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SIDIC Periodical XXXV - 2002/2-3
« Your World Is A Lamp To My Feet And A Light To My Path » (Ps 119: 105) (Pages 30-34)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Book of Jonah and the Day of Atonement
Magonet, Jonathan


If the Book of Jonah is known to the «average» Jew, it is because of its prominent position in the services of the Day of Atonement. It is read in the Minchah, afternoon service at the time when people begin to drift back to Synagogue for the close of the Day. One reason for reading it may be inferred from instructions in Mishnah Ta’anit (2:1) concerning fast days:

«What is the order (of service) for fast days (in time of drought)? The ark is taken out to the open space of the city, wood ashes are placed on the ark, on the head of the President and of the Father of the Court. Everyone also puts ashes on his own head. The elder among them speaks to them with words of admonition: Brothers, Scripture does not say of the people of Nineveh that God saw their sackcloth and their fasting. But God saw their works that they turned from their evil way (Jonah 3:10). And in the prophets it is said: And rend your heart and not your garments (Joel 2:13).»

Readings for the Day of Atonement

On one level this affirms a motif present throughout the Day in the choice of the Haftarah (prophetic) readings. The morning passage from Isaiah emphasises that mere fasting, «afflicting your souls», is not the essential feature of the day - rather it is the change in attitude and behaviour that goes with it.

«Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we afflicted our souls
and You do not know?
Behold, on the day of your fast
you pursue your business
and exact all your labours.
Behold, for strife and contention you fast
and to smite with the fist of wickedness.
You do not fast this day
so as to make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I have chosen?
The day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head as a bullrush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast I have chosen?
To loose the fetters of wickedness,
to undo the bands of the yoke,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that you break every yoke?
Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry,
to bring the homeless poor into your house,
when you see the naked to cover him
and not to hide yourself
from your own flesh and blood?
(Isaiah 58:3-7)

Similarly, the emphasis in Jonah, suggested in the Ta’anit passage, reinforces this view. In this the compilers of the Mishnah have picked up a motif, itself stressed in the Book of Jonah. When the people hear Jonah’s words: «Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overturned, they believed in God and proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.» (Jonah 3:4,5) When the news reaches the king he rises from his throne, removes his cloak and covers himself with sackcloth and sits in ashes. In turn he has it proclaimed throughout Nineveh that man and beast, herd and flock, should taste nothing, nor graze nor drink. They should don sackcloth, man and beast, and call aloud to God. Scholars have noted the paradox that first the people don sackcloth and only subsequently does the king order them to do so, this unnecessary duplication perhaps reflecting two different traditions that have been amalgamated. It is also possible to argue that a wise king takes heed of popular movements and goes along with them. But this threefold repetition of the donning of sackcloth (people, king, decree) may serve another purpose in indicating the conventional response of the people and of those in authority to a threatened disaster. Having established the convention, the king’s closing words move the whole exercise to a new dimension where the ethical act enters and transcends the merely mechanical abstention from food: «And let each man turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands.» (3:8) As Ta’anit indicates, that is the factor that sways God in His decision not to destroy them: «And God saw their deeds that they turned from their evil way and God repented of the evil which He had said He would do to them and did it not.» (3: 10)

The Challenge of the Day

Within this level of meaning, the Book of Jonah has a subversive function, that of challenging the popular presuppositions about the Day of Atonement itself. The theological implications of Yom Kippur may be rather hazy to the average Jew at his once-a-year attendance in Synagogue, but at least the fast, whether observed or self-consciously ignored, is remembered. And Isaiah and Jonah forcibly remind us that fasting alone is not the essence of the day.
In fact the Book of Jonah has a very uncompromising attitude towards all sorts of pietistic acts which may become substitutes for the real requirements of God. When the sailors are forced to throw Jonah overboard and the sea calms down, in fear of God they make a sacrifice and vow vows. The Midrash (1) has them going to Jerusalem and converting to Judaism, which is only spelling out an implication strongly suggested in the story itself. It also indicates that the place to fulfil vows was the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Psalms attest (cf. Psalm 116:14). For the sailors such an act was appropriate - particularly since their prayers have been addressed to the Lord, Jonah’s God. At the end of his «prayer» in the fish, Jonah uses almost identical language : «As for me, with the voice of thanksgiving I will make a sacrifice to You, that which I have vowed I will pay.» (2:10) Scholars debate the authenticity of the «psalm» recited by Jonah within the Book, but as it now stands there any interpretation should take its presence into account. When God has to tell Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh (3:1), it can only be because Jonah’s last expressed intention, with all the misplaced piety he can muster, was to go to fulfil his vows and worship God in Jerusalem. To which God must reply: Don’t give me your piety, perform My will!

The theme of the repentance of the Ninevites plays a further essential role in the meaning of the Day. That man can change, that God can forgive, are the hope upon which the dynamic of the Day depends. If the repentance of pagan Nineveh out of fear (a partial repentance, the Rabbis suggested) could be acceptable to God, how much more so the true repentance of Israel. Yet here too, as the Rabbis recognized, is an ambiguity as far as Israel is concerned. One reason for Jonah’s flight recorded by Rashi, is his anxiety about Nineveh’s repentance: «If I speak to them and they do repentance, I will make Israel guilty who do not listen to the words of the prophets.»

If pagan Nineveh can repent how much more should Israel, and how much greater the scandal if they do not. This becomes tied to another supposed reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go there. He knew that Nineveh was to be God’s weapon for destroying the Northern kingdom of Israel and to prevent such a catastrophe he was willing to sacrifice his own life by disobeying God and even drowning in the sea. In this he was like Moses and David, both of whom offered their own lives at crucial junctures so as to save Israel. It is hard to avoid the feeling that this reading of Jonah’s actions has an apologetic purpose - and it ignores the fact that Jonah could have simply jumped into the sea instead of implicating the sailors, and thus putting their lives at risk by his act. Furthermore, it subverts the universalism of the author whose attitude to Nineveh seems more open, though it should be noted that whereas the sailors openly acknowledge Israel’s God, the Ninevites, in the person of their king, do not go so far. If a more fashionably universalistic attitude in the nineteenth century might have sustained the author’s view against that of the Rabbis, the tragedies of the 20th century have reinforced a Jewish suspicion of the outside world. Thus Jewish interpretations of Jonah may become a measure of the degree of ease or «at-homeness» the Jew feels at any time.

Link with an Ancient Ritual

There is another related reason why Nineveh has significance on this day, though it is less commonly noted. There are five services on Yom Kippur. If there is a pattern to them, then the first two, the evening service (Kol Nidre) and the morning one, lead towards the central point of the day, the Avodah: the recital and re-enactment of the high priest’s ritual in the Temple on this Sabbath of Sabbaths. In the drama of the Jew’s three confessions (on behalf of himself and his family, of the priesthood, and of Israel) and in the choosing of the two goats (one as a sacrifice to God, a sin-offering, one to be sent into the wilderness, symbolically bearing away Israel’s sins) lies the mysterious core of this day: the power of confession to purify, the readiness of God to release man from the accumulated burden of his guilt and purify him from year to year. Though expressed in a symbolic language which we can only grasp in part, within this service some essential statement is made about the meaning of Israel’s existence, and indeed that of the individual Jewish soul. From here the day turns towards its close and in the afternoon service the image of Nineveh suggests the outer world to which we must return from this inner sanctuary. Jonah’s ambiguity about Nineveh, his unwillingness to preach there, his anger at their forgiveness, move from the message of the writer to his fellow citizens of whatever period the book was composed, to a challenge to a contemporary Israel, no less uncertain about its relationship with the cities of its exile. For Nineveh is the Rome that destroyed the second Temple, the European countries that spawned the massacres of the Crusaders, the Spanish cities of the Inquisition, the East European centers of pogroms, Berlin of the Third Reich. To all these Ninevehs Jonah is sent, to discover behind «the violence in their hands» human beings on the verge of repentance awaiting only the word. But Nineveh need not be so dramatic. It is whatever place Jonah does not wish to go because his experience of God is too narrow, his compassion too grudging, his piety too comfortable and convenient. As the day draws to its end, and the «gates» begin to close (the Neilah service), Jonah forces us to look at this world to which, purified, we must return, with all the myriad tasks and responsibilities that await us there.
And thus it is our own identity and that of the reluctant prophet that indicates yet another dimension of the significance of the book for this day.

