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Fishing for Life’s Big Lessons in the Book of Jonah

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, we read the deceptively simple book of Jonah. Three themes tie this all-too-relevant story together: the emptiness of self-absorption, the possibility that those who have disappointed us can change and the ultimate reality of interdependence.


Why does Jonah flee when called to prophesy against the Assyrian capital of Nineveh — near what is today the Iraqi city of Mosul — so that it might repent?

Some say that Jonah knew that Assyria would one day vanquish the Northern Kingdom of Israel, although there is no hint of this in the story. What the text does imply is that Jonah ben Amittai, Jonah the son of my truth, was a law-and-order type who had no patience for a merciful God willing to give Nineveh a second chance.

What accounts for his hard-heartedness? An eighth-century midrash attributes this to two factors: Jonah’s concern that he’ll be seen as a liar if he prophesies Nineveh’s destruction and the city repents, and his fear that Nineveh’s quick repentance might arouse God’s anger at the rebellious Israelites.

Jonah is more concerned about his reputation than about the lives of more than 120,000 Ninevites. In Jonah’s zero-sum calculus, another people’s favor in God’s eyes could come only at the expense of God’s affection for Israel. Jonah is full of “me,” has only a little room for “us” and has no concern for another people.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when God’s wrath rises to the point that “the lives of others are at stake, the prophet does not say, ‘Thy will be done!’ but rather, ‘Thy will be changed’…. The prophet is a person who suffers [the] harms done to others… [and knows that] the God of Israel is also the God of her enemies.”

By these standards, Jonah qualifies as an anti-prophet. His narrow vision, lack of compassion and self-absorption ultimately shrivel his soul and drain his life of meaning. Faced with the crushing discovery that God is not an all-mighty reflection of himself, the narcissistic Jonah can only plead for death in the desert.


This theme unfolds through three allusions to God’s approach to dealing with disappointment.

The prophet’s name, Yonah, means dove. Who can hear about a dove on a boat in the middle of a raging storm without thinking of the flood? The Bible describes the sins of the antediluvian world and Nineveh with the same word: chamas, violence, a sin to which we repeatedly confess in the Yom Kippur liturgy. When the world turned out to be less than perfect, God simply obliterated it and started again.

Next, God’s plan to destroy Nineveh echoes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: the same Hebrew verb, la’hafoch, to overturn, is used in both cases. Compared with the flood, targeting two specific cities shows considerable Divine restraint. The cities have no chance to repent, but at least Abraham has an opportunity to intercede, even if it proves futile.

Now to the Golden Calf. When Jonah explains why he fled, he says, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and compassionate….” Jonah is paraphrasing Exodus 34:6-7, a key refrain in the Yom Kippur liturgy.

God (or some say Moses) spoke these words after Moses dissuaded God from destroying the stiff-necked Israelites and repaired the shattered relationship between God and the Children of Israel following the Golden Calf incident. God “develops” the capacity for mercy, no longer equating disappointment with annihilation. According to tradition, Moses brought the second set of the Ten Commandments down from Sinai on the 10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur. They embody God’s newfound capacity for mercy, for giving humanity a second chance.

By the conclusion of Jonah, God spontaneously displays the compassion that previously resulted from Moses’ artful persuasion. Now God knows that people deserve a chance for teshuva, repentance. In a complete reversal of roles, it is now God who teaches compassion to a stiff-necked prophet who demands the obliteration of a sinful city.

When the people of Nineveh repent (“va’yinachem ha-Elohim”), God regrets the plan to destroy them. In the story of the flood, va’yinachem denotes God’s regret for the creation of life and signals its annihilation. In Jonah, va’yinachem describes God’s capacity for mercy based on the recognition that change, that teshuva, is always possible.

This contrast can be interpreted either as illustrating God’s evolving response to disappointment in humanity or as an indication of the development in human understanding of God’s nature.

Either way, if we are created in God’s image, then the goal for us is to arrive at a point at which we too can learn to restrain our more primitive impulses toward those who disappoint us.

To act in a godly way is to leave open the possibility that others can do teshuva, just as we struggle to turn ourselves.


The story ends with the prophet in a faint under a wilted vine in the desert:

And God said to Jonah, “Are you so grieved for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had concern for the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than 120,000 persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”

Note the contrast between God’s concern for the inhabitants of Nineveh and the total absence of any such compassion in the story of the flood. But what about the curious analogy of the vine and the people of Nineveh? The usual explanation is that God wants to teach Jonah a lesson: If Jonah cares about the vine, which he didn’t create, how much more so should God care about the inhabitants of Nineveh? But that lesson does not quite follow from the analogy. The self-absorbed Jonah grieves, not because he created the vine but because he needs its shade to live. The analogy suggests that God cannot be a living God without human beings, just as Jonah cannot live without the vine.

Even the God who appointed the great fish to swallow Jonah and who appointed the plant to spring up overnight needed the help of a human being to carry word to the people of Nineveh.

Heschel called the following third-century midrash one of the most powerful statements in all of rabbinic literature: “Says Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: ‘If you’re my witnesses, I am God; if you are not my witnesses, I am not God.’”

Jonah’s refusal to serve as God’s witness in Nineveh diminishes God. So would the destruction of Nineveh.

If God is not independent of us, how independent can we be of each other?

The story of Jonah points to the truth of ultimate interdependence. To ignore it leads to a spiritual desert and threatens to destroy the very environment that sustains us.

The book of Jonah invites us to see ourselves as a part of a whole that includes all that had seemed “other.” That’s what God was trying to show Jonah in sending him to Nineveh. Had Jonah understood this, he would have run there. He would have known that the opportunity to deliver Nineveh’s chance for teshuva was a blessing, not a curse.

We each face the questions God posed to Jonah. Can we see beyond our self-interests? Can we give those who have disappointed us a chance to change? Will our actions reflect the truth of interdependence or the illusion of independence?

If we can overcome the Jonah in each of us, we can help heal ourselves and the world.

David Arnow is the author of “Creating a Living Jewish Seder,” to be published by Jewish Lights this winter. This essay is adapted from his article in the Summer 2002 issue of Conservative Judaism.

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