Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Deadliest Catch

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40).
As we approach Easter, it's appropriate to revisit the miracle of Jonah.
i) Some critics classify Jonah as a fictional book because of the miraculous elements, especially his survival inside the fish. From a Christian standpoint that's an illicit reason to reject the historicity of Jonah.
ii) Another approach is to classify Jonah as a fictional satire. That's the tack taken by David Marcus in From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible (Scholars Press 1995). 
In Scripture, although sinners are often targets of prophetic satire, sometimes prophets are on the receiving end of satirical barbs. Balaam is a case in point. 
In his analysis, a text is a satire if (a) it has an object that it attacks, either directly or indirectly, and (b) it contains an overwhelming abundance of satirical features, including "a mixture of unbelievable elements (absurdities, fantastic situations, grotesqueries, distortions), ironies, ridicule, parody, and rhetorical feature. On that view, Jonah is analogous to Gulliver's Travels or Don Quixote
And up to a point, Jonah certainly fills the bill. If there was some overriding reason to conclude that Jonah can't be historical, then this would be a respectable alternative. There's nothing inherently wrong with a canonical book that's satirical fiction. 
iii) That said, this is not a strong argument for classifying Jonah as fictitious. Even if it is satirical, satire is not a fictional genre. Satire is neutral in that respect. A satire can be fiction or nonfiction. Satirists routinely lampoon real people, real events, real institutions, real customs. 
iv) In addition, scholars don't agree on the satirical character of Jonah. According to one Jewish commentator (Uriel Simon, in the JPS series), Jonah reflects "compassionate irony" rather than "satirical irony. This is a pathos-amplifying sort of humor, "one which looks down on the hero and painfully exposes his failures, but it is forgiving: It sets the hero in his proper place without humiliating him and restores him to his dignity without abasing him" (xxii). The fundamental seriousness of the fugitive prophet and his utter fidelity to himself are meant to arouse the reader's sympathy rather than derision: Jonah is a genuinely pathetic figure in his hopeless struggle with his God (xxi); a desperate fugitive, who is at once bold and stubborn, upright and ludicrous, (xxi).  
That's clearly a more sympathetic portrayal. However, these differing approaches aren't necessarily antithetical. Jonah could be a tragic figure in his own mind. Someone who takes himself too seriously. There can be a contrast between his heroic self-image and God making a fool out of Jonah. How he sees himself, and how the reader sees him, from the narrator's viewpoint, can be two very different perspectives. 
v) Moreover, although Jonah has satirical elements, it isn't pervasively satirical.  
vi) Also, a modern reader needs to keep in check what he deems to be unbelievable elements (absurdities, fantastic situations), in contrast to what an ancient Jewish reader would deem to be unbelievable. Jonah wasn't written to or for a secular-minded audience. 
vii) Another problem with classifying the book as fictional is that Scripture views Jonah as a real person, a real prophet (2 Kgs 14:25). Moreover, his ministry in 2 Kings dovetails with the setting of the book of Jonah. There is, of course, such a thing as historical fiction. But we have to be careful not to anachronistically project modern examples of that genre back into the OT.  
viii) Some moderate to conservative scholars defend the miracle on naturalistic grounds, by citing alleged parallels in modern times. I myself find that dubious. I'm no expert, but I doubt a human could naturally survive for more than a few minutes inside the stomach of a marine creature. That's not an oxygen-rich environment. I assume he's quickly asphyxiate. Moreover, soaking in a vat of gastric acid is not conducive to survival.
This is a case where a natural explanation is less credible than a supernatural explanation.
That said, there are marine creatures large enough to swallow a man whole. That much is naturally possible. 
ix) I also think a stronger case can be made for the historical interpretation than conservative interpreters generally do. Both proponents and opponents of the miracle typically make the mistake of isolating the miracle from its larger context. But taken in context, this miracle is embedded in a number of realistic features. By "realistic," I mean theologically and psychologically realistic features. 
Of course, if you suffer from an a priori antipathy to miracles, this argument won't have any traction, but I'm not addressing people who suffer from that attitude. 
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
i) It's realistic that pagan sailors would blame the squall on the displeasure of a god. Pagans ascribe natural forces to the gods. Pagans view natural disasters as punitive events. Indeed, that's not confined to paganism. 
ii) Moreover, this isn't just a primitive outlook. I sometimes catch episodes of The Deadliest Catch, when it airs on TV. Modern captains and their crew can be superstitious. When they have a run of bad luck, they resort to superstitious rituals.
iii) Moreover, the idea that God really sent the squall is consistent with Biblical theism.  
iv) It's realistic that pagan sailors resort to sortilege to finger the culprit. The pagan world was rife with divination. Casting lots was a popular form of pagan divination. 
v) Furthermore, the idea that God providentially loaded the dice is consistent with Biblical theism. 
 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
The sailors are in a bind. On the one hand, they'd normally have no compunction about giving a passenger who endangered them the heave-ho. He's to blame for their woe. By getting Jonah off their backs, they get God off their backs. 
On the other hand, the situation is complicated by the fact that the culprit is a prophet. They already angered his God by giving the fugitive prophet safe passage. Sure, they didn't know the all the details, but in their experience, the gods aren't very discriminating. 
Can they kill a prophet with impunity? Or is he sacrosanct? What if killing the prophet would further enrage his God, thereby sealing their doom? That's their inhibition. 
It's a dilemma. Either way, they are mortally imperiled. 
17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Having thrown him overboard, what's the expected outcome? If nature was allowed to take its course, in all likelihood he'd drown. 
But in that event, Jonah would successfully evade God's command. Indeed, although volunteering to be thrown overboard might seem altruistic, by sacrificing himself to save the sailors, a more cynical interpretation is that this is Jonah's final way of evading God's command. Suicide is his opt-out clause. On that view, this isn't Jonah's confession of guilt and submission to punishment, but another ruse evade God's command. He's provoking the sailors to kill him, because a dead prophet can't preach to the Ninevites.   
Pious commentators impute pious motives to Jonah, but that overlooks the fact that Jonah is on the run from God. He gives new meaning to a reluctant prophet. 
We don't expect God to let Jonah to defeat his plan for Jonah. The next logical step in the course of events is for God to miraculously preserve the life of his wayward prophet, so that Jonah will be forced to continue and complete his appointed mission. 
The miracle of the fish is not an isolated event, but part of a logical sequences of events. The narrative is realistic, both within the Jewish worldview of the narrator as well as the pagan worldview of the sailors.  

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