Jonah: Person and Symbol

The reversals of the book find perhaps their greatest expression in the character of Jonah himself. He is never called a prophet within it, though his role and his presumed identity with the Jonah ben Amitai of 2 Kings 14:25 imply that he is. As a prophet he expresses the logical extreme of a continuum expressed by the reluctance of other prophets (Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah) to take up their vocation or even to attempt to manipulate God’s word for their own purpose as in the case of Balaam. Jonah runs away from his task and when confronted finally with the issue, complains bitterly about it, even hurling in God’s face the most cherished list of God’s attributes of love and mercy (4:2-3).

If we seek a Biblical figure to which Jonah is comparable, the most obvious one is the collective character of the Children of Israel on their journey through the wilderness - a stiff-necked people grateful at one moment for their rescue from Egypt, and believing in God as a result - and complaining bitterly the next out of discomfort or fear and wishing to return to the security of slavery. Indeed, here we see the most direct evidence that the author may have had such a comparison in mind. When confronted by the Reed Sea before them, with Pharaoh’s chariots directly behind them, they turn to Moses: «Is not this the very word which we spoke to you in Egypt saying: Keep away from us and let us serve Egypt for it is better for us to serve Egypt than that we die in the desert.» (Exodus 14:12) In an echo of this wording, Jonah addresses God in his long complaint : «Is not this my very word when I was back in my land - that is why I anticipated and fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a God who is gracious and loving, slow to anger and great in mercy, repenting of evil; so now, O Lord, take my soul from me, for better is my death than my life.» (Jonah 4:2-3)

Jonah, who wishes to stay back in his land and not face the challenges and risks of Nineveh, is equivalent to the Israelites who wish to stay in Egypt and not face the challenges and risks of freedom.

One irony of the story that emerges is that God’s patience (slow to anger) and mercy are more greatly exercised on behalf of his reluctant prophet than they are on evil Nineveh. Just as the focus of the book switches between the outer world (Sailors ch. 1, Nineveh ch. 3) and the person of Jonah himself (ch. 2,4), so on the Day of Atonement, it is the character of Jonah, the reluctant recipient of God’s call, who confronts the Jew in Synagogue, equally confused by the demands and expectations and purpose of his complex Jewish identity. Since our natural tendency is to identify with the hero of a story, the author’s continual reversal of our expectations, putting Jonah in the wrong, must act upon the reader as well, turning inside out his expectations, assumptions, prejudices and evasions. It is therefore a triumph of the author to end the book with a question mark as God confronts Jonah with the breadth of His compassion and the limits of Jonah’s understanding and awaits an answer. The question is thus addressed to the reader no less than to Jonah, with no guarantee what the reply will be, for that is God’s risk at the heart of His relationship with man in the Biblical reading of history. Man who has eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is free to choose for God or against Him. And God must cajole, threaten, challenge, command, tempt and even beg, in the hope of His creatures’ willing, loving return to Him.

In the book, Jonah gives no answer, and that is right within the drama of the book, but religious traditions have felt the need of some reassuring affirmation at the end.

Already in midrash a response is found for Jonah. To God’s question, a repentant and weeping Jonah falls on his face and says: Guide Your world with the attribute of mercy, as it says: «To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness.» (Daniel 9:9) In much the same way the Rabbis provided a more satisfactory prayer for Jonah to recite in the belly of the fish than his «psalm» with its lack of any statement of repentance.

