Jonah, Evidence and the Superstitious Past

Since I have recently argued the Bible itself tells us ancient people were superstitious, compare what I argued there with this older post of mine on the story of Jonah:

For what I consider a typical look at the evidence of a prophetic word, take a look at the prophetic story in Jonah. Although I do not believe there is a shred of historical evidence for this story, let me treat it as if it were historical in every detail. Try to put yourself in the shoes of each of the characters involved, including Jonah, the sailors, the police in Tarshish, the king of Ninevah and his people. Read the story as if you are each of these characters respectively. What would you think and do?

Prophets received their prophecies by means of dreams and visions (Numbers 12:6). Several of the prophetic books claim to be based upon visions (Isaiah 1:1; Ezk. 1:1; Obadiah 1:1; Nahum 1:1), while most all of the rest of them start out either with “the word of the Lord came to me,” (Jonah 1:1) or simply, this is “an oracle.”

In the O.T. there were many prophets (I Sam. 10:10-13), and they sought guidance from God in dreams and visions. So how did any of them know for sure their prophecies were truly from God? They had a dream. They saw a vision (which probably is indistinguishable from a dream like state anyway). I take it that Jonah was upset at the corruption in Ninevah, much like Christians today are upset at the corruption in America, and had a dream about it, and just felt certain about it.

There were lots of prophets in the land, false ones, and prophets for other gods. THEY ALL FELT CERTAIN THEIR PROPHECIES WERE OF DIVINE ORIGIN. ALL OF THEM. The tests of the prophet laid down in Deut 13, and 18 just demand that they spoke in God’s name, and the thing should come to pass.

But when God purportedly called Jonah to preach against the city of Nineveh he tried to flee from God by sailing to some place called Tarshish (v.3). Even though Jonah felt certain about the prophecy, he didn’t like it, because he didn't want to warn the Ninevites of their impending destruction. But the kind of God he believed in when he fled was a tribal, localized god, and certainly not the later monotheistic omnipotent creator God.

1:4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

Of course, any sailor back then would blame God for the wind and the storm, but this is also Jonah’s belief, since this is supposedly his writing. Is that what we do today?...blame someone for a storm?

1:5-6 But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”

The captain didn’t care which god Jonah prayed to, so long as no god was left out of their prayers. This is a true polytheism.

1:7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.”

They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. This is a form of divination. Do you want to cast lots to see who’s to blame for any hurricanes that come our way? Jonah accepted the results too.

1:8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” 9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” 10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.)

Jonah expresses a view of God here that is at odds with his running away from God earlier. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that he thought he could run away from God with his belief that the God is a “God of heaven, who made the sea and the land,” except that Jonah may have truly realized this for the first time in the storm itself. But he states this as if he thought this way all along.

With the casting of lots and the fact that he was running away from this kind of God, it terrified these sailors. These things would not terrify us today. Does God zap people who disobey him today? Like Ananias & Sapphira? Uzzah? Lot’s wife? What if the lot had instead fallen on some follower of Zeus who was running away from him, or fighting against him, like Odysseus in the Odyssey? These sailors would still respond in the exact same way, because the proof was in the casting of lots, and the storm, and the story. They didn’t need any other proof or evidence. Does this type of gullibility describe any thinking person today?

1:11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” 12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Yep, that’s what Jonah concluded. Kill me and it’ll be okay for you. We learn at the end of this book that he was suicidal anyway, so there’s no difference expressed in this attitude of his. Jonah believes the storm is his fault? Have you ever blamed yourself because of a storm? Does God or nature act that way?

1:13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.”

Here they faced an ethical decision. They "know" Jonah is to blame for the storm, but does Jonah’s God also demands they kill him? If they kill him, will Jonah’s God be more upset with them for doing so? But Jonah eased their minds, because he himself says that’s what they should do.

1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.

These sailors should be tried for attempted murder. Surely they had a list of the people on board. And when they docked to a port someone would notice him missing. What would the police in Tarshish do then? Anything comparable to what our police would do? What would these men say to the police? Would their story hold up in today's courts? Absolutely not!

1:17 But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.

Hmmm. With a person like that telling the first part of this story, I doubt that he can be trustworthy telling the rest of the story. And if people were superstitious enough to believe God caused a storm to stop Jonah in his tracks without any evidence but nature and the story itself, then they would also believe he was swallowed by a fish simply because he told them it happened. If no evidence is required to believe the first part of the story, then no evidence is required to believe the last part.

