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    Jonah as an anti-prophet

    Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, by Gustave Dore

    Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, by Gustave Dore

    Jonah is a highly unusual Biblical prophet. Instead of a message of repentance and forgiveness, he wants the people of Nineveh to suffer a stern punishment.

    Another prophet would say, “Return to God and be forgiven!” This is what God wants him to say, but Jonah uses every possible trick to wriggle out of his task.

    He runs away and looks for a ship to take him off the scene. When trouble strikes the ship, he runs away again – this time, to hide in his cabin. He finally accepts his mission, but his message to Nineveh is grudging and half-hearted.

    Yet the Ninevites repent and God saves them, and Jonah is scandalised. All he wants is for Nineveh to suffer and for God to treat them with strict justice untempered with mercy. In the end, when he sees he will not get his own way, he longs to be dead – another escape from duty and reality.

    The death-wish comes with a commentary. He says, “You are a gracious God, compassionate, long-suffering and abounding in lovingkindness” (Jonah 4:2). The words echo the 13 Divine Attributes in Ex. 34:6, and with any other prophet they would be a praise of God for treating His creatures with mercy and compassion.

    But this is not what Jonah has in mind. He would prefer God to be stern and strict, not kind and forgiving.

    “You are a gracious God”, as far as Jonah is concerned, are words of accusation. It is as if the prophet is objecting to God showing His quality of love. “If this is the sort of God You are,” Jonah may be implying, “I no longer want to live!” So he now says, “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

    What a strange prophet. So why do we read his book on Yom Kippur?

    Not because we should emulate Jonah, but the opposite. For us the lesson is that it is better for human beings to be loved and given life than to be destroyed and dismissed.

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