This week sees the Jewish Holy Day of Yom Kippur, literally the Day of Atonement. It concludes a ten day period at the start of the Jewish year, known as the Days of Penitence (Aseret Yemei Teshuva) and during this time it is customary to read the story of Jonah, a seemingly minor prophet in the Bible whose story describes, at one level the power of repentance, at another the journey facing each of us at the very level of the soul.
Jonah’s story can be summed up simply. He is called upon by God to visit the great city of Nineveh and warn them that they must repent their wickedness, or be destroyed. Instead Jonah boards a ship bound in the opposite direction. A storm hits and Jonah explains it is God’s judgement on him. Reluctantly the passengers and crew cast him overboard and Jonah is swallowed by a large fish. In the fish’s belly he prays for redemption, before being spewed back on shore where he started. He goes to Nineveh, preaches and the people of the city repent and are saved. Furious that he has gone all this way, seemingly for nothing, he sits outside the city in the beating sun. To give him comfort The Holy One designates a gourd to grow and provide shade, but overnight it dies and Jonah grieves for it. “You took pity on the gourd,” says The Holy One, “for which you did not labour; how much more then should I take pity on Nineveh, a great city with more than a 120,000 souls and many animals as well?”
This story can be understood on many levels and I would recommend reading the full account in the Bible. Meanwhile, let’s consider the implications.
At a literal level, it is a tale about a man who runs away from his destiny, only to find that it catches up with him.
Jonah has as much to learn in this story as the people of Nineveh. We all have our job to do and running from it brings storms and suffering. He might have learnt compassion from fellow passengers on the boat, who pray to their gods for redemption and are reluctant to throw him overboard even knowing their lives depend on it. They are good people, not spiritual – they pray to their gods, not to God – but humane, sympathetic and caring.
Arriving in Nineveh, Jonah preaches. No easy task, people behaving wickedly, usually don’t like being preached at, but he is successful. The king of Nineveh calls upon his people to repent according to their ability. The text says “Let he who knows how repent”. Another compassionate act; the king expects them to give only what they are capable of giving.
Their repentance is accepted and they are forgiven. But Jonah is displeased, he lacks the ability to forgive, the compassion that he sought for himself in the fish’s belly. Thus the story concludes with Jonah’s lesson, that surely mercy and compassion are better than anger.
Psychologically this rings true. Jonah is in denial through much of the story, because he lacks the compassion for himself that he should feel for others. His self-destructive mind leads him to run away from the truth; to submit to seemingly certain death when he asks to be thrown overboard; and near the end of the story we are told “he asked for his soul to die”.
“Better is my death than my life,” he says. The Hebrew word used here for soul is “nefesh”, which refers specifically to the animal, or vital soul (not the immortal, or human soul, neshamah.) Again Jonah acts, not from his highest Self, but from an instinctive level. The word nefesh implies a baser level of seeing, one who has knowledge of something greater than himself, but is ruled by personal will, not Divine Will.
One of the most compassionate aspects of the story of Jonah is the recognition that few of us are saints! Jonah is a prophet, who has a direct communication with God. His reluctance to carry out his mission may be foolish, but it is understandable. Few prophets are met with open arms and kind words, and he succumbs to his fears at going to Nineveh. Let’s face up to it: how often when faced with a difficult reality, do we resist and find ourselves running in the opposite direction?
With the exception of the king of Nineveh, the people he preaches to are like most of us, very ordinary. Their wrongdoing comes from lack of knowledge, perhaps karmic immaturity. One hundred and twenty thousand people, we are told, who “don’t know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well.”
I particularly love the humour of this ending. Why should we be told about their “many animals”, other than that these poor folk are really not much brighter than their donkeys and cattle! In truth, when it comes to the work of the soul few of us are! But, like all humanity – and all of nature – we are beloved of God. Compassion is the most Divine of emotions, and, as St Paul points out, without it we are nothing!
In Part 2, the esoteric meaning of the story…