THE BOOK OF JONAH
On Yom Kippur, we read the tale of Jonah, the prophet who sought to avoid the mission assigned to him by fleeing at seas. Why did he agree to be cast to the waves, rather than agreeing to fulfill the mission which G-d had assigned to him?
The Book of Jonah is the best known of the Twelve Minor Prophets, despite its extreme brevity – only 48 verses.
On the surface, it may appear to be a simple tale, almost a story for children. However, a second glance reveals several striking questions. The foremost of these is how a prophet – who had experienced G-d's presence firsthand – possibly propose to flee from his Creator? Did he truly believe that G-d's jurisdiction extended over some parts of the globe, and not over the rest? And what made him be so reluctant to travel to Nineveh and deliver G-d's message to its populace?
The answers to these questions, and others, afford us a deeper, fascinating insight into Jonah's tremendous devotion to his people and his sacrifices for their good.
Jonah was the son of the woman from Zarefath who is mentioned in I Kings, Chapter 17. As a child, he was once miraculously revived by Elijah the Prophet. In her immense relief that her son was not dead, his mother declared to the prophet:
"Now I know that you are a man of G-d, and the word of G-d in your mouth is truth." I Kings 17:24
As a result, Jonah was called "the son of Amitai" – from the Hebrew word for truth, emet.
When he grew up, Jonah became a disciple of Elijah, and later, of Elijah’s successor, Elisha. He had a close bond with his Maker, and was chosen to be sent as His messenger to kings and to entire cities.
At one point, before the mission to Nineveh (with which the Book of Jonah deals), he was sent to warn the people of Jerusalem that the city would be destroyed because of their sins. They repented, and the city was spared. When Jonah's dire predictions about the fate of Jerusalem failed to materialize, the more perceptive inhabitants of the city rejoiced that their repentance had saved them. They were grateful to Jonah for warning them in time of G-d's anger, and of the impending doom that hung over their heads, so that they might repent and save themselves. Although the prophet's prediction failed to come about, he was nonetheless fully accepted and respected by most as a man of G-d.
However, some of the less astute Jerusalemites accused Jonah of being a false prophet who had just been seeking a chance to climb upon a pulpit and sermonize. Jonah was at a loss to refute their claims. So great was Jonah's loyalty to G-d, that he was anguished by the thought that his Creator's Holy Name had been desecrated as a result of his mission.
When G-d later sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh with a similar prophecy an impending punishment for their sins, Jonah's reaction was tempered by his memories of the outcome of his mission to Jerusalem. Again, out of concern that G-d's Name not be profaned, he hesitated to deliver a prophecy which, most likely, would not be fulfilled. Jonah's devotion to his Maker would not let him be party to any act which might tarnish His Holy Name.
Indeed, Jonah's Hebrew name is Yonah, which means "dove" – the symbol of boundless allegiance and fealty.
So, too, was Jonah the Prophet the epitome of faithfulness. His concern was not for his own, personal reputation in the eyes of the people of Jerusalem and Nineveh, for the sanctification of G-d's Name, lest people be tempted to say "He wanted to hurt us, but we were too strong for Him."
As we will see from the narrative Jonah's life below, the prophet also loved his people deeply; he was deeply loyal to his fellow-Jews, even though he was aware of their sins. As a result, he was reluctant to be instrumental in their future punishment, and made every effort to avoid the mission to Nineveh, even if it might cost him his life.
No man is perfect and without blemish, even a prophet, even Jonah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us with the opportunity to make corrections, to step up a rung or two on the spiritual ladder. The theme of repentance and moral enhancement runs through the Book of Jonah, which we read again each year on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur, when we, too, repent errors of the past and move forward to a year of greater perfection.
It was immense both in area and in population. Nineveh was an important city not only in the eyes of the contemporary population of the globe, but also in the eyes of Heaven, for it was originally populated by righteous people. Unfortunately, over the years, the moral standards of the city declined.
Consequently, the city and its misdeeds were examined by the Heavenly Court. Before bringing the case of Nineveh before the Heavenly Tribunal, G-d wanted to give the populace an opportunity to repent and to return to their previous, higher level of moral conduct. To this end, He commanded Jonah the Prophet to journey to Nineveh, and to warn the people that their evil deeds had come before G-d. He was to urge them to abandon their evil ways before it was too late.
