Jonah: Prophetic Hesitation

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

The Book of Jonah, simply put, is misnamed. This is not the account of a prophet. although an unusual Hebrew prophet stands at its center. This is a book about God, a God associated with a particular nation, Israel, who expands His divine embrace to include non-Jews, animals large and small, and vegetation. Nowhere since the first chapters of Genesis do we find, in so few pages, mention of the world’s totality and God’s utter and urgent concern for the whole of creation. Jonah will serve as God’s ultimate foil in this magical story, just as the sailors, the king of Nineveh, and the animals become foils for the prophet. Jonah’s personal theological crisis will become the platform upon which God models divine compassion, urging Jonah to become more godly, more like his Creator. God serves Jonah as parent, friend, mentor, and teacher. God’s props – from a fish to a storm to a gourd to a worm – are the teaching tools by which God patiently encourages the prophet to confront his ugliest self, predominantly his churlish disregard for a universe outside of his narrow, parochial concerns.

The world around Jonah is in constant flux. A group of sailors became a group of believers. A city and its king transformed themselves. A tree grew and died overnight. Everything and everyone changed, including God – but the prophet did not change. For this reason, we have no idea what happened to Jonah when the words written about him end, unceremoniously, as if in mid-sentence or mid-story. There are only so many chances given to a person who fails to believe in personal transformation, let alone radical collective change. But more than the transformations personal or collective that appear in the book, it was God’s ability to change that was the source of Jonah’s caustic resentment.

We read this book on Yom Kippur not because of Jonah but because of the God of Jonah. If God can change, we can change. If God recruits all of nature to fight human  nature in the story of one individual, then surely we can all overcome the barriers to compassion, the niggling resistance to being different than we are, and the narcissistic pull that keeps our own worlds small and limited. Jonah was unmoved, but perhaps we will read his book as his critics and be moved precisely because he was not. Maybe we will see in the God of Jonah, the God of each and every one of us, a God who cares for us intimately and personally, a God who marshals the world’s resources for our reformation, who asks us questions that force introspection. Can we adjust, adapt, amend, refine, and modify who we are on this holiest of days because God also changes? Or are we, like Jonah, secret believers, that nothing ever changes, least of all who we are? The God of Jonah changes; that should be motivation enough. It was not enough for Jonah. Will it be for us?