The website of Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

The Book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is one of the smallest books in the Hebrew Scriptures- only four chapters and forty-eight verses taking- up scarcely three pages in many Bibles.

By the second century B. C. E., the book entered the collection of books considered by Judaism representatives of the ideas, values and vision of Israel, its Constitution, so to speak.

As part of the prophetic literature’s section of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jonah stands fifth among the books of the twelve minor prophets – a collection of twelve prophetic books within the Jewish Foundational Literature.

Who was Jonah?

The name Jonah appears 18 times in the book. The importance of the role played by his name is highlighted even more by the fact that he is the only person in the book with a name; all other characters remain anonymous. The name appears elsewhere in the TaNaKh where he is identified as a prophet from Gat-hepher who lived at the time of Jeroboam II (784-744), and foretold the restoration of the frontier- once controlled by Arameans- as it was in the age of David and Solomon.

Amos denounces social injustices on Israeli territory. Hosea thunders against the cults of Baal and Asherah that are starting to take root there. Joel laments the invasions of grasshoppers that are devastating the land of Moses. Haggai and Zechariah plead for the reconstruction of the temple. Much later, after the temple has been reconstructed, Malachi bemoans the cold, spiritless formalism that there prevails. Micah announces of a messiah. Habakkuk is surprised at the silence of God. Zephaniah invites the kingdom of Judah to acknowledge its faults and expiate them. But Jonah is the only one to whom God mentions none of this but, instead, he speaks to him of Nineveh, a large and supremely sinful foreign city whose defects have recently come to his attention. He asks Jonah to repair them so that he is not forced to punish the city

Together with cities such as Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babylon, Nineveh is synonymous with evil. One of three royal cities of Assyria Nineveh represented the empire that not only destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and deported its population, but that tried to conquer Jerusalem as well at the time of king Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah.

To ancient Israelites, the name Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, would have had similar connotations to Berlin when it was Hitler’s capital from 1933 to 1945. Forgiving hideous crimes would cause no small dilemma for the Jews of either era.”

Abraham Maslow, one of the most influential psychologists of our times referred to the temptation to run away from social responsibilities and growth; as the “Jonah complex.” He defined it as “the fear of standing alone, the escape from greatness, and the unwillingness to face the necessary obstacle on the way to one’s fulfillment:

To discover in oneself a great talent can certainly bring exhilaration but it also brings a fear of the dangers and responsibilities and duties of being a leader and of being all alone. Responsibility can be seen as a heavy burden and evaded as long as possible. “The Jonah syndrome” is partly a justified fear of being torn apart, losing control, being shattered and disintegrated, even being killed by the experience.

“Jonah, like Israel, goes into darkness (the exile itself). But when Jonah is released, his mission is to the foreign city of Nineveh; in other words, Jonah is called to be an example of Isaiah’s “light of the nations.” Thus, one might argue that the story of Jonah is a kind of midrash on Isa. 49: 6 and other universalist inclinations of Second Isaiah.” 


Jonah does not admonish the Ninevites for their idolatry, but for “the violence that is in their hands. (Jon. 3: 8)” It is “violence,” the arbitrary infringements of human rights, not idolatry, that is the essence of Nineveh’s sin in chap. 3

In chapter 1 innocent sailors experienced the life-threatening fury of God. In chapter 3 guilty Ninevites experience the redemptive power of God. On the one hand, how can God move so quickly to destroy the innocent? On the other, how can God move so quickly to the salvation of the guilty?

The many Meanings and Interpretations of the Book ofJonah

"[...]If you want a world, you will not have justice; if it is justice you want, there will be no world. You are taking hold of the rope by both ends-you desire both a world and justice-but if you don't concede a little, the world cannot stand.

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