Jonah: Following God's Example

God also repents in the book of Jonah.

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It is not clear from the book itself whether Jonah is really concerned about credibility, but it is clear that God is not. God is willing to risk humiliation, to allow His word to be discredited, for the sake of compassion. Seen from this perspective, the Book of Jonah teaches that God is able and willing and even desirous of annulling His own word.

This new concept, opposed by Jonah but advocated by his biographer, has gained a foothold in Judaism. "God wants not the death of the sinner, but that he turn away from evil and live," as the High Holiday prayer book, quoting Ezekiel (18:23), puts it. Further, Judaism has gone so far as to twist the words of the Torah itself in order to make the point. The list of God's merciful qualities that is recited at almost every opportunity in the liturgy of the Days of Awe is highly reassuring to the Jew facing the Heavenly Court in this season of judgment. To anyone who knows his Bible, however, the list must appear downright scandalous. It is a blatant example of a quotation lifted out of context, interrupting a sentence of the book of Exodus in the middle of a phrase for  the sake of omitting the inconvenient sequel. For the last word on the list, "pardoning," is actually part of a phrase that reads in full, "but He does not pardon absolutely."

The rabbis have given the Book of Jonah prominence among the biblical readings of the Days of Awe to emphasize that at times God does pardon absolutely. It is an attribute of both God and man to repent.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.