This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Repentance of Nineveh *

The choice of the Book of Jonah as the Torah reading for the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service undoubtedly stems from its universal lessons about the power of repentance.

To the prophet's exasperation, the Almighty accepted the people of Nineveh's sincere commitment to turn from their evil ways, and canceled his threat to destroy the city. Jonah himself, in his shortsighted determination to avert the rescue of Nineveh, does not come across in a very favourable light.

The ancient Rabbis, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, studied the Biblical description of the Ninevites' change of heart, citing it as a paradigm to be emulated by all persons who wish to repair their relationships with their Creator.

Surprisingly, in some of the ancient Rabbinic works composed in the Land of Israel, we encounter a very different assessment of the events. These texts accuse the people of Nineveh of staging an elaborate deception, of feigning their repentance, and even of impudently threatening to cause suffering to innocent beasts unless God will agree to exercise compassion.

As for the people's declaration "Let every one turn from his evil way and from the iniquity which is in his hands," the midrashic sources read this in a narrowly legalistic manner: Only those ill-gotten items that were literally in their hands at the time did they agree to restore--but articles that were kept in chests and coffers were excluded from the commitment.

Why did the Jewish sages go to such pains to discredit the Ninevites, in blatant disregard for the apparent meaning of the Bible text?

It would appear that here, as in many similar instances, the Rabbis were responding to an ideological challenge. For the repentance of Nineveh had become a focus of the fierce polemical exchanges that typified Jewish-Christian contacts during the early development of the church.

In some of the Gospels, utilizing an idea that appears in Jewish preaching as well, Jesus compares himself to Jonah, who succeeded in influencing the gentiles while failing to achieve equivalent success among his compatriots :

"The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah."

Viewed in light of such charges, Jonah came to be depicted by the Midrash as a virtual national hero whose devotion to his people impelled him to refuse his mission in order to prevent future generations of Jews from being subjected to the unflattering contrast. In doing so, Jonah was joining a respectable line of prophets, including Moses himself, who were ready to put their own souls on the line to protect the interests of their people.

This interpretation would be repeated in the commentary of the 3rd- and 4th-century Church Father Jerome, who lived in the Holy Land and studied extensively with Jewish teachers. Echoing the Rabbinic traditions, Jerome has Jonah bemoaning his fate: "I alone was selected from among all the prophets, so that in bringing salvation to others, I shall herald the ruin of my own people."

Another Christian writer, Efrem the Syrian, told how the grateful Ninevites wanted to escort Jonah back to his homeland, but the prophet put them off, ashamed lest the heathen guests witness the sinfulness of his own people.

In a possible reaction to the strong influence of Jewish practices and ideas in the Syrian Church, Efrem did not pass up this opportunity to berate the Jews for their reliance on the merits of their forefathers, and for valuing the Law more than the God who gave it. Efrem concluded his account by having the people of Nineveh praise God "for humiliating the Jews by means of the gentiles."

The midrashic defamation of the Ninevites is therefore recorded only in sources that emanate from the Land of Israel, where Christianity was making successful inroads in the wake of the various tragedies that were besetting the Jewish nation.

It is against this background, of Christian apologists making unflattering comparisons between the sincerity of the pagans and the stubbornness of the Jews, that we ought to appreciate the Rabbinic vilification of the Ninevites and their admiration for Jonah's solidarity with his people. The prophet, they felt, had foreseen the destructive uses to which his mission would one day be put by Israel's rivals.


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[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, September 21 1995, p. 18.

Bibliography:

  • Ephraim Urbach, "The Repentance of the People of Nineveh and the Jewish-Christian Polemic," Tarbiz 20 (1950), 118-22.