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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Jonah's Tale

One of the prime examples people will point to in the Bible for "allegory" is the book of Jonah. Here we have the story of a prophet (2 Kings 14:25) who is tasked by God to go preach repentance to Ninevah. Knowing that God was gracious and Ninevah would probably repent, Jonah decided instead to run. God stopped him on his escape boat with a storm and the sailors threw him overboard to save their lives. A "great fish" prepared by God swallowed him where he spent 3 days praying until the fish spewed him on shore (conveniently close to Ninevah, apparently). Jonah obeys, Ninevah repents, and Jonah is angry that God let them off. End of story.

This obviously is allegory. I mean, who is going to believe that a prophet got swallowed by a big fish (the translations uniformly say fish, not whale), survives for three days in this fish, then gets spit up on the shore? Clearly never happened. No, no, this is just an allegory. Let's see. Jonah represents Israel. Israel was unwilling to listen to God's instructions. The storm references the political turmoil of the day. The fish is Babylon and Israel spends time "in the belly of the fish". Judea is restored -- "vomited up". Israel is tasked again with obeying God. They do, but they're not happy about it. In case you think I made that stuff up, it's the explanation I found on several Jewish sites. Not my idea.

This doesn't actually work, you see. It makes no sense, for instance, for Jesus to reference Jonah (Matt 12:40) if Jonah is a reference to Israel. Besides, as the "Jonah = Israel" version illustrates, this allegory includes no instructions as to its meaning. Lacking any notes at the end to say something like, "So just as Jonah fled God, Israel flees God", allegory becomes meaningless because there is no definition. It's all up to you. Purely relative truth.

So maybe it's not allegory. Maybe it's parable. (The difference is that "allegory" requires every salient point to be significant while "parable" just tries to convey an idea. Take, for instance, the parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). Who the woman was and what she lost was irrelevant. The joy at finding what was lost was the point.) Jewish scholars suggest that the story is a parable of Israel in exile (Judah, actually). The fish, Ninevah, the worm and the vine (Jonah 4:7) ... these are not individually significant. Just a parable about the state of Israel in exile. It's unpleasant and they're unhappy. Maybe they shouldn't keep to themselves? Maybe they should share God's love with others? It's a morality play warning Jews (and, thus, Christians as well) not to be so stingy with the good news. That sort of thing.

Again, this doesn't seem to actually work. How does this correlate to Jesus's reference to Jonah? And, while many parables of Christ remain up to His listeners and the rest of us readers through time to figure out, there is no explanation of Jonah as parable and, thus, no actual consensus.

Now, to be clear, the Bible does include allegory and parable. Claiming that something in Scripture is one of these doesn't negate Scripture. So the issue is not the reliability of Scripture here. The issue is the question, "Is this allegory, parable, or historical?" What's the problem about it being historical? Well, of course, it's madness. Storms don't chase people, large fish don't swallow people and people don't survive inside large fish1, fish don't deposit people onshore, entire cities don't repent, vines don't grow overnight then get eaten by a worm overnight ... it's all too ... miraculous. No scientific-minded person could swallow (pardon the pun) this story as historical.

But, you see, this is not a biblical reason to void the historical view. This is a prior commitment to an anti-supernatural bias. It is clear that if there is a God, it is certain that this God will, on occasion for whatever reason He might have, intervene in the natural world. We call these "miracles". That is, if there is a God, it is certain that miracles will occur. Thus, a prior commitment by a theist to an anti-theist perspective makes no sense. Further, assuming that "because there is the miraculous, it must be allegory or parable" would require that all the rest of the Old and New Testaments containing the miraculous would be suspect ... including the biggest miracle of all, the Resurrection. Balaam never talked to his donkey, the Red Sea never parted, there was no Flood. It gets really murky really fast.

There is, in fact, nothing in the text itself that requires or suggests allegory or parable. It is laid out without explanation or interpretation, a basic telling of a story. It is undeniable that the book is written in the form of an historical narrative. Sure, that doesn't mean that it is. I'm just saying that the text doesn't require something other than narrative. It is offered in just as historical approach as the stories of prophets like Elijah and Elisha in 1st and 2nd Kings. These are clearly intended as historical accounts. The account of Jonah reads the same.

There are arguments for allegory and parable approaches, but they don't seem to hold up under scrutiny and there is nothing in the text that requires or suggests a non-historical narrative. Is there any reason why we should prefer a narrative approach over the allegorical? Actually, there are a couple. First, the original Jewish understanding was that it was an event in history, not an allegory. The second is Jesus Himself.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from You." But He answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish2, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (Matt 12:38-42)
If Jonah is allegory or parable, not history, then what must we conclude from Jesus's reference here?

1. No actual Jonah spent time in the belly of any great fish. If Jesus would spend time in the grave "as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish", He would only do so metaphorically.

2. The repentance of Ninevah was allegory. They won't actually rise up and condemn this generation. Jesus's words have no weight or meaning.

