Why Wasn’t Jonah Punished? Reading Jonah during COVID

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Erica Brown


Yom Kippur will be different this year. How could it not be? The stark differences may help us withhold judgment even in a time of judgment, while affirming the way ancient texts wrap themselves in today’s challenges and offer us new conceptual frameworks.

To this end, there is something about the distress, the isolation, the narrow world we’ve occupied for these many months that may make us more sympathetic this year to Jonah’s desire to run away from the life he knew. Rather than judge him for his foolish escapade and the supposition he could run away from his Maker, a part of us may think, “Hey, Jonah, is there any more room on that boat for me?”

Among those who justify Jonah’s flight, the French medieval commentator, Rabbi David Kimche (1160-1235), best sums up the traditional posture. Jonah was concerned not “about the honor of the father but the honor of the children.” He challenged God in order to preserve his people, a tactic taken straight from the playbook of Abraham and Moses. If Jonah’s pleas were successful in his mission to Nineveh, its spiritual successes would be leveraged for the punishment of Israel. All of this would be traced back to Jonah, who would be regarded for posterity as a traitor. This mental model of betrayal and total accountability would lead anyone to run away from the task at hand. Add to that the view from II Kings 14 that Jonah was afraid to be labeled a false prophet, and we can understand Jonah’s legitimate concerns.

Yet while this reasoning makes sense, it does not unlock the full picture. Neither Abraham nor Moses ran away. They confronted God and used words as a ladder to negotiate a more humane outcome. Jonah said nothing. The text tells us that he was not merely running away from something; he was running toward something else: “Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the Lord” (1:3).

We are told three times that Jonah had a specific destination in mind: Tarshish. Unlike the immoral, warring power that was Nineveh, Tarshish was associated with travel[1] and expensive goods,[2] high seas, and extravagance, as recorded in I Kings: “All King Solomon’s drinking cups were of gold, and all the utensils of the Lebanon Forest House were of pure gold: silver did not count for anything in Solomon’s days. For the king had a Tarshish fleet on the sea, along with Hiram’s fleet. Once every three years, the Tarshish fleet came in, bearing gold and silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (I Kings 10:21-22). Disappearing far away and into the lap of luxury must have been quite the enticement for a prophet running away from the burden of his heavy mission. Many interpreters, like Radak cited above, tackle the obvious question of what Jonah was afraid of, but few try to understand or honor his desire to break free, to go to a place far from the ordinary to experience another world that is represented by Tarshish.

People who overturn their lives are often looking for something they cannot find where they are. Harry Houdini, perhaps the most famous escape artist who ever lived, is quoted as having said, “The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.”[3] One of his biographers claims, however, that Houdini’s greatest escape “wasn’t from handcuffs or straitjackets or Appleton. It was from the shackles of reality.”[4]

The world of literature abounds in freedom journeys, whether it’s Melville’s sailing exploits or Kerouac’s open road. They allow us to experience larger vistas than the ones we have; we are invited to enter the mindset of someone who volitionally lets go of society’s constraints and expectations.

One of the most popular recent documentations of this desire to run is presented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Christopher Johnson McCandless, who graduated Emory, donated his life savings to Oxfam, and began a journey to the wilds of Alaska in 1992, woefully underprepared. He kept a journal and wrote postcards that helped Krakauer understand the narrative arc of McCandless’s journey and his motivation for going. Although McCandless enjoyed meeting people on his trek across the country, his retreat from people explains part of his enigmatic run: “We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again.”[5]

In the long run, it was not an unhealthy introversion that drove McCandless farther and farther from the margins of safety but a profound desire to rid himself of the life he knew in search of endless possibilities:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.[6]

We could chalk up his adventure to a naïve, almost adolescent need to overturn a sad life on the edge and a background of family secrets and possible parental abuse,[7] but there is something compelling about McCandless’s desire to remove the shackles of convention that made Krakauer’s book into another bestseller and then a popular movie. Inside each of us is the closet whisper as McCandless is about to leave: “I now walk into the wild.”[8]

McCandless met an electrician on his way to Anchorage and hitched a ride with him. The electrician noted the lightness of his pack and voiced concern about this ambitious, ill-informed young man’s plan. “Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.”[9] Human desire is often no match for nature.

Jonah, too, learned this the hard way. He never spoke his desire; he just proceeded with a determined gait and a pounding silence. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.’ Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service…” Jonah’s obstreperous about-face – he was told to rise and go, which he did, just in a different direction – leads the reader to conclude that a substantial punishment awaited this fugitive.