But lookee here at the end (chapter 3) after the fish puked him up:

1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. 4 On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Jonah obeyed his vision or dream, and preached the message he felt certain about; That “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”

That’s what he said. Remember this.

3:6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

In the first place, what evidence did the king of Ninevah have for believing Jonah? We are simply not told. Presumably none was needed because of the supposed fame of the Hebrew God. But even with the supposed fame of the Hebrew God, how would the King know that Jonah was his true prophet? That's a fair question, isn't it? Even Moses supposedly had wondered how the Pharaoh would know he was sent from God, didn't he?

Still, how would America react to the same prophetic message by none other than Billy Graham: “Forty more days and America will be overturned.” The laugher would be constant. Jay Leno and David Letterman would have a field day with this. That’s because we today would demand some evidence. And there have been some prophets of doom in America too. Just listen to Jack Van Impe. But for the last 30 years or more he's always been wrong!

3:10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? I’m sure I read somewhere that the test of a prophet was that what he said was to come to pass. Didn’t he say Nineveh would be destroyed? Did he or didn't he? Answer the question. But it wasn’t destroyed after all, was it? What if Billy Graham used this excuse to explain why America wasn’t destroyed? Laughter again. What would you say about Jonah then? After all there were a great many prophets running around proclaiming that God spoke to them too. If what he prophesied didn't come to pass, then is there any evidence at all that he was really called to speak God's word?

And how should we now think about Jonah? After all, his prophecy failed the test of a true prophet! But yet his book is in the Bible.

What's missing in this story is evidence. No evidence was offered for any claim, except that Jonah said it was true. Without a doubt no Christian today would believe the same type of story told by a modern Christian, unless there was some pretty hard evidence.

Is there even any evidence that Nineveh became monotheistic and righteous? If they remained polytheistic and failed to worship the Hebrew God, that wouldn't be enough for Jonah's God, would it? If it was just about their moral behavior, then cities and countries all go through some cycle of "revival" from time to time, so it might be that Jonah was taking credit for something that happened on its own anyway.

And where's this fish? The ancients had the superstitious belief that mythical beasts and fish lived in the seas, likened to the Loch Ness Monster, like "Rahab," "Behemoth," and "Leviathan."

This is what I mean by superstition. Little or no evidence is required, just a good story, based in fear, along with the storms of life. The Bible Debunks itself.


nsfl said...

Nice point. Just like in my covenant post, Christians/Jews/etc. can only make it "work" if they twist the plain meaning of the words.

...classic ad hoc

Joshua Luke Roberts said...

I am against abortion in principle (as in ad hoc, "oh yes, let's do it whenever we feel like it"), but have to admit to being curious how, in particular, evangelical Protestant Christians with their view of the Protestant Bible as the inerrant word of God, answer the question you have put forth?

I personally don’t know of anywhere where abortion is specifically mentioned in the Bible (none of the surviving Canons I know of anyway), in fact Exodus 21: 22-23 has no like for like punishment for the killing of an unborn, instead focusing on the severity of damage to the mother. This fits in with the currently existing Jewish view that a foetus becomes a full life at the moment of birth – the spirit is believed to enter the body as the head emerges from the womb. Thus in Jewish understanding a foetus is a part-life or potential life, containing only a Nephesh or soul, not a spirit. Jews also allow access to abortion for mothers if permission is granted by a panel of Rabbis.

From the 5th Century CE and beyond the following Christian fathers views are interesting:

St Augustine of Hippo: Believed ensoulment occurred only when the baby was completly formed, thus abortion before this would not constitute murder.

St Jerome: Believed that the foetus started off with a vegetable soul, developed an animal soul before finally gaining a human soul at 40 days (in girls 90 days).

To my understanding more modern Christian conceptions of life can be traced to a series of debates which culminated in the following declaration from the Catholic Church:

Pope Pious I (1869) “Life is formed at conception.”

However, it is worth noting that The Didache (or Teachings of the Apostles), a Christian text from the early 2nd century CE condemns the practices of abortion and exposure (apparently some Christians would go around adopting babies left out to die, which was allowed under Roman law). Such a condemnation seems to have come from a respect for life and the teaching of love and non-violence towards fellow humans that many early Christians advocated so strenously.

The Didache does appear to have been considered scripture by some of the early Christians, so perhaps it can be used to justify an anti-abortion stance for an inerrantist Christian, but most would probably either not know of this text or would not consider it to be scripture.

For anyone particularly interested, the following evangelical site goes through 10 reasons as to why abortion is wrong: