The Book of Jonah and the way of God

The classic book of the Hebrew Bible which expresses the theme that compassion is the highest moral value (above that of justice or truth) is the Book of Jonah, and is appropriately read in the Jewish tradition on Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement.  The book opens (Jonah 1, 1) by saying, “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amitay (אמתי)”.  The name “Amitay” contains within it the word “emet” (אמת), which means truth.  Jonah is literally, Jonah, the son of truth.  Truth as a value is related to judgment rather than compassion.  In Hebrew the phrase true justice or true judgment (דין אמת) is used.  Jonah is portrayed as a person of truth who demands strict justice.

I first want to summarize the story.  Jonah is commanded by God to preach against the wickedness of the city of Ninveh, which was an enemy of the Israelites.  Jonah tries to flee from God, and boards a ship to flee to Tarshish.  After being thrown overboard during a storm, he is swallowed by a “great fish”, who casts him up upon the shore.  Jonah is again commanded by God to prophesize to Ninveh, and he prophesizes that it will be destroyed in 40 days.  However, the people of Ninveh repent, and God decides not to destroy the city.  Jonah becomes distressed that God does not destroy the city.  As a person of truth, he is distressed that strict justice is not being served, for Ninveh is deserving of punishment for its wickedness.  When waiting to see what will happen to the city, God makes a plant grow to shelter Jonah from the sun, and then causes the plant to shrivel up, grieving Jonah.  The book concludes with God telling Jonah that if he is concerned about a plant, which he did not work for or grow, should not God be concerned about Ninveh!  Thus, the book concludes with God teaching Jonah that God is much more a God of caring and compassion than strict justice.

What stands out in the book of Jonah, distinguishing it as truly profound literature, are several striking parallels between Jonah and both Moses and Elijah, the prophet, serving to strengthen the theme that God is ultimately a God of compassion.  First, the king of Ninveh, calls for his people to repent and proclaims (Jonah 3, 8-10):

Let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who can tell?  God may turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we perish not.  And God saw their deeds, in that they turned from their evil way.  And God repented of the evil, which He had said that He would do to them.  And He did not do it.

The parallel here is to the intercession of Moses following the sin of the golden calf.  Moses not only argues with God, but actually demands that God do repentance, and God does repent (Exodus 32, 11-14).  Moses says to God, “Turn from Your fierce anger and repent of this evil against Your people” (Exodus 32, 12), and the Torah records, “And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people” (Exodus 32, 14).  The king of Ninveh in urging his people to repent uses language that is a clear parallel to Moses – “God may turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger”.  The contrast here is between Jonah, on the one side, and Moses and the king of Ninveh, on the other side.  Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites even though they are guilty of sin, while Jonah does not intercede on behalf of the people of Ninveh in spite of their wickedness.  Jonah, in contrast to Moses, does not understand the true way of God, as ultimately one of compassion, and not strict justice.  The obvious irony is that the king of Ninveh, a non-Jew and leader of the enemy of the Israelites, does, like Moses, understand the way of God!

Jonah’s failure to understand the true way of God is confirmed by the second parallel to Moses.  In the continuation of the story of the golden calf, Moses makes two requests of God – “make known to me Your way, that I may know You” (Exodus 33, 13), and “show me Your glory” (Exodus 33, 18).  These are actually two separate requests.  The glory of God relates to the internal nature of God; while the way of God relates to external actions of God from which we may only infer the internal nature of God.

The first request of Moses to know the way of God is granted to him when God responds by saying “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33, 19); and, this is the way of the Lord that in the Biblical conception we are to imitate – “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but…to walk in all His ways” (Deuteronomy 10, 12).  Two things are important here.  First, God tells Moses that the name of God, YHVH, signifies mercy or compassion, and that God is a God of goodness and mercy.  Second, God tells Moses that God “will proclaim the name of the Lord” to Moses, in the future tense.  The name, YHVH, has already been revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3, 13-17), and the declaration that the name of God will be proclaimed (in the future tense) here therefore must involve something more than the previous revelation of the name (at the burning bush).  The future tense, in my view, indicates that at this point the full significance of the name of God has not yet been proclaimed to Moses.  Moses has been told to this point only that in general the way of God is one of goodness and mercy.