Jonah decided that he preferred not to be sent on this mission. He sought passage on a ship that would embark as soon as possible, in order to flee, as we read in the first chapter of the Book:
1. Now the word of the L-rd came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying:
2. 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.'
3. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the L-rd; and he went down to Jaffa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish, from the presence of the L-rd.
We might easily ask how anyone, and, in particular, a prophet of G-d, could attempt to run away from G-d. Surely Jonah did not for a moment entertain the idea that in Tarshish, or any where else on the face of the globe, G-d would not be able to find him. What, then, was the point of his flight?
Another interesting point is the fact that the verses tell us that Jonah sought to flee “from the presence of G-d” rather than merely “from G-d.” What is the significance of this seemingly extra phrase which appears in Verse 2 and is repeated in Verse 3?
G-d had a special goal in sending Jonah to Nineveh. He had already determined that eventually, the ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel would be conquered and taken into exile by the Assyrians. Therefore, it was now of particular concern to G-d that Assyria as a nation not reach so low a level of moral decline that they be destroyed and wiped off the face of the globe. They were needed in order to play a future role on the stage of history. It was they who were destined to be the future conquerors of the Northern Kingdom, that of the ten tribes.
Jonah the Prophet felt a great love for his people, Israel. He realized that if he were to prove successful in convincing the people of Nineveh to repent and to improve their ways, he would indirectly be instrumental in bringing untold tragedy on his fellow Jews. Therefore, he decided to run away to Tarshish rather than to go to Nineveh as G–d had commanded him to do. Jonah’s reasoning was simple:
The Jewish prophets of the time were able to receive prophecies only while they were physically present in the Holy Land. Once he was no longer in the land of Israel, Jonah consoled himself, he would no longer be capable of attaining the elevated spiritual level required for divine prophecy; thus, he would be exempt from having to rebuke the people of Nineveh in order that they repent and later serve as the “staff of divine wrath” against his people, Israel.
He obviously realized that he would be punished for his disobedience. He also was aware of the fact that it is not feasible to hide from G-d.
His intention was to flee “before the Presence of G-d”, as we see in the first chapter, and not to try to hide himself from G-d altogether. “The presence of G-d” in this sense means the additional height of sensitivity to the spiritual realm which is attainable only in the Holy Land.
The experience of receiving prophecy directly from G-d is remote, to say the least, from our lives. We must stop for a moment to realize the extent of Jonah's sacrifice. When G-d spoke with him, Jonah experienced a greater, more spiritual joy at his closeness to his Creator than we can easily imagine.
Even so, he was anxious to eliminate his special capacity to serve as a vessel for G-d's messages to the nations. So great was Jonah’s love for his fellow Jews that he was prepared to incur G-d’s wrath for his disobedience rather than be instrumental in preparing the way for Assyria to smite the ten tribes.
He left Jerusalem and went down to the port of Jaffa in search of a ship sailing to Tarshish.
To his immense disappointment, he found the port desolate. Not one vessel was preparing to go to sea in the next few days. However, he learned that just two days previously, there had been a ship in port that set sail for Tarshish, to his great disappointment.
Suddenly, a storm arose. A fierce wind lashed at the shore, and frothy waves pounded the sand. The ship which had just left for Tarshish was driven back toward the port. It did not take long for the crew to find themselves once again in Jaffa.
A spark of hope was lit in Jonah’s heart. He rushed out toward the vessel and asked: “Where are you headed?”
“To Tarshish!” came the reply.
Jonah was overcome with joy. “It is a sign that Heaven approves of my plan,” he told himself. Quickly, he arranged passage for himself and boarded the ship. However, the captain informed him that it would be some time before they weighed anchor, as they had just come from far away, and the ship’s supplies were completely depleted. They would need several days to stock the ship.
Also, the captain pointed out that Jonah was the only passenger on board. The ship would remain in the port until it had enough people to make the voyage profitable.
“I am willing to pay you four thousand dinars, if you weigh anchor immediately, without waiting for another single passenger,” Jonah told the captain.
