Jonah and Teshuvah – Lost in Translation

Alex Braver
September 6, 2012
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Prophecy is kind of like translation.  The prophet, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s model in his celebrated work, The Prophets, is inundated with an inexpressible, overwhelming deluge of divine pathos, divine emotion or feeling, and is then forced to express the inexpressible in human language.  Imagine trying to dump the ocean into a funnel.  This accounts for much of the variation in style between the books of the prophets–each prophet was forced, out of necessity or out of design–to translate God’s will on their own, filtered through the filter of their own human experience.

So, first, I’d like to take a closer look at the Hebrew of a the book of Jonah and provide my own notes on translation to try and answer the question: What is it, exactly, that scares Jonah away from God?  Then, I’d like to examine Jonah’s character, and see how his own human experience gets in the way of his more fully feeling and translating God’s pathos.


We all know the story–that Jonah is told to prophesy destruction to Nineveh, that he flees and is swallowed by a giant fish, and that he is spit out and reminded of his prophetic mission.  But what is the divine transmission that provokes Jonah’s flight?

יונהאבקוּםלֵךְאֶלנִינְוֵה, הָעִירהַגְּדוֹלָהוּקְרָאעָלֶיהָ: כִּיעָלְתָהרָעָתָם, לְפָנָי

Jonah 1:2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”

Yet the world קרא (in the New JPS translation above, “proclaim judgment”), simply means “call out” or “proclaim,” not literally “proclaim judgment”.  Given that the city’s wickedness has risen up to God, I’d imagine Jonah could have inferred that the message wasn’t going to be so great.  But in truth, the divine command is pretty vague.  There’s no indication that God wanted Jonah to say that the city was to be destroyed.  In fact, there’s really no indication of what God wanted Jonah to say at all.

After Jonah flees, is caught in a storm, is thrown overboard, is swallowed by a big fish, and is spit up onto dry land three days later, Jonah receives his second divine message:

יונהגבקוּםלֵךְאֶלנִינְוֵה, הָעִירהַגְּדוֹלָה; וּקְרָאאֵלֶיהָאֶתהַקְּרִיאָה, אֲשֶׁראָנֹכִידֹּבֵראֵלֶיךָ.

Jonah 3:2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.

This prophecy is remarkably similar to the first, with a few differences.  The introduction is the same.  It too begins with “קום לך” (“Go at once”, but more literally “get up, go!”).  It too uses the verb קרא (“call out” or “proclaim”).  Yet the preposition has changed.  Whereas the first prophecy says to proclaim “עליה” (“upon it”), this second verse changes the letter ayin for letter aleph, saying to proclaim אליה (“to it”).  In addition, this time, God is specific–God says that God will provide a script for Jonah (perhaps in contrast to Heschel’s model of becoming attuned to the divine pathos, as discussed above).  The script comes two verses later, when Jonah proclaims it to Nineveh:

יונהגד עוֹדאַרְבָּעִיםיוֹם, וְנִינְוֵהנֶהְפָּכֶת.

Jonah 3:4 …“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Key here is the word נהפכת (“overthrown”), which more literally means “flipped” or “overturned”.  To explain this strange word choice, Rashi brings the following comment:

“It does not say “destroyed” because “overturned” has two meanings, good and evil.  If they will not do teshuvah, they will be destroyed.  But if they do teshuvah, then all of the people of Nineveh shall be “overturned”.  It stands that they will turn from evil to good, and they will do teshuvah.

This interpretation notices the ambiguity of the word “overturned” and plays with it to suggest that the meaning of the prophecy was vague, malleable, conditional.  It was not a pronouncement of judgment, or a death sentence, as Jonah seems to have thought.  The script God gave him, from the very beginning, had–built into it–the possibility for teshuvah.  When the city is spared, Jonah fails to realize that God has not reneged on God’s word, but has rather simply chosen to fulfill it’s “good” meaning.  God chose to fulfill God’s prophecy for good rather than for evil, in compassion rather than in anger.  If Jonah were listening more deeply, and if he believed in the process of teshuvah, perhaps he would have recognized this.

