Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is when Jews spend 25 hours trying to turn around and get back to God. It is the last of ten days of teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), often translated as “repentance”, though teshuvah literally means “returning, turning around’. On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our collective as well as individual sins and misdeeds against the inner, or perhaps outer, force we call God. And we pray for forgiveness and a new start on a more righteous life.
Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read one last passage from the bible. What could be uplifting and inspiring enough to help us finally turn around and enter the gates of heaven?
The book of Jonah.
Did the ancient rabbis play a joke on us? What is the story of this reluctant and ridiculous prophet good for besides comic relief?
The Meaning of Nineveh
The word of God happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: “Kum! Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim about it, because the perversity of their wickedness [has come] before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2)
Kum (קוּם) = Get up! Stand up! Rise! Arise!
Jonah son of Amittai is not a new prophet; he appears earlier in the bible as a prophet from Gat-Hachefer in the northern kingdom of Israel.1 At that time, Jonah tells King Jereboam II that God wants him to conquer some Aramean territory from Lebo-Hamat to the Dead Sea. The king does so.
Jereboam II expanded the kingdom of Israel circa 790-750 B.C.E. About ten years after his death, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III, began chipping away at Israel, capturing town after town and deporting its leading citizens. In 722 B.C.E. the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered its capital, Samaria, and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.
Some of its residents escaped deportation by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah, which the Assyrian armies had reduced to a small vassal state required to send annual tribute to Assyria.
The capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Nineveh.2 When the book of Jonah was written down, probably in 3rd century B.C.E. Judah, any Israelite would think of “Nineveh” as an evil enemy.
Vayakam, Jonah, to run away to Tarshish, away from God. Vayeired to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid [his] fare, vayeired into her to go with them to Tarshish, away from God. (Jonah 1:3)
vayakam (וַיָּקָם) = but he got up, and he rose. (Another form of the verb kum.)
vayeired (וַיֵּרֶד) = and he went down, and he descended. (A form of the verb yarad (יָרַד) = went down, descended.)
Jonah gets up, but then instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he flees toward Tarshish, the westernmost city on the Mediterranean known to the ancient Israelites.
Does he think he can run away from God? Probably not. Jonah simply does not want to hear God’s call, either because he is afraid of prophesying in Nineveh or, as he says later, because he does not want God to forgive Nineveh for any reason. So he gets up—and then flees inside himself, going down into denial: down to the seaport and down into the ship. When a storm threatens to break up the ship, Jonah goes even farther down.
But Jonah yarad to the hold of the vessel, and he lay down, and he fell into a deep sleep. (Jonah 1:5)
Unconsciousness is the only way he can escape his feelings of fear and hatred regarding Nineveh, or his guilt over disobeying God.
The captain wakes up Jonah and says:
“How are you sleeping so soundly? Kum, call to your god! Maybe the god will take notice of us and we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:6)
The sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah. Jonah admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm. He would rather die than do teshuvah. But at least he is honest, and makes an effort to save the lives of innocent bystanders.
The men rowed hard lehashiv to dry land, but they could not, because the sea was going violently about them. (Jonah 1:13)
lehashiv (לְהָשִׁיב) = to return, to bring back or restore something. (From the same root as teshuvah.)
Only Jonah has turned away from God; only Jonah needs to do teshuvah. Finally the sailors give up and follow Jonah’s orders. The prophet begins to sink—but God will not let him descend any farther.
And God supplied a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And Jonah prayed to God, his God, from the belly of the fish. (Jonah 2:1-2)
In the subsequent hymn Jonah even expresses thanks to God for saving his life.3 He appears to have turned around.
And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. And the word of God happened to Jonah a second time, saying: “Kum! Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the appeal that I will be speaking to you!” Vayakum, Jonah, and he went to Nineveh, as God had spoken. (Jonah 2:11-3:3)
This time Jonah gets up and walks in the right direction. But we soon learn that despite his poetic prayer inside the fish, he has not really turned around inside his mind. He obeys God only minimally: he walks into the city, utters five words in Hebrew (“Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), and leaves with no explanation.
Hope for Ninevites
Today we do teshuvah by praying and searching our souls. Many Jews also fast during the day of Yom Kippur. In the Hebrew Bible people do teshuvah by fasting, wearing scratchy sackcloth, and lying in ashes.
That is exactly what the Ninevites do. Somehow they realize at once that God wants them to repent. They all fast and put on sackcloth, even the king, who decrees from his ash-heap:
“They shall cover themselves with sackcloth, human and beast, and they shall call out mightily to God. And every man yashuvu from his evil ways and from the violence in his palm. Who knows, God yashuv and have a change of heart, veshav from his wrath, and we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:8-9)
yashuvu (יָשֻׁבוּ) = they shall turn back, turn around. (From the same root as teshuvah.)
yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall turn back, turn around. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
veshav (וְשָׁב) = and he shall turn back. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
And God saw their deeds, that shavu from their evil ways, and God had a change of heart over the bad thing he [intended] to do to them, and did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
shavu (שָׁבוּ) = they had turned away, repented. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
Someone listening to the book of Jonah at a Yom Kippur service might think: If even the Ninevites could do teshuvah, then so could anyone. And if God could forgive Nineveh, then I could forgive all those people I believe have harmed my people.
Hope for Jonah
Jonah is enraged at God’s forgiveness. He wants retribution, not compassion, when it comes to Israel’s worst enemy. He tells God:
“Isn’t this what I spoke of when I was in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god4 … So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.” And God said: “Is your anger good?” (Jonah 4:2-4)
With that question hanging in the air, Jonah builds himself a sukkah5 where he has a view of the city, and sits down to wait 40 days to see what happens. God supplies a vine to give Jonah shade; the next day God makes it wither and sends a hot east wind. This triggers Jonah’s anger and death-wish again.
The patience of God with his perverse prophet is remarkable. God keeps giving Jonah another chance—after he runs away toward Tarshish, after he utters a single half-hearted prophecy, after he is angry with God for forgiving Nineveh, and after he is angry about the death of the vine.
God even tries to teach Jonah to stay aware when he wants to be unconscious (during the storm at sea), to realize his anger is not good, and to be compassionate toward the innocent (especially children and animals):
And God said: “You were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself over … And I, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also many beasts?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
Someone at a Yom Kippur service might think: I keep screwing up, like Jonah, but maybe God will be patient and give me another chance, too. Maybe God will even teach me how to be less angry, more aware, and more compassionate.
Behind the humor of the story, the book of Jonah can indeed inspire listeners to complete the work of Yom Kippur, to finally do teshuvah and atone with God—whether we think of God as the ruler of the universe and creator of miracles (such as a fish a man can live inside for three days), or as a mysterious force inside ourselves.
Anyway, a little humor near the end of a long fast can only help.
(I published some of the material in this post in September 2010.)
- 2 Kings 14:25. From about 930 to 722 B.C.E., Israelites lived in two kingdoms, the more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel (capital: Samaria) and the poorer southern kingdom of Judah (capital: Jerusalem).
- King Sargon II moved the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Kalhu/Nimrud to the district of Nineveh circa 710 B.C.E., when he built a new city called Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s City) close to the old walled city of Nineveh.
- Jonah 2:10.
- Jonah actually recites the first five of the 13 attributes of God, given in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated during Yom Kippur.
- Sukkah (סֻכָּה) hut, temporary shelter. It is a Jewish tradition to take meals in a sukkah during the week of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur.