Saturday, November 21, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (9)

The book of Jonah provokes a whole spectrum of reactions. I find it just a little amusing to dig through blog posts and online commentaries only to discover that on one side we have Christians who want to take all the miracles out of Jonah so that it reads more plausibly, while on the other we have Christians who want to introduce new miracles into the book from between the lines of its text.

Variety may be the spice of life, but it can also be confusing to new readers of scripture.

Jonah 1:17 — The First Appointment
“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Up until this point, nobody has too much difficulty with the book of Jonah. It’s at the moment the prophet hits the belly of the great fish that people want to start reading the book figuratively or reject it outright. Other Christians, like Jason Tilley, argue no miracle was required to preserve Jonah and that surviving three days and three nights in the belly of a sulphur-bottom whale or whale shark is quite possible given their absence of teeth and multiple stomach compartments.

The first two positions are untenable for Christians who believe in the inspiration of scripture, for reasons I have detailed in this post, while Tilley’s position may be correct, but is both unverifiable and unnecessary. We already have six supernatural events mentioned in Jonah, two of which have to do with the great fish: the Lord “appointed” it to swallow up Jonah, and the Lord “spoke to the fish” to conclude the episode. A Christian who accepts these statements as true should have little difficulty with a dollop of divine preservation thrown in between for good measure. The reader who does not accept these will simply not get very much from the book. In any case, there is little value in arguing with those who can manage the idea of God but balk at the occasional miracle.

Jonah 2:1-3 — Jonah Begins to Pray
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying:

‘I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me;
 out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
      and the flood surrounded me;
 all your waves and your billows passed over me.’ ”
Out of the Belly of Sheol

On the basis of the phrase “out of the belly of Sheol”, some Christians take the position that Jonah actually died inside the great fish and God raised him from the dead upon his repentance. Sheol is Hebrew for “grave”, so the argument is made that Jonah’s life ended inside the great fish’s belly. Those who hold this position point out that since Jonah is used as a picture of Christ by the Lord himself, having the prophet die makes the type fit even better. (This is what I mean about introducing new miracles into the book.)

Most commentators, however, think Jonah was simply speaking poetically — essentially reckoning himself as good as dead — which seems far more likely to me. David says something very similar in the song he wrote when God preserved him from repeated attempts on his life. He writes, “For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.” It seems pretty clear David, like Jonah, is poetically describing a series of near-death experiences from which he had been delivered. In fact, the imagery David uses in 2 Samuel 22 (“waves”, “torrents”, “snares”, “many waters”) is so similar to Jonah’s description of his underwater odyssey that the prophet may well have had David’s words in mind when addressing the Lord. At very least, David’s psalm sets a precedent for the non-literal use of sheol in prayer that we should probably consider before we prematurely punch Jonah’s ticket for him.

Moreover, in referencing Jonah’s experience, the Lord does not say that he died, but that he was “three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish”, adding nothing to the scripture and making no reference to any death but his own. I’m not sure we make the story any more profound by entertaining the possibility of Jonah’s death and resurrection.

You Cast Me Into the Deep

The words “you cast me into the deep” are not literally the case — we have just been told that it was the reluctant mariners who hurled Jonah overboard — but Jonah is recognizing that it is God who bears ultimate responsibility for his current situation. So they are “your” waves and “your” billows.

Jonah’s prayer is a prayer of faith. He speaks of God’s response to his prayer as a fait accompli (“he answered me”, “you heard my voice”) even though God’s answer has yet to be received. This is exactly the way the Lord Jesus taught his own disciples to address their heavenly Father: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” This is the confidence of a man who knows God intimately and recognizes that if God intended to punish him by taking his life, he would already be very dead indeed. So despite his rebellious behavior, Jonah has no doubt how his story will end.

Moreover, Jonah’s prayer is a prayer of thanks. He is grateful. He sees the belly of the fish for what it is: as a place of safety God has provided for him. For Jonah, the most traumatic part of being hurled into the ocean is not the ±72 hours in the belly of the fish, but the experience of near-drowning. Almost half his prayer describes his helpless flailing in the water; exactly none of it is devoted to complaining about his current situation or requesting an end to the darkness and stench of his surroundings.

As with Elijah’s ravens, God’s provision is always welcome — even when it comes in an unexpected form.

Photo courtesy Sargis Babayan [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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