Fish Story (1/22/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The Book of Jonah is one of the most popular books in the Bible. There are a variety of reasons for this popularity, not the least of which is the book’s brevity. It covers barely two pages, so even those who approach the Bible with trepidation can fearlessly plow through Jonah in less than ten minutes.
Another reason for the book’s popularity is that it’s a fish story—one of the all time great fish stories! Fish stories have a hallowed place in our culture. Known for their outrageous exaggerations, the tellers of fish stories have always been able to spin a yarn that makes the tiniest minnow seen twice the size of Moby Dick. And “the one that got away” was inevitably the most glorious creature that ever propelled itself through water.
Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, India and Palestine all had great fish stories. One recurrent theme in those ancient stories has sailors landing on what they believe to be an island. They build fires to keep warm, and then realize to their great horror that they are actually on the back of a monstrous fish. That tale seldom ends happily. A similar ancient tale has an entire ship swallowed by a giant fish. Once inside, the sailors build a fire, resulting in what I assume was one of the all time terrible cases of heartburn for the fish, which spits out the sailors who flee to safety.
Those were among the stories that were circulating when the Book of Jonah was written. To refresh your memories, I will summarize the story of Jonah.
God tells Jonah to go preach to the people of Ninevah, an Assyrian city filled with enemies of the Jewish people. Jonah hates the people of Ninevah, so he boards a ship and in defiance of God sails off in the opposite direction. God causes a great storm to threaten the ship, and the sailors aboard, realizing that the storm is a result of God’s anger with Jonah, throw him overboard. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah offers a prayer of repentance to God. The fish then spews Jonah out upon dry land.
For a second time, God tells Jonah to go preach to the people of Ninevah, and this time, as we might imagine, Jonah opts to follow God’s command. He heads off to Ninevah. And in Ninevah Jonah preaches the message God has told him to preach—that the people of Ninevah will be overthrown in forty days unless they change their ways, repent, and turn to God. Much to Jonah’s surprise and disappointment, Ninevah repents, and God has mercy on the people.
Jonah is so upset at this turn of events that he wanders to the edge of the city and asks God to kill him. God then causes a bush to suddenly grow and provide shade for Jonah, which makes Jonah happy for a short while. The next day, however, a worm attacks the bush and destroys it, once again causing Jonah to beg God to let him die. The story ends with God questioning Jonah about how it is he can be so concerned about a bush, while having no qualms whatsoever about hoping for the destruction of a great city and all the people who live there.
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That’s quite a story. What do we do with a story like that? It is probably a little more important than Uncle Joe’s fish stories. Theologian C.H. Cornill, after 100 readings of the book, said he found himself welling with tears after each reading. For those who read the Book of Jonah, he said, “Take off your shoes, for the grand on which thou standest is holy ground.”
High praise for a fish story! We may want to take off our shoes when Uncle Joe tells one of his fish stories, but not because the story is holy! So I’m not sure it is fair to call Jonah a fish story. Certainly, if you ask 100 people what the story of Jonah is about, they will say it is about a guy who gets swallowed by a whale. But consider this. In the 48 verses that comprise the Book of Jonah, only three of those verses refer to the giant fish! Perhaps the author wasn’t writing a fish story at all.
Scholars ask three questions when examining a book of the Bible. Who wrote it? Who was the audience it was written for? And why was it written?
Scripture is made up of several types of literature. In that amazing collection of 66 books we call the Protestant Bible, we find psalms, proverbs, histories, stories, sermons, parables and letters. The first question regarding the Book of Jonah is a matter of how to classify it. Is it a history, or is it a parable—a story?
Was there a historical person named Jonah? It appears there was. In II Kings, which is basically a historical document, we find a man named Jonah, who in about 785 B.C. foretold the great expansion of Israel that would occur under the reign of King Jereboam II. Jonah appears for a grand total of one sentence, and then disappears from the pages of the Bible until this little story is written.
Jesus was familiar with this story, and that is why so many Christians, through the ages, have insisted that the story is literally true. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a sea monster, so will he, Jesus, be for three days in the heart of the earth. In the minds of many, that settles the issue. To question the facts of the Jonah story is to call into question the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. They are parallel stories, with Jonah’s time in the fish equivalent to Jesus’ time in the tomb.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the most famous liberal preacher of the 20th Century, recalls in his autobiography how troubled he was by the story of Jonah when he was a youth. His grandmother told him in no uncertain terms that if he insisted on throwing out the story of Jonah, then he had thrown out the Bible and everything in it.
Of course, this attitude is still very much with us. I remember a bumper sticker that captures that attitude perfectly: “The Bible says it / God wrote it / That settles it.” Biblical literalists aside, for us to believe this is an accurate telling of a historical event means we must accept as fact a remarkable series of miracles. We must believe God instantly raised a storm and just as quickly calmed it. We must believe that in a single day God caused a shrub to grow large enough to provide shade. We must believe that Ninevah, a city of Assyrians who were violently opposed to all things Hebrew, suddenly embraced the Hebrew God after a single sermon by a reluctant Jewish preacher.
But the biggest stretch of all to the modern mind is the idea that a man actually lived for three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. It is too close to lunch for me to speculate about what would happen to human flesh after the acidic stomach fluids of a sea creature worked their digestive magic for 72 hours, but I have to believe the results would not be too pretty.
And finally the fish spews Jonah out upon dry land. I have this cartoon image in my head of Jonah flying out of some whales’ blow-hole, tumbling wildly through the air, and landing dazed upon the shore. And God says to Jonah, “Now what were we talking about? Oh yes, Ninevah!” And Jonah says, “Ah yes, the Ninevah project. I’m all over it—I’m on my way!”
