Torah Reading Commentary: Jonah’s Mistake—and Ours?

By Mark Gerson

There is a magnificent term in boxing: “pound for pound.” It is a sophisticated concept acknowledging that talent and accomplishment cannot be measured by the simple fact that larger fighters could beat smaller opponents. By saying that one fighter is better than another “pound for pound,” the analyst is assessing who does the most with what he has. 

The same concept could be applied in literature, even sacred books. Indeed, it should be. The person of faith must confront a tragic irony: God gave us a world so full of remarkable people, places, ideas, and causes that we will die not having addressed even a fraction of the deeply worthy things that He made available to us. Consequently, if we can find something that is captivating, wise and concise—if we can identify something that is divinely efficient—we should rush to it. 

So, what is, word for word, the best book ever? What book inspires the most questions and supplies the most wisdom? What book, equalizing the time commitment, best guides us to a happier, better and more meaningful life? It does not really matter what the best is, as there is enough time in almost any life for a serious consideration of far more than one. Still, I’ll posit one that might be number one and should be on anyone’s short list: the Book of Jonah. 

The Book of Jonah, which is shorter than this column, has engrossed and entertained children and adults from all three Abrahamic faiths for almost 3,000 years. It has everything that we cherish in a story—conflict (in fact, several of them), transformation, humor, politics, and animals. The story has no real ending. In fact, as Pastor Dr. Paul Osteen notes, Jonah is the only biblical book to end with a question. A story with no ending that ends with a question makes Jonah, in my estimation, the quintessential Jewish story.    

And it has everything we cherish in wisdom literature. This story raises the deepest questions of truth, mercy, repentance, faith, obedience, judgment, partnership, possibility, mission, grace, imperfection, love, religion, prayer, gratitude, responsibility, the personality of God—and the complicated nature of everything meaningful. 

In short: Jonah is dispatched by God to go to Nineveh, the de facto capital of the eighth-century world in which the story takes place. Nineveh was a terror empire, where captives were often crucified, buried alive inside of walls, flayed (with the skin used as wallpaper), and had their noses, ears, fingers, and eyes gouged out. Jonah seems to sense (correctly) that God is going to ask him to tell the Ninevites to repent, and he does everything possible (fleeing, attempting suicide) to avoid that task. He eventually gets to Nineveh and half-heartedly tells the Ninevites to repent, which they do—completely, immediately, and thus entirely improbably. This makes Jonah even more depressed. God, by giving Jonah a plant that he loves and that appears miraculously only through God’s grace, shows His reluctant prophet the value of mercy.

The traditional Jewish and Christian understanding of the story is of God educating Jonah in the need to accept mercy along with truth. But there is a problem. The Ninevites, perhaps after changing for a short time, resumed their evil practices and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, possibly in Jonah’s lifetime. The repentance was too good to be true, and the result of Jonah’s prophecy is a catastrophic loss for his people to an evil kingdom and unthinkable suffering along the way. In fact, the Book of Nahum (written a century after Jonah) recounts God’s destruction of Nineveh for the same reasons that account for Jonah’s reluctance.

Was Jonah right to reject his mission? This is one of the many awesome questions raised by this eternal story. But the question for now is a different one. How did Jonah let the situation devolve to where this question could be asked? 

At the beginning of the story, Jonah has one position: God wants me to help extend his mercy too far and bestow it upon an evil empire that (no matter what they say) is not truly serious about repentance. God has another: I love all my children, and there is always a path for a sinner to return to Him. 

This is not the only such knot in the Bible. In Genesis, Rebecca knows that her and Isaac’s eldest child, Esau, is ill-equipped for the responsibility of transmitting the covenant to the next generation. She engineers a ruse to have her younger and qualified son Jacob trick his father into giving him the birthright blessings. The result: Jacob gets the birthright blessings, and the Jewish story can continue. Yet it comes at the cost of destroying the family. Does it have to end this way? Perhaps. But, as far as we are told or can ascertain from the story, Rebecca never discusses the problem with Isaac. When God makes man, he calls us a “speaking spirit”—but Rebecca never uses that capability to address the situation with Isaac. One wonders whether a marital discussion could have led to the same result without a catastrophic cost.

One might posit that Rebecca should have tried to convince Isaac, but convincing God is an entirely different matter. However, there are at least four examples in the Torah when people have a problem with God. Abraham wants God to save Sodom; Moses wants God to change His mind about destroying the Jewish people after the Golden Calf; the men in a state of ritual impurity want to be able to celebrate Pesach; and the daughters of Zelophehad want to be able to inherit in the land despite their gender. In each case, the person (or people) initiates the argument with God, telling God that His position does not cohere with His principle. And in each case, God delightfully changes His mind in accordance with the argument of His creation. In so doing, God is teaching us to believe in the rational facilities He gave us—and showing us that His notion of us being His partner in the world is completely genuine and very real. 

All these examples are available to Jonah, but he does not learn from any of them. He does not stand his ground and argue with God like each of the aforementioned do. Instead, Jonah attempts to flee to Tarshish—the furthest-known place from Nineveh in the ancient world—and keeps attempting to flee through his suicide attempts. 

The tragedy of Jonah could, perhaps, have been avoided if he had been what God wants from all of us and especially His prophets: a partner. What would have happened if Jonah told God, “I understand, from the 13 attributes of yourself that you revealed to Moses, that you are the God of mercy. And I appreciate that. But you also hate evil and cry when the powerful inflict suffering on the powerless. You know about the Ninevites, and you also know how hard it is to genuinely change anyone’s mind: The Pharaoh, when afflicted with plagues, often said that he would let the Jews go—only to change his mind every time. Moreover, you are God and I am a prophet—and so we both know what a future man of God, Dietrich Bonhoffer, will call ‘cheap grace.’ If we offer the Ninevites cheap grace, and they accept it—the result will be torture, mass murder, and irreparable destruction.”   

How would God have answered Jonah? We can only wonder—which is part of the challenge, imperative, and thrill of Torah study. But we are now in the “Ten Days of Repentance” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which is a Jewish season of focused self-reflection and commitment to change. Acknowledging this failure of Jonah, whose story is read in every synagogue on Yom Kippur, leads us to consider: Are we having the hard conversations that are necessary for us to live as God intended? 

Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.  

Twitter: @markgerson
Podcast: The Rabbi’s Husband

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