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Challenging God: Why Did Jonah Run?
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There are two basic questions that face you when you look at the Book of Jonah; one is right at the beginning and one is at the very end and these two questions combined, get in the way of almost the most basic understanding of what this Book is about. In a moment, I will introduce to you those questions. But before we even get there, I want to talk about one other puzzling thing about the Book, which is just basically what it’s about.
So let’s start with this. I mean, here we are, it’s Yom Kippur, a day of Teshuvah, a day of repentance; is this book about that theme? Is it about repentance? Well on the one hand, it is kind of about repentance.The people of Nineveh, they are bad and they end up doing Teshuvah, they end up repenting and they end up getting saved. So you might say that it is about repentance. But here is the problem with that, the book is not called ‘The Book of Nineveh’; it’s called ‘ The Book of Jonah’. And as a matter of fact, the people Nineveh,if you really think about it, are just supporting actors in this book. The book really isn’t about them, they only get a few verses here and there. The book, as it’s title suggest, is the Book of Jonah. The book is about Jonah’s journey - his journey into the fish, his journey on the ship, his journey then to call out to them - what is Jonah’s journey about?
It’s not about Teshuvah. Jonah’s does a lot of things wrong: he runs away from God, he wants to dies; he never apologizes for any of this. He never repents. You can never find Teshuvah anywhere in his book, even in his prayer, which he prays to God from the belly of the fish, can’t find any thoughts of Teshuvah in that prayer whatsoever. A book that doesn't have to do with Teshuvah at all on the day that’s all about Teshuvah. What I want to argue to you in these videos, is that the Book of Jonah is about something even more fundamental than Teshuvah; and Yom Kippur is about something even more fundamental than Teshuvah.
There is a certain kind of air, a certain kind of environment in which Teshuvah breathes and without understanding that environment, Yom Kippur makes no sense. The Book of Jonah is about understanding what that environment is that’s somewhat abstract. As we get into the nitty-gritty of the book, I think it is going to begin to make sense. But in order to do that, we have to open our eyes to some of the questions that make the book so difficult to understand.
I mentioned to you there is a question at the beginning of the book, and at the end of the book. Let’s talk about these two questions.
Here you are, reading the beginning of the book; it just hits you, in the first two verses, Vayehi devar-Hashem el-Yonah ben Amitai lemor, “ And the word of God came to Jonah, the son of Amitai saying” kum lech el-nineveh ha’ir hagedolah ukra aleiha ki-altah raatam lefanai, Jonah get’s his mission “Go to Nineveh, this great city and call out against it because their evil has come up before me.” Verse 3, vayakam Yonah livroach tarshishah, “And Jonah gets up to run away to Tarshish,” milifnei Hashem, “from before God”. Jonah gets , runs away to Tarshish, jumps on a boat and he’s off. He’s not going to Nineveh.
Question # 1: Why is Jonah running away? A mean, here he got a direct command from God “ go to Nineveh and call out against them. Inform them that they are doing the wrong thing, let’s see what happens because otherwise, they are going to be destroyed”. And Jonah doesn’t do it. Why didn’t he do it? Jonah is a prophet; why do you go into the prophecy business is you’re just going to say “no” when God wants you to do something? Coupled with the issue of why he runs away, is why he thinks he can get away with running away. If you are a prophet of the one God, surely you have a sophisticated notion enough of the divine to understand that you are not going to get away with it. And in fact,God catches up with him. There is a storm, Jonah gets swallowed up by the fish - he can’t run away for God . And Jonah, a prophet of God, is in the position to know that better than anyone. How does he think he can get away with it and why would he think he can get away with it? These are the burning questions in the first three verses of this book. But these questions are linked to another question;a question that emerges from the end of the book. Listen to the end of the story.
The city of Nineveh has repented; God has saved them. Jonah is upset by this and he tells God that he wants to die. As it happens, it’s very hot outside so God causes this very large gourd to just come up over night above Jonah. In the morning he’s got this gourd and it’s providing shade for him. Then, God causes a worm to come and the worm eats away the roots of the gourd and destroys it. At that point, Jonah wants to die again. And then God says to Jonah, atah chasta al-hakikyon asher lo amalta bo, “you had compassion on this gourd that you never worked for. It was only here for one night and was gone the next night. Don’t you think I should have compassion for Nineveh?” And that’s the end of the story.
You’re Jonah,what would you say to that? Does that make sense to you? Are you willing to just give up and say “ yes, you were right all along God”. What would you say if you could answer? I mean, I’ll tell you what I would say, “ what do you even mean that I had compassion on the gourd? I was hot;it was burning hot outside. You made this gourd, I was very happy because I have air conditioning. Now, you took away the gourd and now I don’t have air conditioning; so of course I am going to be upset. How is that supposed to help me understand why you’re suppose to spare Nineveh?” The whole analogy here does not seem that compelling.
These are the two great question that lay at the heart of this book. How does the beginning of the book makes sense - why does Jonah wants to run away? How does the end of the book makes sense - what is God trying to teach Jonah with the story of the gourd and how is the analogy effective? But what I want to show you in the coming videos, is that these two questions are actually related to each other. And in order to make sense of this book, you have to sort of attack both questions together. Because however it is you understands Jonah’s motivation for running away; is going to affect how you understand the analogy with the worm and the gourd at the end of the book. Come with me and let’s take a stab at it!
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