By Dr. Michael Schulman
The Book of Jonah is read during the services of Yom Kippur, the Jews’ Day of Atonement, because its messages are a fitting inspiration for that time. To understand this scripture, it helps to know the identities of Jonah and the king of Nineveh.
According to the Talmud, Jonah was the boy who was resurrected by Elijah (I Kings 17). He grew up as a prophet and a disciple of Elisha. He is the disciple whom Elisha sent to anoint and prophesy to Yehu (II Kings 9:1-10), and he prophesied to King Jeroboam II (ibid. 14:25). By the time of his prophecy to Nineveh, he was about 100 years old.
A prophet is liable to death by the Hand of Heaven if he suppresses a prophecy that G-d instructs him to deliver (Tractate Sanhedrin 89a). Why did Jonah do this? He recoiled from being the one through whom a criticism would be brought against his fellow Israelites. The Israelites included ten northern tribes that had separated from Judah and Benjamin, and formed the Biblical nation of Israel. They had then been drawn into idolatry, and although G-d sent prophets to warn them, they had not repented. Jonah knew that if he prophesied to the Gentile city of Nineveh, they would fear G-d, repent to Him and be forgiven. Then G-d would turn to the Israelites and say: “The Gentiles of Nineveh heard My warning from a true prophet and repented, so I forgave their sin. I sent many prophets to you, My nation, but you still refuse to abandon idolatry. Now everyone will know that I am justified in sending the Ten Tribes into exile as their atonement, until the End of Days when I will bring them back” (see Deut. 30).
To compel Jonah to obey, G-d first caused him to be willingly cast overboard, thus proving his merit that he cared more for his fellow Israelites than for his own life. Then G-d caused him to be saved by the giant fish that was created for that purpose during the Six Days of Creation (Midrash, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10). The Midrash (ibid.) relates that the fish brought Jonah to view the Leviathan (Job 41). G-d will kill the Leviathan when the Messiah son of David comes, speedily in our days, and its meat will be served at the great celebratory feast that G-d will make for the righteous to welcome in the Messianic Era (Tractate Bava Basra 75a). At that time, G-d will remove everyone’s evil inclination, and Jews and Gentiles will dedicate themselves to serving G-d in unity and peace, as it says (Zephaniah 3:9): “For then I [G-d] will turn the peoples to pure language, so that all will call upon the Name of G-d to serve Him with one purpose.” We can see that G-d reminded Jonah about the universal destiny for mankind by bringing him to view the Leviathan.
But how was Jonah sure that the people of Nineveh would repent? As he said to G-d after they were spared (4:2), “Was this not my contention…? For this reason I hastened to flee…” The answer lies in the identity of the king. Jewish tradition teaches that he had been the Pharaoh whom we read about in the Book of Exodus (Midrash, ibid. 43). As the exodus took place, Pharaoh stood looking over the Red Sea while it split. When his army was drowned, he finally admitted to G-d’s complete control of the world and repented for his sins. He left and went to Nineveh, where he became king and dedicated it as a “great city unto G-d” (3:3). He was then blessed with long life, but eventually he lapsed and allowed his subjects to sin. Jonah knew that Pharaoh, of all people, would head G-d’s warning and lead them in repenting.
Jews have more commandments than Gentiles and are held to higher standards. Gentiles are accountable for the 7 Universal Commandments in the Book of Genesis, which are the foundation of true morality: establishing just courts, and the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, forbidden sexual relations, theft, and eating meat that was severed from a living animal (cruelty to animals). But an entire population of Gentiles is not liable to collective Divine punishment unless they breach the boundaries of civilized coexistence, like the generations of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, and the metropolis around Sodom. In Nineveh, the rampant crime was theft (3:8). When Pharaoh heard that a prophet of G-d had declared that Nineveh would be overturned (3:4), he led the people in repentance to G-d. Since theft can’t be fully atoned without making restitution to the victims, they returned all stolen items and even tore apart their houses to return the materials they had extorted (Tractate Taanit16a). Thus it says (3:10), “G-d saw their deeds, that they repented from their evil way,” instead of “G-d saw their sackcloth and fasting.”
After Jonah saw that Nineveh was not destroyed, he was sickened over the comparison with the unrepentant Israelites. To admonish Jonah, G-d provided for him a kikayonplant, which he cherished. The next day it died, which broke Jonah’s heart. G-d then told him, how much more so does He care for all people. For He invests all people with His image (Gen. 1:27), watching them constantly and waiting for them to repent to Him for their sins so they can be forgiven, as proven by the people of Nineveh.
There were thousands of prophets in the Biblical Holy Land, but the only prophecies that were canonized in the Hebrew Bible were those which are relevant for all time, as G-d says (Malachi 3:6), “For I, G-d, have not changed…” The Book of Jonah teaches that all people, on account of G-d’s attention and care for them, are obligated to pray to Him to fulfill their needs – including prayers of repentance for their sins, combined with a commitment to actively improve their ways.
The author is grateful to Kate Bresee for the editing and useful comments that she provided.
Dr. Michael Schulman (PhD Physics ‘88) is an Orthodox/Hassidic Jew who has served since 1999 as Executive Director of the charitable organization Ask Noah International, and its web site Asknoah.org, from which this essay is reprinted with permission. A.N.I. is overseen by leading Orthodox Rabbis in the mission to provide education and guidance to Gentiles in the parts of the Written and Oral Torah tradition that apply universally to all people. Dr. Schulman is co-author of the book Seven Gates of Righteous Knowledge: Spiritual Knowledge and Faith for All Righteous Gentiles.
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Academy Journal Beta.1, 4-6 (2017) · Reprinted with permission from Asknoah.org