About a decade ago, a close friend of mine and I both went to the Hillel House at the University of South Florida in Tampa where we were both graduate students and broke the fast for the Day of Atonement after sunset with the mostly reformed Jewish college students there. As it happens, before sunset, when the book of Jonah was being read, both he and I volunteered and were chosen to read chapters from this short book, it being a tradition among Jews to read this book on Yom Kippur. On the face of it, this might seem like an extremely strange choice of book to read. Yet, when one thinks about the meaning of the Day of Atonement, and one looks at the book of Jonah, they actually share a very close set of meanings and importance that makes the Day of Atonement far more serious as a day of mercy than is often assumed to be the case. So, in a tradition of writing at length and frequently about the Day of Atonement  and also as part of a series on books related to the various festivals of God , it would be worthwhile for us to examine what it is that the Book of Jonah as to do with the Day of Atonement and why it matters for believers today.
It should be noted at the outset that the Day of Atonement and Jonah both contain references to fasting. When Leviticus 23 refers to the Day of Atonement, it says in very strict terms that those who do not afflict their souls or who work will face serious judgment, and Isaiah 58 connects afflicting our souls with fasting, although it should be noted that there are other ways to afflict one’s soul relating to having a sorrowful heart and pouring it out before God. It ought not to come as a surprise that Jonah deals with this precise matter. In Jonah 3:5-9, after hearing the message of doom proclaimed by Jonah, in one of the few successful examples of a society repenting upon hearing the judgment that had been proposed against them, the king of Assyria and the people of the city of Nineveh proclaimed a fast for both man and beast, in the hope that God might turn away his wrath and save the repentant city. In this context it is not too surprising that the Day of Atonement is a day where Jews seek to avert the wrath of God and receive a good destiny for the following year, perhaps at least in part due to this example.
Since the Day of Atonement is recognized as both a day of justice and mercy, it makes sense that Jonah as a book is strongly related to these two themes as well. God is greatly merciful to his disobedient prophet Jonah, whom he had commanded to preach a warning message to Assyria’s capital and who ran the other way and tried to escape to Tarshish (southern Spain) before a storm and the divine providence of a great fish brought Jonah to land again so that he could go to Nineveh and fulfill his divine mission. It was God’s divine providence too to prepare a gourd as shelter for the despondent prophet, as His mercy was extended to people as well as animals, Jews and Gentiles alike. As God’s mercy triumphs over judgment, we have much reason to celebrate on this day despite the fact that we may not necessarily enjoy going without food for such a long time. Some people fast far more often than once a year, and have practiced this spiritual discipline enough that fasting is not particularly difficult, but for most people, it is necessary to think and to appreciate God’s judgment in order to avoid the crankiness and irritation that often result from going without food and water for a prolonged period of time.
Just as the Day of Atonement deals with mercy and judgment, it also deals with reconciliation. The mercy shown to Nineveh was after the reconciliation that city made by repenting and turning to God and forsaking, at least for a while, their wicked ways. We ought to remember that in order to obtain God’s mercy we must be merciful to others. If we refuse to reconcile with our brethren, and soften our heart from our bitterness and resentment and hostility, we cannot expect any merciful treatment from God. Even Jonah, who is no paragon of graciousness towards others, still wished to protect the sailors from the result of his folly, and still had some sort of compassion on the gourd, not least because it was useful to him. And if we do not exceed the graciousness and fellow feelings of Jonah for those around him, we have no part among the people of God. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was meant to reconcile mankind to God and to each other, and if we are to be recognized as His believers, we need to have love for one another, to say nothing of our love for even those who are estranged from God. We should, without question, desire to be no longer estranged from our brethren, even if the power to remove enmity and hostility is not one we possess to any great degree.
Reading the Book of Jonah can be an immensely humbling task. All too often we are like the prophet Jonah, running away from the assignments that God has given us, thinking God to be fond of judgment rather than fond of mercy, and being angry when God withholds or delays judgment upon a wicked and fallen world or its peoples. We ought to recognize and take seriously the reality of God’s promises of justice, but we ought not to celebrate the punishment of the wicked. For as God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, the same should be true of those of us whose nature is being changed from within by His Spirit. We ought to resemble our Father, not least in our desire to be gracious and merciful to others, and our desire to be reconciled with all we are estranged from. It is a tall order, and certainly a task that requires all of our own skill, all of the goodwill we can receive from others, and all of the help we can ask for from God and from others. If Nineveh can repent and turn to God and avert judgment, the same might be true for those who are our enemies and who are hostile towards us. Let us celebrate the Day of Atonement in that blessed hope.
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