During the Yom Kippur service, there is an enigmatic yet powerful book from the Hebrew Bible that is read in its entirety. It is the Book of Jonah.
Why do they read this particular book and at such a high moment during the Yom Kippur service, just before the closing of the gate, which is at Ne’ilah, the last service of the day? The reason for its reading could be understood through a simple story which comes to us from centuries ago. Once, it says, Israel asked God, “Master of the Universe, if we repent today on Yom Kippur, will you accept it?” God responded, “Would I accept the repentance of the Assyrian at Nineveh with Jonah, and not yours?” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana p.487/Hammer) And so, with the theme of repentance in mind, Jonah is read on this day.
In the story of Jonah, it is estimated that the prophet brought 600,000 Assyrians to repentance, who then believed in the God of the Bible, and averted a great judgment upon themselves, at least for that generation. Every year, at Yom Kippur, Jewish people will read the Book of Jonah to remember God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness. But the Book of Jonah has another dominant message because when one speaks of forgiveness and mercy, the Messiah emerges very powerfully. And what is most remarkable is that Yeshua Himself recalled the story of Jonah and used it as an illustration of His own death and resurrection, an act that would save millions who would put their trust in Him.
When He was on earth, and after He demonstrated His powers through many signs, some came to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” (Matthew 12:38b). But, He had already shown them many signs yet there was one last sign left for them and for everyone else to see. This is when Yeshua answered, “No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. Matthew 12:39b-40
What is the sign of Jonah? It is Yeshua’s death and resurrection! We see then how the Messiah completes the story of Jonah: As the Lord saved 600,000 Assyrians, so Yeshua would save anyone unto eternal life who would come to Him. This is then the full message of the Book of Jonah. As Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the fish, so was the Messiah in Sheol, in order that He conquer death and give us eternal life.
And this should not be new to Jewish ears then or today. There is an old Jewish tradition which says that Jonah was the messiah himself for he resurrected and began the work of saving the nations of the world, a work Israel was called to do. This tradition claims that Jonah was Zarephath’s son whom Elijah resurrected (1Kings 17). In this manner, they thought that Elijah ushered the way of the Messiah (Yalqut Hadash, Mashiah, par. 22).
Unlike the Others
However, take note that Yeshua’s resurrection is unlike the others performed by Elijah and Elisha because in this case, Yeshua rose unto eternal life, never to die again. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. Matthew 12: 40
Notice how the three days and three nights are mentioned twice in this verse, a powerful reminder of His conquering death once and for all. It is very interesting that the Talmud (b. Yevamoth 120a) declares that after the third day there is no chance of resurrection because decomposition of the body had begun and once this process starts, it is irreversible by the fourth day.
But neither death nor corruption could affect the Messiah as the prophecy of David affirms for us in Psalm 16:10. There we read; For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. This prophecy was cited by Peter in Acts chapter 2, pointing to the power of Messiah’s resurrection.
Belittling Both Jonah and the Jews
Now, let me tell you about a great belittling that has taken place. As much as the Scriptures themselves speak of Jonah’s great work, and as much as Jesus used it as an illustration of the greatest gift ever to humanity, His own death and resurrection, the story of Jonah turned out to be one of the most ridiculed books in history, not only from the atheists or the agnostics point of view, but surprisingly enough, from the religious world as well. What is interesting to note is that there was a shift in attitude to Jonah. When reading commentaries from the first 300 years of our era, most were very respectful of Jonah’s story for they knew that Jesus used him as an illustration of His own resurrection.
One such individual, Theodore of Mopsuestia, living in the late 300’s AD, spoke of him as the blessed Jonah the prophet and edified his remarkable work. Another man, Theodoret of Cyr also from about the same time period, gave Jonah a sterling review and called him the blessed Jonah, prophet of Nineveh and linked his works to Yeshua.
All this until we get to Augustine. This is when things turned around. He seemed to have set the trend, lasting to this very day, when he wrote, Jonah was a type of the carnal people of Israel, for he was sad over the preservation of the Ninevites!… He was frustrated over the redemption and salvation of the Gentiles! (Ancient Christian Comm. on Scriptures, Jonah 1) Instead of associating Jonah with Yeshua, Augustine linked this prophet with the nation of Israel, a people who he already despised. This perspective has been solidly in force throughout these last 1700 years.
Surprising isn’t it, as we see how this trend continues! Let me quote you two modern commentaries which follow suit: Jonah, because of his rejection of Gentiles and distaste for their participation in salvation, was displeased at God’s demonstration of mercy towards the Ninevites. Another popular commentator wrote this: Jonah’s petty concern … was a picture of Israel’s own self-pity and lack of concern for the nations.
Why would they say this? They seem to forget the words of Jesus who said that salvation is of the Jews. In this particular example, they demean and insult the validity of the Word.
I am not going to give the names of these commentators because much else of what they write is so sound in doctrine. I challenge you though to take any commentary on Jonah, and you have many of them free on the internet. Read them and you will be surprised to see what they say about him and about Israel. You will see how they forgot the initial message – the great resurrection of Yeshua.
Should that surprise us? Jonah then was and still is the subject of so much abuse, like it was and is with Yeshua as well, of whom it was written: Who has believed our report?
This is how the famous messianic chapter Isaiah 53 begins. This is a verse that Jonah could share as well.