The Attribute of Mercy: Reading the Book of Jonah

(This is Neil.) I must admit that, even after a few hundred posts to this blog, I’ve never really drawn on rabbinic scholarship. I would like to do so in a small way here in this post. (See the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s claim that, although Jewish exegesis is “irreducible,” “On the practical level of exegesis, Christians can, nonetheless, learn much from Jewish exegesis practiced for more than two thousand years, and, in fact, they have learned much in the course of history.”) I’ve just read an article by Rabbi Hayyim Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, published in a 2006 issue of Jewish Bible Quarterly, and found it to be quite interesting. It is on the Book of Jonah, and, more specifically, the vexing non-ichthyological question of why Jonah fled from his mission to Nineveh. 

Perhaps Jonah feared that Israel would look bad if non-Israelites repented. Perhaps he worried about being seen as a false prophet if these non-Israelites did not repent. Perhaps Jonah feared for Israel’s future at the hands of the Assyrians, and would rather die than strengthen Nineveh, their capital city. None of these explanations, Rabbi Angel says, are persuasive. Couldn’t Israel repent after seeing Nineveh’s example? Might not Nineveh repent after hearing Jonah’s words? And, the rabbi notes, Nineveh is never described in the Book of Jonah as the capital of Assyria – there is no political context here and the kings of Assyria and Israel go completely unmentioned.

So why did Jonah flee from his mission to Nineveh? Rabbi Angel draws our attention to a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud: 

It was asked of wisdom: what is the punishment for a sinner? She replied, Misfortune pursues sinners (Prov. 13:21). It was asked of prophecy: what is the punishment for a sinner? She replied, The person who sins, only he shall die (Ezek 18:4, 20). It was asked of God: what is the punishment for a sinner? He replied, let him repent and gain atonement. 

Perhaps, then, the prophet might wish that sinners be summarily punished instead of being given a chance to repent. But this doesn’t sound quite right, either. As Rabbi Angel reminds us, most prophets accepted the ideas of repentance and divine mercy: “Why should Jonah alone have fled from his mission in so dramatic and rebellious a manner?” 

The answer has to do, apparently, with Jonah’s disapproval of God’s extension of mercy to pagans.

We sense this theme in the very first chapter. The pagan mariners on the ship to Tarshish appear like rather good people. After they throw Jonah overboard at his own suggestion, they will even beseech God not to charge them with murder and they subsequently make vows to him. Beforehand, amidst the tumult of the sea, their captain, seeming almost like a prophet, had roused Jonah to call upon his God. These men have many gods, but they do not look depraved at all alongside Jonah, who is fleeing in disobedience against God.  

But after Jonah is identified as the cause of the tempest, when asked his identity and business, he answers with apparent pride, contrasting his recognition of the true God with their unbelief, “I am a Hebrew (Ivri anokhi) … I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land” (Jon 1:9). This is the emphasis in the text, which does not similarly render Jonah’s account of running away from the Lord in direct speech. Jonah answers in a way to starkly contrast himself with the pagans. But, the text tells us, it is he who stands against God here, not the pagans. 

Jonah is then swallowed by a very large fish. After three days, he finally calls to God out of distress: 

Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy. But I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the Lord.

He is still contrasting himself to pagans, whether the pagan mariners whose vows he supposes will not be kept, or the pagan Ninevites who presumably will stubbornly cling to their idols. Here is Rashi’s reading of these verses (Jon 2:9-10): 

They who cling to empty folly: those who worship idols; forsake their own welfare: their fear of God, from whom all kindness emanates. But I, in contrast, am not like this; I, with loud thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You.

Jonah does not really repent, but, nevertheless, the fish spews Jonah on the shore. And so the reluctant prophet gets to Nineveh. Then, shockingly, after only a single day of prophesizing the imminent destruction of Nineveh, the city repents. All people and beasts are covered in sackcloth. God does not destroy Nineveh. I suspect that every reader of the Book of Jonah is at least a little amazed at this turn of events. But Jonah is displeased and angry:

He prayed to the Lord, saying “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live” (Jon 4:2-3).

What is wrong with Jonah? He is still contrasting himself (Ivri anokhi) to pagans. He wishes his true God to punish these pagans so that this essential contrast is brutally confirmed. But God has instead extended mercy to them. When listing God’s attributes, Jonah changes the usual formula (“abounding in kindness and faithfulness” [Ex. 34:6]) to “abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” “Faithfulness” (ve-emet) has become “renouncing punishment” (ve-niham al ha-ra’ah) because this is what Jonah has seen with his own eyes in pagan Nineveh. And he is not happy at all. 

His concept of God has been threatened. As Rabbi Angel writes, “For Jonah, true justice required punishing even the penitent Ninvevites, because they were still pagans.” This is clear and understandable. But God is not like this. He desires repentance, but he has patience for apparently misguided beliefs. He is compassionate: 

“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 I not 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!” (Jon 4:10-11).

What happens in the silence that follows? Rabbi Angel writes, “Jonah’s stark silence at the end of the Book reflects his apprehension of the gulf between God and himself. He remained an ‘Ivri’ to the very end.” Do we find ourselves sitting in this same stark silence, foolishly wondering how God can be merciful with those who seem obviously, maddeningly wrong – those who are always “them” to us? 

A midrash, Rabbi Angel says, puts one final line in Jonah’s mouth, “Conduct Your world according to the attribute of mercy!” That humility is what Jonah should have learned. That humility is most probably what we still need to learn.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to The Attribute of Mercy: Reading the Book of Jonah

  1. Steve T says:

    I came across your post as a result of a google search for “catcholic exegesis.” I very much like your reading of the Jonah story using the Rabinical sources. Jonah has always struck me as the biggest pout-er of the bible. I see that it could be useful to ask myself: “how much of a Jonah am I being?” Thanks for popping up in my Googling.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for writing. I often find myself asking that question, “how much of a Jonah am I being?” It is certainly not easy.

    Please feel free to comment whenever you would like.

    Neil

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