The Short Story as God’s Word

Jonah image 2

The prophetic word in the Book of Jonah is not what Jonah says, but his story.

The Book of Jonah draws me in like the light bulb on the front porch that attracts the moths throughout the night. You can sense that when you notice that I have written about this book twice in my blog (see Who Has the Last Word in Jonah? and When Was Jonah Saved?).

It fascinates me because for one, it is a very short work, but dense, very dense in meaning. And for a second reason. It is an odd book to find in the prophetic corpus.

Most prophetic books in the Old Testament are heavy on the words that the prophet declared to the people of Israel. You find scattered biographical details in the texts (like the story of Jeremiah’s imprisonment or the death of Ezekiel’s wife), but no sustained narrative that tells the story of the prophet’s life. What is of central importance are the words from God that the prophet is commissioned to deliver.

But in Jonah, the message he delivers is just one sentence: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). That’s it. No further elaboration. No poetic embellishment. No hopeful promise. If we understand prophecy as a word from God, how did Jonah make it into the collection of the 12 prophets? He seems a very minor prophet indeed.

Story as Prophecy

The Book of Jonah forces us to expand our understanding of prophecy. The word of the Lord to Israel does not always consist of just spoken words coming out of the prophet’s mouth. The word of the Lord may also be the prophet’s story. In fact, the prophecy declared in the Book of Jonah is the short story of Jonah itself.

In this respect, I like to see the Book of Jonah as analogous to the parables Jesus teaches. They, too, are short stories. I once heard a Bible teacher describe the parable of the prodigal son as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. The story is the vehicle for revelation.

Even though I don’t regard the Book of Jonah as a historical account–and I don’t–I have no less respect for it as scripture. Jonah was certainly a real historical figure. He makes another appearance in 2 Kings 14:25.

But there are too many improbabilities in the story that tax our credulity if we regard it as a historical account. I offer two examples: the improbability of a man remaining alive for three days in the belly of a fish and the description of the city of Nineveh as a three-day walk across in breadth. Archaeologists tell us this is a far exaggeration over the real city.

Those improbabilities do not trouble me at all, because the word of the Lord that comes to us in this story is contained in the story itself. And if we listen attentively to the story, we find the Book of Jonah to be one of the most powerful expressions of the compassionate love of God for sinful humanity in all of the Bible.

When Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have the distinct impression that Jesus knows the Book of Jonah intimately. He has absorbed its message into his own very being. Jesus is at one with the author of the book.

The Prominence of Narrative in the Bible

All this should remind us that a huge part of the Bible consists of narrative, narratives about individuals and narratives about peoples and nations. It has been customary to call the first five books of the Bible the Law of Moses. But if you study those books attentively, you find narrative has just as dominant position in the Torah as do legal, ritual, and moral injunctions.

The same is true of the gospels. Yes, they contain large blocks of Jesus’ teaching. But that teaching is embedded in narratives, narratives that tell the story of Jesus and his acts. This is a striking feature of the canonical gospels when we compare them to a non-canonical gospel like the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a collection of sayings, but sayings lifted out of their context.

This also suggests for me that there can be something revelatory about the narratives of our own lives. If we are given the prophetic gift of insight, we can perceive the way that God is at work in the many twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But most of us are not given that prophetic gift, and so we turn to the prophets of the Bible for the insight they can provide us.

Yet we have that strange prophecy in the prophet Joel that the apostle Peter claims is fulfilled on Pentecost. It goes:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. (
Acts 2:17-18)

This passage suggests that prophecy is not to be an elitist gift, but a universal gift. And we hope that someday it will be.

The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 2

Is the spirit of the Bible anti-intellectual?

Editorial Note: This posting forms the second part of a two-part reflection. To follow the full flow of my thoughts, please read “The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1” (posted on May 18) first. 

In the ancient Mesopotamian myths the supreme gift humanity desires is the one gift denied them. It is the gift of immortality. The hero Gilgamesh discovers the plant of immortality in the depths of the sea and picks it. But he places it on the grass while he bathes in a pool. A snake slithers up and snatches it.

By contrast in the Genesis creation story (Genesis 2-3), God does not deny humans access to the tree of life. Presumably they can eat of its fruit and be constantly rejuvenated. Instead God prohibits eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge is the forbidden fruit, not immortality.

