Understanding Jonah rationally


Should we accept the biblical book Jonah, including Jonah surviving in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights and his brawling with God, as fact or as an internal scuffle? We need to know Maimonides’ view of prophecy and that repentance is not a biblical concept if we want to understand the book of Jonah.


Maimonides view of prophecy

Maimonides discusses prophecy in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:32-48. He explains that prophecy is not a miraculous divine communication but a human activity. Prophets are people with well-developed intellects who are able to fathom events better than other people. They have a strong sense of responsibility and feel they should share their insights with others, especially when they realize that the actions of their nation or its political leaders can cause a calamity. They have strong imaginations that help them communicate their insights in ways that others can understand, using techniques such as picturesque language, parables, allegories, repetitions, hyperbole, and metaphors.

In 2:42 and other sections, Maimonides writes that prophecies come in dreams. Even when the Bible does not state that the “divine communication” was a dream, readers should understand that it was a dream.

In 2:46, in the Friedlander translation, he states:

“After this remark you will understand that a person may sometimes dream that he has gone to a certain country, married there, stayed there for some time, and had a son, whom he gave a certain name, and who was in a certain condition [though none of this really took place]: so also in prophetic allegories certain objects are seen, acts performed – if the style of the allegory demands it – things are done by the prophet, the intervals between one act and another determined, and journeys undertaken from one place to another; but all these things are only processes of a prophetic vision, and not real things that could be perceived by the senses of the body….

“Thus the prophet relates: ‘And the Lord said unto me,’ and need not add the explanation that it was in a dream. The ordinary reader [mistakenly] believes that the acts, journeys, questions, and answers of the prophets really took place, and were perceived by the senses, and did not merely form part of a prophetic vision.

“I will mention here an instance concerning which no person will entertain the least doubt. I will add a few more of the same kind, and these will show you how those passages must be understood which I do not cite. The following passage in Ezekiel (8:1, 3) is clear, and admits of no doubt:” I sat in mine house, and the elders of Judah sat before me, etc., and a spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem….” (Maimonides continues by giving many examples of extraordinary prophecies which could only have happened in a dream or imagination).

“When once stated that these are allegories, there is left no doubt that the events related had no real existence….

“The correctness of this theory cannot be doubted, and only those do not comprehend it who do not know to distinguish between that which is possible, and that which is impossible [the impossible must be a dream]. The instances quoted may serve as an illustration of other similar Scriptural passages not quoted by me. They are all of the same kind, and in the same style. Whatever is said in the account of a vision, that the prophet heard, went forth, came out, said, was told, stood, sat, went up, went down, journeyed, asked, or was asked, all is part of the prophetic vision; even when there is a lengthened account, the details of which are well connected as regards the time, the persons referred to, and the place. After it has once been stated that the event described is to be understood figuratively, it must be assumed for certain that the whole is a prophetic vision.”

When Maimonides speaks about prophetic dreams, he means thoughts by the prophet either while sleeping or agitated ideas while awake.

A good example is Maimonides comment on Jacob wrestling with an angel.[1] This is impossible. So Maimonides explains that this was a vision.[2] Jacob was facing a dilemma. He wanted to return to Canaan and see his parents after a separation of some twenty years. But he was concerned that his brother Esau would kill him when he saw him, as Esau had threatened. This internal struggle is reflected in Jacob’s dream of wrestling with an angel, who in the dream represents his brother metaphorically.[3] In the dream/struggle, Jacob is injured, but is successful.



 Most clerics of all faiths and scholars suppose that the message of Jonah is repentance. Actually, the book of Jonah does not mention repentance and repentance is not a biblical concept. It is a mistake to argue that the sailors’ change of behavior in chapter 1 and of the Ninevites in chapter 4 is the result of repentance because their altered acts could have been prompted by many other reasons such as fear or self-interest, not repentance.

As I wrote in my book “Mysteries of Judaism”:

Repentance, teshuvah in Hebrew, is a practical endeavor.[4] Repentance doesn’t magically absolve people of wrongs they committed. It’s not abracadabra. Jewish repentance practices remind people to take practical measures to correct their mistakes. Maimonides put it this way:[5] teshuvah is when a person decides to abandon his or her past misdeeds, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits to assure they are not repeated.