You remember the three questions scholars ask about books of the Bible: Who wrote it? What audience was it written for? And why was it written? You would be hard pressed to find a reputable scholar who believes that Book of Jonah is historical. Bible scholars generally consider it to be a parable – a symbolic story. This does not mean the story is unimportant or that it lacks meaning.
You all remember the story Jesus told of the prodigal son – probably the most famous parable in the Bible. A wealthy man has two sons, one of whom asks for his inheritance in advance so he can enjoy it while he is young. He leaves the country, squanders the money on wine, women and song, and returns home years later, hoping his father will give him a job as a hired hand. His father welcomes him with love and prepares a great celebration at his son’s return.
I imagine Jesus would be the first to say there never really was a prodigal son as revealed in his story. So what? The story is a parable revealing the nature of God’s love and forgiveness. A story’s truth is not necessarily bound to its historical accuracy. So it is with the story of Jonah.
This is what scholars say about the Book of Jonah. Among the greatest of tragedies in the history of the Jewish people was the Babylonian exile. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and the Jewish people were taken into captivity in Babylon. When King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians some fifty years later, the Jews returned to their native land but had become extremely bitter toward all foreign people and powers.
The author of the book of Jonah was a 4th or 5th century BC Jew – a writer in the time following the end of the Babylonian exile – who disagreed with the hatred the Jewish people were feeling toward all people who were not Hebrew. He picked a relatively obscure figure form Israel’s distance past – Jonah, who you remember lived hundreds of years before the exile and was mentioned in only one line in the entire Bible – and devised a story around him to point out the absurdity of Israel’s hatred toward non-Hebrew people.
So to answer the three questions:
Who wrote it? A Jewish author after the Babylonian exile.
Who was it written for? Post-exilic Jews who had grown to hate all things foreign.
Why was it written? To attack the attitude of nationalism, isolationism and racism which the people of Israel were placing above the mercy of God.
Let’s go back to that great preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fortunately for us and for the entire Christian faith, Harry Emerson Fosdick did not let his grandmother’s warnings keep him from the honest pursuit of truth. And Fosdick came to believe what so many of us here today believe. Each and every person must read the Bible with an open mind. And every person who comes to believe that the stories in the Bible are in all cases historically accurate has every right to believe that. But we do the gospel no service when we insist the gospel message be permanently entwined with pre-scientific myths.
The beauty and mystery of the Bible is the way it uses psalms, proverbs, histories, stories, sermons, parables and letters to speak to each and every one of us today. Let me tell you a story.
A man and women lived in Wichita, Kansas. They knew, deep within, the call God had placed on their hearts. They knew right from wrong. They also knew that the selfish motives within them were not always a part of God’s plan.
One day, after many years of ignoring God, they realized they could run from the truth no more. They could not hide from God, because God created them, and it was to God they would one day return. When they felt lost and completely alienated from God – as far from God as if they were in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea – they cried out to God for help.
And God heard them. God rescued them. God placed them back on their feet. And then, once again, they heard the call of God on their hearts. And this time they sought to do God’s will. But even then, they were amazed that God’s incredible grace was a free gift to even the most lost of people and were sometimes troubled that God seems more concerned with mercy than with justice. The end.
That story won’t be around as long as the story of Jonah, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re the same story. And if those stories are not your story now, one day they will be. Because no matter how we run, God isn’t going anywhere. And no matter how we hide, God knows exactly where we are. And no matter how great we believe we are, we are as fleeting as a snowflake falling from the winter sky. In the final analysis, our greatness lies only in the fact that God loves us.
One of my seminary professors was known as the “preaching professor.” She taught the homiletics class, which meant she had the unfortunate job of listening to seminary students, all of whom believed they were world class preachers, wax eloquent day after day from the seminary pulpit. She had a favorite phrase with which she attacked many an unsuspecting student. Just as they completed their sermon and were hoping to bask in the glorious afterglow of their oratorical wonder, she would stand up, hold her hands in the air as if she just didn’t get it, and say, “Where was the good news?”
The fact is, those of us who dare to occupy the pulpit do so because we believe we are called to proclaim the gospel – the good news. And my professor was right. Most of us tend to forget that fact. We want to tell humorous stories. We want to be clever. We want to seem well-educated. But the fact is the whole reason we are here is to proclaim the gospel.
I have made it my goal to make sure the gospel is proclaimed every time I stand in the pulpit. Don’t get me wrong – I also hope to be sometimes humorous, often clever and always well-educated, but I can do that at the Elks Club or Toastmasters.
The gospel message is not a message of blood atonements and sacrificial lambs. It is not a message of a powerful and menacing God to whom you must submit or be crushed. It is not a theological device by which you may assure your entrance to heaven by believing the correct things.
This is the gospel: God’s love is higher, deeper and wider than the furthest limits of humankind’s imagination.
There are many things about this creation I do not know and do not understand, but I have no doubts about God’s love. I don’t know why there is so much hatred in this world, but I do know why there is love. I don’t know why there is so much doubt in this world, but I do know why there is faith. I don’t know why there is so much despair in this world, but I do know why there’s hope. And I don’t know why there is so much darkness in this world, but I do know why there is light.
I do know where the hatred, doubt, despair and darkness come from, and they do not come from God. They come into this world when we run from God. They come into this world through us, in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea, just before we open up with love to the possibilities of life lived in the presence of God.
And I know where faith, hope and love come from. They are the free gifts of a loving God, flowing from the darkness of hatred, doubt and despair and bringing forth a light that shines in that darkness and which the darkness can never overcome. Amen.