Faced with this oddity, we are left to wonder: What is so dangerous about knowledge?

In my last posting, I suggest that when Adam and Eve grasp at this fruit, they are seeking to gain omniscience. Once they know everything, they can be truly independent. They will be masters of their own lives. God be pushed to the fringes of life. He becomes a needless hypothesis.

This, I think, carries us to the heart of the author’s concern. The grasping for omniscience is a delusional act. Human beings are not gods. Instead the grasping for omniscience severs their relationship of trust in God. It cuts the spiritual artery of life.

Are faith and knowledge in eternal conflict?

This raises another question. Does the author then see a fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge? Is his attitude deeply anti-intellectual? In fact, is the spirit of the Bible itself anti-intellectual?

Some Christians today certainly hold this position. They worry that too much intellectual study will undermine a person’s faith. Instead “give me that old-time religion” simple and emotional as it is, even if it is an ignorant faith.

Many non-believers assume the same. I find it a common prejudice among scientists. Religion and science are inherently incompatible, they contend. Many Christians also seem to confirm that prejudice. In field after field, they set themselves in opposition to the scientific consensus.

But that is not a fair reading of the Bible. The Biblical writers place great value in knowledge, especially knowledge that advances human well-being (wisdom). There are many places where the Biblical authors praise wisdom. The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs are one classic exposition. There not only are humans exhorted to pursue wisdom, but wisdom is praised as God’s partner in the creation and ordering of the world (see Proverbs 8). One can hardly exalt knowledge and wisdom to a higher status.

There is one striking feature, however, of how the Bible, especially the Book of Proverbs, understands its lauded pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit begins—and must begin–with a foundational reverence for God as God. This is stated explicitly in the opening verses of Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;

        fools despise wisdom and knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)

Psalm 111 repeats this conviction:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

         all those who practice it have a good understanding. (Psalm 111:10)

The Biblical writers do not use the word fear to stand for terror in the presence of God. Rather it stands for a basic reverence for God. That reverence is grounded in trust, trust in the power and the goodness of God.

The pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous as long as it is united with a basic reverence for and trust in God. When Adam and Eve grab the forbidden fruit, they seek knowledge at the expense of that relationship to their Maker.

The contrast between the Greek and Hebrew attitudes towards knowledge

The Garden of Eden story highlights, I believe, a fundamental contrast between ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew attitudes towards life. If I understand the Greek philosophical tradition correctly, the fundamental assumption of that tradition is that the source of humanity’s many frustrations and problems is ignorance. Therefore our salvation is closely tied to the pursuit of the truth. Knowledge will save.

In his dialogues around Athens, Socrates, for example, seems to assume that if human beings can come to know the truth, they will do the truth. I have never been quite sure why. Maybe it’s because once we recognize the truth, it will be so attractive that we will want instinctively to live by it. We will not be able not to want to live by it. Truth attracts us by its beauty. So as knowledge advances and ignorance recedes, life will become better for everyone.

The Biblical authors operate on a different assumption. Ignorance is not the fundamental source of humanity’s problems. Humanity’s distorted will is. Humanity has sought to live in independence from its Maker. Therefore mankind’s salvation is closely tied to repentance, understood as a total reorientation to life. In repentance we return to a foundational trusting in God.

Until that happens, the pursuit of knowledge will always be an ambivalent affair. We have seen how science, for example, has done great good in advancing the welfare of human beings, especially in the field of medicine. But scientific knowledge has also given us the ability to annihilate life and civilization on this planet.

The question is: How will humans use the knowledge that science and other intellectual endeavors have given us? That involves choices made by the human will. And knowledge does not infallibly govern the human will. Attitudes, emotions, and desires play an important role as well. In fact, in my opinion, the more decisive role.

When Adam and Eve grasped at the forbidden fruit, they introduced a fatal separation between the head and the heart. Instead of working in harmony, reason and human desires work at cross purposes a lot of the time. We see this separation continued in the tension between science and religion in our own day. This is what makes the Genesis myth so insightful for understanding the human dilemma.

The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1

What really motivates Adam and Eve to pick and eat the forbidden fruit?

Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 16th century

Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 16th century

Genesis 2-3 has long fascinated me. I don’t read it as history. I regard it as a religious myth. But as a myth, it says some important things about human nature. That’s why I continue to ponder it and honor it.

It is Genesis’ second creation story. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is that magnificent recital of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth by God’s sovereign word. It moves day by day, stage by stage, in a stately procession. It begs for a royal Handelian march as musical accompaniment.

The second creation story (Genesis 2:4-3:24) reads more like a family tale told by aunts and uncles over the dinner table at a family reunion. The cousins eagerly listen in. It has a folkloric quality.

A tale of great depth

But we would be very wrong to assume it is naïve and childish. Its theology is very sophisticated. It lays an essential foundation for everything else that is coming in the Bible.

For example, its understanding of human beings. In the story God creates Adam (the representative human being) out of the dust (or clay) of the earth. Human beings are constituted of the same atoms and molecules as the rest of the physical universe. Yet into this fragile figurine God breathes the breath of life.

God creates a magnificent garden as a home for this human being. When you consider that in the desiccated lands of the ancient Near East, gardens were prized as luxuries, a privilege primarily enjoyed by kings and nobles, then Adam is given a very royal home. And he is given a noble task. God makes him caretaker of this glorious garden.

God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. Human science with its methods of classification has continued to carry out that noble task ever since. And finally God creates for Adam a companion, Eve, who is complementary to Adam, but equal to him in dignity.

How this noble vision contrasts with the creation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. In those myths the gods create human beings to be their slaves. Human beings do the work of growing food so they can feed the gods through their sacrifices. Humans do the back-breaking labor of building homes for the gods, those stupendous ziggurat temples. All this so the gods can recline on their couches and enjoy their leisure.

Despite their privileged status in creation, human beings in the Genesis story remain creatures. They are not children of God by birth, but by manufacture. It is essential that they continue to recognize that fact of their existence.

In the myth they acknowledge that fact by obeying the one command that God places upon them. They are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What is the danger of knowledge?

Now this is one part of the story that has long engaged me. What is this knowledge of good and evil that is such poisonous fruit to these creatures that if they consume it they will die? The text does not define the phrase. So we have to tease out its meaning by paying close attention to the context.

Scholars have offered four different understandings:

1.This knowledge of good and evil is moral knowledge. It enables humans to comprehend the distinction between moral good and evil. But given everything else written in the Bible on the great value of moral knowledge, why would God prohibit such knowledge?

2.This knowledge stands for sexual maturity, as when children move from their innocence into the sexual awakening of adolescence. After all Adam and Eve become first aware of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. But is not such sexual maturation a part of the God-designed plan for human beings? Why again would God prohibit it?

3. This knowledge represents a mature wisdom that is a part of adulthood. Adam and Eve are like innocent children, who have yet to grow up. They try to do so prematurely and now must bear the burdens and anxieties of adulthood before they are ready. But given the Bible’s constant praise of wisdom and the search for wisdom, why would God want to keep humans in a state of perpetual childhood?

4. This knowledge is a descriptive phrase for omniscience. The contrasting good and evil stand for knowledge in its entirety. If one can know everything, then one can make independent judgments about what is best for human welfare. Such knowledge would transform the creature into a god, for omniscience is a divine attribute.*

I find option No. 4 most persuasive. It makes the most sense of the serpent’s temptation in chapter 3. He tells Eve the lie, “…God knows that when you eat of it [the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The heart of the serpent’s seduction

His lie appeals to the human desire to be captains of our souls and masters of our fate. We seek that security because to live trusting in the goodness, grace, and merciful love of God can produce great anxiety and restlessness. Can we really depend upon the power and love of God to carry us through the many vicissitudes of life? Therein lies the key to the serpent’s seductive temptation. It triggers the spirit of suspicion that God is not all that he is cracked up to be. It undermines our full-hearted trust in God.

Adam and Eve therefore reach out and greedily grab at this great treasure of knowledge. (Human beings still do.) But when they do so, they violate God’s commandment and sever their intimate relationship with God. Trust has been thrown overboard.

The eating has the intended consequence that their eyes are opened, although now they realize they are naked (a symbol of vulnerability). The eating also has its unintended consequences. It separates them from the one who breathes the breath of life into them. They are exiled from the garden. And they begin their inevitable journey towards death.

