Jonah’s Death Wish

September 3, 2012
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Ruhama Weiss

The prophet Jonah is a silent man who hides from people. All four chapters of the book of Jonah contain only 82 words that are said in his name (if we exclude the prayer whose style, content, and stylistic proximity to Psalms show that they are not the words of the hero).

If I were Jonah’s mother, I would be a worried woman. The few times that he speaks, he expresses a desire to die. Jonah does not explain why he is running away from God, but it is obvious that he knows he cannot escape. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)

After drawing lots, the ship’s crew understands that the storm, which is threatening to drown them, is because of Jonah. They turn to him in an attempt to understand his belief. Jonah requests that the ship’s crew free him from the burdens of life and throw him to his death. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (1:12) The ship’s crew does not want to throw him overboard with their own hands, and they attempt to sail to shore, but the blood covenant between God and Jonah defeats them and they are forced to throw him into the water.

Every time I read the book of Jonah I wonder what caused Jonah to place such a heavy moral burden on the ship’s crew. Why did he not volunteer to jump into the water? Jonah wanted to die, but he did not agree to cause his own death. Jonah wanted God to kill him. He did not escape from God; he rebelled against God and hoped for a death sentence.

Jonah will believe in a God only if that God will sentence him to death. But God is not prepared to be Jonah’s executioner; He will not collaborate with Jonah’s merciless worldview. Jonah’s punishment will be to bring forgiveness to the world.

Jonah’s ejection from the fish occurs at a critical moment of arm-wrestling between God and Jonah. With this act of salvation, God tells Jonah that his request for death has been denied. Jonah, for his part, declares before God three times, one after the other, that His world is constantly disappointing and that death is the only way out.

With no escape from his life, Jonah is forced to address the Ninevites. With just a few words, Jonah fulfills his obligation to God: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) This is a factual statement, short and dry, that brings the news of the death of a great kingdom. But these few words caused all the subjects of the kingdom to repent. And God, obviously, forgave them.

God’s decision to reverse the evil decree brings Jonah not to further despair but, rather, to rage. In his longest speech, toward the end of the book, Jonah cries out to the Heavens: “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” (Jonah 4:2-3) Jonah escaped initially to Tarshish since he knew — and could not abide by — a God that is not a God of “truth” (as the virtues of God are described in Exodus 34:6). God decided to exchange the virtue of “truth” with “renouncing punishment” and Jonah does not accept the decree. Jonah is the antithesis of Moses.

Against Jonah’s wishes, God connects him again to resuscitative machines — a plant that shades Jonah from the sun, but then withers. Jonah finds himself weak, defeated, and most of all alone and betrayed by the divine virtue of mercy. He responds twice to God’s questions, but all he can say is, “I would rather die than live. … so deeply that I want to die.” (Jonah 4:8-9)

On the day when we ask God to be long-suffering, we read the book of Jonah with its moral critique of the idea of repentance. We ask to live in a world that is less just and more compassionate. We bow our heads and say that we are not as good as Jonah. We are fragile and confused; we are lost and we cause others to go astray; we do not desire to die. We lust for life and therefore we lust for forgiveness. On the Days of Awe, we are asking, first and foremost, not to be evil in our own eyes. We also ask to believe that though small, weak, and wayward, we are worthy of a God who is long-suffering.

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Ruhama Weiss, a professor of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, is director of the college’s Sugiot Chaim (Life Texts) talmudic bibliotherapy and spiritual care programs. This essay was translated by Aryeh Cohen.

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