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Jonah: Fact or Fiction?

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai...

The book of Jonah begins like so many other biblical prophecies, but by the end Jonah develops into one of the wildest, most fanciful tales to be found in ancient literature. The part about Jonah being swallowed by a big fish is well-known even outside of the Jewish and Christian interpretive communities, but the big fish is just one of many over-the-top elements in this story. And if you're a fan of irony, you'll probably find Jonah to be a very funny story as well.

But is it true?

I've written previously about how the Bible authors operated under a different set of assumptions than most 21st century readers do. Our post-Enlightenment filter seeks rational explanations and conflates truth with factuality. So it's easy for a skeptic to dismiss the story of Jonah as a pleasant fiction, and just as easy for desperate believers to assume that if nothing is impossible for God, then this fish story could very well relate actual events.

But both of those approaches miss the point.

C. S. Lewis was an amateur theologian but a professional literary critic. He was thoroughly familiar with ancient works of fiction, and explained why accepting the possibility of miracles does not automatically mean accepting the story as factual.

The real reason why I can accept as historical a story in which a miracle occurs is that I have never found any philosophical grounds for the universal negative proposition that miracles do not happen. I have to decide on quite other grounds (if I decide at all) whether a given narrative is historical or not.

Reflections on the Psalms, chapter 11 "Scripture"

Lewis, like many modern Bible scholars, was of the opinionbased on literary groundsthat several Bible stories (including Ruth, Jonah, Esther, Job, and the early chapters of Genesis) were fiction.

In the case of Jonah, the clues are everywhere. Let's consider some of them:

  • First, although Jonah is classified among the prophets in both the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the lead character acts like anything but a prophet.
  • Upon being called by God to preach in Nineveh (near modern-day Mosul in Iraq), Jonah promptly gets on a ship headed for Tarshish. Although the precise location of Tarshish is not known today, ancient commentators identified it variously as Carthage or the Iberian peninsula. In ancient Near Eastern terms, that's the opposite end of the world.
  • The ship encounters a storm, and the sailors assume it is caused by an angry god. They cast lots, and Jonah draws the short straw. He admits the storm is his fault, and convinces them it will stop if they throw him overboard.
  • Miraculously, this method works, and the ship continues its journey. Jonah, however, is swallowed by a fish.
  • Inside the fish's belly Jonah prays for forgiveness, and the fish spits him out on dry land. The repentant Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims God's message to the city, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
  • Nineveh is said to be "an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across." The reality is, no ancient city was anywhere near that size. Nineveh itself was less than three square miles in area. To the earliest hearers, this statement would have sounded just as incredible as the part about the fish.
  • And how do the Ninevites react to this angry foreigner calling doom upon them? They "turn from their evil ways;" they cover themselves with sackcloth, begin a citywide fast, and dedicate themselves to Jonah's God. I'm sure most Americans would react similarly if we were visited by, say, an Islamic prophet from Baghdad.
  • Jonah builds a little booth east of the city where he can watch the destruction unfold, but God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city. Becausehe didn't foresee it? For a people who believed their God is "the same yesterday, today, and forever," the idea of God changing his mind is yet another unfathomable story element.
  • Jonah himself is angered by God's act of mercy—and lets God know. He says, essentially, "I didn't want to deliver your message of doom, because I knew you were too kind to follow through." Jonah thinks God made the wrong decision, and asks God to kill him on the spot.
  • But God isn't through with Jonah. After God shows mercy to Nineveh, he extends that mercy to Jonah as well, growing a vine to provide some shade in the heat of the day.
  • But the next morning God sends a worm to kill the vine. Jonah is angry about the loss of the vine, and again asks God to just kill him. Jonah hasn't gotten the message yet.
  • The book ends with God asking Jonah how he can care so much a vine that sprung up overnight, but not care about the fate of 120,000 living human beings in Nineveh.

In summary, the character of Jonah is the ultimate anti-prophet. First he doesn't want to deliver God's message, so God has to teach him a lesson about obedience. Given a second chance, Jonah does follow God's instructionsapparently to great success. But Jonah sees that success as failure. So God has to teach Jonah yet another lesson, about loving people outside the tribe.

The prophet Jonah is an archetype representing our own tribal instincts. It's so much easier to care about those we love, even to care about things like shade plants, than to care about people who don't look or act like us.

It's a well-crafted humorous story with a deeply serious message about caring for all people. It's a message 21st century America desperately needs to hear.

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