Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (1)

“You can’t survive three days in the stomach of a whale,” complain the critics. “It’s impossible.”

Christians may be sorely tempted to concede their point, or at least to downplay the necessity for a historical Jonah. As a result, students of the Bible have taken many different positions with respect to the historicity of the book of Jonah, and with respect to its intended meaning. William R. Harper, editor of the October 1883 edition of The Old Testament Student, has provided an outstanding summary of ten of these positions here.

Tall Tales and Fish Stories

Frankly, Jonah’s story does seem a little implausible to the modern mind. And yet so do the creation ex nihilo of everything that exists, Noah’s flood, the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the fall of the walls of Jericho, the sun standing still, the virgin birth, water turned into wine, mass healings and deliverance from demons, the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000, the resurrection ... shall I go on?

The Christian cake comes with its miracles baked right into it. We can’t partake of it without biting into one here and there. It is hardly unreasonable to believe that a God who can do even a single one of these supernatural things can do the rest of them. God is God. If we accept the possibility of a Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, with that premise comes the possibility of the occasional change by divine fiat of the ground rules to which we have become accustomed. And if we accept the possibility of a loving Creator and Sustainer of the Universe determined to communicate with and relate to his creations, then this mere possibility becomes an inevitability.

So then, if you are going to discount a specific miracle, why not discount all of them? And if you are going to discount all of them, don’t bother referring to yourself as a Christian. You have carved out the heart of your faith. The worn husk that remains is unworthy of the name.

Those Not-So-Gullible Ancients

If the story of Jonah seems improbable to moderns, we must remember it would have seemed equally improbable to the ancients. No Ninevite believed a man could survive three days and nights within the body of a fish. Fishermen know better than most modern scientists what a digestive tract looks like and how it works. If you have ever gutted a fish, you know exactly what you’ll find inside it. Making the fish bigger doesn’t change anything important about that. The teeth still break up the food into manageable chunks, after which anything ingested passes through the esophagus, where it is initially broken down, then on into the stomach, where powerful digestive enzymes shortly reduce it mostly to liquid.

Under normal circumstances, that should have been Jonah’s fate. When he showed up in Nineveh some significant period after his three day ordeal, the gospels tell us he became both a preacher and a sign. Something about his experience marked him out to the Ninevites.

The Real Argument

But the truly compelling argument for Jonah’s historicity is not the necessity for Christians to believe in miracles on principle in order to remain logically consistent in their thinking. One can believe in miracles generally and still disbelieve in one or two particular instances where it is claimed they have occurred. The question “Is God capable of doing this?” is quite separate from the question “Did he?” It may be argued that a specific alleged supernatural intervention into human history does not fit the conditions under which other miracles have occurred; that it is trivial, or nonsensical, or purposeless, or out of keeping with God’s established character. That is a believer’s critique, not a faithless dismissal.

A Christian objection to Jonah requires a Christian answer, and I believe we have one. The answer is Christ.

Jonah in the Gospels

Matthew and Luke document the Lord Jesus making reference to “the prophet Jonah”. Matthew actually does it twice, at length in chapter 12 and as an aside in chapter 16. The lengthier reference reads as follows:
“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 fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ ”
Some of the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly found Jonah’s tale as improbable as do its 21st century critics, but we do not read that any of them disputed it at the time. Orthodoxy required at least passive assent to the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, of which the book of Jonah was an accepted part.

And yet here, to all appearances, we have the Lord Jesus speaking about Jonah as if he were a real person. And the Lord doesn’t bother to bury the lede: he goes straight to the aspect of Jonah’s story we have the greatest difficulty, er, swallowing ... and he promptly affirms it: Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish.

A Counterargument Considered

And yet, we may argue, even a passing reference to the prophet Jonah from Christ himself doesn’t really prove anything. One could as easily refer to any well-known and well-loved fictional character from a venerated literary tradition to make a spiritual point, couldn’t one?

An example: In a modern theological discussion, it would not be outrageous by way of illustration to compare the arrest and unjust sentencing of Messiah to that of Edmond Dant├Ęs in The Count of Monte Cristo or Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, provided we reverently acknowledge that the injustice in the case of the Lord Jesus was orders of magnitude greater and his absolute innocence unmatched. These men are fictions, to be sure, but millions of readers over multiple generations consider the works of Dumas and Dickens literary classics, finding they have a not-inconsiderable emotional investment in the vindication of these men, made-up stories though they may be. And from a pure character perspective, either fictional protagonist is arguably a nobler point of comparison than Jonah, the rebel Hebrew prophet who defied his own God.

The Rest of the Story

Is it really so crazy to think the Lord might have used a well-known fictional event from Israel’s literary past in a similar way, drawing a parallel that was spiritually important, if not necessarily rigidly accurate? Yes, unfortunately it is. Because the gospel of Matthew goes on:
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.”
Now, if the book of Jonah is nothing more than a spiritually-illuminating story with no legitimate claim to being historical truth, you could argue that the Lord’s statement that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah is merely the same kind of illustrative literary comparison we have already been considering. The real problem is this first statement. Mere fictions cannot “rise up at the judgment” and condemn anyone. They won’t be there. They don’t exist.

And yet the Lord Jesus clearly accepted that these men do exist, that they will be present at the final judgment, and that they are invested with the moral authority to speak against the generation to which he addressed himself. And if that part of the story is inescapably real and morally sufficient to pique the consciences of the Lord’s first century audience, how on earth do we convincingly argue that other parts of it are not?

The Only Jonah That Works

Jesus either believed the story of Jonah really happened, or else he lied about it. If he believed incorrectly, or if he lied about it, he is not our Savior. He doesn’t qualify.

You see the problem. A historical Jonah is the only Jonah that works. I’m going to treat the book that way in our ongoing study, and if you stick with me throughout this series, I hope to help it come alive just a little bit for you.

1 comment :

  1. Looking forward to this series unfolding.