The Flood and the Destruction of Nineveh

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Both the story of the Flood in Bereshit 6-8 and the Book of Yonah revolve around Hashem's decision to destroy a group of degenerate people, guilty of violence (חמס).  In one, the world is actually obliterated, while in the other repentance averts the decree. The stories contain several points of contact, inviting the reader to compare the two episodes.1 What message are we meant to take from the comparison?

Content Parallels

  • Decree of destruction – As mentioned, each story revolves around a decree of destruction.
  • Violence – In both books, it is the crime of violence which leads to the decree. In Bereshit we read, "כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס", and in Yonah, it states, "וּמִן הֶחָמָס אֲשֶׁר בְּכַפֵּיהֶם".
  • Forty days – In the story of the Flood, forty days worth of rain lead to the world's devastation. In the Book of Yonah, the Ninevites are told that in forty days their city is to be overturned.
  • Storm and boat – Both stories speak of a boat which sails through a storm and raging waters.
  • Sacrifices – After salvation, those aboard each boat offer sacrifices to Hashem.
  • Inclusion of animals – Both stories note the role of the animals and suggest that they might have shared in both the sin and the fate of the humans around them. 
    • According to some commentators,2 Bereshit 6:12, "כִּי הִשְׁחִית כׇּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ" implies that the animals, and not only humans, had sinned. The Ninevites' decision to have their animals join in the repentance process might imply the same.
    • In Bereshit, the animals (with the exception of individual representatives) are destroyed together with the people. In Yonah, when Hashem decides to have mercy, it is because of both the myriads of humans and the "בְהֵמָה רַבָּה".
  • Yonah – A "Yonah" is a key figure in each story, with both the bird and prophet each playing the role of messenger.

Points of Contrast

  • Outcome – The main difference between the two stories is the outcome of the decree.  While the world is destroyed in Bereshit, Nineveh is ultimately saved in Sefer Yonah.
  • Regret – This difference in outcome is highlighted through the varying usages of the phrase "וַיִּנָּחֶם ה" in each story.  In Bereshit, Hashem regrets having created man (וַיִּנָּחֶם ה' כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם), and decides to wipe out humanity.  In Yonah, Hashem regrets the decision to destroy Nineveh (וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת), leading to its salvation.
  • Yonah – While Noach's "Yonah" is a harbinger of peace, bringing a message that the destruction has ended, Yonah the prophet is harbinger of doom, bringing a message of impending destruction.  That said, the original "Yonah" is not able to avert catastrophe, being sent on his mission only once the decree was fulfilled, while the prophet Yonah, sent ahead of the destruction, does manage to save the city.
  • Storm and boat – In Bereshit, the ark provides a haven for those aboard, saving them from the tempest outside. In Yonah, the boat itself is in danger of destruction, the main target of the storm.

Literary Allusions

There is very little linguistic overlap between the stories, with only individual words such as "חמס", " וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים" and "ארבעים יום" standing out.  These words, though, are not unique to our stories and appear in many other places in Tanakh as well.  This would suggest that the Book of Yonah is not intentionally alluding back to the story of the Flood.


Y. Amar3 suggests that the connections between the two stories highlight a progression in Hashem's management of the world:

  • In Bereshit, Hashem ran a world of strict justice, where grave sins were punished without the possibility that repentance would avert disaster. Sinners are to be destroyed completely from the land, allowing the "יונה" to declare peace in the aftermath of their obliteration. 
  • After the flood, Hashem made a covenant to never again destroy in such a manner and allowed for a change of ways to lead to a change in fate.  This paved the way for the world of mercy found in Sefer Yonah, where Nineveh's penitence results in their salvation.  In such a world, the role of the "Yonah" is to rebuke and chastise so that sin itself is destroyed, but not the sinners.