The second request of Moses is to be shown the very essence of the nature (glory) of God, and this request is denied.  Before revealing God’s way, God informs Moses that the essence of the nature of God is beyond human comprehension – “you cannot see My face, for no man shall see me, and live…you shall see My back but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33, 20 and 23).  The essence or nature of God is not revealed even to Moses.  In the continuation, God reveals the name of the Lord (YHVH) to Moses (Exodus 34, 5) in its full significance – the way of God. It should be added that Moses is standing upon Mount Sinai.  The Torah records (Exodus 34, 5-7):

And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there (on Sinai), and proclaimed the name of the Lord.  And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed.  The Lord (YHVH), the Lord (YHVH), God (El), merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love and truth, keeping love to thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty, punishing the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation.

If we return now to the story of Jonah, it is evident that Jonah is quoting this passage in which God reveals God’s name in its full significance to Moses, in explaining why he is distressed that God does not destroy Ninveh – “for I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abundant in love and repenting of the evil” (Jonah 4, 2).  Conspicuously and significantly absent is the term truth and any reference to God’s side of justice and punishment that was revealed to Moses – “The Lord (YHVH), the Lord (YHVH), God (El), merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in love and truth” (Exodus 34, 5-7).  Jonah refers only to God’s side of love and forgiveness.  Jonah, the son of truth, omits truth in accusing God of being untruthful and unjust.  God, in Jonah’s view, is compassionate and forgiving to the exclusion of truth and justice – a clear misunderstanding of God’s way by Jonah.

Immediately after accusing God of being untruthful and unjust, Jonah despairs and prays that he die – “And now, O Lord, take my life from me, I pray, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4, 3).  Jonah leaves the city of Ninveh and takes shelter from the heat under a small plant that God causes to grow (Jonah 4, 5-6).  This is a parallel to the story of Elijah the prophet, in the first Book of Kings, when after the slaughter of the prophets of Ba’al, Elijah flees for his life into the wilderness and sits under a small tree despairing (1 Kings 19, 4).  He too requests to die – “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life” (1 Kings 19, 4).  An angel of God then appears to Elijah and directs him to go to mount Horev, Mount Sinai.  At Mount Sinai the word of God comes to Elijah, as recorded in a truly remarkable passage (1 Kings 19, 9-15):

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there.  And behold the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, What are you doing here, Elijah?  And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant [in worshipping Ba’al] thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword, and I only am left, and they seek my life to take it away.  And He said go out and stand upon the mountain before the Lord.  And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fireAnd after the fire, a still, small voice.  And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  And behold there came a voice to him, and said, what are you doing here Elijah?  And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away.  And the Lord said to him, Go return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.

God’s question – “What are you doing here?” – is clearly a rhetorical question to Elijah.  But, in order to properly understand the question, I need to point out that Sinai is the place of revelation in two important senses in the plain meaning of the Torah.  First, Sinai is the place of the revelation to Moses and the people Israel of God’s will (Exodus 19 – 24) where the covenant between God and the people Israel was established (including the giving of the ten statements and commandments to the people Israel).  Second, Sinai is the place of the revelation to Moses of God’s way as primarily a compassionate and forgiving God where God proclaimed God’s name in its full significance to Moses, in the passage just previously cited (Exodus 34, 5-7).

Elijah goes to the mountain of Sinai, and God asks him “what are you doing here?”, because it is the place where God proclaimed to Moses God’s name, YHVH, and revealed God’s way as primarily a compassionate and forgiving God.  Elijah, though, does not understand that this is the reason that God asks him what he is doing at Sinai.  Elijah misunderstands and thinks that the reason he has been asked what he is doing at Sinai is that Sinai is the place where the covenant between God and the people of Israel was established (as the Israelites have violated the covenant).

