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article imageIt ain’t necessarily so

By John Rickman     May 28, 2007 in Entertainment
Why the things you are libel to read in the Bible ain’t necessarily so, and why that doesn’t matter all that much.
“Ol Jonah he lived in a whale
He made his home in
Dat fish’s abdomen
Ol Jonah he lived in a whale”
Porgy and Bess
The Bible is one of the great literary masterpieces of world literature, a font of artistic expression, poetry, literary imagery and a source of inspiration and solace to millions of people world wide. The one thing it isn’t is inerrant. Not every line in the Bible is the absolute truth nor did its various authors intend that their work be interpreted as though they were.
We are not here referring to the many cases of internal inconsistencies, such as the multiple creation stories in Genesis, or the conflicting conquest narratives found in Joshua, which depicts a genocidal blitzkrieg in which the Canaanites are utterly destroyed as opposed to the narrative in Judges, in which the Canaanites were not vanquished as in Joshua but continued to exist, being more gradually absorbed into the Hebrew state and, in some cases such as Shechem, where the land is purchased rather than conquered.
Nor are we referring to the numerous historical inaccuracies and anachronisms such as camels in the time of Abraham, iron chariots, the siege of Jericho, (which had been deserted centuries before even the earliest possible period for the Israelite invasion) or the utter impossibility of the Exodus narrative.
Instead today we will consider some of the numerous books or passages which are literary fictions and intended by their authors to be interpreted as such. People unfamiliar with reading the Bible as a work of literature often miss the point that the Bible is filled with satire, parody and other forms of humor. For example there is a whole line of Anti-Prophetic Satires in the Hebrew Bible designed to poke fun at Israel’s prophets and call into question their visions and prophecies. Among these may counted Balaam and his talking donkey (Num 22:21-35) the boys and the bald prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-25) the lying prophet at Beth El (1 Kings 13) and the fishy story of Jonah. Many biblical scholars now argue that the primary goal of each of these narratives is portray the whole institution of prophecy negatively.
The original story.
To better appreciate this literature and its authors lets examine the story of Jonah and the “Whale.” Many Fundamentalist have expended a great deal of time and energy trying to “prove” that a man could be swallowed and live for three days in the belly of a whale or other “great fish.” This is a shame because it is apparent to anyone who reads the yarn with an open mind that the story was intended as a satire, a humorous story told in order to teach a moral. Humor has always been a powerful teaching tool and Jesus himself used it frequently in his parables, which were not stories about actual events but made up tales designed to teach.
The humor begins at the very start of the book when Jonah, God’s prophet, is the only character in the whole story who fails to obey God. When given a command by the Almighty to go to Nineveh his first reaction is to hop a boat going in the opposite direction, trying his best to flee from an omnipotent and omnipresent God.
But Jonah quickly discovers that he can’t get away that easily as Yahweh sends a mighty storm to stop him. Here we see again the comic touch as all the sailors grow frantic appealing to their gods but Jonah, who is the cause of all the trouble, goes down to the hold to catch a nap.
The landlubber scribe who wrote this book apparently did not know too much about the sea since he shows the frantic sailors trying to reach land in the middle of the storm whereas anyone who has spent much time around ships knows that no sailor in his right mind would go anywhere near land under those conditions for fear of being dashed to pieces on the shore.
When the captain finally wakes Jonah up he obviously knows why the storm is going on but is too cowardly to say until his guilt if found out by casting lots. He finally admits that he is a “Hebrew” a term which the Bible author uses here to differentiate Jonah’s people from the Phoenicians, Canaanites and other non-Yahwehist peoples living in Palestine. This is another admission that Joshua’s genocide of the Canaanites was not all it had been cracked up to be.
Unlike the Jonah, who is after all a prophet of the Lord but never follows his orders without a fight, the sailors are instantly converted to the worship of Yahweh and, on Jonah’s advice toss him into the sea, which instantly quiets down whereupon the sailors immediately make sacrifices to the Lord and take vows to his service.
