Book of Jonah-the Bible story about Jonah in the whale; is it history or parable?
The way I see it.
I do not claim any special knowledge of the Bible nor am I a faithful reader of the Bible. However, back in the early 1960s I attended a weekend seminar on the Bible at Newman Club which is the Catholic student center. The instructor was a Jesuit priest from Canada. Aside from that I can tell you nothing about him.
I should add that at the time I was having an intellectual struggle over the theory of evolution. I had recently taken a course in Anthropology and the idea that humans evolved over time seemed compelling. However, it seemed to conflict with my understanding of religion at that time. My parents were not educated. My father appeared not interested in such things and he had died several years earlier. My mother believed whatever the Catholic church taught, or rather what she thought it taught. After much inquiry I learned that the Catholic stand was that one could believe in the literal existence of Adam and Eve or believe in some sort of evolutionary process as long as one believed that humans were apart from the rest of the animals in having a spiritual soul, somewhere along the line.
I was somewhat satisfied with this open approach but what I learned in the seminar was a total change for me. Among other things the priest explained that the Bible was written by many writers over thousands of years in a variety of styles. Some was history, and some poetry and some wrote stories, even funny stories. We cannot apply the same standards we do in reading factual material such as modern history and newspapers. A lesson I learned to apply in study of any past culture. It is not that the Bible is wrong, but that we are wrong about the Bible. We sometimes fail to see that the writers of the Bible did not think and understand things the way we do.
One of the things we fail to see is that there is metaphor, symbols and humor in it. I think it never occurred to me to think one could laugh at anything in the Bible. Religion was supposed to be solemn, wasn’t it?
In doing a little background checking on the internet, I found articles on both sides of this issue. Not being a theologian, I will not attempt to sort it all out, which might be futile anyhow.
The Jewish people were convinced that they were God’s specially chosen people. The problem pointed out in one article is that if you are the chosen people than everyone else are the unchosen, therefore different and inferior. To this I will add that one of the things constantly pointed out by the prophets was that they were not chosen because they were better but possibly they had more to live up to.
They could not understand how they suffered defeat and exile if they were the “chosen” people. The Theologians argued that it was God’s punishment for their rebellion and lack of faith. The Covenant was a mutual agreement. God agreed to be their God and they agree to obey His laws and rituals.
Over time they avoided any mixing with other people in fear of contaminating their religious purity.
This is where the Book of Jonah comes in. The writer was disturbed by the prejudice prevailing at the time and wanted to confront it. A direct political attack would not work and he could not remain silent. He decided to write a story of what we call protest literature.
“Jonah stands for a narrow and vindictive mentality . . . ” according to the notes in The New American Bible. The book prepares the way...”for the Gospel with its message of redemption.”
In the story God sends Jonah to preach to the City of Nineveh and Jonah runs away. He thinks he knows better than God what is good. He boards a ship and the ship runs into storms. The mariners all pray to their gods, but Jonah is in the hold taking a nap.
He knew it was his fault that the ship was in danger and told the sailors that they should throw him overboard. Apparently it never occurred to Jonah to repent as the sailors did. The author uses a giant fish as a literary device to get Jonah to shore. God again orders Jonah to go preach to Nineveh. The people immediately repented and God spared them. Jonah becomes angry because he disagrees with God’s actions.
That is why I find this narrative funny. God is supposed to be boss and Jonah the servant, but Jonah constantly thinks he knows better than God. Even if one takes the story literally, I think it is still funny because I think God does have a sense of humor.
I think the story is satirical and when I read it aloud I found it to be downright funny. `However, it is a needed message using an entertaining parable to make an important point. The parable is about mercy and that God's threatened punishments are to move men to repentence and forgiveness.
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© 2009 Don A. Hoglund
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