A high view of Scripture isn’t a literalistic one

Even if the book of Jonah didn’t feature the famous big fish, it wouldn’t take much serious study before you realized that it’s not an historical account. Doug Chaplin cites fourteen facts about the book of Jonah that taken together should really point any thoughtful reader aware of the basics of how literature works away from interpreting the book as historical narrative. The book of Jonah is a great example of how reading Scripture literalistically instead of as literature (“literally”) doesn’t do the text justice.

Nowadays, Jonah is on my short list of favorite books in the entire Bible. But it wasn’t until I realized it wasn’t historical that I began to appreciate it or understand its message and ingenious artistry. I find it highly ironic that once we reject the modernist premium on the historicity of stories, we find that among the Bible’s literary pieces, Jonah is surely among the most similar to modern literary sensibilities in its use of literary styles: as far as I know, its employment of irony and comic exaggeration is almost peerless in ANE literature (although you’ll find good doses of those features in contemporaneous Greco-Roman literature). Its messages of concern for others not like ourselves, the heavy responsibility of being among God’s elect, and the misguidedness of ethnocentrism are among the most “Christian” in the Old Testament.

Yes, those particular lessons could perhaps be drawn out by anyone (mis)taking Jonah as historical narrative. But one other astounding aspect of the book that is not so obvious to an inerrantist expecting accurate history everywhere is the intensely subversive and satirical backbone of the book. As I explained before, Thom Stark points out the sharp contrast between the perspective behind Deuteronomy 20.16-19, in which Yahweh prohibits destroying trees amidst the merciless destruction reserved for untold numbers of humans, and Yahweh’s concluding words in Jonah 4.10-11:

You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

“And also many animals”! The last words of the book! Yet another example of the author’s hilarious sarcasm and sense of irony, the same sense of irony that, as Chaplin notes, depicts Nineveh repenting immediately despite Jonah conveniently neglecting to mention repentance as an option, and that shows Jonah’s displeasure at Nineveh’s repenting in the shadow of adversity — in the same way he had just finished doing (only more willingly than he had done so)! And on and on. This book is a riot — and it’s beautiful. I think I’d actually be disappointed to discover that it actually happened: I appreciate it all the more for seeing its author’s storytelling skills.

If you truly love the Bible and not merely whatever teachings you have been told are within it, then for heaven’s sake, read each selection on its own terms, even when it means entertaining the possibility that those terms in one author might come into conflict with others elsewhere, and even when it means admitting that a juicy miraculous story that is fun to believe really happened never actually did. Loving the Bible means much the same thing as loving other people: enjoying it for what it is, accepting what is imperfect but can’t be changed, and avoiding the temptation to twist it into the shape of our expectations for it.

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