The repentance of Nineveh certainly was a tortured and complicated affair.
The indications that it was partial, faulty and incomplete come from the
general image of Nineveh in the Scripture, multiple textual clues already
discussed and the sense that a distant and foreign nation could not access
the profound and complex vision of repentance that Israelite prophets
taught. At best, it would repent as nations do, by negating and isolating
the past, rather than redeeming and transmuting it to build a magnificent
new structure on pre-existent foundations. The Jerusalem Talmud's opinion
is well founded and rests on strong textual and theological evidence.
There is, however, one very important clue that paints a different picture
and suggests that Nineveh's return in truth was of highest quality (the opinion of the Babylonian Talmud). This clue is the description of
Nineveh's repentance as "turning away man from his evil path". To
understand that we must consider what turning away from a path of evil
generally means in the Tanach.
It is interesting that the Scripture seems to present two different ways
to repent. At times repentance is described as consisting primarily of
confession and regret. These two basic elements are overlaid with many
others, such as praying, restitution, crying, shame, fast and sackcloth,
but the essence of repentance remains simply these two elements. On other
occasions, however, the penitent leaves behind his path and this
represents the main element of repentance with other constituents
seemingly secondary and less important. The classic medieval work on
repentance, Shaarei Teshuva (1,13) of R. Yonah from Gerona (English
translations are available as Gates of Repentance from Feldheim or Jason
Aronson Publishers), explains that there are two different kinds of
repentance. The passage is too lengthy to reproduce here and I will
paraphrase and also omit Scriptural references.
R. Yonah points out that there are two kinds of repentance. Sometimes, a
basically good and decent individual may be overcome by a sudden desire,
in a situation of vulnerability and at a time that he or she is simply not
prepared to contend with the unexpected attack of the evil impulse. The
way back for this person is relatively uncomplicated. He or she must
acknowledge the slip up, confess the sin and then direct all their being
to inner, spiritual growth - to became a greater and higher kind of being,
one who could no longer be caught unaware, one who will never again be
tempted by the same impulse.
The way back is different for a person who had sunk in sin these many
years, whose inner being and personality are intrinsically bound with the
evil path. A person whose very inner culture is avarice, envy, lack of
compassion, and inner toughness does not have the luxury of acknowledgment
and then confession. He must first completely and in one moment leave the
path of sin. The rest must come later. If he does not do so, to what may
it be compared? To a man who immerses in a bath of purifications while
clasping a dead rodent. A dead animal of this kind renders anyone who
touches it unclean. It does one no good to seek refuge in the waters of
purifications while holding on tightly to a source of impurity. Instead,
it must be tossed away first and only then can purification take effect.
No question, a penitent such as this still has a great deal of work to do
and a long road ahead. However, it must start with leaving the sinful way
completely and irreversibly behind.
In this light, saying that the men of Nineveh "left each man his evil
path" becomes highly significant. It indicates that its repentance was not
only genuine but also highly sophisticated. Babylonian Talmud read this
phrase and understood that the repentance of this wicked city was sincere
and true and that it was done in the correct manner.
You may ask at this juncture - how can the views of Jerusalem Talmud and
of the Babylonian Talmud both be correct? True, there is basis in the text
for both views, but isn't it correct that only one can be historically
factual and so the other must be a mistake or a misreading?
To the rescue comes the concept of multi-valence in Biblical literature.
This approach to reading sacred text argues that our Western habit of
reading literature that developed out of the encounter with classical
works of antiquity and the modern literature is artificial in that it
demands an imposition of a coherent story unto human reality that is
anything but straightforward and coherent. From earliest grades we are
taught to censure out dissonant details and inconvenient patterns, so that
an easily understood and consistent narrative may result. It is like a
reporter who in order to create a story with a single message selects only
those details that fit with the central theme and rejects all the rest.
Some of you may have had an experience of reading a newspaper account of
an event or occurrence that you are personally familiar with and having to remind yourself that this is the same story.
Biblical writing is not like that. It tells a story that is rich and
overwhelming in its complexity. Bible is not a caricature or a collection
of pious platitudes but a Divinely inspired record of how man and G-d once
interacted. It seeks not to be consistent but to be true and to be wise.
It knows that a man can be pious, righteous and devote and at the same
time be wicked, cruel and ungracious. It knows that a city may
wholeheartedly embrace return but also be full of deceit and hypocrisy.
Scripture tells us both sides of the story and by doing this teaches us
about the complexity of spiritual life itself.