Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Don’t Put God in a Box, Unless You Want to Be Swallowed by a Fish

book of jonah

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

This blog series is taken, more or less as is, from my latest book How The Bible Actually Works. You can read the first posts in this serieshere and here and here.

The book of Jonah tells the famous story of the prophet Jonah who wanted nothing to do with his divinely given assignment—to go to the city of Nineveh and cry out against it for its wickedness (1:2), which is to say, give the city a chance to repent. Nineveh, by the way, was the capital of Assyria, which sacked the northern kingdom, Israel, in 722 BCE and continued to harass the southern kingdom, Judah, throughout the seventh century BCE until the Babylonians gained control of the region.

The Assyrian army was relentless and nearly invincible and (judging from Assyrian artwork) impaled and skinned those who resisted. Who—with any active sense of justice—would want to give them a chance to repent of their wicked ways?! They need to be wiped off the face of the earth. Why in heaven’s name would God show any compassion to our enemies who mean to destroy us?

So Jonah wanted nothing to do with these godless warmongering bullies for fear they might actually listen and repent. To escape God, Jonah boarded a ship heading the exact opposite direction, but when storms threatened to sink the vessel, Jonah confessed to the crew that he was responsible for unleashing God’s wrath on them; if they simply tossed him overboard, they would survive, which they eagerly did. And this is where a large fish swallows Jonah, which for some reason is thought to make for a great children’s story, though that isn’t at all what we’re interested in here.

This little incident caused Jonah to reconsider his decision, so when the fish vomited him up onto the shore, he headed to Nineveh—but still copping an attitude. He begrudgingly delivered the shortest and most negative sales pitch ever, Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown (3:4), and then stomped away. Despite his efforts to subvert God’s will, Jonah’s worst fears were realized: the people and the king repented, and so God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (3:10). Ugh. Could this day get any worse?

The prophet, Nahum, however, tells another story about what God thinks of the Ninevites: he hates them. Nahum, in fact, celebrates the demise of Nineveh and interprets it as an act of God. The book concludes: There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty? (3:19). Translation: God destroyed Nineveh and everyone cheers as if it were the golden goal in the World Cup finals.

Jonah and Nahum clearly see the matter of God’s attitude toward the Ninevites differently, and the reason is … Wait for it … they were written at different times and under different circumstances for different purposes.

Nahum lived at the time of the fall of Nineveh and, historically speaking, he was right. Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 BCE and, as all prophets do, Nahum interpreted the event as an act of God.

Jonah, however, as most every biblical scholar thinks, was written in the postexilic period, after (perhaps generations after) the return from Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. And this author doesn’t seem to be in the least bit interested in recording history.

The author knew as well as everyone else that Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire had actually fallen and never repented. Had the Assyrians actually repented, it would have amounted to a mass shift in religious commitment and political strategy, which would have been big news (“Assyrians bow the knee to Israel’s God. Hostilities cease. Film at 11:00”). But nothing of the sort is known from any ancient record, Assyrian or otherwise. It strains credulity.

And then there’s the whole “Jonah swallowed by a fish” part of the story. Jonah remains there for three days as the fish descends down, down, even entering the abode of the dead, which the Bible calls Sheol. These strike me as the kinds of details a writer, including an ancient one, would put into a story to ensure that his readers knew they were dealing with something other than history.

The book of Jonah isn’t a history lesson.

It’s a parable to challenge its readers to reimagine a God bigger than the one they were familiar with.

The writer of Jonah, living sometime after the exile, wrote to a community that would have understood his point. While in Babylonian captivity, the Judahites no doubt got to know their hosts quite well. They raised children and buried relatives there. Familiarity breeds acceptance, and when the Persians gave the all-clear for the Judahites to return home (539 BCE), many actually decided to stay behind. In fact, Babylon would become a center of Jewish life and thought for the next thousand years. (The Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative book of Judaism, was produced there.)

And so the writer of Jonah told a story of God’s expansive mercy for non-Israelites; in other words, maybe God cares for other people too. And the author uses as his illustration a clearly fictionalized account of their long-gone ancient foe to express his newfound belief, or at least hope, that God is more inclusive than they were giving him credit for.

Travel broadens, as they say. Coming into contact with different people and cultures cannot help but affect our view of ourselves, the world we live in—and God. Both Nahum and Jonah are works of wisdom, of reimaging God to make sense of current experience in the here and now.

I’d like to think—and in fact, I do think—that the portrait of God in Jonah is closer to what God is like: that God does not rejoice in wiping people out, but desires to commune with people of every tribe and nation.

But that’s just me. Without a moment’s hesitation, I will say that I favor one story over the other, because it makes more sense to me, as that sense is informed by other experiences that I and those I know have had of God and especially given what I understand of God in my time and place as a Christian.

But the more important point to raise is that the very presence of both Nahum and Jonah in our Bible forces us all to ponder what God is like in our here and now just as these authors did.

I may be wrong in how I process what God is like, of course, but I am not wrong because I process what God is like. Our diverse Bible demands that we employ wisdom when we read it. It keeps reminding us that we too need to accept our sacred responsibility to sense how God is present in our here and now.

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