What’s up with Jonah?

My question is about Jonah.

Why was he so angry with G-d that he would not go to Nineveh? Here is a man so stiff-necked that he would rather drown than obey G-d? Here is a man who kept himself in the belly of a sea giant for three days before he repented and agreed to do as G-d instructed him. After preaching in Nineveh, he sat down and again was angry.


Catherine G.

Dear Catherine,

Like you, we are fascinated by the book of Jonah. In fact, it has been the topic of at least four Thought Tools as well as one section of our audio CD, Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity. (Go here and type Jonah in the search box to find the relevant Thought Tools.)

This correctly suggests that the topic is too large for an Ask the Rabbi answer. However, we wanted to focus on one of your sentences. You write: “Here is a man so stiff-necked that he would rather drown than obey G-d.”

We would like to suggest that you can go to any mall, airport or university and find that the majority of people there fit that description as well. Sadly, you can go to many churches and synagogues and find the same. Obeying God is easier in theory than in actuality. We all tend to resist being told to do things we don’t want to do or to refrain from those things that we do want to do. We often rationalize and  intellectualize our refusal; sometimes we simply pretend that God has nothing to say about the issue at hand.

Don’t you know people who are drowning in unhappiness rather than obey God’s vision for family and society? There are pieces of Jonah in all of us. Studying him should encourage us to look in the mirror.

Wishing all of us Bible study that makes us uncomfortable,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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We hope you had a chance to read our annual AAJC letter.
If you missed it, you can see it HERE


16 thoughts on “What’s up with Jonah?”

  1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Dear Doug–
    Today’s Orthodox Jews are not even close to the Pharisees of yesteryear. Pharisees had been corrupted by power and Roman influence–not good times.
    There is no rationale for ignoring God’s word in the Bible. The issue is merely with what He actually said. We don’t involve ourselves in theology on this site so I don’t really want to get into specific verses but suffice it to say that the original Hebrew presents none of the problems you surmise.

  2. Are today’s Orthodox Jews the Pharasees of yesterday?
    I am an Evangelical Christian and would like an answer to this question as I love Israel and it’s people! This question has always bothered me! We are taught that the Jewish nation is Gods chosen people, and I believe that, however, I also believe that Our same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wrote the scriptures found in all of the Bible! The Old Testament,and Old covenant, and the New Testament n New Covenant outline to us how we should relate to our eternal Salvation! According to our Gods word He stated emphatically many times in both the Old and New Testaments,my hat the only way to be with Him in Heaven is through accepting Christ as Saviour, yet the Pharasees had killed! Please explain the rational for not listening to Gods word in the Bible!

  3. Dear Rabbi, Thank you for replying to my question. However, you did not answer my question. I know that there are people all around me, and I must include myself, that are no different from Jonah. I wanted to know why Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. Reading the comments section has given me more information and insight than your reply.

    1. We’re delighted that other Ask the Rabbi readers could help you, Catherine. We think the comment section is fantastic.

  4. It’s my understanding that the Ninevites had tried to purge the Jewish people when Jonah’s father was alive and orating, so Jonah really wanted to see a lot more “smiting” and a lot less forgiveness. In the story, Jonah preaches to about 1/3 of the population; he assumed that he would fulfill his obligation, albeit not wholeheartedly, so a few might be saved but the rest of the Ninevites would perish. He was so gifted and empowered, however, that the people who heard him told everyone they knew, and the message eventually reached the leaders who guided the people in repentance. Rather than enjoying the success and the part he played in it, Jonah opted to pout about it. God’s plans didn’t line up with Jonah’s wishes.

  5. Jonah is the same person as the son of the poor widow who fed the prophet Elijah from her little remaining food. Her son became ill and died, but the prophet prayed to God and the boy lived. People who have a brush with death and live often feel the need to make a major impact in the world. I’m guessing that preaching to the wicked and depraved city of Nineveh was not the life purpose that Jonah envisioned!

  6. Very profound lesson Rabbi. I pray that I keep this thought in mind, it has opened a lot of thoughts to me.

  7. The big core I get out of Jonah is ego. Jonah was a prophet, and if he goes to tell a city that destruction is coming unless they repent, and then destruction never comes . . . he felt he would look bad. While he should be rejoicing that the city repented, instead he is unhappy that now it may appear to some that the destruction he prophesied was never real. So he didn’t want to go prior, and even after he was unhappy all because of ego, selfishness. He only thought of himself not of the people of Ninevah.
    But God was still teaching him. The story has so many lessons because we can be in the shoes of Ninevah and know that it’s not too late to repent, but we should repent now. We can put ourselves in the shoes of Jonah that even when we go against God, he is still teaching and reaching out to us. He still loves us and works in our lives for our best interest. There is a lot of layers to the story of Jonah. Maybe I’ll look into your Thought Tools also to see additional layers I’m sure to have missed.

    1. Jason, you are bringing up another point ancient Jewish wisdom discusses that a part of Jonah was indeed worried that he would seem like a false prophet. As we know today, proving a negative is almost impossible. (Had you not repented you would have been destroyed…)

  8. Margie Ann ZufeltRedBowSociety

    Thank you both for Jonah’s story. I can see it in living color with a few folks I gave Tough Love to…how it hurt my heart to see them going around the wilderness, knowing what to do & not doing it…even for their benefit, safety, home, finances, and spiritual growth.
    A sweet kick in the pants was needed too badly…as a Pastor, & after months of counseling…my spirit had to push them into change. One person didn’t & has isolated self as being wounded victim, while the other has made strides…yet still vacillating…as the change grows. I’m just believing our G-D to finish what needs to be, for His glory! Jonah is a type of stiffnecked people I see from the pulpit down. May you be richly Blessed!
    Thank you for sharing…Love in Jesus Name! Amen…

  9. I believe Jonah saw the evil of those people that he wanted them death. Then he got angry because He would stand as false prophet as the destruction he announced did not come true. What is interested is that there was a solar eclipse, (I believe it’s name was bar sagale eclipse) civil unrest, plagues , earthquakes before Jonah coming. Those ppl were in a emotional distress that hearing Jonah while looking at the disasters was an immediate repent …sad the USA is not repenting at all after the solar eclipse, huracanes , fires everywhere and the civil unrest…

  10. The hard part for me is the end of the book. He never ends up with G-d’s favor, or so it seems? Such a sad part of
    the Bible. It is also true for Samson, he dies to never enjoy what G-d has given us, beautiful life and with so many things to enjoy….It tends to leave me feeling hopeless. Not sure why?

  11. I also wonder if he went to Nineveh to tell them to repent he knew God would forgive the people there as God is a forgiving God. Jonah did not want their repentance to be accepted so he avoided at all costs informing them of their sins and possible punishment.

    1. That is a part of ancient Jewish wisdom, Lee. Jonah felt it would reflect badly on his Jewish community if Nineveh repented quickly and completely. As in our lives today, many different emotions and thoughts can be present at the same time. But this is one piece of the puzzle.

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