Elijah is not at all ashamed to describe himself as a zealot, and, like Jonah, demands of God strict justice.  But, whereas Jonah demands that God punish non-Jews, the people of Ninveh, for their wickedness; Elijah is demanding that God duly punish the people Israel for violating its covenant with God, in committing idolatry by worshipping other gods, such as Ba’al.  Elijah conceives of God primarily as a God of power and punishment as reflected in the military imagery of the term that he uses for God – “the Lord God of hosts (army)”.  God then proceeds to clarify to Elijah that God is not a God of zealotry, anger and strict justice, but one of compassion and understanding.  Whereas God reveals God’s way, as a God of compassion, to Moses verbally, God reveals God’s way to Elijah visually.  God teaches Elijah that zealotry and anger bring destruction, like the forces of nature – wind, earthquakes and fire.  God’s way is not primarily that of power and destruction, as the source of nature – “the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire”.  Rather, God is to be found in “a still small voice”.  God’s way is most importantly one of compassion, forgiveness and understanding that quietly teaches and influences through words without compelling by force.  God again asks Elijah rhetorically – “What are you doing here?”.  Elijah again repeats, unashamed, that he is a zealot, and demands of God strict justice, accusing the people Israel of violating the covenant of Sinai, for which they should be punished accordingly.  Elijah insists upon his own way of zealotry.  God tells Elijah to go on his “way”, which can be understood, metaphorically, to mean that God, whose way is primarily one of compassion, understanding and tolerance – and who does not compel by force – allows Elijah to pursue his own way of zealotry and anger, even if mistaken.

There is a story told of Rabbi Abraham Kook, who lived in the early 20th century, prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.  The story is told of a woman who burst into Rabbi Kook’s office, angry and complaining that Jews who violate the Sabbath are coming to Israel to live (as the Zionist political movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was in large part a secular movement).  Rabbi Kook responded by saying how wonderful it is that even Jews who violate the Sabbath are coming to Israel to live!  The woman is angry and complaining as a result of her negative perspective – even though secular Jews are coming to Israel, they are violating the Sabbath.  Rabbi Kook, looking at exactly the same set of facts (secular Jews who violate the Sabbath and are coming to Israel to live), simply shifts the focus to the positive – even though secular Jews are violating the Sabbath, they are coming to Israel to live.  This shift in perspective is responsible for Rabbi Kook feeling appreciative, thankful, respectful and tolerant toward secular Jews rather than angry or complaining – without condoning their violation of the Sabbath.

Thus, reflected in this story of Rabbi Kook, and reflected in the Hebrew Bible in the stories of Jonah and Elijah, is that happiness is a means to a moral life.  In the story of Rabbi Kook, the unhappiness and negative outlook of the woman prevents her from relating in a respectful way to secular Jews, and leads to division and strife between people – by contrast, the happiness, thankfulness and positive outlook of Rabbi Kook allows him to be respectful and tolerant of secular Jews, in spite of disagreement, and leads to peace and respect between people.  In the stories of Jonah and Elijah, the Biblical texts offer a very harsh criticism in which both figures are portrayed not only as zealous and angry but as unhappy and depressed (and even wish to die), who do not understand that the essence of God’s way is that God is ultimately a God of compassion and forgiveness, and not strict justice.  The terms Jews and Judaism (developed from the name of Judah, one of the ancient tribes of Israel) come from a root meaning thankfulness (להודות).  Reflected in the stories of Jonah and Elijah then is the Biblical conception that a positive and optimistic psychological attitude of happiness, appreciation and thankfulness (rather than complaint and despair) is an essential element of a religious life not only as a result of but as a means to a moral life.

I am the author of the internet site Orthoprax Judaism (www.orthopraxjudaism.com) and the author of a book Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham. There is information on the book on my home page of my internet site.

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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