Jonah’s Prayer Rewritten

«Lord of the Worlds: Whither can I go from Your spirit, and whither can I flee from Your presence? If I rise up to heaven... (Psalm 139:7,8). You are king over all kingdoms and master of all the princes of the world; Your throne is the heaven of heavens and the earth is Your footstool; Your kingdom is on high and Your rule in the depths. The deeds of all men are revealed before You and the secret things of every person are perceived by You; You search out the way of all men, and test the steps of all living beings; You know the secrets of the emotions (lit. kidneys) and understand the hidden thoughts of the heart; all mysteries are revealed to You, nothing is hidden from the throne of Your glory and nothing is concealed from Your eyes; every secret You order and every word You consider; in every place You are there; Your eyes seek out the bad and the good. May it please You to answer me from the belly of Sheol and save me from the deep; let my cry come to Your ears and fulfil my request. For You dwell afar off and hear from close by. You are called the one who raises up and brings down - please raise me up. You are called the one who slays and gives life - I have reached death, give me life.»

It is the scandal of Jonah’s stubbornness that evokes these responses, this desire for reassurance that the prophet will obey. Braver is the midrash which, though critical of Jonah, recognizes a legitimate tension between the respect due to man as well as that due to God.

«There were three prophets: one defended both the honour of the father (God) and the honour of the son (Israel); one defended the honour of the father rather than the honour of the son; and one defended the honour of the son rather than the honour of the father. Jeremiah defended both the honour of the father and the honour of the son, as it is written (Lamentations 3:42): We have transgressed and rebelled; You have not pardoned... Elijah defended the honour of the father rather than the honour of the son, as it is written (1 Kings 19:14): I have been zealous for the Lord, God of hosts; for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars and slain Your prophets with the sword... Jonah defended the honour of the son rather than the honour of the father, as it says (Jonah 3: 1): The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.» (Mekhilta Bo)

Yet putting Jonah into the framework of Yom Kippur must subtly change the nature of the final question and its missing answer. For at stake on this day is the future of all Israel, the collective nation stands this day in judgment, personified by the prophet, but not dependent on one man’s choice. When Israel confronts God on this day, they are conscious of the merits of the fathers that support them, the promises of the covenant to the whole people, and the millenial task that has led them to act as a faithful «servant of the Lord» in every place and every age, at home and in exile, in suffering and joy. So Jonah, for all the subtlety and challenge of the book, is not given the final word - for it is not the ego of a single man that determines Israel’s fate on this day, but the mercy of God - which is, after all, the lesson a reluctant Jonah must also learn. So to God’s final question to Jonah comes an answering prayer in the second haftarah reading from the Book of Micah.

Who is a God like You that pardons the iniquity
and passes over the rebellion
of the remnant of His heritage?
He does not hold His anger forever
for He desires mercy.
He will again have compassion upon us.
He will subdue our iniquities
and You will cast into the depth of the seas
all their sins.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
mercy to Abraham
as You swore to our fathers
from the days of old (Micah 7:18-20).

Jonah ends with a question, the Day of Atonement ends with a great affirmation. Yet, in the words of my teacher Rav Shmuel Sperber:

«Religion provides answers without removing the question... a question can contain a great religious truth.»

It is the Jonah whose response we can never guarantee who affirms our freedom, yet teases us into an uncomfortable recognition of our own self-deception. That is why in the end he is such an admirable companion on the Day of Atonement as between Nineveh and Tarshish we sail our stormy sea, awaiting our private encounter with the maw of the great fish.


* Rabbi Dr. Dr. Jonathan Magonet is a Bible scholar and head of the Leo Baeck College, London, where he also teaches. He is also regulary in Germany, where he both teaches and is involved in Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Sidic XVIII, 1, 1985.
1. Unless otherwise stated all Midrashic references are taken from Yalkut Shimeoni on Jonah.


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