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Book of Jonah-the Bible story about Jonah in the whale; is it history or parable?

Updated on November 10, 2015

Jonah

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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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    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      ps, thanks for commenting. On the good semaritan story I don't think I would have seen it in those terms. To me it was that the Senaritan was an outcast but he was the one that did what was needed. There are other things bout that story tht I cannot remember off hand. We do tend to look at the Bible and other historical things through the filter of our own culture,. I understand, for example, that the language Jesus spoke was very much one that contained symbolism etc.

      Sorry to be so unclear butit is some time ago that I studieed these things.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      A few weeks back I attended a seminar on the parables in the Bible It was conducted by a professor of Jewish studies who was Jewish She had no agenda (in other words..the seminar was not about how the her religion is superior to any other)..it actually was about the parables and there was a lot of laughter in the meetings.

      One thing she suggested is not that we are getting the wrong answers, but that we are asking the wrong questions. For ex: the parable of the good Samaritan....perhaps the question should not be what would the poor soul have done had the 'good Samaritan" not helped but rather, how would the Samaritan's life change had he not or because he did.

      Thought provoking ...just he kind of article I like to read.

      Angels are on the way to you this evening ps voted up and shared

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Anaya, I found that reading this story aloud makes it fairly obvious that it is a bit of satire.However I did come from a background where things had to be a bit gloomy to be holy.In a way we accept the idea that Jesus used parables so it does seem likely that it was part of the culture.Thanks for your comment.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image

      Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Thank you for the insightful hub! I appreciated reading your enlightened views on the subject. I too agree that there is room for both views, and don't necessarily think that science and religion have to contradict each other. It never occurred to me that there could be humor in the bible, this thought really puts things in a new light for me...

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I respect you belief even if it is not my own. However, Jesus was concerned with the message, I think.The people he talked to shared a culture and heritage.

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      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      The fact that Jesus himself mention's Jonah's plight tells me it is a true story. Of course I am one of those people that believe the story of noah's ark and Adam and Eve are historical facts.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. I think being religious does not mean we have to give up common sense.

    • justmesuzanne profile image

      justmesuzanne 6 years ago from Texas

      Great points! I agree! God has an excellent sense of humor! It always amazes me that people have the nerve to essentially limit God by considering God to be humorless and incapable of growth.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I remember in a Newman Club seminar when a visiting theologian explained to us that it was ok to laugh at this story. It was meant as satire. Jonah essentially thinks that god is wrong and he, Jonah, has to set Him straight.Thanks for your comments.

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Pat writes: This is a very well written and thoughtful hub. I'm glad I read it because several months ago I was recommended a book called "The Story We Find Ourselves In" by Brian D. McLaren. It is written in the form of a novel, but the theme of the book is the reconciliation of the Bible and evolution. I thought it was excellent and intended to lend it to Tricia - your Hub has made me find the book.

      I would recommend it to anyone interested in this issue!

      By a strange co-incidence my husband and I were talking about the book of Jonah last night (long story behind that. I agree, it does have a funny (as in Ha Ha end) because Jonah essentially goes into a big sulk.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Jonah is hardly written by Jesus since it is in the Old testament.

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      kenfred 7 years ago

      the book of jonah is supposed to a writen by jesus of nazerith as to his days happening or his parables or answers to the questions of his deciples why is such an imporant document that help theologions may better understand their faith and the man they worship as the son of god and man,Is the church afraid it may contain something so dorogitory to their belief that they hide this book or they miss direct you and try to create dibelief of the books existance hum,, are we so nieve or too incapable of understanding his words

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading. I'm not a Bible expert but I would think that Job is in the realms of parable.We had discussion on this at our church Bible study but I can't recall the details. Certain aspects of the conversations between God and "the Satan" would not have had any witnesses to report the incident, so I don't think it could be factual reporting.

    • garcilazoand profile image

      garcilazoand 7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Interesting ideas...What would you say about the book of Job then, parable or not?? The two stories have similar purposes it seems to me. Nice stuff though.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I appreciate your comments. I am currently taking a Bible study at our church, and glad to say that true interpretation is in, literal interpretation is out.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors

      I enjoyed this walk through your thought process about religion and the Bible. I do so love stories, but not being a literal religionist myself sometimes gets me into trouble where I worship. Thanks for your thoughts.

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      Vern Borth 8 years ago

      "Inherit the Wind" is not historically accurate, but essentially makes the point that blind dogma -- whatever the source (religion or science)-- is antithetical to the gift of reason humans have been fortunate to experience.

      It amplifies your point that historical fact and storytelling both have a place in human history.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      It's been awhile since I've seen that movie, but I don't believe it is historically accurate. If it comes to the evolution vs religion, I believe you can have both. I would favor both sides being introduced to students at the proper age.

    • profile image

      Vern Borth 8 years ago

      Interesting comments in keeping with the spirit of "Inherit the Wind," one of the best movies ever made.

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      Bill Kinghorn 8 years ago

      ...important ideas clearly expressed. I've seen only the first page and don't know how to find more.