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Reading Jonah Backward

A new look at the biblical tale we read on Yom Kippur reveals a story of God’s ability to change

Neil Hirsch
September 21, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Growing up, I loved the nights where my parents would take my brother and me to the bookstore. We would get to wander around the kids’ section and pick out a few new titles to bring home. I would find my father over in the thriller section, reading the last chapter of a book first to see if he wanted to buy it.

“But you already know the ending,” I’d say to him.

“Sure, but then I know whether it’ll be worth reading to figure out how the author got there,” he’d respond.

Sometimes, if you want to best understand a book, you need to read it backward. Which is true for the Bible as much as for a good thriller. To best understand the Book of Jonah, read it backward.

That’s because the Book of Jonah is written like a surprise. Each chapter builds on the last, with the moral of the entire book delivered in its last two verses. It’s the last sentences that matter the most, finally cluing in readers that the book isn’t about Jonah, the Ninevites, the sailors, or even the whale. The book is about God, and God’s ability to change and show mercy and kindness.

We are getting ready to read the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, a practice that is set in the Talmud, with no explanation as to why (BT Megillah 31a). Several generations later, Rabbi Joseph Karo writes in the Beit Yoseph, his first legal code, that we read the Book of Jonah to strengthen a person’s teshuvah, the repentance we perform on Yom Kippur (Orach Hayyim 622:2:1).

That rationale, though, generates more questions than answers. Who is the ultimate model of teshuvah in the Book of Jonah? Clue: The answer comes at the end of the book.

Indeed, Jonah himself cannot be our ultimate example, a man who runs away from God. Not only does Jonah go in the opposite direction of his calling, but when he is swallowed by the whale, his moment of transformation is lacking. On the third day in the whale’s belly, Jonah calls out to God in prayer, “In my trouble I called to the Lord, / And He answered me; / From the belly of Sheol I cried out, / And You heard my voice” (Jonah 2:3, NJPS). The prayer that flows from this moment is not one of regret. As many scholars have noted, it is a psalm of lament. Jonah mourns his condition, sitting in a whale’s stomach, rather than repenting for his misdeeds and committing to righteous actions, should he be released. “I thought I was driven away / Out of Your sight: / Would I ever gaze again / Upon Your holy Temple?” (Jonah 2:5, NJPS) These are the words not of a repentant man but of a despairing person. Sure, that is its own form of transformation, but it is not what we typically think of when calling for repentance.

The Ninevites are also an obvious model for teshuvah. They have transgressed, although we, as readers, are given no sense of their sins. They receive a prophet who tells them that God will destroy them if they do not repent. They take that threat seriously. The king calls for a fast day and dresses everyone—including the animals—in sackcloth.

Notably, the Ninevites’ teshuvah seems to satisfy God. God does not destroy the city. Still, the Ninevites’ modeling of repentance, too, is—to a degree—imperfect. The king’s decree that even the beasts should fast and wear sackcloth adds a comical touch. And, with respect for those who prefer expansive readings of biblical texts, Jewish commentators over the generations voice discomfort that the model for Yom Kippur comes from outsiders.

These characters’ imperfections as models of teshuvah encourage a different reading of the story. To solve the question of modeling, readers should look to the last verses of the book.

Jonah has set up camp east of the walls of Nineveh after delivering his prophecy. He sets up a booth there, waiting to see what comes of the city. The sun is fierce, and Jonah grows deeply uncomfortable, praying for death. So, God provides a kikayon—a gourd or shade plant—that eases Jonah’s discomfort. The next day, though, God also provides a worm that kills the plant, and Jonah again grows desperate in the heat.

And so it is in the end that God delivers the book’s ultimate message, which communicates a sense of mercy over punishing justice. “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4:10–11, NJPS). Until the final two verses of the book, God only speaks to Jonah twice, instructing him with almost identical words to go to Nineveh.

Now, God speaks to Jonah to offer a moral for him and us.

Had Jonah not run in the other direction, there would have been no need for the sailors. If the storm had not come, Jonah would have never been heaved overboard and swallowed by the whale. Were he not given the time to sit in the whale’s stomach, Jonah would have never had the second chance to go to Nineveh. Each chapter builds toward the final verses, in which God speaks enigmatically.

Yet, reading the story backward, God’s intent becomes more evident. God seems to say, I care about the city of Nineveh. I have cultivated it, like a gardener cultivates a plant for shade, helping its people grow it into a significantalbeit imperfectplace. At first, I may have wanted to destroy it, but now seeing how they’ve changed, I realize I too must change. I care for those people. That is why God sent Jonah to the city, to deliver a message that enables God to be merciful and kind, rather than wrathful and destructive.

It is the final verses we should put first, especially when reading the book to reinforce what we are attempting to do on Yom Kippur. God is the model for teshuvah in the story of Jonah. God has impulses toward destruction, which have been on display since Noah. Jonah is upset because he embodies the expectation that God’s justice will come in the form of destruction. But Jonah says it himself, “I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2, NJPS). The message is that God can transform. God can change to do the caring thing rather than the punishing thing. And we—especially at a time of repentance—should strive to do the same.

Throughout Yom Kippur, we recite prayers that straddle this tension between a punishing and merciful God. Each time we lean toward that sense of punishment, the liturgy pulls us back from despair, encouraging us that God is slow to anger and abounding in kindness, if only we commit to lives of repentance, prayer, and righteous action. We read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur to emphasize the same point. The book strengthens our sense of teshuvah, because God is full of mercy and compassion, and is—as we come to see with the final two verses of the book—the ultimate model of repentance for humanity.

Neil P.G. Hirsch serves as Rabbi at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.