Wednesday, October 07, 2009


It's been almost a month since I read Jonah as part of my reading-through-the-Bible-in-a-year program. At the time, the thought hit me: What if . . . ? What if Jonah is not history (as I think I was encouraged to believe as a youngster), but, rather, more like a vision--like the dreams and visions of Daniel . . . or the Apocalypse of John?

I'm not completely sure why the thought hit me.

Partially, I'm sure, it was because I had read Daniel only about a week before, so his dreams and visions were still rather fresh in mind.

Another reason why the thought may have hit me: Throughout my reading of the Old Testament, I have kept being reminded of some of the things Lamoureux said about the ancient Hebrew and ancient near-eastern cosmology. (I still have to finish my series on Lamoureux's book. Let it suffice for me to say: Lamoureux asserts that [many of] the ancient Hebrews and [many of] the people living in the ancient near-east viewed the world very differently than we do today. Thus, for example, when Daniel speaks [Daniel 4:10-11, 20] of a tree that appears in the middle of the earth/land that grows so large that it is able to reach to the sky and be visible to the end of the entire earth/land--"Obviously," says Lamoureux, "there is no 'center' on the surface of a sphere. Only in the context of a two-dimensional circular earth does this verse make sense. . . . But again, the purpose of the Bible is not to disclose science and the shape of the earth. . . . [Rather,] the Holy Spirit descended to Nebuchadnezzar's level and used the geology-of-the-day. . . . Only in the context of a flat earth with ends does this passage make sense. On a spherical planet, it is not possible to see the 'whole' earth from any tree, no matter how tall it might be" [Denis O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation, pp. 116-117].) --I've been "testing" Lamoureux's thesis: Do I believe--and, supposing I do, why do I believe--that someone in the ancient near east (a Jew) would have believed that this, that, or the next passage was really "teaching" or "revealing" a literal cosmology? [For example, did the writer of Psalm 78:23--"Yet He commanded the clouds above/And opened the doors of heaven"--really believe in some kind of literal ("real") "doors" in heaven? Or could he have "simply" been using imagistic language?])

And so, in Jonah, I began thinking:
  • Jonah says he fears YHWH the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (1:9), and yet he is trying to flee from the presence of this God (v. 10). --What kind of worldview must he have had if he could both believe that YHWH is the God of heaven and He created the sea and the dry land . . . and yet Jonah is trying to flee from Him? (???)
  • What kind of view of nature did the author--and/or Jonah and/or the seamen who tossed him into the sea-- . . . What kind of view of nature must any of these people have had for Jonah to say (1:12), "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you" and/or for the author to write (1:15), "So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging"? --Are these expressions indications of possible animistic worldviews in which the sea has a mind or spirit of its own?
  • God appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah . . . and Jonah remains in the fish's belly for three days and three nights. --Clearly, this should at least raise a question about the physical difficulties of survival associated with living inside a fish--no matter how large it may be--for any extended period of time. (From where was Jonah supposed to get his air?)
But the point at which my mind really shifted was at Jonah 2:10:
And [YHWH] spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
--Somehow, the image of a great fish being able to vomit a man out so that he lands directly on dry land . . . and so he doesn't have to first swim to the dry land or wash up on the dry land: I got an image in my mind of some late medieval artist's woodcut illustration of the event--where the fish sits upon the water and spits Jonah out. . . . And I got thinking: "Wait! Is this whole book more of a vision or a kind of 'moral tale' than it is a story of literal history?"

And as I read on into chapters 3 and 4, I came to think more and more that the question could--and probably should--be answered in the affirmative: This has more to do with God teaching us about the kinds of attitudes we ought to bear toward others than it does with any kind of literal cosmology.

Why? What evidence--or potential evidence--would lead me in such a direction?

[Let me note that what follows is my thinking. I have not done any research to find what other people have said (though I have done just enough looking online, now, to realize--what probably shouldn't come as a surprise to me, but, due to my background, actually is--that many others have thought the same thing that I am simply "toying" with, here (i.e., that Jonah may not be literal history).]
  • "Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth" (3:3; NOTE: there are reasons for questioning whether the text really means three days' journey in breadth. It is possible it could mean something else--like, perhaps, "it took three days to walk around and see everything in it" [something like that]. But the next verse--which I'm about to quote--seems to speak against such alternatives). And (3:4), "Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey."

    --???!!! Was there such a large city anywhere in the world at that time? A city that would take three days to traverse? Even today: Is there any such city that would take three days to walk through? --Or should we view this reference to "Nineveh" as more of a vision of some quintessentially huge and wicked city (or civilization)?
  • Can I imagine any king, anywhere responding as the Book of Jonah suggests the king of Nineveh responded to the kind of message we are told Jonah preached? Some foreigner comes in and says, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" and the king arises from his throne, removes his robe, covers himself with sackcloth, sits in ashes, and proclaims, "Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish"?

