Familiarity with Bible stories often works against us. That’s because we remember simple, sometimes fantastic stories from our childhood and then have a hard time re-reading these stories as adults.
Reading the Book of Jonah as an adult made me realize that Jonah should be remembered for much more than using a whale (the text only tells us it was a big fish but it is a reasonable assumption to say it was a whale) as the world’s first submarine. A more mature understanding shows Jonah to be one of the Bible’s most outrageous characters and the Book of Jonah, which we read every Yom Kippur, to require serious thought in order to understand it.
From what I make of it, Jonah’s main problem was that he had too much integrity. In fact, he had so much integrity as to even disagree with how God runs the world. That is to say, he felt it lacked the “higher standards” he would have expected from God.
To put this into perspective, most biblical prophets prayed to God to have more mercy or to complain that He was too strict. With Jonah, however, it was just the opposite – he complained that God was not strict enough. As a result, he got bent out of shape by God’s decision to accept the repentance of the city of Nineveh and to commute its destruction. Indeed, it caused him so much distress that he told God he’d rather die than have to see such things.
Moreover, instead of apologizing for refusing God’s mission until forced to comply, he held his ground and explained it was his knowledge that God would relent from destroying Nineveh that led him to turn down the mission to begin with.
Nor is the above an isolated incident. The text presents Jonah’s response here as a case of deja vu. Before being swallowed by the fish, Jonah also seemed to prefer death to involvement in what he believed to be a mere parody of repentance. At the point in the story when his ship was threatened by a raging storm, the sailors all realized the time had come to pray and improve their conduct. But Jonah didn’t buy it. So instead of participating in the popular religiosity of his shipmates, he simply went to sleep. For Jonah, better that than the triviality of the sailors’ newfound “commitments.”
Lest one think Jonah was just a cruel and strange character, the people of Nineveh were far from righteous and we can reasonably assume, like Jonah, that their repentance was short-lived. (And it is quite possible that Jonah’s sailors weren’t much better.) But if Jonah knew this, clearly God must have known it as well.
And yet the Bible often shows – and this is exactly what Jonah objected to – that God is willing to accept repentance, even if it is mostly for ulterior motives and likely not to last very long. We can only speculate as to why this is so. Perhaps it is because people who move out of their inertia have more of a chance of long-term success than those who do nothing at all. Or maybe because some good, no matter how temporary, is better than no good whatsoever. Or maybe there is something very powerful in play when an entire community decides to change its ways, no matter its motivation.
Whatever the reason for God’s acceptance of the sailors’ prayers and the repentance of Nineveh, these typically biblical responses to imminent disaster do seem more productive than what we see today. Imminent disaster rarely if ever produces introspection of any kind now that we think we are too educated for that sort of thing (another example of modern man having become too sophisticated for his own good). As a result, we tend to focus on whether there is someone to blame and whether there is some sort of technical way to impede the disaster. I am certainly not against finding ways to avoid disaster, and a good case can be made that the Torah obligates us to try to do so. Still, it would not be such a bad thing if we also used such occasions as an opportunity to move ourselves to try to do better.