Study of the Prophets #15: Jonah (Cont.)

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Study of the Prophets #15 Jonah (Cont.)

This week we continue our study of the book of Jonah, beginning with Chapter 3. Jonah is now ready to do the work HaShem intended for him in the first place. Do we not often do the same thing from time-to-time? How much easier could it have been for Jonah to obey G-d’s instructions from the beginning? Yet, though his rebellion, many men were saved not only from the storm, but from disbelief, converting to belief in the G-d of Israel. Now Jonah has the opportunity to prove his penitence, for complete repentance is demonstrated when the individual is presented with an opportunity to commit the same sin under identical circumstances but refrains from doing so (Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1). G-d reiterates His command to go to Nineveh without being reproached for his former disobedience. G-d knew He made his point with Jonah. “Now Nineveh was an enormously great city. A three-day journey.” Nineveh existed until the Medean conquest, long after Jonah’s prophecy was transcribed. However, the past tense is used because the narrative was intended for generations such as our, far into the future from the time this book was written. Why? This was a lesson on the efficacy of repentance, G-d’s power, His sovereignty, and the need for humans to submit to G-d’s will regardless of our personal feelings/egos. Note verse 3 tells us that Nineveh was “a three-day journey,” but verse 4 tells us Jonah went on his way to the city “a distance of one day’s journey.” There are several opinions from the sages on the meaning of these statements. According to Radak, the three-day journey would have been along the city’s diameter, or around its circumference, corresponding to a diameter of one-day’s walk (Ibn Ezra). Radak also interprets the distance of one-day’s journey as being about a third of the distance into the city, where perhaps the greatest concentration of people and businesses were located (R. David Feinstein). This would make sense as Jonah shared the prophecy that would affect the most people, reflecting the concept of kal v’ Chomer “from the lesser to the greater,” discussed in the parashah Mishpatim teaching this week.
In verse 5 we can understand that the people were “prepared” by G-d to heed the words of Jonah as proclaimed to him by G-d. The people believed in G-d and proclaimed a fast and donned sackcloth. Note that the 2 witnesses described in Revelation also wear sackcloth as a proclamation of the need for repentance and an expression of grief. Also note that belief in G-d requires action and not simple profession. The people believed and proclaimed through their behavior. This behavior was demonstrated by everyone. Even King Ahab was moved to repentance and acted accordingly. He went another step further and sat on the ashes as an additional act of repentance, a sign of humility, and grief. G-d had prepared the hearts of the people to repent as soon as they heard Jonah’s words. Ahab went so far as to add his royal authority to the situation, making repentance obligatory on man and beast. Of course, we cannot force anyone to repent; that is reserved for the Ruach HaKodesh; the calling out by G-d’s Holy Spirit. But withholding food and water would certainly give people pause to consider their lives and possibly repent. Even the animals were involved. The animals were to have their blankets and other finery removed and were to be dressed in sackcloth, also to be deprived of food and water. How could the animals be involved in the repentance of the people? The moaning of the animals for food and water would probably have contributed to the repentance of their owners, understanding that the animals were innocent, yet held accountable if they failed to repent wholeheartedly and not as a simple observance of the decree.
Verses 9 reinforces this concept of repentance; “He who knows shall repent.” Whoever becomes cognizant of their sins, would hopefully repent. The time out from food and water would certainly give them time to think about it. Again, the moaning of the animals in their thirst and hunger should evoke a sense of guilt and repentance from their owners. The second part of verse 9 continues; “… and G-d will relent; He will turn away from His burning wrath so that we not perish.” IN describing G-d’s emotions, the Torah speaks a language that we can understand. The concept of relenting cannot be understood in the context of G-d “changing His mind.” He already knows what men will do. G-d altering His decision in response to man’s actions is basic to repentance, and is mentioned frequently throughout G-d’s Torah. Verse 10 informs us that the people repented, G-d saw their deeds, and G-d did not destroy them. I emphasize the words “actions” and “deeds” to illustrate the necessity for us to outwardly demonstrate what we profess inwardly; unlike other religions that believe and teach a profession of faith is all we need; furthermore that Yahshua has given us a cart blanche and a golden ticket to heaven through His crucifixion! This could not be further from the truth of G-d’s Torah (instructions) as consistently taught through the Old and “New” Testaments.