This was not mere haste or rashness on the part of the fugitive prophet. On the contrary, it was part of a carefully thought out plan which demonstrated Jonah’s deep concern for his fellow man. He knew that by leaving the Land of Israel he was putting himself into danger. G-d might be angry with him; the entire ship, with all its passengers, would be in danger because of him. Therefore he preferred to be the only person on board, apart from the crew, so that as few souls as possible would be at risk.
Even though this entailed a huge payment, Jonah was willing to bear the burden of the cost and not to risk the lives of innocent passengers.
So it was; the captain accepted Jonah’s payment willingly, and gave orders to prepare to set sail for Tarshish with only one sole passenger. The staff, however, was the usual full complement. We are told that it included men from a wide variety of nationalities.
The ship set sail with one lone passenger, a prophet fleeing from his prophecy.
Not long after they were at sea that Jonah’s worst fears were realized.
A fierce storm arose and tossed the ship about as an empty nutshell is tossed on the foamy breakers. The timbers shook so that it seemed only matter of minutes until the ship would be rent asunder by the power of the thrashing waters.
The sailors tried to guide the vessel back towards land, but the wind was against them. To their utter amazement, when the seamen scanned the horizon of the open seas, they spotted other vessels which showed no signs of distress whatsoever. On the contrary, they seemed to enjoy the best of weather conditions and to be sailing toward their appointed destinations at full speed. Only their ship was experiencing the devastating storm.
It was as though the winds of Heaven had undertaken to sink only their vessel, and leave the others untouched.
“This is not just another storm!” they declared. “Only our ship is affected. Heaven is angry with us!”
"Indeed, it is not natural!" agreed the captain. "We are the only ones in danger!"
He ordered each of them to pray to his gods and his idols to save them. Since the sailors hailed from a wide range of countries and cultures, each one had a different set of gods to whom he turned for protection.
The men proceeded to prostrate themselves in prayer, but only after agreeing amongst themselves that whichever god answered their prayers, would be acknowledged as the true Supreme Power. If they were saved, they avowed that henceforth they would all serve the power that rescued them from this unnatural tempest.
One after another, they poured out their pleas to their gods, but to no avail. The fury of the winds and the waves continued unabated. Each minute seemed to be their last. In an effort to lighten the vessel, they tossed one object after another overboard, but the ship continued to take on water and to list dangerously.
All hands were on the deck, desperately trying to save what remained of the ship.
Suddenly, the captain realized that Jonah was not there with them. Where was their passenger? He was responsible for his safety. What had happened to him?
The captain himself ran down below deck in search of Jonah. He was dumbstruck to find that he was fast asleep!
When the storm first started raging, he had understood that Heaven was forcing him to fulfill his mission, against his will. He knew only too well that all the sailors’ efforts to persuade their gods to calm the waves would not succeed. He took himself below deck, sought out an isolated corner, and went to sleep.
The captain found him after a short search, and shook him roughly. “What is with you, that you sleep?” he demanded. He woke him, and asked him what people he came from, and what gods he worshiped. When he learned that this was a Jew, he was overwrought.
“How can you let yourself sleep at a time like this? You must stay awake and implore your G-d to save us! Everyone knows that the G-d of the Hebrews is powerful! Perhaps He will calm the seas for us and we will yet live!
“Just as He was powerful enough to dry the waters of the Red Sea for the Hebrews, and to rescue them from Egypt, so, too can He save us now from these dangerous waters! Get yourself up, and call out to your G-d!”
The captain was not aware of the reason for Jonah’s voyage to Tarshish.
The prophet, on his part, was ashamed to turn to G-d and ask for His mercy at the very moment he was fleeing from the mission assigned to him.
The sailors saw that all their efforts at prayer had failed. Now they conjectured that one of them must be doomed by Heaven to die. They decided to cast lots amongst them to determine which of them had roused heaven’s wrath and brought the storm upon them. However, to make certain that justice be done, they decided to cast the lot several times in succession. They would accept the result as valid only if the same person was indicated a number of times.
They did so. Again and again, the lot fell on Jonah.
Now the mariners turned to their passenger. “We see that the lot falls on you again and again. Have you committed some sin, that you deserve to die? Reveal the truth to us, and tell us whether there is some way to rectify your wrongdoing?”