3. If Jonah was allegory, the stories of the queen of the South and Solomon are also likely allegory or parable, certainly not historical. Thus, Jesus is only claiming to be greater than an allegory, not an actual person.

It is assumed by the skeptic that Jonah is a fictional story. It does not appear to be so from the early Jewish understanding or from Jesus's reference to the event as a prophecy and a threat. The problems with taking the approach of allegory or parable seem to make these options less likely. The text itself contains nothing that demands anything other than an historical understanding. I would suggest that the only reason to dispute that the book of Jonah is about an actual, historical event would be the argument that God doesn't exist, at least insofar as affecting our world is concerned. This would seem an odd position for a Christian to take.
1 Here's an interesting fact. There is an actual story from 1927 (A. J. Wilson, ‘The Sign of the Prophet Jonah,’ Princeton Theological Review, vol. xxv. p. 636) of a sailor off the Falkland Islands who was swallowed by a sperm whale. They caught and killed the whale three days later, cut him open, and found the missing sailor unconcious but alive. He was revived and was bleached, but his health was otherwise unaffected.

2 Some have argued that Jonah was actually dead in the belly of the fish, making the connection between his experience and Christ's death and burial much tighter. The problem is that Scripture records that Jonah prayed while he was in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2). That's quite difficult when you're dead.


Anonymous said...

if we assume that the story of Jonah was allegory than where do we draw the line about what is real in scripture and what is not? if an event in scripture is too fantastic,do we dump it. and try to explain away the event? if so how? just seems to shaky ground once we question scripture when we do not understand.

Stan said...

It is true that regarding that which is presented as historical narrative as allegory is dangerous. Where do we decide to stop? Was Jesus allegory (taking the idea to its extreme)? On the other hand, it is also true that the Bible does contain allegory. The story of the Prodigal Son is clearly intended to be allegory. The father represented God. The son represented Israel. The brother represented the Pharisees. Allegory. Another example would be the entire sacrificial system, where the blood of animals represented (allegory) the deaths of those making the sacrifices and, ultimately, the death of the Son of God. Scripture contains allegory.

The difficulty, then, is in determining what is and what is not allegory. The only things in the story of Jonah that leads to the conclusion that it is allegory are the miraculous events. Therefore, the only reason to conclude the story is allegory is an anti-supernatural bias, not a textual reason. Conversely, labeling it as allegory when Jesus clearly regarded it as actual--it would make no sense to claim that the people of Ninevah would rise up against this generation if no such people in no such event ever happened--is not only misguided, but contradictory. It defaces Scripture but, more importantly, Christ.

Craig said...

I love the argument I keep seeing regarding the supernatural that says, "Of course God could do this, He could do anything He wants. But I doesn't make any sense (to me as a biased human) that He would do this.

The other one that surprised me is that there is a school of thought that argues that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is not parable (which I had always assumed it to be), but very well could be a factual story.

It just keeps coming back to the desire of certain groups of people (atheists don't surprise me, "christians" do) who are determined to filter everything in the Bible through their own personal subjective filter as a way to determine what is rational and what is not. Like so much of what we see today this is one more example of people trying to elevate themselves to a position of passing judgement on God. Of course that attitude goes back throughout recorded history and probably shouldn't be as surprising as it is.

Stan said...

"It doesn't make any sense that He would do this."

What an amazing approach! "If God is going to do something, He needs to check with me first to determine if I think it's sensible." Nor am I clear on what part doesn't make sense. That God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh? That God used extraordinary means to get him there? That Nineveh repented? That God used extraordinary means to redirect Jonah's complaint? What part? Or all of it? "God shouldn't be using extraordinary means to do anything." That kind of thinking?

I cannot see any way around the fact that the only objection to Jonah as history is an anti-supernatural bias ... which makes no sense at all for someone who claims to be a believer.

On the story of Lazarus and the rich man, without making it any kind of issue at all, I'm personally reasonably sure that it was an actual event. There was no "Jesus told them a parable" kind of intro to this story. He told it like it actually happened. But on this one it doesn't really matter either way.

Craig said...

I agree. If one accepts any supernatural event as being real, then there is no basis to exclude any other event simply because it doesn't make sense. The problem is that there is a desire on the part of many who claim to be christian to put God into a box defined by whatever a particular individuals subjective definition of what "makes sense". Which is just one more way to place our human feelings in a position of superiority over God.

As far as Lazarus, until I had heard someone else suggest that it was not a parable I just assumed it was. It certainly works as a parable. However, once I actually looked at it I realized that there is no indication that it is a parable. It certainly doesn't demand to be treated as one. The lack of "Jesus told a parable" language makes me tend to agree with you. Although I don't know how dogmatic I'd get either way if it came down to it.

Stan said...

I'm just amazed at the "makes sense to me" criterion, as if the infinite ought to at all times make sense to the finite.

Craig said...

But Stan, it's just using our God given Reason to sort things out. God wants us to use our Reason, why else would He have given it to us? What else is there?

Stan said...

Yeah, let's go with that ...