In Chapter 4 we see how easily we can let our animal souls take over and negate our testimony. In verse 1, Jonah becomes very angry at the repentant attitude of the people. Imagine that! Jonah wants to die because he feels he has been perceived as a fool. On examination of this verse, again we see that it is important in G-d’s economy for us to consider the bigger picture; the lesser to the greater. Is it not greater to see people convert and start on the road to salvation than for us to have our egos stroked? Is it not better to be a fool for Yahshua than a king before men? This is addressed by Sha’ul in the B’rit Chadashah (New Testament) (1Cor. 4:9-12) as he was describing the position of the apostles, including himself.
In verse 4 HaShem in His mercy takes time to address Jonah’s fragile ego; “Are you so deeply grieved?” This was a rhetorical statement implying that Jonah would be shown post haste that his behavior was improper. In verse 5 we learn that Jonah left the city, but kept it in sight, perhaps hoping that the repentance would not last. Again in His mercy demonstrated by the title “HaShem,” G-d provided shade for Jonah as he sat and pouted. A kikayon is a plant containing many leaves that would provide shade. It is also identified as a gourd, but it does not matter what kind of a plant it was, lest G-d would have specifically identified it. The kikayon is sturdier than a booth or hut that Jonah had made for himself and that would have withered in the sun. The plant drew its nourishment from the soil. However, in verse 7 G-d designated a worm at dawn the following day that attacked the plant and caused it to wither. This would have been at the very time when Jonah would start needing protection the most. When the sun came up, G-d designated a stifling east wind and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head until he felt faint. Again, Jonah asks to be killed and again, G-d asks him if he is so grieved for the wilting of the plant. Poor Jonah responds that he is “greatly grieved to death” (4:9).
Now, G-d drives His point home with Jonah (4:10-11). He brings the misplaced pity to Jonah’s attention. Jonah was so grieved over the death of a plant and the subsequent lack of shade for himself, yet he had no pity on the people of Nineveh: HaShem said, ‘You took pity on the kikayon for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; it loved [one] night and perished after one night. And I-shall not take pity upon Nineveh the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?’” After calling to Jonah’s attention that his grief for the plant was selfishly based on its usefulness for his personal needs, G-d concludes His argument “Shall I- in response to their repentance-not show pity on the Ninevites who are My handiwork, and also have usefulness as they play a part in My scheme for Creation?” Who do not know their right hand from their left.” This may refer to the children who would have been swept away because of their parents’ sin, or perhaps a general simple-mindedness of the adults. This may be extended to the animals mentioned also, who are innocent, perhaps simple-minded and would have been swept away because of the peoples’ sin and rebellion had they not repented. This is a good lesson for us to teach us that our sin can cause great peripheral damage, much of which we may not be made aware of until we stand before G-d. Certainly gossiping about someone causes damage not only to the object of the gossip, but perhaps to the one who gossips. The damage goes beyond the immediate environment much as feathers from a torn pillow are blown about in a high wind. We can never recover them all once they are dispersed; such as is the situation with our words and deeds.
Jonah’s personal grief over the plant demonstrates that Jonah did not understand the role of justice, repentance, and mercy according to G-d’s economy for His creation. HaShem’s argument is that the damage to those not deserving His punishment prevented Him from punishing the guilty, much as He told Abraham that He would not destroy S’dom if there were even 10 righteous men in the entire city (Gen. 18:32).
There were at least two factors involved in Nineveh’s survival: the extent of their repentance, and their usefulness in G-d’s plan. Indeed, the people of Nineveh were used by G-d even in the process of teaching Jonah and saving the sailors. The people of Nineveh’s depth of repentance including the king and the animals is another lesson for us; the concept of community; caring for more than ourselves. The repentance of Nineveh, although not perfect, was certainly worthy of G-d’s mercy.
Scripture does not record a final response from Jonah in this matter. Perhaps HaShem meant the book to end this way to leave us with something to ponder whenever we tend to allow our animal souls to rule our actions; that we are not the authors of creation and have no right to bemoan it or wish its demise while there is still time for repentance. Definitely something to think about.
This concludes our study on the book of Jonah. We will take up the book of Michah (Micah) next week.
Shalom Aleichem,
Rabbi Tamah Davis