Jonah was open with them. “I am fleeing from my G-d. He commanded me to go to Nineveh. You will not be able to escape His wrath, for He rules over the seas and the land. It is He who has brought this storm upon the waters.”
“But how did you ever imagine that you could run away from G-d? Didn’t you realize that the G-d of all the earth will find you wherever you turn?”
Then they asked him: “Tell us what we should do to save our lives. How can we save ourselves from this storm that threatens to sink our ship and drown us all any minute?”
“I am aware of the fact that I am the cause of this storm,” answered Jonah. “I realize that G-d is punishing me for running away from His presence and refusing to carry out the mission He assigned me. Therefore, I ask of you that you take me and cast me into the waters. I am not prepared to jump into the sea, for that is tantamount to suicide, which our Torah forbids. Cast me into the waters, and you will save yourselves from perishing because of me.”
The sailors grabbed Jonah and started to lower him into the water. The sea grew calmer at once, so they drew him back up on board the ship. The wind grew stronger again, and the ship was tossed about by the waves as before. Again, they tied Jonah onto a rope and lowered him into the sea, this time, up to his waist. The waves became quieter, so they pulled him back to the deck.
Soon the storm lashed out at the ship a third time. Jonah was lowered into the water, up to his neck, and the sea was calmed. But when they brought the Hebrew up onto deck once more, the storm renewed its fury.
By now, the mariners were thoroughly convinced that the threat of the storm was directed only against Jonah. It seemed clearly evident that the only way to save their lives was to toss him mercilessly to the waves.
With Jonah’s consent, the sailors threw him into the waters. The sea grew calm, and they knew they were no longer at risk.
The events made a profound impression on the ship’s men. They had been witness to one unnatural phenomenon after the other. The storm had obviously arisen not from natural causes, but because of a decree on High. Similarly, it had been calmed through unnatural means.
Now that Heaven’s decree had been carried out, the water around them was as calm as ever, leaving no trace of the furious winds and waves that had ruled the sea only a short time beforehand.
But the drama that was unfolding before their eyes had not yet drawn to a close. As they watched Jonah to see what would happen to him there among the waves, they saw a large fish swim directly toward him, open its mouth, and swallow him up!
These events led all of the ship's staff to the same decision: It must be the G-d of the Hebrew prophet Who rules the universe!
It was He who had called up the storm – upon their ship alone – and it was He who made the lot fall upon Jonah time after time.
The G-d of Israel had prevented them from rowing back to shore so that they would not have to cast Jonah to the waves. And it was He who calmed the raging seas when the fleeing prophet was no longer aboard their vessel.
As one man, they decided that at the first opportunity, they would all become Jews and worship the true Ruler of the Universe. Then and there, they threw their idols to the waves, and took a vow to offer sacrifices to the true G-d.
When they returned to the port of Jaffa, they took the time to go up to Jerusalem. There they converted to Judaism, and fulfilled their vows to offer a sacrifice to the Creator of Heaven and earth. Then each of them returned to his homeland to convert the other members of his family to the true religion.
Meanwhile, Jonah was still alive, there inside the fish that had swallowed him.
He had been certain that, as his punishment for having disobeyed G-d, he would drown in the sea. However, G-d did not want His prophet to die.
Rather, G-d set out to demonstrate to Jonah how futile is to try to circumvent the will of the Creator. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, G-d’s will is always fulfilled, regardless of what man does to try to avoid it. Willingly or against his will, Jonah would in the end fulfill his mission to the people of Nineveh.
To this end, G-d had summoned an enormous fish to the spot where Jonah was cast to the sea. The fish swallowed Jonah alive, without harming him, and its stomach was so large that Jonah could live and breathe in it. Like an embryo in its mother’s womb, he was warm and protected from the hostile environment without. He lacked for nothing, and felt comfortable and secure.
For three days, he remained in the fish, content just to be alive. He was not impelled to turn to G-d and ask to be saved, but was satisfied to remain as he was, rather than going to Nineveh and warning the people that they should repent.
