Jonah and the Paradox of Prayer and Repentance
The Book of Jonah occupies a prominent spot in the Yom Kippur liturgy. The themes of the book align closely with the themes of the day: distance and closeness to God, sin and punishment, and, most famously, repentance. The Beit Yosef comments on the inclusion of the book in the Yom Kippur service simply, “u-maftir be-Yonah lefi she-yesh ba godel koach ha-teshuva,” “and we supplement with Jonah because it includes the great measure of the power of repentance.”
It is surprising, therefore, that on the day devoted entirely to teshuva and kappara, a central Biblical text of the day seems to present repentance with an air of ludicrousness. The protagonist is known for his anger over the repentance of Nineveh, and God does not respond with a clear resolution; He may even endorse Jonah’s perspective. Through the actions of Nineveh, Jonah’s response to them, and God’s final words, we see how repentance and atonement appear to lie in the realm of the absurd.
Chapter Three: Realistic Repentance?
The first two chapters of Jonah relate the initial command to the prophet to “go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it,” his subsequent flight from this command, and his being cast into the sea when confronted with God’s wrath. In the belly of a fish, Jonah prays to God and is then vomited back onto land. At this point, the start of Chapter 3, Jonah is commanded a second time to “go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.” This time, Jonah accedes to the command and goes to Nineveh. The rest of the chapter depicts the city’s response to Jonah’s message and concludes with God seeing the actions of the city and choosing to not destroy it.
A close reading of this chapter yields a feeling that something is off. From the outset, a motif of exaggeration starts developing. The city is described as “gedolah lei-elohim,” roughly translated as “enormously large.” Additionally, its size is given as a “three days’ walk across.” Assuming a “day’s walk” is approximately fifteen miles, a city that is 45 miles wide would be larger than Long Island, and five times as large as the city of New York!
The reader’s apprehension is strengthened further upon recognizing the qualitative and textual similarities between Nineveh and Sedom: both cities were evil and faced a decree of destruction by divine wrath, each decree upon the cities making use of the language of “hafikhah.” Yet, although even Lot’s closest relatives could not be convinced to flee the city, the people of Nineveh instantly listen to Jonah, a foreign prophet with no bona fides and an extremely brief and vague message, not only accepting his word but responding to it!
The “repentance” shown by the people is the crux of the chapter, but it too does not seem to match the traditional Jewish perception of ideal repentance. Following Jonah’s declaration, the text lists the sequence of actions taken by the inhabitants of the city:
- The people of Nineveh believed God.
- They proclaimed a fast.
- Great and small alike put on sackcloth.
- The news reached the king of Nineveh.
- He rose from his throne.
- He took off his robe.
- He put on sackcloth.
- He sat in ashes.
- He had word cried through Nineveh.
- His word said:
- No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything.
- They shall not graze.
- They shall not drink water.
- They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast.
- They shall cry mightily to God.
- Let everyone turn back from his evil ways.
These acts are primarily demonstrative, external behaviors associated with penitence; it is unclear if the people also engage in introspection and internal repentance. It is not until the fifteenth action that we see a relationship between the people and God as an element of their repentance, and only in the final action do we find explicit teshuva: “ve-yashuvu ish mi-darko ha-ra’ah.” Even then, this teshuva is seen only in the king’s command; the text does not record any account of the people doing this teshuva. God notices “their actions,” but specifically only “that they had returned from their evil ways,” ignoring the laundry list of penitential behaviors prior to this.
The earlier motif of exaggeration resurfaces in this section as well. The adults immediately call a fast and wear clothes of mourning, and the children mimic their actions. Furthermore, the king not only extends his decrees to the children but, most shockingly, he includes animals in the commanded actions as well. What do children have to repent for, much less animals? Why are they included in this mass repentance?
All told, one could be skeptical of Nineveh’s repentance. It seems too immediate, too staged, and too forced. The people expend significant energy on a performance to show God that they deserve His forgiveness and hardly any toward returning from their evil ways, which is relegated to the end of the list; the people of Nineveh believe that internal reflection and spiritual connection are less important than the other, more visible acts of penitence. The low esteem in which the people hold inner growth is concerning: if they do not truly value bettering themselves and repairing their relationship with God, then their outward acts of repentance are not real teshuva. The people’s drastic response to Jonah’s declaration of destruction is not an acceptance of tochacha, but rather a last ditch effort to avoid annihilation.
