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Few stories loom so large as Jonah. A disobedient prophet, stormy seas, and big, man-eating fish. Hostile enemy cities, magical plants (and magical plant-killing worms) . . . the very elements of the story require it to be larger than life, mythical, and as with all great tales, once we submerse ourselves within the narrative, we can find ourselves within its pages. In the pious and ignorant sailors, in the repentant people of Nineveh, in the fish (weird, but if that’s your thing…), and in the stubborn and irascible Jonah, pure in his patriotism and justified in his hatred of the enemy, unwilling to rejoice in their salvation.
Well, I mean we can find ourselves when we’re honest.
Most would claim to never blatantly disregard clear commands from God (especially if we heard the voice!), nor especially to believe we could outrun that call by fleeing in the opposite direction. Most of us would probably claim to never hate another people so deeply that we would enjoy watching them burn. Most of us would probably not ask for death simply because our magic plant died. But if we sit within Jonah’s extremes and open ourselves to the possibility of some resonance with this 2,700 year-old prophet, we just might find the disturbing truth that within our deepest selves a Jonah dwells still; that humanity – like a great fish – has yet to expel the angry, bitter, narrow-minded tribesman living in our hearts.
This is what stories – fairy tales – are for: we listen to lose ourselves in the largeness of the tale, to be moved. Yet also to find similarities and applications, new lenses through which we can see ourselves when we turn back to reality. Perhaps hearing Jonah called a “fairy tale” bothers you. You might have grown up in a setting where every story in the Bible is held literally, meaning every account happened in real space and time exactly as written. Yet until quite recently, that is not how Scripture has been understood. The rabbis argued over meaning, not the scientific possibilities of miracles, creatively plumbing the depths of the stories in order to get at the deeper truths lying below the surface. In their turn, Christians also began as a community contemplating deeper “spiritual” meanings: the Church Fathers found the “literal level” to be the most basic and least helpful step in the interpretive process – mere waves which, while fascinating, are small parts of a much larger sea.
So as we turn to a book like Jonah we begin not by asking ourselves whether or not it happened, but whether or not it happens. Not, “Is it real?” but “Is it True?” When we focus too much on the literal level, we often miss the actual point the story is trying to make, to ask if these issues continue resonate – even in me?
For the next few days, try setting aside your preconceptions of what the Bible is “supposed” to do and simply allow this story to speak to you as any other tale. Discern the truth irrespective of the facts. Lose yourself in this story in order that you may find yourself within it as well, and perhaps discover the deeper truths lying just below the surface of its waves.
We invite you to read through the entire story of Jonah. Only 48 verses in length, it can easily be encountered in one sitting, and your familiarity with the narrative arc will help your understanding moving forward.