Jonah and the Wrong Sukkah

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

Yom Kippur can be a long day, so it’s a welcome change of pace when we turn to the Book of Jonah in the afternoon. It’s a lively story with lots of fascinating connections to Yom Kippur.

God tells Jonah to go up to Nineveh and declare its impending doom; instead Jonah goes down to Jaffa and boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. God deals with him, but also shows him great mercy, and Jonah finally does what he’s told; he warns the Ninevites, and they repent en masse. The Yom Kippur themes are all in play – repentance, God’s sovereignty over the nations as well as Israel, and his boundless mercy over all. Toward the end of the story there’s also a subtle connection with Sukkot: “Jonah left the city of Nineveh and found a place east of the city, where he made himself a sukkah and sat down under it, in its shade, to see what would happen to the city” (4:5).

There’s a sukkah in this story, but it’s the wrong kind of sukkah, which I’ll call the Sukkah of Doom. Jonah is a prophet, someone who’s supposed to represent God, but his response to Nineveh, even after it repents, is to camp out and wait for God’s wrath, which he fears won’t come. Now we learn why Jonah didn’t want to warn the Ninevites in the first place. He knows how merciful God can be, because he needed a major dose of mercy himself, so he’s convinced that God is going to let the wicked city off the hook . . . and he just can’t stand it.

The problem is that we might imagine our own sukkah to be like Jonah’s – like an escape hatch from a world that’s hopelessly lost and awaiting judgment.

But the real sukkah isn’t an escape hatch. The Torah calls Sukkot Hag ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering or Harvest (Ex. 34:22). Surrounded by the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, we’re to remember what God has done to bring us here: “I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God” (Lev. 23:43 CJB).

And so the sukkah is a simple hut – outwardly humble, even shabby – but our custom is to decorate it within, to make it glorious, so we can really dwell, and not just hang out, in it. It reminds me of Messiah Yeshua, who comes among us in humility, unimpressive on the outside, but bearing within the glory of God. Likewise the sukkah of the harvest festival is glorified within to reflect the kingdom of God that is coming. It looks forward to what God will do, as well as back at what he had done. Therefore, in the age to come, “Everyone remaining from all the nations that came to attack Jerusalem will go up every year to worship the king, Adonai-Tzva’ot, and to keep the festival of Sukkot” (Zech. 14:16).

So, the right sukkah isn’t the Sukkah of Doom, an escape hatch from a world under judgment, but the Sukkah of Hope, an advance base of the Kingdom to come. The right sukkah shows that God isn’t going to abandon this world, but redeem it. It pictures God’s mission in the world, which isn’t to get us out of here, and safely tucked away in heaven, but to reunite heaven and earth, and us along with them, in the renewed creation.

Now, I started with the title “The Wrong Sukkah,” but we should focus instead on the right sukkah, the Sukkah of Hope. So, here’s a new title: “Are you building the right sukkah?”

The Lord poses the same question from a different angle to Jonah, who we left a minute ago sitting in his sukkah. Hashem provides a quick-growing vine to cover the sukkah and shade Jonah from the blazing sun, and then he provides a worm to kill the vine, and a scorching east wind to blast down on Jonah’s head. The prophet, who was probably just beginning to calm down after seeing the evil Ninevites repent, gets upset all over again and says for the second time, “I’d be better off dead!” (4:3, 8). The Lord responds with a question that ends the whole book: “You’re concerned over this vine, which cost you no effort; you didn’t make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left – not to mention all the animals?” (4:11).

It’s a great ending, because it really leaves the ending up to Jonah, and up to us as well. Are we going to sit in the escape hatch, the Sukkah of Doom, or in the Sukkah of Hope?

Jonah’s problem is what Christian writer Eugene Peterson calls “a failure of imagination.” He is ready to see Nineveh destroyed because all he sees is a wicked city deserving judgment. In contrast, God desires mercy, because he sees “more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left.” Apparently, just as Jonah got some comfort from the vine, Hashem derives comfort from humankind, even from wicked humans who are so lost they don’t even know their right hand from their left. Just as the vine is a comfort to Jonah, so is humanity a comfort to the Lord.

Failure of imagination: Jonah sees the Ninevites only as they are, an irritant to the righteous. But God sees their souls and cares about them. The moral: We need to join with God in seeking the souls of men.

I believe we Messianic Jews suffer at times from a failure of imagination. We distance ourselves from our own people, like Jonah on the edge of town. We forget about Yeshua our shepherd, who will re-gather us in the face of impending judgment. Instead, we either ignore our Jewish people (at least in practical ways) or imagine our people as totally other than us. Or we might take the opposite tack and idealize the Jewish people, forgetting that “we all like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6), and need to be regathered.

The good news here is that I am not proposing a new program. People aren’t going to be restored through programs and methodology, but through the influence of friends and loved ones—through us.

The bad news, though, is that the longer we follow Yeshua, the less influence we seem to have on those outside his sheepfold. We reach unspoken agreements with family not to rock the religious boat, and we slowly lose touch with non-Messianic friends. Like Jonah, we build a sukkah, we try to get comfortable, we wait to see what is going to happen to this wicked world. . . and we long more for our own comfort than for the souls of men.

But there is still good news—the sign of Jonah. Yeshua said, “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” (Mt. 12:40). Jonah announced the message God gave him, and the rest of the story unfolded. The simple message itself has power. Our message is the sign of Jonah: Yeshua the Messiah died and rose again. Our problem is that we often forget about those who need this message the most, or we adapt the message for their ears so much that we lose the simple truth of life and deliverance in Messiah.

Jonah in his sukkah reminds me of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the brother who is uptight because his sinning, unruly little brother has come home and gotten totally forgiven. Yeshua tells this story because some of his religious opponents criticize him for hanging out with sinners. So he tells them that he’s like a shepherd who has 100 sheep and discovers that one has gone astray. He goes after the one lost sheep and rejoices when it’s found. He’s like a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one. She drops everything else and searches for that coin until she finds it. And then the punch line: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

The religious folk who argue with Yeshua probably figure that if you’re righteous, you’re going to get away from sinners as fast as Jonah got out of Nineveh. That idea is still popular today, but Yeshua teaches that salvation isn’t just about escaping the judgment that is hanging over this world. Don’t get me wrong, there is a reality of God’s wrath and Messiah Yeshua is the way of escape – but salvation is far bigger than that. The Sukkah of Hope isn’t an escape hatch; it’s an advance camp of the age to come, which has already broken into this age. In it we abandon any judgmental, get-me-outa-here approach to the world, and get ready to serve and prepare the way for the kingdom to come.

These stories make another point. God values people and counts each one as precious, even people who think he doesn’t exist, like the atheist who lives down the street, or people who might think God exists, but live like they wish he didn’t, like the latest high-profile adulterer to show up on the evening news, or the thief who broke in and stole your TV to pawn it for drug money. We’re to share not only God’s compassion for such folks, but also his desire to gather them in as something precious, to harvest the bounty that belongs to him.

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So, as we conclude Yom Kippur and enter Sukkot, let’s be sure we build the right sukkah, the Sukkah of Hope. From there we can imagine the age to come, and get ready to go out and serve it in this age.