Even after reaching dry land, Yonah does not verbally acknowledge that he
had received a Divine command; neither does he set off on his mission.
Hashem speaks to Yonah again… but why was that necessary? Now that Yonah
humbled himself in the belly of the fish, should he not simply fulfill the original command? Was it because the first command lapsed? Or was it
because it had changed?
An examination and comparison of the first and second command reveal
significant differences between them.
Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city and cry against it for their evil
has come unto me.
Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city and cry to it the call that I
speak to you.
In the later version, there is no mention of the wickedness of the people
of Nineveh; neither is the prophet told to go against the city but rather
to speak unto it something that he already knows.
Granted, "evil" may not refer to the sins of the city but to the evil that
G-d has planned to bring upon it (see Ibn Ezra), as some have argued on
the basis of similar usages in Exodus 32,14 ('and G-d repented from the
evil that He spoke against His people') or even in the book of Yonah
itself (1,7 -'let us throw lots and we will know on whose account this
evil has come upon us' and 3,10 'and G-d repented of evil that He spoke to
do to them'). I tend to side with the interpreters, such as Malbim and
Metsudos, who understood it as referring to the wickedness of the
inhabitants of Nineveh. It seems to me that this interpretation is
strongly supported by the implied parallel to the other great ancient
city, one that is alluded to several times in the course of our story -
the city of Sodom (see Genesis 20, 21-22). Both of them were great
metropolises that deserved destruction; when we discuss what the actual
sins of Nineveh may have been, we will return to this point.
What has changed? Where did their wickedness go? G-d no longer seems as
antagonistic to this city as in the beginning; instead He asks the prophet
to call it to repentance.
This question led some commentators, for example Abarbanel, to conclude
that during delay caused by Yonah's escape, G-d changed His mind. For some
reason He became more favorably disposed to Nineveh, offering it another
chance and no longer actively seeking its destruction. If so, this would
be a fine example of Divine irony, for Yona's escape availed only to bring
closer that which he sought to prevent. In this view the second version of
the command is necessary because the first one is no longer operative.
One might suggest a different explanation. Perhaps, the original command
included within it two different imperatives. It allowed for the
possibility of repentance but its focus was on the stern message of coming
annihilation. The same is true of the second prophecy. This is pointed out
by Rashi to 3,4.
And Yonah began to come into the city one day's walk and he called out and
he said: "Forty days more and Nineveh is overturned".
Rashi: Overturned means destroyed. He did not say "destroyed"
because "overturned" has two meanings, one good and one evil. If they do
not repent - destroyed. If they do repent it will be overturned for the
men of Nineveh will turn over from evil ways to ways of goodness.
As we have previously discussed (see Malbim, Abarbanel to 1,2 and Responsa
Radvaz 2, 842), Yonah did not fully perceive or completely understand the
full depth and content of the original prophecy. Its full meaning escaped
from him for he was committed to Justice over Compassion. His spiritual
point of view and assumptions were such that only the message of
destruction came through loud and clear. The pain, suffering, and his own
near death led to a process of growth that awakened in the soul of the
recalcitrant prophet a measure of empathy for hapless inhabitant of
Nineveh. Only now was he able to hear fully, though not yet fully accept,
the other side of Hashem's message.
The rest of the book of Yonah is about the growth of this realization and
Yonah's struggle to reconcile it with his previous world-view, in short,
his engagement with Divine Mercy as the underlying element of Divine