In the belly of the fish

In the belly of the fish September 30, 2009

I request the consent of the chamber to revise and extend my previous post.

1. The whale was in Pinocchio

In discussing the book of Jonah, I try to avoid the notorious bit with the really big fish. That's what the story says — "fish," not "whale."

If you're not familiar with that bit, here it is, briefly. Instead of heading east, like God told him to, Jonah sails west. So God sends a big storm that threatens to sink the boat. Jonah realizes what's going on, but instead of telling the sailors to turn around and take him back, he tells them to throw him overboard, because he'd rather die than help God save the people of Ninevah.

But God doesn't let Jonah drown. Instead, God sends a big fish that swallows Jonah and he spends three days in the belly of the beast. While there, he offers up one of those negotiated repentances (God, if you get me out of this, I'll …). The fish spits him out back where he started and he finally heads for Ninevah.

My fundie Bible teachers considered this the main, or even the only, point of this story worth considering. Their task, as they saw it, was to defend the story as being "literally" true, and so they'd share legends (see Bartley, James) of sailors swallowed by whales and go to great lengths to argue that such a thing was possible. This led to some rather strange and uninspiring sermons, the main point of which seemed to be that God is capable of creating a fish that could swallow a man whole and keep that man alive for several days. The message of those sermons was, at best, difficult to apply in one's daily life during the following week.

The larger problem with such sermons, though, was that they were elaborate devices for pretending to engage the story of Jonah while actually avoiding its clear and vehement argument. I've come to believe that such evasion is the primary function for a "literalist" approach to the Bible. (See also Genesis 1-11.)

2. I didn't write the book of Jonah.

We have no way of knowing who wrote the book of Jonah, but I assure you it wasn't me.

But whoever wrote it really did so as an explicit challenge to and rejection of an exclusive, vengeful perspective found elsewhere in scripture. Don't take my word for that, read it yourself (it's short).

When I point this out, some folks get mad at me. That hardly seems fair. I didn't write it and I wasn't around when we were deciding what to include in the canon. So if the book of Jonah's refutation of the stories about the ethnic cleansing of Canaan causes you discomfort because it creates conflict within the canon, please don't take it out on me.

3. Jesus really liked this book.

In the Gospels, Jesus specifically cites the book of Jonah. Asked for a sign that he speaks for God, Jesus said he would give no sign except "the sign of Jonah."

Some say that's a cryptic foretelling of Jesus' eventual death and burial for three days in the tomb. Three days in a fish, three days in the tomb — get it?

I'm not buying that. Neither Jesus nor his critics would have thought it made any sense for him, when his legitimacy was being questioned, to compare himself to Jonah. You can accuse someone of being like Jonah, but you can't try to vindicate yourself by claiming to be like him.

I think, rather, that the "sign of Jonah" means something like, "See for yourself, the Ninevites are being saved." Jesus was responding to his critics by telling them that they could either join the party of they could go off to the desert and sulk, like Jonah. When Ninevah is spared, Jonah rages against God for being "a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

In Jonah's view, those are all bad things. (I can't help but think of the recent "empathy" debate.)

And because God is so infuriatingly gracious and abounding in love, Jonah declares that "it is better for me to die than to live … I am angry enough to die." Jesus' critics felt the same way about his compassion and abounding love for tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, gentiles, women and other unclean outcasts.

That reading of "the sign of Jonah" is supported by Jesus' other, more allusive, references to the story in his parables. The ending of the parable of the Prodigal Son seems lifted directly from the book of Jonah. "The older brother became angry and refused to go in." If his father's love was to encompass his undeserving younger brother, then he, like Jonah, wanted no part of it.

4. Reconciling canonical conflicts.

"It's simple," says the sculptor in the old joke. "I just take a block of granite and chisel away anything that doesn't look like a horse."

Just for the sake of argument, some of my fellow evangelicals say, let's pretend you're right and there actually are conflicting views present within the canon of scripture. How, then, are we to know which side to choose? How can we know which of these conflicting views we ought to be following?

A classmate of mine asked exactly that question years ago of one of my seminary professors. The professor said nothing at first, but just turned around and walked to the blackboard. Holding a short piece of chalk sideways he made two broad, sweeping strokes and turned back to the class, pointing behind him to the cross he had just drawn. "That," he said. "That is the standard by which I judge everything we read in the Bible."

Good answer. That same answer is why I side with the author of Jonah against the biblical views that the story of Jonah attacks.

But while I think that's a good answer it doesn't settle the ongoing debate. That same debate in which the book of Jonah is just one fierce volley — the debate between exclusive and inclusive understandings of God's abounding love — is nowhere near settled. And it can't be settled by appeals to the Bible, or to the meaning of the cross, because where one stands in that debate colors how one reads the Bible, or what one considers the cross to mean.

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