The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah
[Commentary from the book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, selected parts from Chapter 2.]
In the fifth century before the common era, many of the people of Judah found themselves still in captivity in Babylon. They had been carried into exile after defeat at the hands of the army of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E.ll It had been a difficult period in Jewish history. The people were deeply infected with what is perhaps the most dangerous tenet of any religious ideology. It is a notion so familiar that it causes neither astonishment nor much criticism. This small, beleaguered nation was absolutely convinced that they were God’s specially chosen people. Nearly all their interpretation of their history was couched in an ethos of divine election. Their dominant religious thinking assumed this national ontological definition.

The primary difficulty with believing yourself to be God’s specially chosen people is that everyone else becomes God’s specially unchosen. One nation cannot be chosen without other nations inevitably being defined as both different and inferior. There is a very fine line between the neutral word “unchosen” and the hostile word “rejected.” Inevitably, the hostile word becomes operative when the doctrine of election becomes creedal. Since God has particularly not chosen other people, rejection, hatred and prejudice are justified in the chosen ones, as they model divine behavior as they understand it. In this way the world was divided into the chosen Jews and the unchosen Gentiles. This idea thrived among the Jewish people of the exile. It was reinforced in the period after the Persian general Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed all captive peoples to return to the homeland that had been lost to them for three generations.

The defeat of the Jewish army, the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile raised large and troubling theological issues for the captive people. They wondered out loud: “If we are really God’s chosen, what does it mean for us to be defeated? Is our God impotent? What does it mean for God’s chosen to be homeless for as long as a century? What a strange way for the Holy God to treat God’s specially chosen people!” Unable and unwilling to sacrifice the status of being God’s elect and desiring to save God from the charge of powerlessness, defeat and exile had to be explained by the people.

And so they were: The defeat and the exile were God’s punishment upon a rebellious and unfaithful people, the theologians of the day argued. Covenant is a mutual agreement. God agreed to be Judah’s God, and in return the people agreed to obey God’s law and God’s ritual requirements. Our people failed, they reasoned. We did not obey the Torah; we did not worship God according to the demands of the law. Prodded by their leaders, the exiles resolved: When we return to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem, we will be rigorous in obedience and rigid in ritualistic requirement, lest we face again the vengeance of a wrathful God, disappointed in the elect and willing to punish the chosen nation once again with defeat and exile.

It was such a compelling argument that it produced an effective coalescence of national pride and religious zeal. Evangelical fervor transformed the returning Jewish people into an energized, motivated nation. Political and religious leadership were combined at this moment of Jewish history in the persons of Ezra and Nehemiah. They were to lead the return to their homeland and the reestablishment of their nation.

There was, however, a nagging discomfort about this metaphysical equation designed to preserve God’s power and Judah’s identity as the chosen people. It placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Jews’ forebears. Were their ancestors so weak, so inept, so sinful? It was painful to transfer accountability for the disaster onto those who were grandparents and great-grandparents of the chosen people, even if such rationalizations successfully justified the ways of God. The logical questions were then asked: Why were our forebears disobedient? Why did they not obey the law? Why did they not worship properly? Wherein were they vulnerable to sin? Are we also tainted?

As quickly as these questions played in the mind, answers, self-serving and divisive, began to emerge. It was not our ancestors’ weakness at all, the returned exiles argued. Some of our forebears had married non-Jewish spouses, who had contaminated us with alien traditions, different values, and corrupting worship services. Foreign elements had polluted the purity of our tradition, compromised the integrity of worship, and were therefore responsible for our defeat and exportation. God’s judgment fell on our nation when we condoned these evil, alien practices.

The scapegoat had now been identified: The foreigners were the culprits. God’s people, therefore, in the future had to be vigilant to root out and expose any and all foreign elements. The returning Jews vowed: When we restore our nation and our holy city of Jerusalem, when we reestablish in our land the sacred tradition of the past, we must be certain that no foreign elements are allowed. God’s chosen people must not be diluted by the presence of those who are not part of the elect. The law must be rigorously obeyed, the ritual practices carried out in scrupulous detail with fastidious correctness. Only in this manner can we guarantee that disaster will not befall us anew.

The theological problem was solved in an interesting and comfortable way. They did not relinquish that sense of being chosen, nor were they forced to entertain a vision of an impotent God. The argument was neat, concise, tight. It also allowed the Jews to avoid facing a hostile world without the confidence that God could be counted on in any future emergency. Fear, fantasy, prejudice, and magic all fed the nationalistic imperatives of the day.

Using the power of this theological mandate, Ezra and Nehemiah led the newly arrived pilgrim people in the renewal of their covenant with God and in an act of rededication to the law. For good measure, these leaders proposed a statute designed to guarantee the racial, ethnic, and religious purity of the rebuilt nation of Judah.

This statute required every Jewish man or woman married to a foreign spouse to divorce and banish the non-Jewish partner from the land. It further required that any "half-breed" children born of that union be banished with the non-Jewish mate. An unwilling Jewish spouse went into exile with the rejected partner and the corrupted children, which meant almost certain death: Aliens were not welcomed into most tribes in that day, and survival apart from a tribe was hardly possible.