Listening and Teshuvah

Jonah is a prophet with a listening problem.  We see this on the boat–while a storm rages around him and the entire crew is frantically crying out each to their own god, the text says that Jonah went down below decks and slept deeply.  But perhaps the listening problem begins even earlier.  All Jonah hears from God at the beginning of the story is that he should “proclaim upon” Nineveh.  He is unwilling to listen further, or to listen more deeply to the divine pathos, instead filling in the details himself.  Jonah assumes that his mission is to pronounce doom upon Nineveh, and Jonah tells us in the final chapter that the reason he fled was because he knew that his work would be for naught.  Jonah assumed that God wanted him to say that the city would burn, but that God would not go through with the plan.  He thought his prophetic trip would be a colossal waste of time, and he would seem a false prophet, the prophet who cried wolf.  But the truth is that, at first, Jonah actually has no idea what his mission is, no idea what he would even do when he got to Nineveh, no idea what God’s intention was, other than that he was to go there and “proclaim unto it”!  What type of proclamation ought he give?

Rather than trying to listen more closely to the divine message, or rather than asking God some questions, Jonah instead flees immediately–whereas God commands him “קום לך” (get up, go!), the next verse says “ויקם יונה לבורח” (Jonah got up to flee).  He only got part of the message, and–ironically–he obeyed the first verb but did the opposite of the second!  For a prophet, he seems remarkably out of tune with the divine emotion, unable or unwilling to align his feelings with God’s.

After his harrowing experience in the storm and in the belly of the fish, Jonah has done some soul-searching and is ready to listen again, more deeply.  He hears again what is essentially the same message, but with a few key differences mentioned above.  Humbled now, Jonah is able to hear differently, to hear the difference between “קרא עליה” (proclaim upon it) and “קרא אליה” (proclaim to it), a difference of only one letter (the shift from the practically-silent guttural ayin to the silent aleph).  The shift in preposition also signifies a shift in the directive, perhaps akin to the shift between speaking “at” someone and speaking “to” them.  Jonah’s traumatic experience in the storm and in the fish has perhaps allowed him to hear his prophecy more clearly, to widen the funnel through which God’s pathos flows, to begin to see the humanity of the Ninevites and the possibility of their entering into relationship with the divine word.  This is no surprise–our own personal encounters with danger or death, our own personal trauma and suffering, have within them the capacity to awaken us to greater awareness and compassion.

Yet this is obviously not enough for Jonah, as he fails to realize the wordplay in his own prophecy!  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”  Overturned and destroyed, or overturned in teshuvah.  A more compassionate Jonah would have heard the double-entendre of “overturned,” and realized that he was an instrument of God’s desire for teshuvah. He would have heard the deeper message swimming in the sea of God’s pathos, a message to which the limitations of his character and his human experience blinded him.  Yet perhaps he could not sense the second meaning of “overturned” because he does not believe in the process of “turning”, the literal meaning of teshuvah.

We learn this about Jonah two chapters earlier, while Jonah is still on the ship.  If Jonah believed in the power of repentance as the storm raged around him, why did he suggest that the sailors throw him overboard?  Why didn’t he just repent?  Jonah knew that God was mad at him, knew that he was shirking his prophetic responsibility…and yet he thought death was the only way out.  Jonah believed he could never change, just like he thought the Ninevites could never change.  So why does it surprise us, three chapters later, when Jonah projects his belief in his own inability to change onto a city full of strangers, believing that they ought to be destroyed?  After the city is spared, why are we annoyed when Jonah thinks that the Ninevites only “got away with it” because God is”חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה” (gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment) and not because they listened to God’s words in a deeper and more meaningful way that Jonah himself was capable?

Rabbi David Ingber of Kehilat Romemu once remarked that while teshuvah is often thought of as turning back to the past to right wrongs, it should instead be thought of as returning to the present, to our fullest, truest, best selves.  This teaching is as applicable to Jonah as it is to us.  He is caught up in his past–his decision to flee God weighs upon him so heavily on the ship that he cannot bear to think of returning to a renewed self, and the sins of the Ninevites are so grievous that the thought of going back and reckoning with all of them seems impossible.  Between a person and her fellow, teshuvah might require this sort of looking backward, and an attempt to account for wrongs done in the past.  But the miracle of teshuvah between a person and God is that–if we believe and listen fully for God’s voice calling us to greater compassion–we can begin to turn from our past to our present.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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