The Book of Jonah Discussion Guide - Session One
I. Introduction – This is a very important book in the Bible as to the fundamental importance of God’s mercy and forgiveness. There’s an emphasis in other places on sin and punishment. Here it’s on repentance and atonement.
This is, for example, why the reading of the book has become a prominent part of worship on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
A. Jonah is one of the most fascinating figures in the Bible - righteous, a true prophet who was said by some to be the equal of Elijah, and supportive of the people, yet he resisted a command of God, fled from a prophetic task, and seemed averse to bringing about repentance of a big city of people.
B. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was likely during the time of Jeroboam, 646-607 BCE (in Biblical accounts of years). Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s powerful enemy. God hoped for their repentance.
We are curious from the start about this odd tale’s features.
This appears to be – at least in part – about the reach of God beyond Israel and Judah to the whole world – including the sailors and, of course, Nineveh. This extension of God’s sovereignty is a theme.
It’s also a story about prophecy. Here, the prophet does not want to fulfill the Divine mission. Why? We’ll explore.
Further, the prophet seems to support the destruction of a city, not its salvation. That’s odd. We’ll look at that, too.
What does this story teach us about us? We’ll look at that, too, of course.
1. Let’s recognize at the beginning that Jonah did not want to go. Why?
First, according to certain traditional views, he thought that, near to repenting, they would point an accusing finger at Israel. He gave up the spiritual bliss of prophecy for the sake of his nation. In doing this, he acknowledged the Word and authority of God, and yet he contested it.
Second, Assyria was an enemy of Israel. He may have thought that helping this key city there avoid punishment would strengthen it vis-à-vis Israel.
Third, earlier, when he prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it wasn’t after it repented, he was harshly accused as a false prophet. He didn’t want that again.
Fourth, according to many commentators, as an advocate of truth (a person who was committed to the promise of predictable consequences of sin), Jonah resisted any softening or obscuring of it. This, of course, assumes he thought Nineveh would repent, and God would show mercy.
(Note his father’s name was Amitai, which means truth in Hebrew. As a “son of truth,” he sought truth and the consequences that flowed predictably from an orderly system of expectations. This would not be likely in a world in which forgiveness creates all sorts of possible evasions from responsibilities and uncertainties.)
Thus, he may have feared an easy, false repentance. The Ninevite repentance turned out to be real, of course, though some (including perhaps Jonah) worried it was just adequate to avoid destruction.
(All of this makes unlikely that he fled because he feared prophesying doom in the great, foreign city.)
2. Jonah may have avoided punishment for questioning his prophecy because of his love of Israel. But running from God was a serious matter. There may have been punishment in the experience at sea.
C. It’s a story of sincerity and purity of one, Jonah, but it’s also a story of one who defies God and causes danger to others. His name seems to reference the dove. That connotes peace and good relations, as well as partnership with God, or even the soul. Some commentators see a similar Hebrew root of his name, suggesting a combination of deceive and do not deceive.
D. Our initial sense of the book’s overarching lesson:
No one can run away from God. God’s prophecy extends the earth. Repentance is never too late. God’s mercy knows no bounds. Repentance lies in honest deeds and words. Wisdom, prophecy, and Torah are right that sin cannot prevail. But repentance through mercy is the highest response.
For this reason, reading and studying the book are a fundamental feature of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
F. This story can also be seen metaphorically as the journey of the human soul in the world (as described in the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Jonah).
Just as Jonah tried to escape his obligation, the soul can allow itself to be deceived by physical impulses and avoid its mission of rectifying the world through Torah and mitzvot. We’ll explore this explanation, too.
A. Read 1:1-3
1 The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
3 So Jonah got up - to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.
1. Note that the first word of God’s command to Jonah is koom, which means to arise. Given our extensive Bible study over the years, what’s the significance of that word?
(“Rise up” is a challenge to become heightened, more spiritual in one’s duty, to lift up, so to speak. And, of course, as we will see, Jonah does everything but. He arises, yes, but only to descend to Jaffa, then to the sea, then into the ship, and then to the recesses of the ship, then to sleep, and then to the bottom of the sea.)
