September 25, 2021

The Book of Jonah and the Reluctance of Religious Dogma

By Simon Eder

A Universal Story

Bernard Henri-Levy, the renowned French philosopher makes a compelling case for the universalism of the Book of Jonah. Jonah is of course one of the few prophets commanded to save those of non- Hebrew origin and to deliver the prophetic warning to the great city of Nineveh, despite the fact that its inhabitants number ‘’more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals’’(1) To Levy, what God is signaling to Jonah is the importance of the city. As he expressed in an interview whilst discussing his book, The Genius of Judaism – “A city may be bad, but this way of creating community with the world that is what we call a City is a school for liberty that we cannot let be extinguished.”(2) 

Certainly one of Jonah’s central tenets that God’s mercy is found beyond sectarian divisions (Jonah’s main reluctance to obey his summons is that he is concerned that Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria’s repentance will be to the detriment of the prophet’s own people as they are such sworn enemies) would give credence to Levy’s argument. The text is also at pains to emphasise the dignified and admirable behaviour of those non-Hebrews and indeed of their recognition of the Lord. The sailors for example despite Jonah plea that they should throw him overboard cry out: 

‘’Oh, please, Lord, do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, Oh Lord, by your will have brought this about.’’(3)

What on earth had impelled him to meet with such avowed antisemites?

Levy shares a powerful story of how he came to resonate with the Book of Jonah. Back in August 2011 he was visiting Libya on behalf of the French government and found himself face-to-face with three well-known jihadists. He even spent a full night discussing important political and intellectual topics. What on earth had impelled him to meet with such avowed antisemites? Leaving the armed camp the following morning he turned to one of the books that he had with him that contained a volume of the Book of Jonah, which provided the spark for a realisation that his own journey to Benghazi could indeed be likened to rescuing Nineveh. This in turn provided something of an impetus for his own deeper enquiry into his Jewish roots.

Levy’s pointedly secular ‘’affirmative Judaism’’ of actions, not faith, ethics, not belief as well as the universalistic message that he draws from the text are however not the only way to frame the story. In fact, its themes of following God’s will, repentance and prayer conform to traditional notions of Jewish thinking and practice. 

Jonah’s Date with Destiny

Like other prophets, Jonah exhibits significant reluctance to carry out his mission. Moses, no less, expressed his own resistance to undertaking the task that God had set him at the burning bush. Several times in the opening chapter the text uses the verb yarad ‘to go down’ indicating Jonah’s Divine defiance. It is of course after his journey on board the boat initially in the very opposite direction to where he had been told to go, the storm and then his three day sojourn inside the giant fish that he finally comes to realise that a flight from God is indeed impossible.

It is in a somewhat parallel vein that I am reminded of the story of the treasure under the bridge:

Once a Jewish inhabitant of Austria saw in his dream that under a bridge in the city of Vienna a valuable treasure lay buried. He journeyed there, stood on the bridge and wondered what to do, as it was impossible to search by day in case people saw him searching and realized that there was something going on.

By the by, a soldier crossed the bridge, saw the Jew standing and wondering, and asked him:

‘What are you doing here and what are you looking for?’

The Jew thought about it, and told his secret to the soldier, asking him to help him search for the treasure so that they might share it 50/50 when they found it.

But the soldier replied: ‘I feel sorry for you, you crazy dreamer! I also dreamed that a valuable treasure lay buried in the cellar of such and such a Jew in such and such a town, but am I going to set off on a journey there?!’

The name of the Jew was this man’s name, and the town he had named was his home town!

Whereupon the Jew took a wagon hitched to two sturdy horses and hastened to journey to his town, went down to his cellar, and there discovered the treasure.

At the sight of it, the Jew declared:

‘Now this mystery has been revealed to me. The treasure had always lain buried in my house, but I had to leave my town and wander far far away to Vienna in order there to discover it in my house.'(4)

Regret is perhaps the most difficult step in repentance because of the infinite human capacity for inertial evil and self-justification.

Of course, in Jonah’s case it is not treasure in question, but the very word of God and he seeks flight from his calling rather than the pursuit of it. Nonetheless both stories exhibit a symmetry. In the book of Jonah this is the mirroring of the opening of chapters 1 and 3 which both feature God’s instruction to Jonah. Just as the treasure features at the beginning and end prior to the intervening journey so is God’s repeated injunction to Jonah with the whirlwind of his journey in-between.

One Midrashic interpretation has Jonah represent the people of Israel since Israel is compared to a dove, the very Hebrew meaning of the name Jonah. Its emphasis is then that the Jewish people can never escape its destiny as the people who proclaim the unity of God.(5)

Jonah’s eventual acceptance of his divine duty and resolution within his conflicted soul, demonstrating an example of what William James termed ‘the unity of the self’ is also illustrative of the process of teshuvah, which is such a prominent theme within the book.

Teshuvah in the Book of Jonah

The readiness of the Ninevites to turn their back on their evil ways, making their embrace of repentance the most supreme example in all biblical literature (it is certainly the fastest and all-encompassing of any group) is the simplest example of teshuvah in the book. Strikingly Jonah’s 5 Hebrew words ‘’Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’’(6) is enough to prompt collective fasting and a series of penitential rituals all resulting in God’s abandonment of His intention to destroy the city. 

