----Original Message Follows----
From: "Robert Schneider"
Subject: The historicity of Jonah question
Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 13:58:26 -0400

From a prior post:

"I see no reason for rejecting Jonah as a historical event, other than a bias against "miraculous" type events events in the Old Testament. Is there any scientific data to reject this as an actual happening?"

Bob's comment:

I do not think that scientific data is required to judge whether the story told in the Book of Jonah is a historical event. Now there is that interesting "fundamentalist fish tale" that Ted Davis did a really fine piece of historical research upon: someone claimed he was swallowed by a whale and lived in its belly for three days until rescued by whalers who captured the beast. The story got passed around in popular press and was taken up by creationist Harry Rimmer. The story was cited as proof of the historicity of the Jonah story, but in fact it was a species of what today we call an "urban legend." You'll find Ted's article at www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1991/PSCF12-9Davis.html. I guess one could argue that a human being swallowed by "a great fish" is an unlikely event. But I do not think it is up to science to prove the negative; it would rather be the task of those who claim the story is an actual historical account to make a convincing case for it and not simply assert this on the ideological ground that every story in the Bible not labeled "parable" or with some other roadsign is to be taken as historical.

Nor do I think that the great majority of Bible scholars question the historicity of Jonah on the grounds that they are biased against the miraculous. No, the consensus that Jonah is a parable has emerged as a result of a careful study of the narrative form and stylistic features of the text. Narratives contain in themselves clues to their own form and function. One obvious issue is the fact that Jonah, unlike the other texts of the minor and major prophets, contains no prophetic oracles; rather, it is a story. Like stories do, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and by the time you get to the end of it you have a pretty good idea of its meaning if you haven't gotten hung up, as so many people do, over whether Jonah was really swallowed by that "whale."

So, there is a consensus (based on the commentaries I have consulted) that Jonah is a prophetic narrative, with the features of a type of Hebrew parabolic story called a "mashal." Some critics also see allegorical elements in the narrative. Most scholars divide this narrative into two parts with four scenes that deal alternately with a group of pagans and then with Jonah and God. The author, whoever he is, was a fine literary artist, as the narrative is characterized by balance and symmetry in its structure, and the scenes are tied together by a skill use of wordplay, and rhetorical features such as irony and exaggeration. (I thank God for choosing such fine literary artists to create stories for the canon of Scripture.)

To read this story as simply a historical account of Jonah's travails as a prophet is to miss its very important theological messages, which is where its truths lie: in the message of God's free and unmerited mercy, that may be bestowed by God upon whomever God wills. Jonah is charicatured as a Hebrew prophet unwilling to deliver God's message of repentance and forgiveness to those outside of the covenant, tries to run away from his charge, is forced to give it anyway, and then is peeved beyond measure and goes into a giant sulk when those wicked gentiles repent and are forgiven. The Book of Jonah proclaims powerful truths, but they are timeless truths about God and about mercy that are here captured in parable, not in some "straightforward" historical account. (I also thank God for inspiring writers to create sacred fiction to convey divine truths; after all, we human beings use fiction to convey truth all the time, so why shouldn't God?)

I have no trouble seeing the account of Jonah in the belly of the fish being transported from the Mediterranean (around Cape of Good Hope) to the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates and spit out on the sands of Ninevah as "miraculous," but the miracle is part of the story not of history. One does not deny faith in the miraculous by confining this miracle to the story.

Grace and peace,
Bob Schneider

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