The Upside-Down, Perfectionist Prophecy of Jonah

Jonah is the anti-Moses: a prophet who wants to persuade the Lord that some people are that bad and should be made to pay for their sins.

October 8, 2019 | Atar Hadari
About the author: Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

Jonah Delivered From the Whale by an artist after Jan Brueghel the Elder, 17th century. Yale University Art Gallery.

According to tradition, the book of Jonah is read in its entirety during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. Two statements in the Mishnah provide indirect evidence as to why. The first cites the Ninevites who, heed the titular prophet’s warnings to set aside their sinful ways, respond to his message with exemplary fasting and repentance. The second cites Jonah’s supplications in the belly of the fish as an archetype of efficacious prayer. Yet to see this biblical book as a straightforward story modeling prayer, fasting, and repentance betrays the back and forth in this most uniquely troubling and spare of prophetic encounters.

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