It is Jonah’s teshuvah too which occupies much of the narrative. In many ways it conforms to Maimonides’ principles of teshuvah namely regret, rejection and finally resolution. 

Regret is perhaps the most difficult step in repentance because of the infinite human capacity for inertial evil and self-justification. We see this step when Jonah first acknowledges to the sailors that ‘’the terrible storm came upon you on my account’’(7). Jonah’s fessing up and imploring of the sailors to throw him overboard marks the beginning of his awakening to his misdeed. 

The second step in Jonah’s journey of teshuvah, sparked by heartfelt prayer in the depths of despair whilst inside the belly of the giant fish is his rejection of wrong-doing, rejection of the futile path that he has chosen against the divine will that had caused such turmoil, a rejection of a course of action in which he had spurned God’s call. 

The final stage in Jonah’s transformative process is then resolution: 

‘’What I have vowed I will perform’’(8)

It is this which then leads to his salvation and deliverance from the fish’s belly onto dry land. There is however one final confirmatory step which also forms the ultimate proof of transformation in Maimonides’ codification also exhibited by Jonah. This is that when confronted by a similar situation with the opportunity to commit sin, the correct path is taken. It is then on hearing God’s second call to urge Nineveh on its path to repentance and to which Jonah adheres that we can then agree that his own teshuvah is complete. 

Tefillah in the Belly of the Giant Fish

Perhaps the most moving lines of the story, which some scholars argue are later additions to the text, are those lines of poetry placed in Jonah’s mouth, revealing his tormented soul and desperate for God’s mercy. 

Inside the belly of the fish, Jonah deprived of any possible occupation or distraction (rather like the day of Yom Kippur) he opts for the examined life. His descent into death then has the somewhat paradoxical result in re-energising his life forces and he recalls those scenes so dear to him of God’s Temple. With life quite literally suspended for him as he turns ever inward seeking salvation through his prayer, he finds rebirth and renewal. 

It is also through his prayer that we come to understand his dialectic between despair and faith. Quite literally at the bottom of the ocean, within the narrow confines of the belly of a fish, with nowhere left to hide, he finds his maker: 

“The bars of the earth closed upon me forever, yet you brought my life up from the pit”(9)

Indeed Jonah’s very despair becomes a source of faith in his capacity to work at his inner transformation. From despair, to thanksgiving and ultimately to deliverance, Jonah’s prayer is the very template for all who have reached rock bottom. 

Perhaps, Jonah, who in the end does not lose his argumentative nature with God, does have a point.

Jonah and The Reluctance of Religious Dogma

The book then manifests many traditional themes – the divine call, repentance, prayer and yet they do all have something of a radical twist. 

The book is certainly no manual for following God’s instructions. Were that the case the whole story would commence in chapter 3. Indeed it is in Jonah’s defiance of the original divine command that he finds the greatest opportunity for personal growth. So it is with us as we face our own challenges, perhaps veering from a safer path that we too find the greatest opportunity for growth and through mistakes, sometimes maybe even deliberate ones we may reach ever greater heights in the long run. 

The book is often championed as demonstrating God’s concern for all. Indeed it is the only biblical book ending with a question. Its question in fact is something of a reprimand to Jonah in his questioning of God’s mercy for the people of Nineveh. And yet perhaps, Jonah, who in the end does not lose his argumentative nature with God does have a point. The Ninevites repentance as we explored might have been quick but unlike Jonah’s own arduous transformation, theirs lacks inner work. In one Midrashic comment, the people of Nineveh after their forty days reverted to their wicked ways and God does eventually destroy the city. On this, Rabbi Jacobs commented that this line is so at variance with the story itself that it seems to have been pursued in defence of the Jewish people. (10) The Ninevites repentance however was so heavily caught up in external trappings that perhaps the midrash is closer to the mark than Rabbi Jacobs gives credence. 

Perhaps the most important hallmark of the book is in fact the signature trait that Jonah exhibits throughout, of his continued wrestling with God. In this of course he is in good company with those founding fathers of our tradition including Moses, Jacob and Abraham no less!

We can therefore agree with a central thrust of Levy’s own book that the genius of Judaism is: 

“The absolute reluctance at any dogma, frozen thoughts, admitted truth [that is] not fake. It gives to no one person to own the formula of the perfect community in front of which each human should kneel down and accept and revere.”(11)

It is this spirit which Jonah emulates and to which we would do well to emulate too. 

  1. Jonah 4:11
  2. Tom Teichelz, Interview with Bernard Henri-Levy, Forbes, 25th January 2017
  3. Jonah 1:14
  4. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Rabbi Nachman’s Stories, Breslov, p.478
  5. Jacobs, The Jewish Religion; A Companion, p.288
  6. Jonah 3:4
  7. Jonah 1:12
  8. Jonah 2:10
  9. Jonah 2:7
  10.  Jacobs, The Jewish Religion; A Companion, p.288
  11. Tom Teichelz, Interview with Bernard Henri-Levy, Forbes, 25th January 2017

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.