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Sermons and essays

Jonah's Lesson in Divine Mercy by Uriel Simon, excerpted from the JPS Biblical Commentary on Jonah. This is an excellent discussion of the major (Jewish and Christian) interpretations of the book, identified as "Atonement Versus Repentance," "Universalism Versus Particularism," "Prophetic Realization Versus Compliance" and "Justice Versus Mercy." Simon believes that the last of these, the tensions between justice and mercy, are:

"the only one that does not focus on a particular segment of the story; rather, it is compatible with the entire narrative from beginning to end and encompasses most of its elements."
Personally, I find his dismissal of "Universalism Versus Particularism" too quick[1] but the discussion is extremely stimulating, and it is also nice to see someone confront the differences in interpretation directly. All the Jewish and Christian sermons linked to from this site partake of one or more of these analyses, but they operate as if theirs were the only possible interpretation.

Jonah by Rabbi Shefa Gold, on Yom Kippur and Jonah.

"Although many of our holy texts describe an angry, vengeful, jealous and judging God, at the climax of Yom Kippur, our holiest day we are reminded that God loves us unconditionally. Those angry images are merely our projections. Jonah runs from God because of his own anger at the people of Nineveh. He runs from God who is El Chanun v'rachum, gracious and compassionate because in the light of that loving presence Jonah must taste the bitterness of his own anger."

Jonah: Success or Failure? by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, from, on the ironies of the Jonah story.

"Jonah lacks compassion for the people of the city, a compassion found in everyone else in the story, including the sailors, who are extremely reluctant to throw Jonah overboard. Lacking compassion for others, he lacks compassion for himself. Fearing teshuvah [repentance] and change in others, he fears change in himself and flees the truth, only to find it at least for a moment in the dark depths of the whale."

Jonah, the Self-Centered Prophet by Rabbi Susan Lippe, Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, CA (Yom Kippur, October 6, 2003).

"Why do we read the story of Jonah the Self-Centered Prophet on Yom Kippur afternoon? To learn from Jonah's mistakes."

Humor in the Holy? by Rabbi Mari Chernow, Temple Chai, Phoenix, AZ. Looking ahead to next week's reading of Jonah, Rabbi Chernow finishes her essay with some thoughts on humor in the story.

"The comedy found in the book serves as a powerful example of how we might laugh at ourselves (even on the most serious of days, Yom Kippur) and allow our laughter to be both healing and liberating."

Jonah's journey by David Zucker, Judaism (Summer, 1995). Lengthy examination of the "rabbinic Jonah," and how he developed over time, at times in response to Christians who "accepted the Jewish interpretation but turned it against its authors." This is, indeed, a deep problem for Christianity—how to deal with passages that seem to prefigure the non-particularist thrust of Christianity without turning the Hebrew Scriptures into a bludgeon against Jews.

Jonah and the Whale by Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller, on mercy and repentance, from Aish HaTorah.

"In the dark fetid innards of the whale, he recognized what he had never truly been willing to see, in his most exalted moments of prophecy, God's intimate knowledge and care over each life and each moment."

Family Shabbat Table Talk by Faye Tillis Lewy, presents four rabbinic interpretations you can discuss over dinner.

Introduction to Jonah by (Rabbi?) Simon Firestone, Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, CA (September 14, 2002),

"Why does G-d speak to this crabby unrepentant person, when the sailors and Nineveh's residents are the ones who did such teshuvah?" (repentance)

The Book Of Yonah by Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (September 16, 2002), retells and explores the Midrashic story about Jonah's two fish.

Yom Kippur sermon by Shlomo Riskin, Our Torah Stone, exploring the water imagery and meaning of the Jonah story and of Yom Kippur.

Suicide in Jewish Tradition and Literature by Louis Jacobs, includes a short discussion of the suicide prayer of Jonah. "Both prophets uttered their plea for death when their mission seemed to have failed."[2]

Blog entry: If you don't want Jonah, you can't have Jesus! from the blog Not The Godol Hador , subtitled "Home of The Society for the Advancement of Rational Religious Judaism". Author discusses some Christian radio he's overheard and its discouraging message, "Only by suspending your skepticism does any of the religion 'make sense.'"

Commentary on the book of Jonah by Yair Davidiy. The commentary is rather eccentric; the containing site, Brit-Am Covenant People of Israel, promotes a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the English people[3]:

"Britain and America received the blessings of Israel. Their populations MUST comprise the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

From Yom Kippur to Y2K: A Jewish Response to Techno-Idolatry by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Shalom Center, Philadelphia, PA. Long, alarmist sermon on Jonah and the coming dangers of the "Y2K bug":

"Y2K is not just other peoples' problem. Nineveh is not a foreign country."
Waskow contemplates the worst, appending a checklist list for families and congrations to avoid panic, and contemplating the breakdown of public order:
"Should block groups be setting up neighborhood watches in case police facilities are strained?"
Kudos to Rabbi Waskow for keeping this up!


  1. Simon writes:
    "But this explanation is refuted by his conduct during the storm: instead of trying to force his pursuer to drown all those aboard the ship on account of his own transgression, he acts to prevent their being dragged into his quarrel with his God. In view of the absence of any manifestation of hatred for gentiles and idolatry (the book contains no condemnation of the sin of idolatry), it is impossible to interpret his self-stated reasons for running away (4: 2) as a protest against the display of divine mercy toward idolaters."
    Surely this is an "argument from silence." Yes, Jonah doesn't act to drown the non-Jewish sailors—who didn't deserve it anyway, so it would have been a truly wicked act of particularlism—but focus is clearly on the sailors' remarkable piety, refusing at first to eject Jonah, praying to God (before Jonah does), and sacrificing to God in thanks. The last is particularly jarring, as the reader is clearly supposed to admire the piety of non-Jews and of an extra-templar sacrifice. Lastly, it's not strictly true that the book contains "no condemnation of the sin of idolatry." What else is Jonah 2:9, Jonah's prayer "Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy"? Perhaps this argument works better in its original, uncompressed version.
  2. Is this true of Jonah? First, there is Jonah's plea to be thrown overboard; although not a direct suicide wish, it does not come across as an act of humanity to his fellow travelers. It comes across as an act of despair. As for his suicide prayer, Jonah prays it not when his mission has failed, but when it has succeeded against his wishes. (back)
  3. The Frisians, however, are the "lost" tribe of Zebulon. (back)
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