Pen Ultimate / Belly Ache

Reflections for Yom Kippur on one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures

The portion of the Torah that is read in shul on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is Leviticus 16, which contains a description of the first ritual of atonement as performed by Aaron, according to the Lord's instructions and as conveyed by Moses. Following this are these explicit orders: "And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (verses 29-30).

According to Leviticus 17, one should never order his steak medium-rare, as "whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood."

During afternoon prayers on the same day, the remaining part of the portion (Chapter 18) is read, containing, among other things, the injunction that "thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination" - something that has been seriously contested by contemporary life.

The haftarah that is read following the Torah portion consists of the Book of Jonah in its entirety. It is a short book, a mere 48 verses, but after a day of fasting, even a short book may sound very long. According to Father Mapple in his sermon in "Moby Dick" (Chapter 9), Jonah's book, "containing only four chapters - four yarns - is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures."

A Hebrew on the run

Jonah, son of Amitai from Gath-Hepher, lived sometime in the eighth century B.C.E., during the 41 years reign of Jeroboam son of Joash in Samaria. This king followed the ways of his namesake and predecessor, Jeroboam son of Nabat, and did evil in the eyes of the Lord. If he had ever been warned by God through his prophet (the Maker's usual way of communicating with the rulers of Israel), this was not recorded in the Bible. On the contrary: The king "restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amitai, the prophet from Gath-Hepher."

Jonah must have been aware to the discrepancy between the king's behavior and his prophecies. It is no wonder that, when he was instructed by God to "go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me," Jonah became worried about his reputation (possibly already shaky) and his safety. He decided to run away and secured passage on a merchant ship sailing to Tarshish. Little did he know that when it comes to the Almighty, you can run, but you can't hide.

God, who could have dealt personally with the dissenter, opted for an indirect, collective form of punishment. He wrought "a violent storm, that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god." (One can find echoes of certain elements of this chapter in the first scene of Shakespeare's "The Tempest.")

Jonah meanwhile sleeps peacefully in his cabin until he is awakened by the ship's captain and instructed to pray to his god. The sailors then cast lots to determine who is to blame for the storm, with the help of some divine intervention, "the lot fell on Jonah." He admitted to being a Hebrew on the run, and advised the sailors to throw him into the sea. They, good heathen souls, refused at first and tried to row the boat ashore, but finally gave up, crying, "O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man" - and then they cast him overboard "and the raging sea grew calm." The sailors praised the Lord and made vows to him (to be made void on the next Day of Atonement).

That was not the end of Jonah's predicament. "The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights," praying in the style of Psalms: "In my distress I called to the Lord / and he answered me. / From the depths of the grave I called for help, / and you listened to my cry."

Understandably, a fish with a grown-up man praying fervently and devoutly in its stomach, suffers some indigestion and "it vomited Jonah onto dry land," though God actually took credit for the fish's seasickness. Sportin' Life sang about it in "Porgy and Bess": "Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale / Fo' he made his home in / Dat fish's abdomen ... / Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale," summing up that "it ain't necessarily so."

Jesus used the story of the whale to predict his death and resurrection: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:39). Carlo Collodi was undoubtedly influenced by this passage when writing "Pinocchio."

Protest tent

By now Jonah realized that he had no other option but to go to Nineveh, and he proclaimed that "forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" - thus giving an ultimatum, but not stating the conditions thereof. But the people of Ninveh knew how to take a hint, and all of them, including their king, donned sackcloth, fasted, sat in the dust and repented, saying, "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." And merciful God relented.

That made Jonah really angry. Not only did he have to suffer a storm and three days in a fish's belly - now he was publicly revealed to be a false prophet who predicted destruction that did not occur. He had bolted from his mission originally because he knew things would turn out that way and that God would not follow up on his threats.

Jonah then decides to stage a protest and sits in a tent outside of Ninveh, presumably with signs saying, "God does not deliver." "Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live," he prays.

That is just the way God likes his servants - and now he teaches this one a lesson: "Have you any right to be angry?" he asks again and again. (In the Hebrew, God asks something like, "Does it hurt enough?" which really makes him sound spiteful). He provides vine to give shade to Jonah, and when his servant is happy, sends a worm to gnaw at the vine and make it wither, and then sends warm wind and scorching sun, leaving Jonah to grow faint. Only then does the Lord deliver the moral: "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred-and-twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

"As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah," says Father Mapple in his sermon, based on the first chapters of the Book of Jonah. Indeed, this is why the latter is read on the Day of Atonement, teaching repentance and praising the mercy and forgiveness of God.

But consider for a moment: God raises a hell of a storm (think of the ships that did not have a sinner on board!), makes a fish suffer indigestion, creates panic in a city whose 120,000 inhabitants cannot tell their right hand from their left (which means that they are not confirmed sinners), makes a vine grow in one day, sends a worm to chew on it and make it wither, and brings in wind and scorching sun. He is evidently ready to go such great lengths to prove a theological point.

God indeed works in mysterious ways.