“It is a shapely tale, tersely told, fast-moving and couched in a Hebrew of practised simplicity. It has the spaciousness of roomy oceans and big-bellied sea monsters, the brooding mystery of man and vessel caught in the coils of wind and storm, and characters oddly opposed, the one a human frailty hiding and the other a discovering Eye searching, both engaged in some fateful debate which ends as it began, with Jonah a sulking creature of defeat.”
Is it the excitement of the story that accounts for its popularity? Is it the fantasy elements such as the big fish? (Nowhere does the book call it a whale!)
Is it the sudden incursion of a simple narrative that breaks into the heavy liturgy and wakes up those who are tending, in mid-afternoon, to drop off to sleep?
All this may be true, but the appeal of the book has to do with its sheer credibility. Jonah is a real person, caught in a real human predicament: a human being struggling with his role, his destiny, his limitations of personality and soul.
Biblical personages often grapple with their fate – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others. But there is a difference between them and Jonah. Their problem is that they are frightened of failure; what Jonah fears is success.
The task God has assigned to him is to go to sinful Nineveh and arouse it to repentance. As our commentators put it, Jonah is worried, not that they will not heed his message, but that they will! “I might succeed!”, Jonah thinks, and he implies: “I’d prefer not to!”
The rabbis’ explanation of Jonah’s thinking, paraphrased in modern English, is twofold:
1. “Why should they be allowed to repent? Sin deserves to be punished! Let them stew in their own juice!”
2. “It’s hard enough to bring Israel into line! If Nineveh repents, won’t Israel be shown in a bad light?”
Reading Jonah on Yom Kippur demonstrates two fundamental principles of the Jewish doctrine of atonement:
1. Repentance is always possible: “To the day of his death God waits for a person to repent.” It is not inevitable that we sin, but neither are sins ineradicable. The sinner must and does have a means, i.e. repentance, to overcome his or her sin and come back to God’s favour.
2. All human beings are God’s children. His concern is universal. It is inconceivable that He should interest Himself only in the people of Israel.
Amos says, “Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O children of Israel?” The people of Israel were commanded to be God’s witness and a light to all the nations (Isaiah), to teach them the way to His holy mountain (Isaiah and Micah), to preach repentance to them (Jonah) and to recognise that the forebears of the Messiah will come from their midst (Ruth).
Jonah does not understand these truths without going through the agony of experience. At first he seeks to flee – from God, from the truth, from his task, from himself. Some shelters he seeks out; some appear out of circumstances. He attempts:
• Fleeing to Tarshish (“Let me go somewhere else!”)
• Sleeping in his cabin (“I don’t want to know what’s happening!”)
• Being cast into the water (“I’d rather be dead!”)
• Hiding in the belly of the fish (“Somewhere warm and comfortable, like the womb of my mother!”)
• Sheltering under a gourd (“As far away from the action as possible!”)
Nothing works. Every time Jonah is recalled to his destiny. It takes a long while and much agony, but eventually he learns, as we all should, that you cannot run away from yourself, from your destiny, or from God.
Jonah, however, is not an ordinary human being but a prophet. Jonah the prophet learns two further lessons – that a prophet or leader’s burden is often too great to bear, but the burden has to be carried; and that a prophet must prophesy, even despite himself.
It is this which explains why the book is placed among the Biblical prophets, not simply amongst historical narratives.