2. What then does God ask of Jonah? And what’s the consequence of this?
(God is not here threatening destruction of Nineveh. Rather he has asked Jonah to cry out to them that their wickedness has become clear to God. This suggests that the people could still choose to repent.)
3. How does this call from God differ entirely from the beginning of other prophetic accounts?
(Whenever a prophet is called by God, the prophet, albeit sometimes reluctantly, responds. Not so, here.
In the spiritual account, the soul (Jonah) doesn’t want to leave its heavenly abode to take on this assignment which will be difficult, to turn a Nineveh. Nevertheless, it goes, often to a place of physicality where God, too, has His abode to rectify the broader world by seeking that city’s repentance. He (the soul) is to cry out to the corporal world in response to its wickedness.
The soul under the pull of physical lures tries to flee God’s presence and evade its duties. Here Jonah doesn’t answer and flees instead to a “pretty” (yafeh) place, Jaffo, and then to a commercial center, Tarshish. This is the soul escaping to where the body (the ship) will take it. The great wind is a warning message from God.
In other explications of the tale, Jonah is trying to avoid carrying out the call of prophecy for various reasons. Jonah appears possibly guilty of suppressing prophecy, or, at least, failing to follow a command.
Yet, it and the one who has strayed must repent, that is, return to God (from Whom one cannot escape anyway). Note, the Hebrew word for penitent is a ba’al teshuva, one who attempted to flee from God but who returns.
Finally, note that the name of God Who cast the mighty wind threatening the ship is HaShem, suggesting that it was the God of mercy, not strict justice, and suggesting further God’s mindful of Jonah’s sincerity/purpose, while still requiring a consequence through judgment.)
B. Read 1:4-10
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. 5 The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. 6 The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
7 Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
9 He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)
What do you make of the first part of this plot and what it might represent - the tempest, the sailors, the sleeping Jonah, the casting of lots?
(We won’t deal with the issue of whether Jonah put the other sailors at risk and was culpable for the risk they were facing now. Commentators argue some of his actions took their welfare into account and/or was unaware of the storm because of his deep sleep.
Also, we see in 1:10 that Jonah had told them earlier that he was fleeing from God’s Presence. OR is this all metaphorical, and the sailors are simply suggestive of Jonah’s faculties – the brain, the heart, etc.?
The tempest is after the sinning soul, as would be the Angel of Death, OR a wake-up call from God. It could also be the travails of life.
The sailors (mystically, the limbs of the body) cry out to whatever “god” has led them in the past.
The master might be the heart (the good inclination) who comes to confront the soul to arise from slumber and from the feet (area of evil) and to call to God and repent.
The lots are to hold accountable the responsible faculty.
The soul is responsible. It is a Hebrew, from beyond the River of Fire, the Garden, and the Throne of Glory. The soul is to fear God; here it transgressed.
It seeks to be thrown in the water – a surrender to the higher, maybe Torah, selflessness.)
C. Read 1:11-16
11 They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)
12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
13 The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. 14 So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. 16 The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.
1.What do you make of the question the sailors pose to Jonah and his response?
(They must have feared harming him since they could see he was a prophet. On the other hand, it appeared that their predicament was due to him. In any event, they ethically engaged in dialogue to get to a resolution.
Malbim suggests their questioning was geared to get him to repent and resume his mission. They would accompany him to Nineveh or go back to Israel.
He took responsibility, and knowing he was likely at fault, he offered to remove himself to save them. He clearly did not want to become the agent of Nineveh’s repentance. He also did not want the sailors, as innocents, to suffer.)
2. What about the sailors’ not going along and continuing to row harder?
(They wanted to save him, if possible. They rowed hard. Michlol Yofi reads this as thinking hard and seeking ideas to bring the ship back to shore.
Further, they didn’t want to antagonize God further by assisting in Jonah’s evasion of responsibility by drowning or otherwise.)
