Why read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur? This evening will mark the observance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. This is by all accounts the holiest day pf the Jewish calendar when all observant Jews will fast, reflect on the sins they've committed in the past year, and seek some absolution from them. Yom Kippur was instituted by God in Leviticus chapter 16 and it is the one day out of the year where the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple to bring a blood offering designed to cover the sins of the people. Included in the ritual is the transfer of sins from the people to a scapegoat.
Because there is no Temple today, the ritual commanded by God cannot be followed. Instead, some Orthodox Jews follow the Rabbinic tradition of the Kaparot Ceremony, where a chicken is used to transfer the sins from the people.1 Observant Jews also refrain from eating, wearing leather, and sex for the entire day.2
A Reluctant Jewish Witness and Forgiveness for the GentilesThere is one other interesting tradition, though. On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Book of Jonah is read in Synagogues across the world. Of all the books in the Old Testament, this one is a really strange choice, as the Jewish prophet Jonah is continuously derelict in carrying out God's command to preach repentance to the savagely cruel Ninevites. After seeking to flee from God's command and a bit of aquatic indigestion, Jonah eventually (albeit reluctantly) preaches forgiveness to these enemies of Israel. He then sits atop a hill to watch their impending judgment only to be utterly amazed that these Gentiles actually repented and were forgiven! The bad guys make good and the good guy comes off really bad.
Nahum Sarna offers some insight into the choice of this strange text:
What is remarkable is that the work is not at all about Israel. The sinners and penitents and the sympathetic characters are all pagans, while the anti-hero, the one who misunderstands the true nature of the one God, is none other than the Hebrew prophet. He is the one whom God must teach a lesson in compassion.
It is precisely these aspects of this sublime prophetic allegory, and in particular the subthemes of the book, that inform Yom Kippur. These motifs attracted the ancient Jewish sages and led them to select Jonah as one of the day's two prophetic lectionaries.1 Its universalistic outlook; its definition of sin as predominantly moral sin;2 its teaching of human responsibility and accountability; its apprehension that true repentance is determined by deeds and established by transformation of character (Jonah 3:10), not by the recitation of formulas, however fervent; its emphasis on the infinite preciousness of all living things in the sight of God (Jonah 4:10–11); and, finally, its understanding of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness” (Jonah 4:2)—all these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur.3
The Dovetailing of Both Traditions in ChristGiven the Temple's destruction, there is no faithful follower of Judaism that can accomplish the traditions commanded of them in Leviticus 16. The Orthodox seek to emulate it as best they can, with each synagogue offering a chicken. Less stringent forms of Judaism see personal abstinence and prayer as enough. But the huge hole that the lack of a Temple creates is a noticeable void.
That void is filled when you understand the ultimate atonement that Jesus offered. The New Testament book of Hebrews makes it explicitly clear. In chapter 10 it states:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.4The writer to the Hebrew them explains that Jesus didn't have to offer his blood year after year but he entered the true Holy of Holies in heaven and offered it once for all time. Because of the perfection of this atonement, his forgiveness is extended to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. While the Jews have been reluctant to receive it for now, the Gentiles have embraced it giving us a perfect reflection of the book of Jonah.
Some say that Christianity is a cult of Judaism; it's an offshoot that abandons the core Jewish understanding of God and his dealings with man. I don't see it that way. I see Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism and the only way one can properly approach God based on the requirements he delivered through Moses. Jesus fulfills the law. May my Jewish friends be blessed and have an easy fast this Yom Kippur.
2. "What is Yom Kippur?." Chabad.org. Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/177886/jewish/What-Is-Yom-Kippur.htm.
3. Sarna, Nahum. "Jonah and the Whale: Why the Book of Jonah Is Read on Yom Kippur." Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archaeology Society, 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/jonah-and-the-whale/.
4. Hebrews 10:1-4, ESV.