G-d saw that Jonah was not in any distress, and therefore failed to pray to Him. “I shall transfer him to less comfortable surroundings, so that he will have to ask for My help.” G-d sent a female fish, whose womb was distended with young, toward Jonah. The male fish in which the prophet was entombed spat out his “passenger” and the female swallowed him up. There he found himself crowded, very hot, and uncomfortable. His distress moved him to pray to his Maker, and surrender to His will.
Jonah now realized that G-d did not want to punish him with death, but to humble him to the point that he would repent. Therefore, he now confessed to G-d that he had done wrong, and he took upon himself to obey G-d’s command to preach to the people of Nineveh.
From the depths of his watery prison, Jonah poured out his heart:
“Master of the World! Where shall I flee from Your spirit? Where shall I hide from before You? Should I soar to the heights, You are there. Should I go down to the depths, behold, here You are!
“You are the Sovereign over all the kingdoms, and master over all the princes of the earth. The heavens are Your throne, and the earth, Your footstool. Your monarchy is on high, and Your sovereignty plumbs the depths. The deeds of all mankind are revealed before You. You examine the ways of each one, and You test the footsteps of all living creatures. The hidden, innermost parts of man are known to You, and You understand the secrets of the heart. There are no enigmas before Your throne of glory, and nothing is concealed from Your eyes. You are everywhere, and Your eyes observe the evil-doers and the good.
“Master of the World! I shall do what is incumbent upon me. I shall offer up a thanks-giving sacrifice before You, as it behooves all those who sail the seas to thank You and offer Your praises. I shall go to Nineveh, and call out to its people to repent.
“But this is my source of comfort and consolation: I know that the repentance of the people of Nineveh will not last for long. I am certain that they will revert to their evil ways.”
Thus Jonah concluded his prayer to G-d. His words were accepted on High. G-d commanded the fish to spit him out onto dry land. His life had been spared.
Now Jonah set out to fulfill his mission in Assyria.
He was given a second prophecy to deliver to the people of Nineveh, one which not only called upon them to correct their ways, but also gave details of their misdeeds. He was also commanded to warn the city: “In another forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed.”
His words recalled the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, the evil cities that had been destroyed centuries beforehand because of their sins. However, it was understood that, should the people take his warnings to heart and mend their ways, the city would be spared.
Nineveh was an enormous metropolis in its time. It had twelve large marketplaces, each one divided into twelve sections. G-d helped Jonah in his mission by making his voice powerful and persuasive. The local populace reacted favorably to his message, and they fully believed that their lives and their city were in mortal danger if they did not win favor in the eyes of G-d by improving their ways.
When the king heard of Jonah’s dire admonitions, he was not content with prayer alone. He acknowledged the fact that the decree of which Jonah warned his people was a just punishment for their wrong-doing. He advised his subjects that the only way to avoid the utter destruction of Nineveh and all its inhabitants was to repent and express their remorse for their sins in the past.
The king rose from his royal throne and sat himself on the ground. He changed his regal garments for sackcloth, and laid his crown in the dust. He did all this to set a personal example for his subjects, urging them to repent and to humble themselves before G-d.
He assembled the ministers and government councilors, who agreed with him that their only hope was to humble themselves before their Maker, to fast, and to pray for G-d’s mercy. They in turn instructed the public to repent, particularly in those matters affecting interpersonal relationships. People were urged to return stolen property and to otherwise rectify their sins, which abounded as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The king issued a proclamation:
“Man and beast shall not partake of a single morsel. The cattle and the flocks shall not be set out to pasture. For three days, all shall fast, on pain of death.
“Man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth. Let everyone call out to the L-rd with all his heart, and each man leave his wrongdoing and sins, and return any stolen property that is in his possession. We must repent for both the overt sins we have committed, and for those done in secret, and known only to our Maker.
“If we truly repent and mend our ways, perhaps G-d will have mercy on us and spare us.”
The people of Nineveh took the king's words to heart.
They donned sackcloth and fasted, and began to cry out to G-d with tears and pleas for mercy.
They lifted up their infants heavenward, and called out to Heaven: "Master of the world! If you do not take mercy on us for our won sakes, do so for the sake of those who have not sinned."
