We have repeatedly referred to the fact that the Babylonian and Jerusalem
Talmuds disagree about whether the repentance of Nineveh was genuine or
superficial and self-serving. It is time that we read the relevant
First, a few points of methodology. The Talmudic understanding of
Scripture is rarely fully argued and fleshed out; instead, it is usually
expressed as pithy comments upon specific verses and the full picture
needs to be extracted from these comments. It is also crucial to keep in
mind that Talmud reports pre-existent ancient tradition. In the course of
time, divergent interpretations of these traditions may arise. As a result
we may encounter very similar language and formulations which are
crucially different by the virtue of what first may appear a small change
of language or emphasis. As we will see, the verses themselves lend
support to either interpretation, also a general feature of all Biblical
writing. As with other rabbinic statements, great care and much thought is
required to fully understand and interpret our Sages' words.
Let us look at one such comment. I will focus on only one comment because
of space limitation; however, a detailed comparison of two others can be
found in A. Rivlin's Hebrew book, "Yonah: Prophecy and Rebuke".
The Mishna in Ta'anis 16a seems to unequivocally affirm the genuineness of
Nineveh's repentance for it holds it up as an example for others. It
describes the procedure that was followed during public fasts for rains
that did not come: "We take the Ark out to the thoroughfare ... The Elder
among them speaks words that make humble. "Brothers, it says. not
regarding the men of Nineveh that G-d saw their sackcloth and their
fasting but that He saw their actions that they turned away from evil".
The Babylonian Talmud adds a comment: "From the violence which in their
hands - Samuel said, 'Even if they stole a beam and built it into a
palace, they tore down the palace and returned it to its rightful owner'."
In fact, Yalkut Shimoni says that the King tore down his entire palace for
every brick in it was stolen form a different person. Samuel appears to
have understood the expression "in their hands" as referring to their
property, ergo real estate, a common idiomatic usage. In this the people
of Nineveh went beyond what Jewish law would require for the Sages made a
special enactment called 'for the benefit of penitents'. They realized
that such a situation placed an inordinate burden on the person who wished
to make restitution and will most likely keep him or her away from full
repentance. They accordingly disallowed tearing down a structure and
required monetary compensation instead (Gittin 55a).
This is not found at all in the Jerusalem Talmud. Instead we find the
following, " R. Yochanan (a generation before Samuel) said: What was in
the palm of their hand they returned but what was packed away in a chest,
closet and safe, they did not return." Here the expression "in their
hands" is understood very literally, to refer to what they currently held
in their hands and nothing else.
When we first think about these two divergent approaches, the former seems
most reasonable. After all, Nineveh was not destroyed and that must mean
that their repentance was true. However, the author of Yonah deliberately
scattered discordant notes throughout the narrative, waiting for the
astute readers, such as yourselves to find and consider them.
What are these discordant notes? Among them we must count the remarkable
fact that of the 6 verses that describe the repentance of Nineveh (3, 5-
10), three are a report of the king's command. He told them: "And each man
shall turn back from his evil ways and the violence which is in their
hands". Yet, we are not told that this was actually carried out and there
is not mention of repentance or inner change. Yes they believed but what
were the results? They called to G-d, they fasted, they put on sackcloth,
yes, out of fear but were they sorry? It seems like they were not.
The king asks that they turn back from "evil ways and from violence which
is in their hands". That seems to have happened only half way, "G-d saw
that they turned away from their evil ways", period. What about returning
form violence? There is no mention of that.
Finally, as we had mentioned previously, there is not an echo of repentant
Nineveh anywhere else in the Bible. On the contrary, what we learn in
Yoel, Tsefania and Isaiah is that it was a bloodthirsty, rapacious,
imperialistic and aggressive "harlot of the nations". Not consistent with
a picture of total and sincere repentance, or it did not last for long.
The Jerusalem Talmud presents to us as well a more profound point. The
treasure in their storage places that they refused to return perhaps
indicates their past experiences, opinions and habits of thought. Men of
Nineveh were quite willing to restrain themselves from that point onward.
They gave back what was in their hands but not what was deep inside them.
As we discussed last week, this kind of repentance sees as its goal
negation and rejection of evil, not its recovery and transformation into
good. The beam that was built into a structure is a symbol of the evil
that lies buried deeply within. It must be torn out and returned to its
original pure state. The best repentance necessitates the sometimes
painful process of owning up to profound personal failings, dredging out
and restructuring the inner self, in fact, one's true self, in humility
and strong faith. Anything short of that is self delusion and it will not
last. The unredeemed self will fight and protest, it will undermine the
walls that may be erected around it, it will eventually reassert itself
and demand return to the status quo. The result is either angry
backsliding or complacent hypocrisy and self delusion. R. Yochanan,
residing in Palestine in the fourth century C. E., at the time of great
religious ferment and sectarian strife, undoubtedly was familiar with
forms of repentance preached there by newly ascendant Gnostic movements of
all kinds and they taught that evil was beyond redemption; rejection and
unceasing affliction of the self and unremitting struggle with the body
was the only path to salvation. To him this was fundamentally not Jewish
and he saw the repentance of the Ninevites as basically and essentially
flawed - from fear and not from love, rejecting rather than redemptive,
destined to failure and not success.