The Story of Jonah and the Fish in a Nutshell

The story of Jonah is one of the more intriguing and enigmatic stories in the Bible.

A prophet named Jonah is commanded by G‑d to warn the people of the Assyrian city Nineveh of their impending destruction if they don’t repent of their wicked ways. Instead of gladly following G‑d’s command, Jonah tries to “escape” from G‑d and hops onto a boat heading in the other direction. When sudden storms threaten to sink the ship, the sailors determine that someone on board must be at fault. They cast lots, and the lot falls on Jonah. Jonah tells them he is at fault for running away from G‑d and they should throw him overboard. A miracle happens and a large fish swallows Jonah alive. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah prays to G‑d for three days and eventually agrees to fulfill his mission. The fish spits Jonah out, and he goes to warn the inhabitants of Nineveh, who then repent of their sinful ways.

Read the story of Jonah and the fish.

Why Didn’t Jonah Listen?

The story has clear messages about the power of repentance and that one can never run from G‑d. It is for that reason that it is read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when we contemplate G‑d’s judgment and repent.

Yet parts of the story remain very puzzling.

Jonah wasn’t some average Joe who decided to go his own way and not to listen to G‑d. He was a righteous man, a tzadik and prophet who was commanded directly by G‑d to go to Nineveh and warn them. Why did he disobey?

Afraid of Success

The Midrash explains that what Jonah feared most was that he would actually succeed in his mission and the people of Nineveh would repent. He feared this for two reasons:1

a) Jonah knew that the Jewish people of his time2 were also far from perfect and in great need of repentance. In fact, G‑d had sent numerous prophets to inspire them. And yet, they did not harken to their warnings. If the people of Nineveh were to repent, how would the People of Israel look in contrast? The prosecuting angels would be able to say, “Look, the heathen inhabitants of Nineveh repented. Yet, Your own people aren’t heeding your words, even after they have been warned so many times!”

b) Jonah also worried that if he warned Nineveh of their impending doom and they repented, and the decree would be averted, the people would claim that he was a false prophet. “Look,” they would say, “you told us that our city would be overturned, but then nothing happened!”

Glaring Question of Love

Surely Jonah knew that “G‑d has many messengers”3 and that if he didn’t go, G‑d would just find someone else. So what did he expect to gain by disobeying?

Furthermore, Jonah certainly also knew that a prophet who holds back from prophesying is liable for death at the hands of heaven. Yet he tried to run away. Not only that, but he seemed perfectly fine with the notion of being thrown overboard in the midst of a raging storm rather than prophesy as G‑d commanded him. Why not just fulfill the mission? What did Jonah hope to accomplish?

As we explained above, Jonah was afraid of how the people of Israel would look in contrast to the penitent Ninveans. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Jonah’s reluctance demonstrates something remarkable about Jonah and the lengths he was ready to go to protect his fellows from harm. He preferred to disobey G‑d and condemn himself to death rather than make his nation look bad before G‑d. Even if the harm would ultimately come (since “G‑d has many messengers”), then he, Jonah, wanted no part in it.

On Yom Kippur, when we read the story of Jonah, we read the story in its entirety—not just the part about the people of Nineveh repenting. For the lesson of the story on this awesome day is not just about the power of teshuvah or that one cannot run from G‑d; it is also there to teach us how precious our fellow is and how careful one needs to be not to do anything that may have a negative effect on him or her.4 Ultimately, it is the love and kindness we show our fellow that guarantees not only a good year but a year in which we merit the ultimate redemption!