But it never came. God never punished Jonah. Instead, like a loving parent of a lost child, God used the forces of nature to stop Jonah’s flight and allow him to analyze of his own accord his desire to run. As Jonah lands on the sea’s breakers, we think of Odysseus and his grasp for life: “He lunged for a reef, seized it with both hands and clung for dear life, groaning until the giant wave surged past and so he escaped its force, but the breaker’s backwash charged into him full fury and hurled him out to sea.”[10] Jonah’s prayer in chapter two reflected his downward spiritual descent. Finally, at the very bottom of the sea, the words tumbled out.[11]

Jonah longed for the Temple. He longed to see God again. He pledged fealty to the mission. If Jonah thought his life was overly constrained by duty and obligation before, he ended up in the greater constraint of an oversized fish that ironically forced the long-awaited confrontation. The fish then spat him out on dry land. Maybe the book could have ended here. Personal salvation helped Jonah overcome the desire to run and replaced it with a newly energized will to serve God as commanded. The Yom Kippur message ties Jonah’s mortality to his mission and helps us understand that running away serves no positive end.

But the book does not end here. Jonah continues to Nineveh. Only one day into Jonah’s new commitment, the prophet fled again. He left Nineveh for the small comforts of his booth despite his obvious success in transforming an entire city. No storm, no fish, no hot sun or burning wind, no gourd or small worm ultimately worked. It is then that God used a series of three direct questions in a chapter of only eleven verses. To the first question, “Are you that deeply grieved?” (4:4),[12] Jonah offered no answer. To the second question, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” Jonah replied: “Yes, so deeply that I want to die” (4:9). Jonah could not even see the sham that was his answer, that he could cling so tightly to something in which he made no long-term investment. The book’s concluding question lingers.

Then the Lord said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (4:10-11)

This is not really a question about Jonah but a statement about God. It seems God had, for the moment, bypassed Jonah. God’s loving efforts to use the range of nature to help Jonah see himself only resulted in Jonah’s shameful answer about the gourd. In the absence of punishment, all God had left, so to speak, in the arsenal of persuasion was to be the Divine Model to create and sustain a world where everyone matters. It’s as if God said to Jonah, “I cannot help you understand who you are if you keep running. Perhaps if you refuse to see yourself, you can understand, however, who I am. I am not the God whom you describe as having every quality Moses attributed to me in Exodus 32 but emet (truth). Instead, I am a God for whom truth and mercy are intertwined so as to be inseparable. For you, these are binary qualities. for me, they are one. Jonah, were that not the case, you would not be alive today. You ran away to expand your world, but, in truth, it has never been more narrow.”

Maybe God never punished Jonah because it is no sin to leave the confines of one’s life to pursue one’s truth. But maybe God thought that when Jonah left Jaffa to expand his world, he really would. Instead, Jonah built a man-size booth that made his world even smaller. Jonah, who in II Kings enlarged the Land of Israel’s borders, never really adjusted his worldview despite his travel experiences. After all, if you can go to Tarshish, you should be able to go to Nineveh.

Like Jonah in his fish or his booth, this Yom Kippur we are masked, restricted, and constrained, tossed on some difficult seas and distant from the spiritual anchors of our lives. Our world is so much smaller that we too long to run and get happily lost somewhere far away. And maybe we read this book on Yom Kippur to reject that urge and make peace with the lives we have. But maybe we read Jonah on Yom Kippur for the exact opposite reason: to enter that small enviable moment of wanderlust and ask ourselves:, when we are finally let out of this crucible of introspection, where we have spent so much time only with ourselves, who will we become when the world opens up again? God never punished Jonah for running. He only questioned him for traveling the world without seeing anything new and never really changing.

[1] Other verses that discuss the rich merchant fleets of Tarshish include Isaiah 23:1, 6,10, 14, Ezekiel 27:25 and 38:13, Psalms 48:7.  

[2] See, for example, I Kings 10:21-22, Psalms 72:10, Isaiah 60:9, Jeremiah 10:19, Ezekiel 27:12.

[3] Although this quote is commonly associated with Houdini, Tom Boldt, who runs the Boldt Company in Appleton, claims Houdini would never have said it because of his fond associations with the city and its people, as discussed in Joe Posnanski’s The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (Simon and Schuster, 2019), 19.

[4] Posnanski, 20.

[5] Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (Anchor, 1997), 96.

[6] Ibid., 56-57.

[7] This background was supplied by McCandless’s sister Carine in her memoir The Wild Truth (HarperCollins, 2014) and contested by her parents, as cited in Johnny Dodd, “Chris McCandless’ Sister Pens New Book Detailing Parents’ Violence and Abuse,” People (November 12, 2014).

[8] From his postcard of April 27th, 1992.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics), 165.

[11] See the similarities of Jonah’s prayer to Psalm 139.

[12] Note the similarities to another penitential text, Genesis 4:6, where God tries to induce Cain into understanding his primal, violent emotions and thereby curbing them. Neither Jonah nor Cain respond.

Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the founding director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her most recent book is Staying Human: Wartime Fragments of Anguish and Hope (Maggid). Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, an Avi Chai Fellow, the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She has written 13 books on the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, and leadership, co-authored 2 books, and co-edited one anthology. She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books. She wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week and is a consulting editor for the journal Tradition. She currently serves as a community scholar for Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, New Jersey. She is the proud mother of four children, four in-law children, and five beautiful grandchildren.