Jonah is of course quickly swallowed by a “great fish” which most people in his predicament would view as a bad thing but Jonah immediately launched into a comically inappropriate prayer of thanksgiving for having been “rescued.” This is in place of a prayer of repentance or a plea for help, either of which would have been more appropriate considering the circumstance. After three days of this the poor fish has literally had a “belly full” and vomits Jonah (on God’s orders) onto dry land.
Given a second chance Jonah finally arrives at Nineveh which, in keeping with the other comic elements of the story, is described as being so big that it would take three days to walk across it. The real Nineveh, which has been thoroughly excavated, is indeed very big for its day, almost three miles across with a circumference of eight miles but a city of this size would hardly take an hour to cross much less three whole days—the exaggeration is obviously intended for comic effect.
Jonah, who is a very bigoted man and hates the people of Nineveh gleefully starts prophesying that within forty days the city will be “overturned.” The word chosen is a deliberate double-entendre which can be interpreted either as saying that the city will be destroyed or converted. To Jonah’s disgust the people immediately convert and the king goes so far as to even dress the farm animals in sack cloth and ashes and humans and animals alike are ordered to cry out to the Lord and swear to turn from their evil ways—although which evil ways the animals are to swear to forgo is not mentioned. Here again we see the point being made by use of absurd exaggeration.
Jonah is of course not happy at this turn of events since he was hoping to see the city destroyed and throws a tantrum because God has let the people get off so easily. Crying out to his God he says “"LORD, isn't this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country? That's why I tried to run to Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, patient, and always ready to forgive and to reconsider your threats of destruction. So now, LORD, take my life. I'd rather be dead than alive. (Jonah 4:2-3).
He goes outside the city and sits down to wait for either the hoped for fire and brimstone or death under the blistering sun. He gets neither. Instead Yahweh causes a bush to grow up in the night to shelter him and this miracle makes the pouting prophet very happy. The next night however Yahweh sends a worm to kill the bush and again Jonah pitches a fit screaming that he is so unhappy over the death of the bush that he wants to die.
Yahweh, as though speaking to a naughty child, admonishes the crybaby prophet by asking “Is it right that you should be angry about a bush?” Like a crabby child long past his nap time Jonah answers “Yes, angry enough to die.” Again with the dying already! What a schlemiel!
And now comes the whole point of the story, the moral. Still using his parental voice the Lord tells Jonah “"You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:10-11). And that is the kicker. The lord it telling Jonah, and all the narrow minded and sanctimonious who think that he is on their side alone that he has compassion for all his creation, even the poor animals wandering around in sack cloth and ashes.
And there we have it, as sweet a little comedy as anything we could expect from Mel Brooks. Throughout most of Hebrew and Christian history sophisticated men and women who have heard this story were well aware that it was never intended by its authors to be taken literally. Alas with the rise of modern Fundamentalism and its dogmatic clutching to the discredited theory of a literal reading of the Bible and a mad insistence on Biblical inerrancy in the face of mountains of contrary evidence, most of the beauty and wisdom of the Bible has been stripped away leaving only a hollow husk of grim faith centered around the rather sad and pitiful obsession with personal salvation.
Fundamentalist have managed to take most of the “fun” out of the Bible, and that is a crime because in addition to being “The Good Book” the Bible is also a very good book!
Further Reading:
The Book of Jonah (preferably in a scholarly edition of the Bible with good footnotes and annotations such as “The New Oxford Annotated Bible.”
Bickerman, E. Four Strange Books of the Bible, (Schocken Books, N.Y., 1967)
Bulkeley Tim, “Johah: Humor in Study Notes on Johah (Including Hebrew Narrative”
Jaysauwiya, Nalini “Jonah and the Whale”
Marcus, David “From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible” (Brown Judaic Studies 301) Atlanta: Scholars Press 1995
Miles, John R., “Laughing At The Bible: Jonah As Parody”, in Radday, Y.T. and Brenner, A. Eds. (The Almond Press, Sheffield, 1990) pg. 203-215.
Snow, Ed, “Jonah: Gently Raise the Sacred Satire,”
Walton, J.H., The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5-7, Bulletin for Biblical Research 2, 1992.
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