordial example of the genus. There are innumerable artistic depictions of Jonah inside the fish, especially the moment when the fish vomits up Jonah, who emerges carrying a scroll with which he had occupied himself, for the duration inside the fish.

Jonah is particularly interesting to Christian artists as there is a reference in the gospel of Matthew to Jonah’s three days inside the whale or fish as foreshadowing the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. (Matthew 12:40). Matthew, writing in Greek, does use the word ketos, suggesting a whale.

Three days is a motif found often in Tanakh: Abraham and Isaac heading for Mount Moriah, Joseph’s brothers in Egypt, awaiting the revelation at Sinai, Esther’s fast and other instances in Numbers and Hosea. Three days seems to be a sort of liminal time in which events germinate before reaching a climax.

Do you remember what Jonah did, in the belly of the fish?

He prayed a psalm of thanksgiving, stylistically very similar to the psalms of David, spoken in the first person with phrases about being encompassed by dangers and troubles, from which God redeems him. After Jonah’s prayer, God spoke to the fish which vomited out Jonah.

After these ordeals, Jonah was, in a sense, back to square one, as God again told him to go to Ninevah and make a proclamation there, as instructed.

Nineveh was a huge city, requiring a journey of three days to cross it on foot and on his first day there, Jonah proclaimed the prophecy: In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.

ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת׃

For full disclosure, I should mention that in the Greek Septuagint, translated  from Hebrew in the time of Ptolemy II in the third century BCE, Jonah says ‘In three days the city will be overthrown’.

How did the people of Nineveh respond?

Instantly, they believed, they fasted and they put on sackcloth, like mourners. The king of Ninevah likewise was deeply affected and decreed a penitential fast throughout the city, even for the animals. The livestock were covered in sackcloth, just like the citizens.

The king reasoned thus:

Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. (Jonah 3:9)

מִֽי־יוֹדֵ֣עַ יָשׁ֔וּב וְנִחַ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְשָׁ֛ב מֵחֲר֥וֹן אַפּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֥א נֹאבֵֽד

When God saw their repentance, He said that He would not strike the city. Repentance brought mercy, as we hope on Yom Kippur, although this was no Israelite city, but the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a world power at that time.

You might think that this was a happy ending but Jonah was beside himself.  He prayed angrily, saying ‘Isn’t this exactly why I didn’t want this commission in the first place? I knew the people of Nineveh would get round you with their repentance and now I look like a liar because the city won’t be destroyed, after I told them it was going to happen. I might as well be dead.’

God answered: ‘Are you very angry?’

Jonah walked on through the city and sat down somewhere on the east side, in the shadows because it was very hot.

In the Book of Jonah, God is said to ‘prepare’ certain things: the great fish, the gourd, a worm which ruins the gourd and an east wind. The gourd, kikayon in Hebrew, which is something like a pumpkin or squash, sheltered Jonah with its shade and he was happy. At dawn, the worm infested the gourd which withered and Jonah was exposed to the sun, beating down on his head. Again, he prayed for death.

God replied, ‘Are you angry about the gourd?’

Jonah acknowledged that this was the case.

God said ‘You pitied the gourd when it was destroyed. Shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh, a great city with more than 120,000 inhabitants who don’t know the difference between their right hand and their left?’

Then we come to the famous final words of the book of Jonah, ‘and much cattle.’ In the form of a question to Jonah, God explains to him that He pities Nineveh, the people and the domestic beasts.

Lives were saved because the prophecy brought the people of Nineveh to repentance. Jonah’s role as a prophet was not to foretell the future, but to save lives.

The primary mission of the Hebrew prophets was not to foretell the future, like the morally neutral Delphic Sibyl of the Greeks, but to reach out to the people, persuading them to atone for evil, to do good and to obey the commandments.


In the discussion on Yom Kippur afternoon, we spoke about Jonah’s flight from prophecy, about his deep sleep in the hold of the ship and about the conversation between God and Jonah, where God asks the questions:

 ‘Do you do well to be angry?’

‘Do you do well to be angry about the gourd?’

We referred to the gourd in The Life of Brian and the whale in Pinocchio. We spoke of the meaning of Jonah’s name, ‘dove’ and of etymological connections with the island of Iona in the Hebrides and the Ionian Sea between Italy and Greece.

I don’t think we reached a consensus about whether Jonah was right to be angry.

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