In my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations Jonah and Amos,” I raised problem areas in the book of Jonah in my introduction and answered them in the pages that followed. Here are some but not all of the problem areas.
Some of the questions are: Who was Jonah? When did he live? Is he mentioned elsewhere in the Bible? Is the story true or a parable? If it is a parable, is the prophet called Jonah, which means a “dove,” to remind us of the dove that Noah sent off from his ark to discover if the flood waters no longer covered the earth? If so, does Jonah symbolize, as does the dove, peace? Why is his father called Amittai, a word whose root denotes truth; did the author give the prophet this name to indicate that the book contains a profound truth? What is the message of the book?
Why did Jonah not want to obey God’s command to speak to the people of Nineveh? Can a person who actually heard God disobey God? Did Jonah really hear God or was this an inspiration—a feeling to perform an act that he was uncertain was right—that, after some consideration, he was unwilling to pursue? Why did he decide to escape to Tarshish; why not another location? Where is Tarshish? Why doesn’t the book tell us in chapter one what God wanted Jonah to say to the people of Nineveh?
Why did God cause a storm to rock the ship in which Jonah slept? How could he sleep during the storm while all the sailors were fearfully rushing about tossing their belongings into the sea to save the ship? What is the significance of the sailors proposing lots to determine if Jonah was the cause of the storm? Should we be reminded of the other times in Scripture when lots were used, such as Purim and by Joshua? Is the Bible telling us that lots work? When the sailors were reluctant to toss Jonah into the sea, what does this tell us about them? Should we contrast their attitude with that of Jonah? What caused the sailors to cry to Jonah’s God instead of their pagan deity? What does Jonah’s desire to be hurled into the sea tell us about him; was this a suicide attempt?
Did God cause the storm that rocked the boat or was the storm a natural event? Did it happen at all? Even if the story is not a parable but an actual event, are the first two chapters a dream that Jonah had about his mission, perhaps resulting from his day-time reluctance to obey God and warn the people of Nineveh of the danger they were facing because of their improper behavior? If God caused the storm, why did God do so? Is this the best way to prompt Jonah to obey? Why did God place the innocent sailors’ lives in jeopardy?
When the texts states that an individual or group of sailors “cried” to God, should we understand it as “prayed” to God, or does it merely reflect anguish, as in “God, why are you doing this to me!” What is prayer?
What is the significance of the large fish saving Jonah? Why a fish? Why was a miracle necessary? What is the significance of “three” days in the fish? Why is three mentioned often? Why does the book state that Nineveh was a large city of three day’s journey? Why are only three verses dedicated to a description of a central event in the narrative: Jonah being swallowed by a fish? Is this the central event?
Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? How did Jonah communicate his message to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Did he speak their language? How did the king hear about his prediction? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that “every” inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required being punished? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong? Why in Jonah’s message to the Ninevites did he not mention that if the people repented they would be saved?
Did the inhabitants of Nineveh repent as many Jews and Christians believe? Many say this is the message of the book: that people need to repent. Yet the word repentance or anything like it does not appear in the book. It states that they changed their behavior: they turned from their evil ways. It is possible that people changed because of fear that they will be killed, not because they were sorry for the wrongs they committed. Also, if repentance is so significant to the story, why isn’t it mentioned? If repentance is not the message of the book, what is its message?
Should repentance work to extinguish the wrongs committed in the past as if they were never done? For example, if a man slapped his wife and she is angry at him for doing so, does it make sense when he says, “You shouldn’t be angry at me. I went to the synagogue and asked God to forgive me”?
Is it significant that the Lord’s name is not stated in relation to the Ninevites; instead the word used is Elohim, which could be the Lord or a pagan god? They believed Elohim. They cried (not prayed) to Elohim. They wondered if Elohim would turn from being angry. This is mentioned three times and is followed twice by Elohim seeing their deeds (not repentance) and Elohim decided not to harm them.
Why was Jonah distressed to learn that Nineveh would not be destroyed? Isn’t the notion that Jonah was upset because he had predicted the downfall of the city and people would consider him a liar a poor answer? Didn’t he imply with his prediction that the city would only be destroyed if the people continued to act improperly—thus he didn’t lie? When did he build a hut and sit and watch the city, was it after the forty days predicted for the downfall of the city? Since Jonah built a hut to protect himself from the sun, why was it necessary for God to “prepare a gourd, and make it to come over Jonah that it might be a shadow over his head”? If God wanted to later destroy the gourd, why did God need to create a worm to destroy the gourd? Does this suggest that the destruction of the gourd was a natural event? Why was the sun beating on Jonah’s head after the gourd was destroyed, he had the protection of the hut?
Why doesn’t the biblical book tell us if Jonah responded to God’s critique of him in chapter 4?
Finally why did God save Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire (II Kings 19:36) that would destroy the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE?
In short, there is much to think about.
This is a very good post because usually Christians will reinterpret the book of Jonah to be talking about blood atonement (referring to Jesus’ future mission of messiahship) which is not what the story is suggesting. I liked how the Rabbi showed how the word “repentance” is not even hinted in the book, but “to change your ways,” which means change behavior. I think G-d would expect us to improve and not; rely on Him to wipe the slate clean every time we miss the mark. So these questions are worth while and worth investing.
Thank you for the post, Rabbi
Thank you Shmuel. I appreciate your comment. Yes, the biblical book of Jonah makes us think of many things, usually helping us grow.
Anna, your question is excellent. I think we need to differentiate repentance as it is understood today from how it was used in biblical days. We think of repentance today, as going to the synagogue and saying multiple prayers and wanting God to remove our misdeed. I think the synagogue service does nothing other than hopefully prompt us to decide to change our behavior, devise how we would do it, and develop habits to assure we will not backslide. In the Bible the term in Hosea, Jonah, and elsewhere means return and change your behavior. In Hosea it was to give up idol worship. In Jonah, the people ceased doing what they had been doing and started acting properly. I explain this in my essay “Jewish and Christian Concepts of Repentance,’ which I posted on 9/19/19. Anna, thank you for your very thoughtful question. I wish you the very best, including an easy fast and many happy years..
Dear Rabbi Drazin
You ask many interesting questions, but I think this time you are trying just a bit too hard, perhaps either to provoke, or tease. I don’t have time to go through them all, but you comment, “…… Yet the word repentance or anything like it does not appear in the book. It states that they changed their behaviour: they turned from their evil ways.” I don’t think this is quite right. Isn’t the answer, that when it says in Jonah 3:8 ….”everyone turn from their evil ways.”and uses the Hebrew “veyashoovoo.” that this is linked to “Teshuvah” ? Or, have I misunderstood the meaning of Teshuvah (as in Ba’al Teshuvah) meaning to turn back from bad ways and closer to God. Is this not the meaning of repentance. If I am wrong can you explain the difference between repentance and Teshuvah. To my mind they are synonymous.
I wish you well over the fast,