Growing up Pentecostal, I was raised to believe the Jonah story was a literal event. But even back then, I found the story a little difficult to swallow (pun intended).
I used to imagine that when Jonah was inside the whale, it must’ve been like when Pinocchio and Geppetto were trapped inside Monstro. (Yes, I realize that’s the second Pinocchio reference in two posts, my apologizes!)
Now that I’m a older and wiser, I know that a whale’s stomach isn’t filled with oxygen, it’s filled with things like saltwater, dead fish, methane, and digestive enzymes. A man can no more survive in the belly of a fish for three days than he can hold his breath for three days!
But the contents of a whale’s stomach are irrelevant because, as most apologists will tell you, Jonah’s whale was no ordinary whale (or “big fish”). Jonah’s whale was miraculously and specially prepared by God for the task of swallowing Jonah. God customized this whale with seating for one, and enough oxygen to keep Jonah hyperventilating for three days.
So while some Christians believe that Jonah’s story was a literal event, many will also admit that it was a miraculous event, which isn’t really a problem for Christianity, where miracles are just par for the course.
The problem with miracles…
So the first reason Christians are able to accept this elaborate story is because they accept the existence of miracles. The problem with this belief is it impairs our ability to differentiate between fact and fable. Allow me to demonstrate…
Imagine we hop into a “specially prepared” Delorean and travel back in time to 2000 BC. Once there, we insert the story of Pinocchio into the scriptures (we’ll call it “The Book of Geppetto”). The only change we’ll make to the story is to call the “blue fairy” an “angel of God.”
When we get back to the future, we’d likely find that modern fundamentalists actually believe that God once made a cricket talk, and that he turned a wooden marionette into a real boy, and that he helped a man survive for several days inside the belly of a… oh, wait… I guess already believe that…
Okay, scratch that idea. Let’s say instead that we insert the story of Paul Bunyan. When we get back to the future, we’d likely find that some Christians actually believe that giants once roamed the earth… oh, wait… I guess they already believe that, too.
Okay, fine, let’s say instead that we insert the modern fairy tale Shrek. When we got back to the future, we’d likely find that some Christians actually believe that a donkey once talked and… oh, wait… uggggh.
The point is, many fables and fairy tales contain logical absurdities that allow us to recognize them as fiction. When we allow for miracles, it impairs our ability to separate reality from fantasy. If it turns out that someone from the future has inserted the story of Jonah into the Bible as a joke, by what measure could we tell?
The problem with the Bible…
The second reason Christians are able to accept this story is because it’s in the Bible. When we accept other parts of the Bible, the fishy tale of Jonah comes along for the ride.
If the story of Jonah wasn’t in the Bible, or appeared in some other ancient text, we would quickly dismiss it as fiction. But because it’s in the Bible, we assume God wants it there.
If we start questioning the validity of the Jonah, then where does it stop? What else should we toss out? Questioning Jonah is a slippery slope, because a man being swallowed by a whale is really no less ridiculous than a virgin giving birth to the son of an invisible god.
The Problem with Allegory
More intellectual Christians will write this tall tale off as allegory. Allegory is sometimes used to salvage problematic Bible stories by turning them into parables or prophetic events, and insisting they still have substance and relevance.
For example, David Steinberg says “It is possible that Jonah (meaning ‘dove’) represents Israel, the fish represents Babylon, the time in the fish the Babylonian exile and the expulsion of Jonah from the fish represents God’s return of Israel to its own land…”
Sure it does. It’s also possible that Jonah represents George Lucas, the fish represents the original Star Wars trilogy, the time in the fish represents the three decades before the prequels, and the expulsion is the poor reception the prequels received from fans and critics.
Or better yet, perhaps Jonah represents the moon landing, where the fish represents Apollo 11, the time inside the fish is the three days it took to travel to the moon, and the expulsion is how the we used the moon’s gravity to propel the astronauts back home.
Heck, even the authors of the New Testament used the Jonah story as a metaphor for Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 12:40), even though Jesus wasn’t exactly spewed from the tomb after disobeying God… but close enough.
The point is, it doesn’t take much work to turn a story into a reasonable sounding allegory. But if we turn every miraculous event into an allegory, it takes away from what makes the God of the Bible special.
The Problem with Paine
The question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Which is more likely, that a man has lied, or that a miracle has occurred?”
“Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course. But we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time. It is therefore at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”
~ Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
Thomas Paine makes a fair point. In modern times, we no longer observe God’s people turning sticks into snakes, or parting seas, or commanding the sun to stand still, or calling down fire from heaven. And we no longer observe God turning people into salt, or raining fire upon evil cities, or raining manna on the hungry, or making donkeys talk, or giving men with long hair super strength. Yet… we do observe that just about every culture invents fables, myths, lies and legends.
Skeptics would have us believe the Jonah story is a fable. Christianity would have us believe that there is an invisible God who occasionally violates the laws of nature in spectacular ways, but doesn’t anymore, and that these ancient authors weren’t lying or making up fables like every other culture that has ever existed.
In all honesty, we can never disprove the story of Jonah, but there are alternate explanations that seem far more probable.
Miracles, allegories, and sacred texts my help us to suspend our disbelief, but they also make any story defensible… even Pinocchio. If Pinocchio were in the Bible instead of Jonah, I might be concluding with something like this…
The Old Testament story of Pinocchio may be literally true, but we would have to accept that a miracle occurred, which isn’t a problem for God (if He can create a Universe, he can certainly turn a wooden puppet into a real boy!). But because lies and fables are far more commonplace than miracles, it’s more likely that the story is fiction. Although, it’s possible that Pinocchio (meaning ‘baby pine’) is allegorical, and that Pinocchio’s conversion to a real boy represents the renewing of our spirit through salvation, which was made possible by a sacrifice upon a piece of wood (possibly pine!).
Of course, that’s complete and utter nonsense, but you can see how miracles, allegories, and sacred texts make it all to easy to defend just about anything. But just because we can defend it, doesn’t make it true… or even reasonable.