The enforcement of the law moved Judah into one of the uglier phases of her national history. Racial purists organized vigilante squads. Bloodlines were checked. Tensions ran high, as the inquisition tore families apart. Personal suffering was extreme. It was an opportunity to destroy political enemies, Banishment was automatic if the authorities could not be convinced of racial purity. The book of Deuteronomy suggests that the search went back ten generations (Deut. 23:3). Judah was to be for the Jews only. God’s chosen people must be pure. Foreign elements must be purged. God’s worship cannot be distorted with strange and unorthodox practices. No protest was heard against this xenophobia; the hysteria drowned out every objection. Religious zeal combined with political power to merge into tyranny. Personal liberties and individual, non-conforming values had no protection or platform.

There was, however, at that time one person in Jerusalem who was sufficiently disturbed by the prevailing prejudice to confront it. His only question was, How? What tactics might succeed? Public political attack was doomed to failure. Silence was cowardly. Finally, an idea dawned on him. He would write a story, of the genre of protest literature. It would appear anonymously on the streets of Jerusalem, and by its very charm and persuasive narrative power it would seduce people into both listening to it and discussing it. The central character would be one about whom judgment could not be suspended. The power of this story would be that as people made judgments about the value system under which the central character operated, they would also be making a judgment about themselves. When the narrative was finished, the author arranged to have the town crier read it at the town square, where the people gathered. He was sure that the people would comment and laugh as they listened. Then the point of the story would strike their hearts, and they would see themselves as they really were, and their prejudice would be revealed.

[All of the above quoted from: John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, Chapter 2, selected parts. The chapter goes on to give an excellent detailed walk-through of the story of Jonah. I recommend you obtain a copy of this book and read all of Chapter 2.]

We thus see that the Book of Jonah is a fictional work of literature. It has a very important message, so important that it ended up in the Hebrew Cannon of Scripture and later the Old Testament of the Bible. It is a message that we today in our modern world so often forget.

Since this is just a fictional story we now understand that the part where Jonah is swallowed by "a great aquatic animal" is merely a plot device to get Jonah from the middle of the ocean back to land where the story can continue. The idea that it was a "whale" comes from a mistranslation in the King James version of Matthew 12:40. The Hebrew and Greek words that are used merely mean "a great aquatic animal."

Fact-Narrative or Didatic Story?

People who still insist everything in the Bible literally happened say, "There is little question that the event was a miracle, but this fact certainly does not disprove it!" They go on to put it all on the line, stating that to denying the Book of Jonah as a Fact-Narrative is equivalent to denying the reality of Jesus Christ himself:

Most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ accepted the account as true. He said that the people of Nineveh repented of their sins as a consequence of his preaching (Matthew 12:41). He even said: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). Thus Christ actually compared Jonah's experience to His own coming death and resurrection, pointing out the miraculous nature of both. One cannot deny the factuality of Jonah's experience, therefore, without charging the Lord Jesus Christ with either deception or ignorance, either of which is equivalent to denying His deity.

However even the Catholic Church has changed its mind concerning the Book of Jonah. The 1908 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia was very adamant that this story of Jonah was historical fact, and it went to great lengths to discredit those scholars who disagreed:

Catholics have always looked upon the Book of Jonah as a fact-narrative. In the works of some recent Catholic writers there is a leaning to regard the book as fiction. Only Simon and Jahn, among prominent Catholic scholars, have clearly denied the historicity of Jonah; and the orthodoxy of these two critics may no longer be defended: "Providentissimus Deus" implicitly condemned the ideas of both in the matter of inspiration, and the Congregation of the Index expressly condemned the "Introduction" of the latter.
--1908 Catholic Encyclopedia: Jonah

The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to make its point by putting the resurection of Jesus Christ and the reputation of the Catholic Church on the line: "If, then, the stay of Jonah in the belly of the fish be only a fiction, the stay of Christ's body in the heart of the earth is only a fiction."

Contrast that with the 1970 edition of the Catholic Bible, bearing the signature of the Pope himself. In the preface to the Book of Jonah it states, "this book is a didatic story with an important message." All claims to this being a historical fact-narrative are gone. The Catholic Church has quietly made a complete reversal of its previous position that it defended so adamantly, and is left yet again in the embarassing position of admitting that it was wrong.

(No mention is made that according to their own previous logic this now implies Christ is not and never was a Deity, and the alleged stay of Christ's body in the heart of the earth is and always was just a fiction.)

Jonah & Hercules

“The swallowing of Jonah by the fish is the death and re-birth of the sun, as shown by the Greeks on their coins. One side shows the sun (Jonah) being thrown into the sea; the other depicts a whale or dolphin (womb) yielding up the young re-born sun to the world again. Hercules and the other Sun Gods had a re-birth after being (as Jonah was) forty hours in the belly of a fish. The Jonah story is like that of Hercules, with a Hebrew-Babylonian setting.”

Christianity, Astrology and Myth by Larry M. Wright (2002)

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