In this light, it is suddenly much more understandable why Jonah is so upset following the events of chapter three. Jonah proclaims that he knew exactly that this would happen: he knew that God is merciful and that He would forgive the evils of Nineveh. This is the very reason he fled the command in the first place: to avoid taking part in a system he despised. We can understand Jonah’s appeal toward justice, toward sinners getting what they deserve. But why does the prophet so strongly hate repentance to the extent that he is willing to attempt an escape from before God? The events of chapter three indicate that it is not repentance as a concept that is anathema to Jonah’s belief system, but rather repentance that is not genuine. He is not angry at God for including repentance in a system of reward and punishment; he is angry at God for accepting Nineveh’s specific form of repentance: performative and inauthentic. Jonah claims that God operates on a system of cause-and-effect: one who performs the proper acts of repentance will be forgiven, even if he lacks the appropriate intentions. The ritualization of the heart is what Jonah cannot accept.
This understanding of Jonah’s complaint resolves a major difficulty found earlier in the book: Jonah’s prayer. Although framed as a plea issued by Jonah from inside the depths of a fish, this prayer actually reads like a giving of thanks: “In my trouble I called to the Lord, and He answered me; from the belly of she’ol I cried out, and You heard my voice.” Here, Jonah thanks God for his salvation and reflects on an earlier prayer. However, we do not see any evidence of an earlier prayer, and though Jonah did not drown, he is hardly alive either, and certainly not in a position to claim, “yet I will look again toward Your holy Temple.” Puzzling, too, is when Jonah claims, “When my soul wrapped around me, I remembered God; my prayer came before You, into Your holy Temple.” Is Jonah in a position to assert definitively that his prayer will be heard?
As we saw in chapter three and will see more explicitly in chapter four, a cause-and-effect relationship exists between man and God. Man repents and God forgives. Similarly, in chapter two, a causal relationship is seen regarding prayer: Man prays and God listens. One explanation of this relationship is that the act of prayer reveals man’s dependence on God, and it is this sense of dependence that earns a response from the Creator. Jonah, however, still does not embrace the direct causation and instead issues a sarcastic commentary in protest. He prays to God, but doesn’t ask for help. Rather, Jonah’s prayer is a series of remarks on how prayer is effectual. Jonah speaks with such confidence without actually making any requests because he knows that, even with obvious cynicism, prayers are answered; that is simply how the world works. Jonah is proven correct, for, following his “prayer” for salvation, Jonah is returned to land, alive and well, able to complete his mission.
Chapter Four: The Kikayon and God’s final Ein Hachi Nami
Just as Jonah protests acceptance of the undeserving prayer in chapter two, he protests again in the beginning of chapter four. As opposed to God’s indirect response after Jonah’s prayer, using the fish as the intermediary, this time God responds directly, attempting to teach him via the kikayon. The message is not immediately clear and seems to end with a rhetorical question that lacks a satisfactory conclusion. The kikayon is an object that Jonah enjoys, and Jonah is distressed by its destruction. The kikayon, however, does not seem to deserve its existence. Humanity similarly may not entirely deserve its existence, but nevertheless God has pity on it. In the first two chapters God shows that He does not have unlimited tolerance because He is ready to destroy Nineveh and the ship on which Jonah is travelling; sin and punishment have important roles in God’s relationship with the world. However, God also takes pity. To earn this pity, the most basic repentance is enough, even one that is only demonstrative and not authentic. At least the sinner is doing something.
Jonah protests that this is not entirely just. The sinner does not mean his repentance; he did not earn his forgiveness! And God responds, “Ein hachi nami.” That is correct; it is not just. But that is how God conducts the world.
Yom Kippur seems almost paradoxical. Supposedly we spend the entire month of Elul on repentance, working to fix our mistakes from the previous year in preparation for the judgment on Rosh Hashana. The succeeding seven days we devote to an intense repentance period. Yet the day itself is a day of atonement, a day when we appeal to God not by virtue of our success in repentance, but by virtue of His mercy. We know we have not perfected ourselves, and we are similarly aware that we will falter during the coming year; there is no self-aware penitent on Yom Kippur who does not think he will need another Yom Kippur the following year. But despite our inadequacy, we feel confident coming out of the service that we have been forgiven, cleaned, and healed. This is the “unjust” message of Jonah, and why it earned a place in the Yom Kippur service. To some degree, teshuva and forgiveness are absurd. But, says God, “kach alah be-machashavah le-fanai.”
Reuven Herzog is a third-year student majoring in Economics and minoring in math and Jewish studies.
 Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Ha’im 622:2
 Jonah 1:2
 ibid. 3:2
 ibid. 3:3
 Genesis 19:25; Jonah 3:4
 Jonah 3:5-8
 ibid. 3:8
 ibid. 3:10
 ibid. 2:3
 ibid. 2:5
 ibid. 2:8
 Menachot 29b