Failure or success? The prophet Jonah

The book of Jonah is read in synagogues on Yom Kippur.

By Anat Schneider | | Topics: Yom Kippur
Photo: Shutterstock

In the book of Jonah one learns about repentance and God’s forgiveness of sins.

It is interesting to read that Jonah tries to avoid his mission. God asks him to go to Nineveh and announce the destruction of the city to the residents so that they can change their fate.

Jonah is so disturbed by this assignment that he plans to escape on a ship from the port in Jaffa.

View of the old town of Jaffa from the sea. Photo: Anat Hermony/Flash90

But of course you can’t escape a divine order, and God nearly sinks the ship.

At this moment, Jonah is not interested in the sailors who throw away all their loot, pray and do everything to save themselves.

He just wants to escape his fate.

Then the captain realizes that the person at the stern of the ship could be responsible for everything, and he is actually right. Jonah confesses and offers to throw himself into the sea.

The sailors initially refuse, probably out of fear, to kill a man with such powers, but the situation escalates and they finally allow themselves to be persuaded and throw him into the sea.

Until then, Jonah shows no fear and even chooses death over fulfilling his mission.

Kennicott Bible – Jonah is swallowed by the fish, 1476, Facsimile Editions, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But he cannot die in peace, because a huge fish devours him and takes him back to the very place from which he wanted to flee, to the coast and thus towards Nineveh.

Jonah realizes that there is no escape until his mission is accomplished.

Nineveh was a huge city, three days’ walk from end-to-end.

He speaks the sermon in just one sentence:

And Jonah began to go a day’s journey into the city, and he cried and said, “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least among them. (Jonah 3:4-5)

And he succeeded in convincing the entire city to repent, even the king.

It seems that here too he is only doing the bare minimum to achieve what he was sent to do.

But it works, because in that moment, despite the short speech he probably only gave to a small handful of people, the entire city repents.

And Jonah? He’s really not happy, he leaves town to build a sukkah (hut) in the desert and it seems like his depression only gets worse.

And why?

Let’s try to understand who Jonah is in order to answer the questions that his story raises.

According to the sages, Jonah was the prophet who was sent to crown Yehu ben Namshi.

This order is said to have actually been given to the prophet Elijah, who is said to have passed it on to his successor, the prophet Elisha, who sent one of his sons (whose name is not mentioned) to make Yehu ben Namshi king.

Now the major prophets of the Book of Kings have refused to carry out this task, and finally a small, anonymous prophet was sent to do the “dirty work.”

At this point we realize the power of Jonah because all he did was tell Yehu that he would be the next king.

Even Yehu had doubts about it. But all generals, soldiers and commanders who were with him immediately accepted this decision without question.

The same thing happens to the sailors on the ship on which Jonah fled.

They refuse to throw Jonah into the sea in order to save their own lives. After being persuaded to do so, we read that all sailors repent.

Then the men became very afraid of the Lord and offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows. (Jonah 1:16)

And in Nineveh we find exactly the same situation. Just a few people hear the short sermon of Jonah, which, as noted, consists of only one sentence without even offering the possibility of repentance.

This is akin to someone wanting to stage a coup in Israel (or elsewhere) and all they do is stand in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv and shout something like:

“We hear – the situation in Israel is not so ideal…”

And immediately everyone changes their behavior.

But that’s Jonah, somehow he always succeeds.

All Jonah has to do is be present and immediately everyone who stands before him changes their worldview and adopts new values.

Consider Jeremiah, who tried for 40 years to save Jerusalem from destruction and failed.

He probably would have been very envious if he had seen how quickly Jonah’s words were heard and heeded.

Incidentally, the speed and astonishment at the fulfillment of Jonah’s prophecies are the reason why the sages consider him to be the prophet sent by Elisha to enthrone Yehu as king.

Then why did Jonah flee from the mission to Nineveh?

Maybe because he knew he would succeed?

Unlike other prophets in the Bible, most failed miserably in their efforts to persuade the people of Israel to repent.

Jonah has great success.

Even when he doesn’t want to succeed and tries in every way to fail.

He is always successful.

But unlike the other prophets, Jonah does not have the privilege of speaking to his own people.

Jonah is dealing with strangers, with foreigners.

Namely with the city of Nineveh, which belongs to Assyria, the same empire that will later destroy Israel and conquer large parts of Judah.

Perhaps Jonah had foreknowledge of this, and in an attempt to save his people from the coming tragedy, he refused to save the people who were destined to destroy his own?


But it is said that God’s ways are hidden.


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