On Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, a big fish story is read in synagogues. As worshipers fast, confess their sins, and reflect on the words of Moses and Isaiah, they listen once again to the account of a catch and release that is so amazing no one would believe it if it wasn’t in the Bible.
Of all the readings that could have been chosen for the highest holy day of the year, someone started the tradition of reading Jonah. But why? Why do Jewish people read about the reluctant prophet who ran from God, was caught by a big fish, and then was miraculously released to complete a dangerous mission in what is now the nation of Iraq?
Rabbis have different explanations for reading Jonah on the holiday commonly called the Day of Atonement. One teacher of Israel says the story of Jonah is more about repentance than it is about the fish. Some explain that Jonah is evidence that no one can escape the presence of God, even while trying to run from the Almighty. Others believe Jonah is read on Yom Kippur with the hope that listeners would learn from Jonah’s mistakes. One rabbi says, “God cares for everyone. Jonah cares only for himself. God wins.”
Each of these explanations makes a good point. But the last one intrigues me the most. The story of Jonah is, after all, about a stubbornly self-centered man who was glad to receive God’s mercy when he thought he was dying in the stomach of a great fish (2:9). But he wanted nothing to do with a God who could be “gracious and merciful” to the enemies of Israel (4:2).
Before we are too hard on Jonah, though, let’s think about Nineveh.
In the days of Jonah, Nineveh was the thriving capital of the great Assyrian Empire. Her soldiers had a reputation for torturing their prisoners of war. Rumors of Assyrian atrocities were so alarming that victims often surrendered without a fight.
These are the people to whom God sent Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2).
One of the surprises of Jonah’s story is that when he finally shouts the message of God in the streets of Nineveh, the whole city repents. Even the animals wear sackcloth after the king of the Assyrians declares like a prophet, “Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (3:8-9).
To Jonah’s dismay, his worst fears come to pass. God shows mercy to Israel’s enemies when He sees their change of heart. Jonah is furious. As if he and his people alone deserve something that no one can earn, he complains, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (4:2-3).
Then the story gets even more amazing. As Jonah sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, God grows a plant to give him shade. Jonah is grateful. Then God sends a worm to kill the plant. The plant shrivels, leaving Jonah not only to overheat under the Middle East sun, but also furious with God. Jonah’s last words show no change of heart. He is so beside himself with anger that the Lord asks, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And Jonah says, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” (v.9).
As Jonah’s story ends, God is left prodding the conscience of a man who is more concerned about the plant that gave him shade than about the people of Nineveh who needed mercy.
That’s where Jonah’s story would end if it were not for the possibility that, ever since, others have been learning from his mistake. What about us? Could the brooding prophet help us make this our own day of repentance by reminding us that God cares for everyone? We’re inclined to care only for ourselves. But with or without us, God will have His way in the end.
From the beginning, God’s intent was nobler than to let one extended family enjoy a land of milk and honey. He poured out His love on His “chosen people” for a purpose much greater than themselves. Embraced by His love, they were called to bring the whole world the news of God’s mercy, patience, and compassion for repentant hearts.
By the time Jesus appeared on the scene, some prominent religious leaders seem to have forgotten God’s mission for Israel. Like echoes of Jonah, they considered non-Jewish people unclean and untouchable and unworthy of God’s mercy.
Quite unintentionally, these religious moralists did a pretty good Jonah imitation. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were angry with the God who wanted to show mercy to their enemies.
And what about us? Do we ever catch ourselves doing the Jonah routine? Could it be happening again to us right now? If so, will it take a “big fish” to turn us around? Or are we willing to make this our own personal moment and day of repentance?
Father in heaven, I see Jesus and Jonah in me. One cares for all; and the other cares only for himself. One died for me; the other has killed me over and over. Please renew in me now a true heart of repentance and a willingness to let You love the “Assyrians” that Your Son died for. –Mart De Haan