The security from anxiety that they hoped to achieve by omniscience slips through their fingers.

Editorial Note: I continue my reflection on this passage in my next blog posting. Please read the two together to get the full drift of my reflection.

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* I want to acknowledge my great debt to Nahum M. Sarna’s masterful commentary on Genesis for assistance in understanding this theme. The commentary forms part of The JPS Torah Commentary, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989. I also acknowledge the insight into the passage that Martha Elias Downey gave me in her essay, “The Original Choice: The Prohibition of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” posted on academia.edu. I have adapted her analysis to my own use.

The Living Voice of the Word

Let us reclaim the power of reading the Bible aloud.

People today access the words of Scripture differently from our ancestors in the ancient and medieval worlds. Books then were copied by hand. As a result, books were rare and expensive. Reading was an elitist skill. So most people absorbed the words of Scripture through their ears, by hearing the Bible read out loud in a church or synagogue service, in the monastic dining hall, or in the university lecture room.

All that changed with the invention of printing. Books became a mass medium; reading a skill possessed by the masses. We largely access the words of Scripture today through the eye, as we open the printed book and read it silently to ourselves.

What is lost is that oral dimension when the Bible is read aloud. The pitches, the modulations, the pauses of the human voice all give a power to the reading of the Bible that a silent reading cannot deliver. Oral reading more easily engages the emotions and moves the spirit.

As an example of power of the spoken word, take Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Read silently, the speech will impress us with the depth and breadth of King’s vision. But listen to a recording of the speech. You begin to realize why his oral delivery so moved the audience that heard it back in August 1963. His voice adds a dimension that the printed page cannot capture.

A Prophet Declaims

I began to think about this as I was reading the Old Testament prophet Joel recently. In the first two chapters, the prophet declaims to Judah the impending disaster that God’s judgment is about to bring upon the land. An immense army will sweep down from the north and strip the land bare.

What fascinated me was how the prophet uses poetic expression to deliver his message. For example, here is how he describes the onslaught of that army:

Like warriors they charge,
like soldiers they scale the wall.
Each keeps to its own course,
they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another,
each keeps to its own track;
they burst through the weapons
and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls;
they climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.
(Joel 2:7-9, NRSV)

As I read this passage, the image that immediately popped into my mind was some battle scenes in George Lucas’ Star Wars series. In these battles the empire marshals vast armies of androids to attack the rebels. The androids come marching across the desert sands in lock-step order, line upon line. They crush whatever falls into their path.

Joel is evoking the same kind of effect, but with words rather than moving images. Of course, poetry (especially epic poetry) served in the ancient world the same effect that the cinema does in ours. It sought to tell a dramatic story and engage us in the story by stirring up our emotions. What we expect from a good movie, the Greeks would have experienced in a superb recitation of Homer.

This led me to wonder how Joel’s proclamation must have sounded when he delivered it orally in person. We don’t know where that happened. But I suspect his oral delivery was one reason why people remembered and recorded what he said for future generations.

Revitalizing the Public Reading of Scripture

I also wonder if we cannot experience something of that same power when we hear the Bible read aloud with a sensitivity to the sound and rhythms of the words. That’s why I would suggest that a monotone reading of Scripture in our worship services does a disservice to the holy text. Our official readers should be encouraged to bring the fullness of their voices’ capabilities to that reading.

Let’s also be honest. The oral reading is an interpretation of the text. What we choose to emphasize by our voice suggests how we hear the text we are reading. In that sense a good oral reading is as much an interpretation as the sermon.

In some recent online articles, British poet Paul Gittens analyzes why poetry has declined in popularity so much in the 20th and 21st centuries compared to previous centuries. One reason, he believes, is the decline in the public recitation of poetry. Historically, poetry’s impact has depended in large part on its verbal music, its sounds and rhythms, its meters and rhyme.

He cities research by the Poetry and Memory Project at Cambridge University. In its online mission statement, it contends: “If, as most poets and scholars argue, poems communicate meaning fundamentally through sound, it would seem that to wholly replace performance of a poem with talk about that poem must be to lose something vital.”

I would like to suggest that something similar can be said about the public reading of Scripture. The oral reading of Scripture has always held an important place in the life of the church and in the life of Christian families. Maybe we need to make sure it retains that important place.