Re: Is Jonah to be taken literally?

From: george murphy (
Date: Tue Aug 14 2001 - 21:35:29 EDT

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    "Vandergraaf, Chuck" wrote:

    > George,
    > Yes, I recall your previous e-mail on this. But you base your view on Jonah
    > on the "literary character of the book." I don't, for a moment, disagree
    > that it "... contains obvious exaggerations." but can the same argument not
    > be made for many of the Biblical records? The OT is full of descriptions
    > of, what we call, "miraculous events," from Baalam's talking donkey to
    > Daniel and his friends strolling in a fiery furnace. What are we to make of
    > these, and other, passages? Did the miracles ascribed to the prophets
    > really happen, are they included in the Scriptures to indicate that the
    > prophets were "men (and women) of God," (sort of a fancy business card) or
    > must they be read as being allegorical?

            There is nothing to suggest that the exaggerations in Jonah, like the
    size of Nineveh or Jonah's minimalist sermon, are supposed to be miraculous. In
    other cases like the big sizes of armies & amounts of wealth in Chronicles
    (which we can see to be exaggerations by comparison with Samual & Kings) there's
    also nothing miraculous. & again we can see this hyperbole as a consistent part
    of the writer's theological method.

    > Without going into the character (literary, historical, poetic) of the
    > Scriptures (for which very of us have the time), separating fact from
    > fiction becomes very difficult. Almost like having a framed Picasso and not
    > knowing where the painting ends and the frame starts.

    > You end with "The Bible certainly contains historical narrative as an
    > essential part of it's revelation of God acting in history, most pointedly
    > in the Incarnation. But that does not mean that "historical narrative"
    > should be our default setting for reading all parts of scripture, and that
    > we should vary from that only when compelled to by overwhelming scientific
    > or historical evidence."
    > Trouble is, how can we tell? Admittedly, we read the Bible through 20th
    > century eyes and with a mindset that reflects our current culture. The only
    > times we have trouble with a literal interpretation, I submit, is when what
    > we read is at variance with our understanding that arises from outside the
    > Scriptures.

            No. Another reason for questioning a literal interpretation (which
    doesn't apply in the case of Jonah) is when we have two ostensible accounts of
    the same things which don't agree as historical narrative. Gen.1 & 2 or
    Samuel-Kings & Chronicles are examples. Here we have internal evidence that
    both accounts aren't straight historical narrative.

    > Thus, a pre-schooler may have no problems with a literal
    > interpretation of the creation account, with a rib taken from Adam's side to
    > create a wife for him, or with the flood and "the animals, two-by-two."
    > Once that pre-schooler becomes a biologist, geologist, or historian, (s)he
    > has to reconcile the apparent differences between a literal interpretation
    > and her/his view of reality. Your comments on Jonah are a good example: if
    > one hasn't got a clue how big Nineveh was, a 3-day journey may not have been
    > an exaggeration. Maybe it was "Greater Nineveh." ;-)

       So, maybe we are dealing with a continuum of stories, from allegory
    toundeniable historical events and, maybe, it's up to us to place each
    storyalong this continuum. As I've mentioned before, maybe it's just as well

    > that there is no physical evidence (other than Scriptures) of the events
    > that constituted the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord, so we
    > are free, by faith, to put it at the d "historical event" end of this
    > continuum.

            Yes, there's a continuum. & one shouldn't try to debunk the historical
    character of Bible stories for pre-schoolers. But many will start raising
    questions well before they become geologists &c. As soon as they start asking
    how the dinosaurs fit into the story or something like that, it's appropriate to
    start talking about how stories can tell us true things, &c.



    George L. Murphy
    "The Science-Theology Interface"

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