3. a) Then, finally, what of their appeal to HaShem before they threw him overboard?
(Whether they were Hebrews or not and/or accepted God, we don’t know. But they were respectful and didn’t want unjustly to kill him. It was one thing for God to be after him; it was another for them to take his demise upon themselves.)
b) Are they justified in acting in such a way that might kill him because of the risk to them here?
(Discussion – Recall God is driving this narrative. The sea might be seen as Torah learning and the fish, that which brings us back to the good and service of the Divine.)
Even then, they acted slowly, and, as the storm subsided, afterwards, they feared God and made offerings, perhaps some say, in converting.
D. Read 1:17, 2:1
17 Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
2:1 Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish:
1. What do you notice most in this verse, and what does it cause you most to wonder?
(God planned this! There’s no fish that naturally would/could swallow a human being, and there’s no fish in whose belly a human being could survive.
So, this is a miracle. This is a God-intended saving and a pathway for Jonah to prepare to repent and live out the repentance story.)
2. a) What do you make of the fact it took three days before Jonah prayed? And what do we make of it being a three-day period?
(As to the prayer, it’s to both Elohim and Adonai, as if there’s both justice and mercy in his plea. After all, he had been both saved and imprisoned. He deserved punishment but sought mercy.
Note the three days. Joseph freed his brothers on the third day. The Torah was given on the third day.
Was this an imprisonment of sorts? He needed punishment perhaps. Or was it a cleansing to be brought back to start again, as in resurrection.
There’s also mention of Jonah in Matthew in which this three-day period in the belly of the beast is seen as a prefiguration of Jesus’ three days in the tomb before resurrection.
b) Was Jonah afraid or ashamed, and it took him three days to get the courage to come back? Was he repenting?
(A piece of evidence that Jonah was truly repentant is what? He prayed to come out and go forward, and God answered his prayer!))
E. Read 2:2 - 10
2 “I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. From the belly of the underworld I cried out for help; you have heard my voice. 3 You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me. All your strong waves and rushing water passed over me. 4 So I said, ‘I have been driven away from your sight. Will I ever again look on your holy temple? 5 Waters have grasped me to the point of death; the deep surrounds me. Seaweed is wrapped around my head 6 at the base of the undersea mountains. I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight. But you brought me out of the pit. 7 When my endurance[c] was weakening, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 8 Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy. 9 But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks. That which I have promised, I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.
1. What gives Jonah the confidence he’ll see God’s holy temple again?
(Was this a carry-forward of the sense God answered his prayer and kept him alive, for a purpose?
Again, did he feel he had atoned? Yes, while he feared he might be doomed forever, he had hope his having been saved for so long was a sign God intended him saved.
His prayer was different than that of that of the sailors. He genuinely sought Divine kindness, not just in extreme moments, but perpetually, and with offerings. God sees his sincerity, and he sees that.)
2. Does God’s granting him mercy and salvation teach Jonah about the right attitude he should himself bring to the matter of Nineveh?
(We see both possibilities. He certainly appreciates being saved by God’s mercy and could conceivably transfer that approach to the Ninevites. But he is strongly committed to his views on Nineveh. We’ll see!)
III. Conclusion – What are our takeaways from study today? Perhaps they’re best seen in questions we’ve raised. What answers might we offer up to them?
(What’s our purpose in life? How do we respond to life’s challenges and challenges from God, too?
Do we get a sense that this is a sort of story of our lives, that is, that we’re like Jonah, and that we evade Divine calls, for whatever reason? We board the ship and travel away from God. But can we get away? Can we get away from our mission?
Or could this be a story of the soul’s journey through life? How could we – more specifically – understand how that works? Or are we always an agent of God, with the mission of the soul? We try to get lost in the material world, but God sends a storm that disrupts all that and shakes us out of it.
We have our own sense of right and wrong, which differ on occasion from God’s. Do we know that? Do we know how? Do we bend to God’s will, or fight on for ours?)
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