They separated the suckling from their mothers, that they not be able to nurse, and the cries of the suffering infants pierced the heavens. They went so far as to make the cattle and sheep fast. Calves, lambs, and colts were kept from thei mothers, lest they suckle. The lowing of the sucklings mingled with that of the suffering mothers, and the sound was deafening. The people cried out:
"Master of the world! If You do not have mercy on us, we shall not have mercy on these, Your creatures." This was their way of beseeching Heaven to annul the decree against them. They were saying to G-d: "Just as You commanded us to have pity on Your creatures, so, too, have mercy on us."
The fast continued two days; only on the third day, did the people begin to repent, to mend their ways, and to return stolen goods to each other.
Their repentance focused mainly on their relationship with their fellow men. They did not cease their idol worship completely. While they believed Jonah, and accepted the fact that he had been sent to them by the Master of the Heavens and the Earth, they did not remove their idols of wood and stone from their homes, but continued with their pagan customs and offerings as well, at the same time that they fasted and prayed to Jonah’s G-d.
The decree of destruction against Nineveh had been issued mainly because of their theft and robbery. When the people repented and returned what they had stolen and pilfered from others, G-d forgave them and rescinded His decree.
The teshuvah (repentance) of the people of Nineveh saved their city. G-d asks of us not that we tear our garments, but that we tear open our hearts in repentance. This is what Heaven wants of man. The fasting and the sackcloth are only a means to penetrating man’s heart, that it be cleansed of evil desires.
All the while, Jonah sat in Nineveh, knowing that G-d’s mercy is boundless, and that He is anxious to forgive those who return to Him sincerely.
He knew that this was the purpose for which he had been sent to warn the people. Had G-d wanted to destroy them, rather than bringing them to repentance and sparing them, there would have been no need for him to forewarn them of the impending doom that hung over them.
There was no end to Jonah's dread at the possible repercussions on Israel of his mission to the people of Nineveh, should G-d forgive them.
All along, this is what Jonah had feared would happen. He would warn the people that Heaven was about to bring a punishment on them, and must repent. Then G-d would have mercy on them, and nothing would happen.
And indeed, G-d informed Jonah through a special prophecy that He had accepted Nineveh’s repentance and forgiven them. The city would not be destroyed.
Now that his fears were realized, Jonah feared the people’s reaction. When forty days went by, and Nineveh remained intact, would they not brand him a false prophet?
Even more: Would not the fact that the idolaters of Nineveh repented more quickly than did the people of Israel serve as a denunciation against the people of Israel? They, too, had been warned by G-d’s prophets, but they had not mended their ways and won G-d’s forgiveness. This was just the development that Jonah, in his great love for his fellow Jews, had wanted to avoid.
And now, to make matters even worse, Assyria, the nation that Heaven had appointed to serve as the cane with which G-d would punish the Kingdom of Judah, had gained merit in the eyes of Heaven. They had just fasted and prayed fervently for three days, and won such favor in G-d’s eyes that He had rescinded His decree!
In Jonah’s eyes, all this bode evil for Israel, and it was he who had brought it about! It was even harder for him to bear because he knew only too well that the people of Nineveh had not improved themselves in every area; they still served idols and bowed down to images of stone and wood, rather than serving G-d alone.
These thoughts weighed on Jonah’s heart so heavily that he became ill. He could not abide with the prospect of Israel’s suffering, and preferred to die.
He turned to G-d in prayer:
“If Your wisdom has decreed that it be so, then it remains for me only to ask of You that You take my soul from me through this illness which has come over me, that I not witness the evil which will befall my people. Let my eyes not see the tribulations which will overtake my nation. It is better for me to die. Let them all declare that I was a false prophet, for I warned them that the city would be destroyed in forty days, and my words have been shown not to be true.”
G-d answered him and said:
“If you fear lest the people claim you are a false prophet, there is no room for your alarm. If a prophet foretells of a blessing, he can be tested by seeing whether his words come true, for any promise of good that truly issues forth from Above will never go unfulfilled.
“But a prophet who warns of a tragedy that is about to happen cannot be tested by whether or not his prophecy is fulfilled, since the very goal of his mission is to avert the danger by warning people to repent and to mend their ways. Heaven sends the tragedy not for its own sake, but to help people improve their conduct, to repent, and to draw closer to Me. If they do so, there is no longer any need for the tragic event to take place, and the decree is annulled.
