Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Fifth Chapter of the Book of Jonah

I was more than interested to find one of the exercises in the "Sources of Fiction" chapter in Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop suggested reading the Bible and taking a tale, such as the story of Jacob and Esau (which I already did, sort of) or of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, and expanding on it. I especially appreciated Novakovich's mention of midrash, or as he puts it, the "Hebrew tradition of interpreting Biblical stories through filling in the gaps," since my wife is Jewish and I've read midrashim before.

One of the stories in the Bible that's always bothered me is the story of Jonah. The whole book is only four chapters long and it ends on a cliffhanger.

Jonah is tasked by God to travel from Israel to the great (non-Israelite) city of Nineveh and prophesy that if they did not repent of their sins, every living thing in the great city would die. Well, Jonah didn't want to do that because he really wanted Nineveh to be destroyed for its sins, and he was afraid that if he obeyed God, Nineveh might actually repent and be saved from destruction.

So like a petulant teenager, Jonah runs away, hops on the first ship heading out of town, and is soon out to sea.

God is not that easy to get away from though, and Jonah's adventures (you may recall he ended up spending a little time inside the innards of some sea creature) were just getting started.

To get the background for my small missive, read the Book of Jonah first. You can find it online at such places as or, depending on whether you prefer Christian or Jewish tradition.

After you're finished reading the fourth and (formerly) last chapter, read my "chapter five" and let me know what you think.

Now it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was grieved.

And he prayed to the Lord and said, "Please, O Lord, was this not my contention while I was still on my land? For this reason I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil.

And now, O Lord, take now my soul from me, for my death is better than my life." And the Lord said: Are you deeply grieved?

And Jonah had gone out of the city, and had stationed himself on the east of the city, and there he made himself a hut and sat under it in the shade until he would see what would happen in the city.

Now the Lord God appointed a kikayon, and it grew up over Jonah to be shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort, and Jonah was overjoyed with the kikayon.

Now God appointed a worm at the rise of dawn on the morrow, and the worm attacked the kikayon, and it withered.

Now it came to pass when the sun shone, that God appointed a stilling east wind, and the sun beat on Jonah's head, and he fainted, and he begged to die, and he said, "My death is better than my life."

And God said to Jonah; Are you very grieved about the kikayon? And he said, "I am very grieved even to death."

And the Lord said: You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished.

Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?

-from Jonah chapter 4
Chapter 5

And Jonah replied to the Lord, "Did the kikayon sin against you and against your people Israel as did the people of Nineveh? Their sin was very great and yet you forgave them and they live. What did the kikayon do to live one day and then die?"

And God said to Jonah; "Consider the words of my servant Job: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' Are you greater than my servant Job who suffered severely at the hands of the Satan and yet did not lose his trust in Me?"

Jonah replied to the Lord, "Did not your servant Job also say, 'I would set out my case before Him, and I would fill my mouth with arguments?' Hear me and I will speak. If you grant life to the people of Nineveh and yet death to the innocent kikayon, please allow me to die as well, for my life has turned to ashes and my tongue to wormwood."

And the Lord spoke to Jonah saying, "My servant Elijah was one such as you, desiring death in the face of adversity and believing himself the only righteous one of my servants. An angel guided Elijah to Horeb where my servant Elijah found me, not in the wind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in a gently blowing breeze. And while Elijah thought himself alone, I had indeed saved for Myself seven-thousand in Israel whose knees did not bow to the Ba'al nor did their lips kiss him."

And the Lord continued to speak to Jonah saying, "You speak of Hashem, Master of Legions as slow to anger, as having much kindness, and relenting of evil. Do you believe that I in My mercy only forgive the people of Israel? Is not the whole world Mine? Did I Myself not create it? Did I not breathe life into the mouth of every soul? If the people of Nineveh would sincerely repent of their sins, even great sins, should I, the Lord, not forgive them, even as I forgive the repentant of My people Israel?"

And the Lord said to Jonah, "My servant Elijah did not die, and he found Me in the stillness of a gentle breeze, and he left Horab and found Elisha, the son of Shaphat. And behold, I took Elijah up to Heaven in a great whirlwind and Elisha succeeded him, even as Joshua succeeded my servant Moses when the soul of Moses departed him on the other side of the Jordan."

"So what should my servant Jonah do?" the Almighty inquired.

Jonah's chest heaved with a sigh. "What can I do, O' Lord? Though the kikayon is dead, the people of the great city Nineveh live just I live. They have repented my God, just as I repent."

God had said to Jonah, "Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?"

The people of Nineveh, more than one hundred twenty thousand of them, though they repented, though they were forgiven by God and they lived, still did not know their right hand from their left. They still did not know God, for there was only one prophet sent to be among them, and that was Jonah, who had not desired that Nineveh should be spared, at least not until now.

One day, long after the time of Jonah, another servant of the Lord's named Simon who is also called Peter, will witness a great miracle and say, "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him."

So Jonah got up and left his hut east of Nineveh and returned to the great city as a prophet of God, and he spoke of the Lord to all who would listen, from the very least of the citizens to the mighty King of Nineveh, and he ministered to the people of Nineveh for many days.

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