Monday, April 8, 2013

How Are We to Understand Jonah: As Allegorical?

We have already seen that interpreting can be quit difficult. In previous posts, we have shown that elements of Jonah might be considered midrash while at the same time affirming that Jonah is historical. But we must go a step further. Liberals have been quick to label Jonah myth without hesitation. After all, their understanding of Scripture is that it includes spiritual truth even though it is actually true. Conservatives have responded by affirming, rightly, the inerrancy of Scripture and at times fail to see the bigger picture of a given text. Affirming the historicity of Jonah, I believe, isn't enough. Our goal must be to understand Jonah as the original writer intended us to. This leads to our final point. Yes Jonah is historical, but it is also allegorical.

Before moving on, by allegorical, I do not mean mythical. To affirm that something is allegorical is not to deny that Jonah chronicles real events. It does, as we argued before. However, I believe the writer, seeing the history, wrote the book to tell the nation of Israel something. Thus, through historic allegory, the author is able to more powerfully promote a message that his readers needed to heed.

There are two reasons for this conclusion.

First, it is common for events in Scripture to be both historical & allegorical/parabolic. Consider the first four chapters of Matthew for example. In these opening chapters, Matthew makes the argument that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel. Herod becomes like Pharaoh who seeks to destroy the male infants. Christ is like Moses in that He is spared. Furthermore, Jesus must flee to Egypt, like Israel before Him, and later returned to the promised land. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River (the same river Israel crossed in Joshua) which corresponds to the Jews' baptism at the Red Sea. Immediately following the Red Sea miracle, the Jews march into the wilderness where they are tempted for forty years. Immediately after being baptized by John, Jesus marches directly into the wilderness where He is tempted for forty days. The temptations He faced are the same that Israel faced. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy following each temptation, not because that was His favorite book, but because He was telling Satan that He had read this story before only this time it will end differently. Jesus fulfills Israel.

All of this is not to say that the actual events did not take place. They did! Jesus really was born of a virgin. He really had to flea to Egypt. He really was visited by Magi. He really was baptized in the Jordan River. He really was tempted in the wilderness. But these historical facts are not the only purpose that Matthew has. He is not just a historian, he is also a preacher.

Consider in a slightly different context the book of Revelation. It is true that Revelation is prophetic and eschatological (that is, it regards the end times). However, remember that it was written to seven literal churches who all needed the message found in the book. Thus I believe that though they interpreted it as prophetic, they also saw a present purpose in it. When they read about the seven hills of Babylon (Revelation 17:9) the original readers would have read "Rome."

Secondly, the story of Jonah corresponds with the story of Israel. Jonah's sin corresponds with Israel's disobedience. Jonah's judgment corresponds with Israel's. Jonah's act of repentance corresponds with Israel's. His deliverance mirrors that of Israel's.

At the very least we can say that Jonah is about a prophet who refused to preach grace to the Gentiles. Strangely enough that is what Israel refused to do during most of their history. Jonah, like Israel, was tribalistic & nationalistic refusing to be a light among the nations. This divine calling for Israel is found throughout Scripture. In Genesis 1-2, God is the Creator of all creation including man. He is the God of all nations, tribes, and languages. Thus He is a universal God. In Genesis 12, God chooses Abraham, not to isolated Himself among one race of people, but that through them the world might worship Him. This is why God hardens Pharaoh's heart in Exodus. Through such a sovereign act, God ensures that the nations will hear about the God of the Jews delivering the slaves out of the hand of Pharaoh through mighty acts and deeds. God's purpose was universal, not just national.

Much of the Old Testament is the struggle of Israel to be a light among the nations when they always end up allowing the nations to be a light unto them. This is why God disperses the Jews during the Babylonian captivity. Instead of being a light among they nations, they had become like the nations and so God dispersed them since they looked no different from the Gentiles.

The story of Jonah is allegorically connected with the Babylonian captivity. Assuming that the book of Jonah was written after the captivity of the Jews, the author's purpose is likely to warn his readers not to be like Jonah personally and collectively. Note the connection between the story of Jonah, particularly that of the sea monster, and this warning from Jeremiah regarding Babylon:

Jeremiah 51:34, 44-45Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has devoured me and crushed me, He has set me down like an empty vessel; He has swallowed me like a monster, He has filled his stomach with my delicacies; He has washed me away. . . .“I will punish Bel in Babylon, And I will make what he has swallowed come out of his mouth; And the nations will no longer stream to him. Even the wall of Babylon has fallen down! “Come forth from her midst, My people, And each of you save yourselves From the fierce anger of the Lord.

Swalloed me like a monster? That is striking language in light of Jonah. I will make what he has swallowed come out of his mouth? Again, this reminds us of the historic tale of Jonah and the unknown marine animal.

This is all to say that we must allow Scripture to be Scripture and adopt its purpose as our own. It is not enough, I believe, to say that Jonah is historical or an example of Hebrew midrash. There is an allegorical purpose here. The writer wants us to know about Jonah and in it we are given rich insight into the heart of God. At the same time, however, it is a warning to believers. We have been called, by God, to be light. Don't run!

For more:
How Are We to Understand Jonah: As Historical?
How Are We to Understand Jonah: As Midrash?
Holman Dictionary on Jonah
Bibledex on Jonah
VeggieTales and Jonah 

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