Jonah's Lesson in Divine Mercy
Scholars have long disagreed on the central message of the Book of Jonah; a strong contender is that Jonah plays out the ancient drama of Divine Mercy vs. Strict Justice.
Many modern scholars subscribe to the view that the Book of Jonah is intended to be a satirical work, given its penchant for exaggerated language and absurd, humorous situations. While not disagreeing that the book uses humor and irony to make its points (the full article explores this subtle distinction), Uriel Simon asserts a serious interpretation that retains the book’s value as a complement to the liturgy of the Days of Awe. This article is excerpted from The JPS Biblical Commentary: Jonah and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.
It is particularly difficult to identify the central theme that unites all the elements of the story (in the Book of Jonah) into a literary and conceptual whole. The broad variety of opinions on this subject‑-from the talmudic sages through modem commentaries‑-can be subsumed under four basic headings.
Each offers its own answer to the three interrelated questions: Why was Jonah unwilling to prophesy against Nineveh? What did the Lord teach His prophet by means of the tempest, the fish, and the gourd? What are readers supposed to learn from the book?
Atonement Versus Repentance
The designation of Jonah as the haftarah (prophetic reading) for the afternoon service of the Day of Atonement (Talmud Bavli Megillah 31a) reflects the view that this book depicts the concept of repentance so starkly and completely that it can stir hearers to repent of their ways and even modify their conduct.
The Ninivites' repentance does indeed seem to be an exemplary combination of fasting, prayer, and deeds (abandoning their evil ways), just as its acceptance by the merciful God is tantamount to a guarantee and confirmation that authentic repentance has the power to nullify the fatal decree.
Were repentance the thread that unites the book, we could expect that all its episodes would relate to it, in some fashion or other. Yet only chapter 3 deals with this theme. Unlike the people of Nineveh, the sailors are not described as transgressors. Consequently their submission to the will of the Lord and their great reverence for Him do not constitute a turning back from sin.
Jonah does indeed sin, but his prayer from the belly of the fish is quite devoid of contrition, while his silence at the end of the book leaves the extent of his change outside the narrative.
The incident of the plant and the Lord's reply to Jonah (4:6‑11) clearly relate to quite a different subject: Nineveh merits its Creator's protection not because of its citizens' remorse, but because it is a great metropolis, teeming with children who have never sinned, and many beasts as well.