September 25, 2023


Reading Jonah BackwardA new look at the biblical tale we read on Yom Kippur reveals a story of God's ability to change (NEIL HIRSCH, SEPTEMBER 21, 2023, Tablet)

To solve the question of modeling, readers should look to the last verses of the book.

Jonah has set up camp east of the walls of Nineveh after delivering his prophecy. He sets up a booth there, waiting to see what comes of the city. The sun is fierce, and Jonah grows deeply uncomfortable, praying for death. So, God provides a kikayon--a gourd or shade plant--that eases Jonah's discomfort. The next day, though, God also provides a worm that kills the plant, and Jonah again grows desperate in the heat.

And so it is in the end that God delivers the book's ultimate message, which communicates a sense of mercy over punishing justice. "You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!" (Jonah 4:10-11, NJPS). Until the final two verses of the book, God only speaks to Jonah twice, instructing him with almost identical words to go to Nineveh.

Now, God speaks to Jonah to offer a moral for him and us.

Had Jonah not run in the other direction, there would have been no need for the sailors. If the storm had not come, Jonah would have never been heaved overboard and swallowed by the whale. Were he not given the time to sit in the whale's stomach, Jonah would have never had the second chance to go to Nineveh. Each chapter builds toward the final verses, in which God speaks enigmatically.

Yet, reading the story backward, God's intent becomes more evident. God seems to say, I care about the city of Nineveh. I have cultivated it, like a gardener cultivates a plant for shade, helping its people grow it into a significant--albeit imperfect--place. At first, I may have wanted to destroy it, but now seeing how they've changed, I realize I too must change. I care for those people. That is why God sent Jonah to the city, to deliver a message that enables God to be merciful and kind, rather than wrathful and destructive.

It is the final verses we should put first, especially when reading the book to reinforce what we are attempting to do on Yom Kippur. God is the model for teshuvah in the story of Jonah. God has impulses toward destruction, which have been on display since Noah. Jonah is upset because he embodies the expectation that God's justice will come in the form of destruction. But Jonah says it himself, "I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment" (Jonah 4:2, NJPS). The message is that God can transform. God can change to do the caring thing rather than the punishing thing. And we--especially at a time of repentance--should strive to do the same.

As we'll see, He has a lot more growing up to do.  But He gets there.

Posted by at September 25, 2023 12:00 AM