I’ve been studying Jonah in preparation for the men’s core training, and it’s been … interesting, and something that really concerns me (and concerns me about a lot in Christian life.)
Jonah’s been addressed by some of the greatest minds in Jewish culture – one being the Vilna Gaon, the “Genius of Vilna.” He sees Jonah through the mists not only of history, but allegory:
Jonah (“Yona” hereafter) is Hebrew for “dove,” which is a symbol for the spirit or the soul (witness the “like a dove” in Matthew 3:16, descending to say that the Father was well-pleased in the Son, for example). The allegory runs something like this:
Jonah, “the dove,” or the soul – the son of Amitai, “truth” – is sent the message of proclaiming Nineveh – the world – why we are here (repentance, obedience to God.)
Instead of going to Nineveh, into the world, the soul refuses, and descends into a body (the boat). The sea is a symbol also of the world and its desires.
The world tosses the soul to and fro, and the sailors – the body’s actions, or components – are unable to withstand the storm. The body calls to the soul, but the soul is uncaring as to its fate – and Yona says “toss me overboard.”
The soul dies, and is consumed by the fish (symbolizing the grave). Yona is dead for three days (in Judaism, the soul hovers by the body for three days.) The soul calls to God to be close to Him; Yona is then sent back to Eden (i.e., within the Will of God.) He then travels back to the world, proclaiming the message God has given him.
There’re a few sidenotes here.
First, we’re not really addressing the point of Jonah, which for me is chapter 4 and not 1-3 quite so much.
Second, the allegory doesn’t deny the events that took place, but they make the story of the fish a little … ethereal. It’s only a little ethereal because the Vilna Gaon and Rashi both see the fish both rationally (i.e., as allegory) and irrationally (i.e., as history) but the allegorical nature provides an alternative to a miraculous occurrence.
Therein lies my problem. I want to see it rationally. The history is not entirely relevant to me.
What do I mean by this? I mean that I do not say that Jonah could not have been literally swallowed by a dag gadol (dag=fish, gadol=large, giant). But saying that it could have happened is a lot different than saying it did happen.
The Vilna Gaon and Rashi both use allegory to allow the rational mind to see the beauty in the allegory without losing the story of Jonah to myth and miracle, regardless of whether it’s literal history or not; it’s just as miraculous, just as meaningful, even if it did not literally occur in history.
If asked, I could not say with full confidence that I believe that Jonah literally happened as written. In my inmost being, I would say that I do not believe it happened literally – and I would say the same for other similar occurrences (the vision of Ezechiel, for example, would be a vision – given by God, but not a literal happening).
This is part of why I am afraid to serve and teach in church, because I don’t know how to be intellectually honest with myself and a larger group of men, such that I don’t damage their faith through my own lack of it (or my own rationality). I don’t think less of those who see Jonah literally; I just don’t believe the literal occurrence is necessary for it to remain the voice and words of God.
I tell you this because I can’t pretend to be something other than what and who I am; I would rather run the risk of you seeing me as a bit of a heretic or an unbeliever, because then I can learn and understand through contrast.
What about Jesus’ reference to Yona?
Herein is the issue with Yona-as-allegory (i.e., as a story and not history): Jesus referred to it.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40, ESV)
The problem can be expressed like this: if Yona is allegory, and Jesus referred to it like this, it’s possible that Jesus’ time in the grave was also allegory, which dashes the whole point of Christianity in the first place. No resurrection, no salvation through identification with Christ.
That would indeed be a problem. However, to me, the explanation comes down to reduction.
If we remove elements from a story, at what point does the removal of elements change the point or heart of the story?
There’s no broadly applicable answer for this, honestly. For some people, reading Yona as anything other than history with a meaning behind it would dash their faith upon the rocks.
I don’t think it’s worth that. As a result, I’d never argue for a conclusive result that Yona is allegory. It wouldn’t be provable in any case, but I’d rather cede the argument than hurt someone’s faith, even while I’m being honest about my own perceptions.
Looking at Yona through the eyes of reduction, though, you can remove “history” from it, and it retains its meaning. It’s no less instructive as allegory than it is as history…
… well, perhaps it is, honestly. If Yona actually underwent this kind of journey, there’s an indication of God’s commitment to using an imperfect vessel for enacting His will. But is such an expression necessary? We already have many other examples of similar men being used in similarly miraculous ways.
But using the same method on Jesus, however, and you not only lose something, you lose everything – and none of it has meaning other than being a bunch of pretty stories.
That invalidates that particular reduction, to me.
To someone else, I have to admit that it might be a stepping-stone to a loss of faith altogether. I can’t deny that, but I also can’t deny my faith in the existence and person of God.
If God is real – and to me He definitely is, as evidenced by the shadow He casts over my life and person – then the reduction of Jesus’ resurrection can’t invalidate faith in Him (it’s axiomatic) and therefore the reduction of the resurrection is invalid.
Not so much with Yona; the reduction might remove something (and therefore might be invalid) but this depends very much on the believer in question.
So there you have it: a short walk down the path of my personal conflict between reason and faith. My prayer is that you see it as potentially edifying, rather than destructive; I write only in the spirit of honesty, with full recognition of my own limitations, and long for the truth in all things, even when such truth highlights my own error.
(Originally published January 19, 2012)