    Sorry! That is really difficult for me to imagine. --It is certainly beyond my imagination as literal, "normal" history (which, of course, means: the only way this could possibly be history and not a vision is if God performed a truly astonishing miracle, perhaps sending a spirit of fear that completely unnerved the Ninevites [including their king]).

    [I should probably comment: Whether you want to call it a "spirit" or some kind of brain chemical imbalance, I know that only a day or two after I read Jonah, I woke up in the middle of the night--about 3 a.m.--and was fine. But then, suddenly, completely out of the blue, I felt the most awful, dark dread roll over me. Not fear, in the sense of feeling a "presence" "out there" that was coming to get me. Rather, some internal feeling of despair and darkness, a strange fear that maybe I would become so depressed that I would commit suicide. --Totally irrational. Totally without objective basis. But the feeling was there nonetheless. Absolute despair.

    Eventually, not wanting to awaken Sarita, I got up and began reading. My mental state lifted somewhat. Finally, at about 4:30 in the morning, I found myself both exhausted and feeling the need to move my bowels. Taking care of that business, suddenly: no more dark thoughts.

    I went back to bed, slept soundly for another hour and a half or two, and have been fine ever since.

    . . . So why did I go into those details? --Because I can imagine a similar overpowering "spirit" could come upon a political leader . . . or upon a whole nation . . . and they might behave as the Book of Jonah describes the Ninevites as behaving. . . .]
    But that is not "normal" history. Kings of mighty civilizations don't usually nor suddenly begin to quake in their boots because some foreigner comes to town and begins to say that the civilization is about to be overthrown. More usually, they respond defiantly and/or dismissively--as does the pharaoh in the Book of Exodus.

    So, as I noted above, though I want to be open to the possibility Jonah is "real"/literal history, I also sense and see evidence for the possibility--maybe even probability--that it is "something else" . . . perhaps, as I suggested above, some kind of "vision" or "apocalyptic."
Having said all that, however, I am up against the problems of the "slippery slope" ("If you're going to reinterpret Jonah--which sounds so much like literal/real history--as something other than literal history, then where do you end? Doesn't that open you to interpreting absolutely any- and everything in the Bible as something other than literal/real history?") and what about Jesus' comments that equate His death and resurrection to Jonah ("For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" [Matthew 12:40] and, "For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation" [Luke 11:30])?

Yeah. Tough questions. And the main reason I haven't posted till now: These questions bother(ed) me too much to feel comfortable even to mention the thought that had niggled and continues to niggle at my brain.

But that's one of the reasons I like the Sonlighters Club forums and the entire blogosphere: I can raise these kinds of questions among friends (and, I realize, potential enemies!) who can help me work through issues, provide input both pro and con any particular viewpoint. . . .

So what initial replies do I have to these two key questions/critiques concerning the idea that Jonah might be more visionary than literal?
  1. Even the most ardent biblical literalists admit that, though "Most often, the biblical authors employed literal statements to communicate their ideas," still, "the biblical writers often used figurative language to communicate truth in a graphic way" (Hank Hanegraaff in his article about biblical hermeneutics titled L-I-G-H-T-S to The Word of God--referenced as a foundational source by one of the world's leading Young-Earth Creationist/literalist organizations, Answers in Genesis).

    Still, while Hanegraaff, for example, says that "in most cases, the meaning of such language is clear from the context," obviously, it isn't always clear . . . so we are left to wonder and puzzle these things out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is no purely and wholly mechanical method by which we can determine whether a particular passage is to be taken literally or not.
  2. As for the problem of Jesus' references back to Jonah, I wonder: Is it necessary for Jonah to be literally historical in order for Jesus' references to bear weight?

    [Actually, it was this question, that I have just raised, that has held me back from posting for this past month.]

    --I have no good answers nor hints of answers.

    Do you?

  3. This kind of thinking and questioning, frankly, is scary to me. I have never been taught to question--or how, properly, to question Scripture in this way. But, somehow, I think it is important that we learn to do so . . . and how to do so.

    It is important so that we can "be prepared with an answer" to those from the "outside" who will raise these questions for us. --I think we, who believe in and desire with all our hearts to follow God and follow His Scriptures: We need to be able to confront these kinds of questions fairly, dispassionately, and without fear.

    It is important, too, I think, so that we can interpret Scripture rightly and so we can follow God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strengths. We ought not to feel we can follow it (and Him) only with our hearts but not with our minds (for example). And/or, we ought not to feel we can follow it (and Him) only half-heartedly and/or "half-mindedly."

    --Any ideas or thoughts you'd like to provide?

    [Please understand that, if you are reading this on Facebook, it appeared first on my personal blog.]
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