The Book of Jonah - Differing Notions of Divine Punishment and Divine Mercy

By Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

In the Book of Jonah, God does a lot while having little to say. But in not saying much, God still delivers one crucial message: Care.

God first instructs Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me” (1:2). Jonah runs in the opposite direction, boarding a ship to Tarshish. While on the boat, God brings a storm, conveying to the sailors and Jonah that attempting to skirt God’s commands puts their lives in danger. The sailors heave Jonah overboard, and God sends a big fish to swallow him. Once Jonah is inside the belly of the whale, he laments his fate. God hears this prayer and tells the fish to spit Jonah onto dry ground.

Then, God speaks again, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you” (3:1). Now, Jonah follows God’s instruction, prophesying to the Ninevites. Both the human and animal population in that great city repent. Jonah situates himself outside the city walls to see if their fasting and sackcloth worked. While waiting, a strong, hot wind blows, which torments Jonah. The prophet prays for shade, so God provides a large plant to ease Jonah’s burden. But then, the next day, God sends a worm to destroy that plant. Once more, Jonah is desperate, begging for death.

Finally, in the last several verses of the story, God speaks directly to Jonah, “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 animals as well” (4:10-11).

In looking at God’s actions and words, few as they are, I have come to believe that the message the author of the Book of Jonah is trying to convey is, in a word, care.

Jonah is the epitome of someone who runs away from responsibility, only brought back begrudgingly. And Jonah is someone who wants punishment even when the wrongdoer is remorseful. Indeed, we, as readers, can relate. We avoid conflict, and we choose to pursue our desires over our responsibilities. We run away, too. And, when wrongdoing happens, we notice that part of ourselves that feels harsh punishment will satisfy an instinct for vengeance.

On the other hand, God acts caringly toward the Ninevites, as a parent might care for a child. God knows the Ninevites have done wrong, although their sins go undisclosed to us, the readers. God gives them a chance to repent – to confess, fast, and perform other mourning rituals – to show they have turned from their wrongdoing. God is caring toward the Ninevites.

The Ninevites’ success irks Jonah. Jonah wants God to punish them, and instead, God forgives them. The Book of Jonah is essentially a debate between the notions of Divine Punishment and Divine Mercy, a theme that runs throughout the Jewish tradition. In the Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 3b, Rav Yehudah teaches in the name of Rav that God sits on two different thrones. For a part of every day, God first sits on the throne of judgment. Once God sees that the entire world is worthy of destruction, God then shifts chairs, instead moving over to the throne of mercy.

These complementary notions – that God is both judging and merciful – invite us to consider how we want to be in the world. Jonah wanted God to be punishing, and not merciful. God felt differently. In our own lives, when confronted with wrongdoing, how are we to behave? That we will do wrong is inevitable. That others will wrong us, too, is unfortunately unavoidable.

Yet the message of Jonah is that repair is possible, because we are in a relationship with a caring God. Just like the Ninevites, we can repair after having transgressed because – if the Book of Jonah is to be believed – God cares about humanity.

At the time of writing, we are approaching the month of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Elul is a time for Cheshbon HaNefesh, the appraisal of our souls, so that we might approach the High Holy Days ready to do what we need to do to restore our relationships with one another and with God, after having certainly done wrong at some point in the year – okay, years – past. Come mid-September, we will be together in shul, reciting vidui, the confessional prayers in which we verbalize the misdeeds we have committed, individually and collectively.

And on Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read the Book of Jonah. The reason we read Jonah at that time is that it is then that we need a little help to strengthen our t’shuvah. Weak from fasting but not yet finished with the day, we need the God of the Book of Jonah to remind us that mercy is for us, just as it was for the Ninevites. We need the reminder that our efforts to repair and heal ourselves and others after wrongdoing are worth it because we live in covenant with a caring God.

In this new year, may we encounter that caring God, and turn that sense of care out toward others. Shanah Tova U’Metukah, wishing you a good and sweet new year.

Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch serves as a rabbi at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.