Neither the term teshuvah nor the concept of repentance as we know it today appears in the Torah. The ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, believed that what one said, especially vows, or what one did cannot be erased. When an egg is broken, its shards cannot be reassembled. Misdeeds, they thought, are remedied only by punishment.[6]

Scholars suppose that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuvah developed in three stages.[7] It began around 722 BCE, centuries after King Solomon’s death when his kingdom split in two with Israel in the north and Judea in the south.[8] In that year, the Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land.[9] The Judeans who saw the cyclopean catastrophe were convinced that the disaster occurred because of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially that many abandoned God and worshiped idols.[10] They knew that they did the same and searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that teshuvah began to develop as an idea that repentance can erase prior misdeeds. It was further entrenched after 586 BCE when Judea itself was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. The final stage began in 70 CE when the second temple was destroyed by Rome, when Jews felt again that their misdeeds caused the destruction and rabbis developed practices which they hoped would rid Jews of wrongs.


An interpretation of Jonah

We can understand the book of Jonah either as a fictional parable or as an actual experience expressing Jonah’s internal struggle, just as Jacob’s struggle, presented in a metaphoric manner.

Jonah sensed that God wanted him to persuade the brutal Assyrians, whose capital was Nineveh, to stop their terrible acts of conquest, murder, theft, and enslavement.[11] Although Jonah considered this the proper even logical thing to do, he was troubled. Yes, I might save lives, but why help Israel’s enemy?

Unable to solve his quandary, he decided to leave Israel, and forget his country and Assyria. But he could not forget or resolve his struggle, which is represented metaphorically in the book. He feels that his struggle is killing him, swallowing him up, pulling him to his grave. But, although he is unable to resolve his feelings, he chooses to go to the Assyrian capital and tell the people to change their behavior.

He is successful. The Assyrian alter their ways. But he is still conflicted, as seen metaphorically in chapter 4. He struggles for a day as he sits in the shade outside the capital Nineveh.  But during the night, his shade covering is ruined and he now suffers both physically from the sun and mentally because he aided Israel’s enemy.

As his suffering intensifies, he realizes that his feelings about the Assyrians is wrong. One must respect and aid all people, no matter their nationality or religion. And this is especially true when most of the people do not understand their leader’s intent or share it.[12]

This idea of respect for all people and even animals is the message of Jonah, not repentance.[13]  The prophet Amos also taught this lesson. In 9:7, he quotes God saying that God loves and gives special attention to all nations: “Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O children of Israel? Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?”[14]


[1] Genesis 32:25. The Bible states that Jacob wrestled with a man at night. Many people understand that this man was an angel.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed 3:42.

[3] Don Isaac Abarbanel disagreed with Maimonides and understood the tale literally: Jacob actually struggled with an angel.

[4] Most people understand repentance and confessions, as they do sacrifices, as pseudo-magical recitations that remove misdeeds, as if words recited during a synagogue service could somehow change the past, erase the slap a husband gave his wife and restore a loving relationship. “I don’t understand why you’re still angry,” the husband wails. “I did teshuvah in the synagogue!” This isn’t the way life works.

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance.

[6] This concept is still reflected in the Talmudic view that death atones. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a, Yoma 86a, Sanhedrin 43b, 47a-47b.

[7] Olam Hatanach, Devarim, 221-223.

[8] Ten tribes in northern Israel and Trans-Jordan revolted and formed their own nation after Solomon’s son Rehoboam refused to reduce their taxes.

[9] Some escaped to the south, to Judea, but the rest disappeared from history and are known today as “the ten lost tribes.”

[10] See Hosea 8:5-13. Hosea was an eighth century BCE prophet in Israel.

[11] The Assyrians conquered and devastated many countries. They later conquered the Trans Jordan Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh in 732 BCE and the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and drove the inhabitants out of their land.

[12] God is pictured saying in the book’s final verse: “Shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh, the large city which has more than one hundred and twenty thousand people that cannot discern between their right and their left (hands) and much cattle?”

[13] The book emphasizes the humanity of all people by portraying all of the non-Israelites – the sailors and the Ninevites – as essentially good people, individuals who want to do good once they understand what is right. It highlights the need to respect the feelings of animals by its mention of animals several times in the tale and in the final verse.

[14] Those who enjoy playing with gematriot, finding meaning in the numerical value of letters, might want to note that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of Jonah is 71, the number of judges that comprise the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court: yud=10, vav=6, nun=50, and hei=5. They can interpret the number 71 to signify that Jonah struggled and finally judged that he must respect everyone.