“Since you were sent to Nineveh to foretell of a disaster, there is no risk of your being considered a false prophet, and you have no reason to be distraught.
“And are you indeed so distraught that Nineveh has been spared? If so, I shall show you a sign from which you will learn that there is no room for regret that the people of Nineveh have been saved.”
Jonah left the city of Nineveh and built himself a small hut to dwell in so that he could observe the city from afar.
He knew that the people had not abandoned their pagan forms of worship, nor had they cleansed their hearts of all evil inclination. It was only a matter of time until they would lapse back into their sinful ways. He decided to wait until the forty days went by, and see whether anything would happen. Perhaps G-d would indeed bring a punishment on them, after all.
After some time, the leaves on the branches which Jonah had used to build his hut dried up. With nothing to shield him from the burning sun, he suffered greatly from the heat. In addition, he was plagued by mosquitoes, flies, ants, and other insects, and had no way to protect himself from them.
That night, G-d sent a gourd to grow miraculously over the entire hut in just one night, so that its leaves would shelter the prophet from the rays of the sun.
When Jonah saw how the gourd had blossomed over his hut, he was very pleased and relieved. Up to now, he had thought that G-d was answering his request to die by exposing him to the extreme heat. Now he rejoiced that G-d wanted him to continue to live, and was sending His agent, in the form of the gourd, to keep him alive in comfort.
There was an additional reason for his happiness. When he saw that G-d had performed a miracle for his benefit, he thought to himself that surely G-d wanted him to remain in this spot so that he could witness the retribution He would bring upon Nineveh at the end of the forty days. “Then all my questions will be answered,” he told himself. Jonah decided to wait patiently to see what would happen.
The next day, G-d sent a worm to gnaw away at the roots of the gourd, so that it withered and its leaves crumbled to dust. Again, Jonah was exposed to the searing rays of the sun. G-d made a hot, dry easterly wind blow on him, so that the heat became unbearable.
Jonah had no where to shelter himself from the wind, for he was far from any solid structure. He was faint with weakness from his suffering, and called out to G-d: "Better that I die, than that I suffer such agonies."
G-d answered him with a question: “Jonah, are you indeed distressed so much over so petty a thing as the loss of a gourd plant?”
“Yes, indeed, I am most distressed. However, I am upset not because of my discomfort, but because I fear for my life through exposure to the elements, for I am at the gates of death.”
G-d answered him: “Consider then, how great is your pain at the loss of a single gourd plant, which you made no effort to plant and cultivate. You were not asked to water it or to fertilize it. In one night it sprang up, and in one night, it was struck down and withered.
“How then, do you not grasp that I am concerned over the people of all Nineveh? At the very least, over the fate of its children, who have never sinned?
“Do you not understand that I have mercy on the beasts of the field that I created, for they have never sinned? Just as the gourd plant was a source of benefit for you, so, too, do all creatures serve to add honor to My Name.
“And as for your claim that the people of Nineveh have not yet repented sincerely, with all their heart, they are, after all, Gentiles who did not receive the Torah at Sinai, and they know not to distinguish between the true G-d and meaningless figures of wood and stone fashioned at the hand of man.
“But the people of Israel, did they not stand before Me at Sinai and receive the Torah? Therefore, when they serve idols, their sin is grave and insufferable, and they can be held fully responsible for their actions.”
When Jonah heard these words, he fell on his face and pleaded: “Master of the World! Rule over Your world with mercy. It is fitting for You to be praised for Your compassion and mercy, as it is written: ‘For the L-rd your G-d is a compassionate G-d.’
“And what is more, You sit upon the Throne of Mercy, as it says: ‘For loving-kindness is with G-d, and there is much redemption with Him." (Psalms 130)
"I am not accustomed to knowing the might of your abundant mercies; I have not told of your innumerable kindnesses, for there is no man who can perform deeds and acts of might like yours. What You have done is fair and correct, what you have acted upon is fair and correct, what You took mercy upon is fair and correct, that You have dealt kindly is fair and correct, that You have pardoned, is fair and correct, that You tore up the accusations against them, is fair and correct, and that You waived the evil decree against them is fair and correct"