Jonah's Flight

One of the greatest prophets during the time of Jeroboam II was Jonah the son of Amitai, who, as a prophet disciple, had anointed Jehu and who, therefore, enjoyed the king's benevolence. Once G‑d commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of the largest cities of that time and foretell its destruction, because the evil of its inhabitants had reached the limit. The mission, however, was not to Jonah's liking. Nineveh was a bitter enemy of Israel, and Jonah would have liked to see its destruction. If he should succeed in his mission and Nineveh would be spared, it would remain a constant threat to Israel. Jonah therefore decided to seek escape. He boarded a ship that sailed for Tarshish, hoping to forget about his mission. Once the prophet was on the high seas, G‑d caused a storm to break that threatened to tear the ship asunder. The sailors were frightened and each one prayed to his god. Jonah, however, lay down to sleep. The captain of the ship, seeing the sleeping man, went over to him and reprimanded him for sleeping in that fateful hour, instead of praying to G‑d. Meanwhile the sailors drew lots to find out whose fault it was that this misfortune had been brought upon them. The lot fell upon Jonah. When the sailors questioned him as to who he was, whence he had come, and what his business was, he told them that he was a Jew and a servant of G‑d, the Creator of heaven and earth. Then the sailors asked what they should do in order to quiet the raging sea and save their ship with all aboard. Jonah replied that all they had to do was to throw him overboard, and the storm would immediately die down, since it had been caused by his refusal to obey G‑d's command. At first the sailors did not want to do as Jonah asked. But the storm grew fiercer and the end was seemingly unavoidable. Very reluctantly, the sailors threw Jonah into the water and the storm ceased at once.

As soon as Jonah was in the water, G‑d sent a large fish to swallow Jonah alive. Three days and three nights Jonah stayed within the fish. In distress, he prayed to G‑d to save him, and G‑d ordered the fish to eject Jonah and set him on dry land.

Jonah in Nineveh

Again G‑d ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh to convey the Divine message. This time the prophet traveled to Nineveh to carry out his mission. Upon his arrival in the city, Jonah stepped right into the middle of the busy thoroughfare and announced that the city would perish in forty days. The prophet's solemn warning electrified the city. The residents believed the prophecy and repented. They fasted and wore sackcloth; even the king himself took off his royal robes and put on the garbs of mourning. Everyone in the city honestly and sincerely decided to abandon his evil past. All the people truly tried to mend their ways. Possessions unjustly acquired were returned to their rightful owners, and false judgments were revised. G‑d saw that they were sincere in their repentance and accepted it. Nineveh was saved.

Jonah was displeased at this change of events. He had hoped that the doom of Nineveh, had the inhabitants of that city not repented, would forever rid his people Israel of one of its bitter enemies. He built himself a hut outside the city in which to live the life of a recluse. Jonah was anxious to know what the fate of the city would be. It was a very hot day, and G‑d made a plant grow to give Jonah shade and protect him from the sting of the hot sun. Jonah was overjoyed with the plant. Then G‑d sent a worm that stung the plant and made it wither. When the protection of the plant had been withdrawn, the sun beat mercilessly upon Jonah's head until he became faint, and wished to die. Then the weary prophet heard G‑d's words: "You are sorry for the plant for which you have neither labored, nor made it grow; which came up in one night and perished in the next; shall I not then, spare Nineveh, the great city, wherein more than twelve times ten thousand people live who do not know how to discern between their right and their left hand (i.e. children), and many animals in addition?"1