It was on this day one year ago that I first suggested to you a new reading of the story of the prophet Jonah. I proposed that maybe we need to interpret his story in a different way from the traditional story that we are so accustomed to hear. I submitted that we could separate Jonah the prophet from his prophecy in that he is unable to comprehend his prophecy and therefore fails to see it was actually successful. In this past year, and especially while working on the book that collected some of my sermons delivered over the past decade, I revisited this thought and concluded it should be further developed.
The story basically goes that Jonah was called to deliver a prophecy upon the people of the town of Nineveh and is ordered, “cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” This short call causes the prophet to panic and he fled away. It does not even make good sense because in this short demand there is nothing special other than a warning to the people of Nineveh that they are not on track. Eventually, after traveling by ship, getting thrown overboard, catching a ride in the stomach of a great fish for three days and nights, Jonah finds himself back on shore. Again he is ordered to deliver the message. Remember it? “cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” What he does is astonishing, he gets into town and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Not really the same call is it?!
Today we would say that Jonah simply had road rage, or in the beautiful words of the bible, “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.” He also gives the reason, “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” He has no problem with the destruction of an entire city on its inhabitants, he is absolutely egotistical about it, his ego is hurt because the city which God proclaimed that “their wickedness has come up before Me.” Has not suffered Jonah’s imagined punishment. God meant to send a warning that there is someone out there watching what is going on and it is necessary to fix wrongs. Jonah, on the other hand, will not have less than blood, tears and smoke. However, instead of all of Jonah’s expected pyrotechnics the people of Nineveh get the message, “both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.” Jonah who expected an apocalypse, no less, saw the people change in front of him, modifying their bad behaviors and take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to them.
Jonah does not comprehend the message even when he experiences the famous case of the plant that grew before him within one day when sitting outside of the city. He enjoys one day of shade before a worm plagues the plant which withered by the next morning. In response to Jonah’s complaints, he gets the response, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
We are now less than two hours away from the end of this year’s Yom Kippur. We have been reading about Jonah and his journey every Yom Kippur. It is important that the lesson learned from this reading is that things are not always as we originally see them. Many times we have biases that prevent us from fundamentally understanding a situation. Many times our ego directs us to comprehend in ways that are not a true reflection of reality. I wish upon all of us to be able to read the story again, from a fresh point of view, learn about prophecies and their manifestation in real life, and be there for the Jonah who does not understand that his prophecy materialized to its full extent.
Have a meaningful fast, Shana Tova and Chatima Tova.
Reuven Marko, 9 October 2019, 10 Tishrei, 5780