Friday, November 22, 2013

You can't find those answers in the bible

Image source.

"Maybe some people think this is ridiculous because of the whole 'swallowed by a whale' thing. But I believe the bible." And that is the sum of all the thoughts I've had, in my entire life, exploring the idea that the biblical story of Jonah might be anything other than a factual historical account.

Until a few days ago, when I read this post by the Slactivist: No, the book of Jonah cannot be read as history. Do go and read the whole thing.

First of all, well, yes it can be read as history, because that's the only way I've ever read it. I've read apologetics books that referenced cases of people surviving a few days inside a fish- many many times I have heard Christians defend the story of Jonah as something that totally IS possible. (And I also read one which said those kinds of explanations were totally misguided because you guys, it's a miracle, quit trying to explain it naturally and thus make God less powerful. Umm, what?)

But the Slactivist says Jonah is satire, that it's BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that Jonah is satire.

And the reasons he gives... how in the world did I never see these before?
  • "everything about Jonah is overly dramatic and over-the-top." He is sent to Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire. You can't pick a worse city than that. And then the entire city repents. What? The entire city? Suddenly? And then, because God didn't destroy Ninevah, Jonah is angry enough to die. Yes, overly dramatic.
  • And "the omniscient third-person narrator." Hmm. Now that you mention it, that is suspicious.
I want to say, "How in the world has this never occurred to me?" But I know the answer. It's because I always believed (never even thought to question) that being a Christian means believing the stories in the bible really happened.

This isn't about believing the bible or not believing the bible. I just want to know what the author of Jonah meant. Did he/she intend it as satire? Did the original audience understand it to be an actual thing that happened, or not?

You can't find those answers in the bible.

That's an unavoidable conclusion. You can't find those answers in the bible. The bible doesn't explicitly tell us how to read the bible. (Indeed, if the book of Jonah started with, "This story-teller gives us an amazing bit of satire here..." that would kind of ruin the whole satire thing, huh?)

So. Yeah. Jonah as satire. This is entirely new to me. Maybe I have to read the whole bible over again.


  1. I actually had a professor in college (a Christian college, by the way) who taught exactly that: that Jonah was a satirical parable. As for my own personal beliefs, whether or not Jonah is historical or intended to be fictional satire doesn't matter to me... because I think that, as a fiction writer myself, fiction is meant to show truth. Jesus told parables because stories--including fictional stories--convey deeper truths. So maybe Jonah is indeed a satirical parable :) It's helped me to consider the Bible as a work of literature (albeit a God-inspired one) conveying truth the same mediums literature conveys truth: sometimes nonfiction, sometimes fiction, sometimes poetry.

  2. It was the talking shop that gave it away for me. (Not to mention the poetry).
    but יְהוָה hurled a great wind onto the sea
    and a great tempest happened on the sea
    and the ship, she was reckoning she was a wreck
    וְהָאֳנִיָּה חִשְּׁבָה לְהִשָּׁבֵר veha'aniah, hishva lehishvar -

    cute alliteration. My wife suggested the English imitation