I don’t know when it was. Fifth grade, sixth grade, even earlier? Somewhere around there I first recognized just how implausible the story of Jonah was. By that time, I knew enough about the anatomy of wales, human physiology, and the digestive system to know that it the likelihood of someone being swallowed by a whale, surviving in its belly for three days, and then being vomited up on the seashore was quite slim. I knew enough geography that a whale swimming from the Mediterranean Ocean to the Persian Gulf in three days was far-fetched, and that a whole city might repent in response to a six-word sermon was impossible. For the literal mind of a precocious and inquisitive pre-teen, the book of Jonah presented enormous problems. Continue reading
I don’t know how many of you read the article in Newsweek last month about the Bible. It was subtitled “So misunderstood it’s a sin.” It was an attack on literalist and fundamentalist readings of scriptures and of those who cite verses of scripture in political debates without paying close attention to the context of those verses. My guess is that if you at all heard about it, it was because of others’ talking about it—either conservative Christians up in arms about this attack on the Word of God, or secularists using it to debunk and deflate our reverence for it. Continue reading
January 22, 2012
We’re three weeks, four Sundays into a new year, and things are finally settling down. Winter has finally arrived, for better or worse, and now that the Packers have lost, we don’t need to be focusing our attention quite so closely on the NFL playoffs as we did, for example last year. We can begin to go about the business of the routine of the winter and of the Season of Epiphany. Continue reading
Sometimes I wonder at what seems to be the perverse logic of the editors of the lectionary (can any of you explain it?). Why wouldn’t you include enough of the Book of Jonah to allow preachers and people to wrestle with it? There are exactly two Sundays when anything from Jonah is read–this week, and Proper 20, year A, when Jonah 3:10-4:11 is read.
I suppose there are biblical stories that are more familiar to most people than “Jonah and the Whale” but really, does anyone not know at least that Jonah was swallowed by a whale? It even received notice from Salon last week.
I suspect that lectionary’s focus on Jonah’s activity in Nineveh, and not on the events leading up to it, has to do with our squeamishness with the details of the story. Our overly literal minds tend to focus on the details that make it read like a tall tale. But that’s precisely what it is. I remember hearing one professor who had written a commentary on it describe it as an elaborate joke. More seriously, it stands as a critique of Hebrew prophecy, about which one could say more.
The story deserves our attention because it is well-written, memorable, and in its way, describes a very human, natural response to divine call. Of course, we are inclined to find a way to avoid God’s call. We do it every day, in small ways, when we turn away from those in need, or stay silent about the good news of Jesus Christ when the person with whom we are speaking clearly needs to experience the love of Christ. Rarely are we eaten by big fish, however.
There is a great deal of humor in Jonah–not just the opening drama of Jonah fleeing the call of God, being thrown overboard, swallowed up, and then ignominiously vomited up on land near Nineveh (check a map to see the likelihood of that happening). There is also Jonah’s prophetic message and the response of the Ninevites. There is also the response of Jonah, his settling in at a good spot to which Nineveh’s destruction, and the vine that protects him, being killed by a worm. It’s a great story and it preaches.
It preaches so well that there was a tradition in central and eastern Europe to build pulpits in the shape of a whale, so that the preacher was proclaiming out of the whale’s belly.