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.

Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.

When Was Jonah Saved?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 2

I love the book of Jonah. But not for the reasons many others do. They may love it for its story of a petulant prophet who runs away from God, as we often do. Or they may get all caught up in the sensational miracle of Jonah surviving three days and nights in the belly of a big fish.

I love it for a different reason. It is one of the most powerful statements in Scripture of God’s love for all humanity, including our own enemies. Those enemies can include yesterday’s militaristic Assyrians or today’s Islamic terrorists. When Jesus counsels us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have a sense he had absorbed the message of Jonah deep into his soul.

Still there are tricky interpretative traps in reading Jonah. One is what do we do with Chapter 2. This chapter recounts a psalm of thanksgiving that Jonah prays within the belly of the big fish. (We should note the text never calls the creature a whale. It is a big fish.)

In the psalm, Jonah thanks God for saving his life. When the sailors threw Jonah into the sea, Jonah should have died by drowning. He describes this fate in vivid imagery:

            The waters closed in over me,

                        the deep was round about me,

            weeds were wrapped about my head

                        at the roots of the mountains.

            I went down to the land

                        whose bars closed upon me forever [meaning Sheol, the land of the dead].

            Yet thou didst, bring up my life from the Pit,

                        O Lord my God. (Revised Standard Version)

Many who read this psalm are troubled by its placement in the story. Jonah thanks God for saving him. But he is praying this psalm while still in the belly of the fish. He has not yet been vomited up onto dry land.

Some say then that Jonah is praying a song of thanksgiving in anticipation of his future rescue [in Biblical language, his salvation]. Others think the author has clumsily plopped a random song of thanksgiving into the story at an inappropriate place.

Such interpretations, however, assume that Jonah is rescued (or saved) when he is vomited upon the beach. But what if the moment of salvation is when the fish swallows Jonah, not when the fish vomits him forth three days later? Jonah is saved (not in an eternal sense, but in a this-world sense) the moment the fish swallows him.

If we understand that as the moment of rescue, then the psalm makes full sense in its placement in the story. For once the fish has swallowed Jonah, he is safe, even though he is yet to be set free upon dry land. He knows he has been saved, and so he thanks the Lord for his mercy.

This also means that the big fish is a savior figure in the story. He is the means of Jonah’s rescue.

Now this opens up a peculiar way Christians can read the story of Jonah. Following the hallowed Christian tradition of reading the Old Testament as the type for the antitype of the New Testament, the fish in Jonah can be seen as a type of Christ the Savior.

Reading the text in this way, I can’t help being fascinated that an early Christian symbol is the fish. The initials of the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in Greek spells the Greek word for fish. And so the fish was a code symbol early Christians used to identify each other.

Also striking is the fact that we find images of the fish vomiting up Jonah painted on the walls of the Christian catacombs in Rome. There it served as a symbol of resurrection.

The apostle Paul talks about the Christian dead being in Christ and with Christ awaiting the day of resurrection. With that Pauline understanding in mind, one begins to understand why the image of the fish vomiting up Jonah should be a common image in a Christian cemetery. The fish, the savior figure, is projecting the believer into eternal life, after a time of resting in the belly of the fish.

Now I am not at all suggesting the author of Jonah was writing cryptic Christian theology. He was not. But it is easy to understand, however, how Christians can see in the Old Testament resonances with the gospel where others would not. 

Who Has the Last Word in Jonah?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 4

 We tend to think of the Bible’s authors as just prophets, preachers, and theologians. But it is easy to forget that they can sometimes be great artists. And sometimes the daring of their artistry takes my breath away.

That happens every time I read the book of Jonah (one of my favorites in all of the Bible). The book is a searing judgment on the all too common tendency of God’s people to put the people they hate outside the circle of God’s love.

Jonah wants to see God bring down fire and brimstone on the Ninevites. After all, they were the ruthless imperialists who snuffed out the national life of Jonah’s own homeland, the northern kingdom of Israel. He is angry that God shows mercy upon Nineveh’s residents and so he goes off and pouts.

The book ends on a question. In fact, it is one of just two books in the Bible that end on a question. (Nahum is the other.) And in the question, God asks Jonah:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from the left, and also much cattle?

But the question I ask is: Who really has the last word in the book of Jonah?  On a very literal level, one can say God does. The book ends with God’s question. But who must answer that question? Is it not Jonah? And therefore does not Jonah have the last word?

Here’s where the author’s superb artistry comes in. Who in the end will answer for Jonah? Is it not every person listening to the story? I contend it is each one of us who is drawn into the question and asked to make a judgment on God’s action. We learn what we think by how we respond to the question.

What awesome writing! The author tells his story in a way than necessarily engages each one of us personally. We all become a part of the story.

Furthermore the story puts each one of us in the position of being a judge over God. We usually think of God being our judge. And rightly so. But here we are placed in the uncomfortable and possibly unwanted position of being a judge over God.

Unconsciously we do that all the time as we assess the justice of God’s ways in our life and world. (I owe this insight to the story William P. Young tells in his novel The Shack.) The book of Jonah, however, makes us conscious of the presumption that involves.