Jesus and Jonah

Germany_Worms_Cathedral_JonahLast week I put up a post summarizing Walter Moberly’s chapter on Jonah, Forget the Fish Already!. The post focused on the genre and message of the book. Moberly, like most OT scholars, considers the book to be something of a parable rather than a record of an historical event. Many Christians object to this reading, not because the Bible cannot contain books other than history, but because of the references Jesus made to Jonah.

Although no comments brought this up (this time), I did receive e-mail expressing this concern. The point raised is that Jesus specifically connects with his own death and resurrection with the event recorded in Jonah. Thus relegating Jonah to meaningful fiction may well be equivalent to relegating the death and resurrection of Jesus to a meaningful fiction. At very least it is a step too far … likely off the cliff.

This is an issue worth digging into more deeply.

The references to Jonah in the Gospels (and the only references in the New Testament) are:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 12:38-41

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Matthew 16:1-4

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Luke 11:29-32

The key question is whether these passages carry the intended meaning if the book of Jonah is a parable or story rather than history. If the meaning depends on the genre of the book of Jonah, then we have a serious issue here. If the meaning remains the same, then there is no conflict and there should be no objection to allowing the book of Jonah itself inform us as to its genre.

The first passage from Matthew is the one that causes the most trouble because here Jesus draws a specific parallel between Jonah’s time in the fish and his own death and subsequent resurrection. The reference to Jonah is a quote from the Septuagint (some translations indicate this specifically others, like the NIV, do not). Most commentaries I consulted note that the comparison uses a common Jewish phrase and it is of no concern that Jesus was not in the heart of the earth three nights according to our standard Holy Week reckoning, and only a part of three days. Thus we do not believe that Jesus meant “three days and three nights” with mathematical precision. The importance is in the parallel.

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A Three-Tiered Universe – Earth, Heavens, and Seas

Map of the World ca 500-700 BCThe second and third chapters of Kyle Greenwood’s new book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science deal with ancient Near Eastern cosmologies and the cosmologies found in Scripture. In these chapters Greenwood argues that the ancient Near Eastern view of the world was intrinsically three-tiered and that Scripture reflects this view. (The image to the right is an ancient Babylonian map of the world, ca. 500 to 700 BC, now in the British Museum.)

The view of the world in the ancient Near East was phenomenological – it was based on the common observation of the people. Greenwood summarizes the evidence from the ancient Near East in chapter two.

The Earth was not seen as a globe. It was described and illustrated as a flat body surrounded by water. The earth is either supported on pillars or floats on top of the cosmic seas. Representations in Babylon generally show the earth supported by pillars, while in Egypt the earth was thought to float on the seas, perhaps on a (gigantic) reed mat. There are variations, however, and in one Babylonian text Marduk, the chief deity of Babylon “constructed a raft on the surface of the waters. He made earth and heaped it up on the raft.” In addition to the surface of the earth, where the people lived, the netherworld occupied space in the depths of the earth. This was a land of no return, but it was seen as part of the earth. Similar ideas are at work in Egypt. “Throughout the ancient Near East, the netherworld was a physical abode of the dead in the heart of the earth.” (p. 55)

The Heavens. There are variations in the ancient Near Eastern view of the heavens with some consistent themes. In Mesopotamia the abode of the gods was in the heavens. Egyptians had a somewhat different view. In general the sky was considered a solid structure, either a dome or a flat roof, that served as a barrier to hold back the waters above the earth. Mountains or pillars could hold up the sky, or it could be described as a tent held taught by ropes. The lower heavens contained the stars, planets, sun and moon. The upper heavens was the domain of the deities. “The Mesopotamians thought of the upper heavens as a physical realm above the upper waters. Its floor was solid, enabling residents to stand, sit, or otherwise conduct their affairs.” (p. 61)

Sun God TabletThe Sea. In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the earth is surrounded by cosmic waters: the oceans or seas surround the known world, water springs up from the ground, and falls from the sky – coming from all directions. Canaanite (Ugartic), Mesopotamian, and Egyptian sources portray the seas surrounding the land as chaotic, inhabited by sea serpents of various sorts. The depths of the sea are often associated with the grave. The firm surface of the sky holds back the waters above, although gates or windows let through precipitation when desired. The Sun God Tablet in the British Museum depicts Shamash (the sun god) on his throne, above the cosmic waters, with stars in the surface under the waters above the earth. In Mesopotamia, where the land was watered by rain, the waters above were crucial, providing sustenance. No rain meant drought and famine. In Egypt the annual floods of the Nile were far more important and rain was less significant. In fact the Egyptians didn’t seem to connect the water in the Nile with rain, the river itself was the source of water.

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The Sweep of Scripture and The Kingdom of God

biblesOver the last several years I have spent most of my commutes listening to Scripture read or performed in order to be immersed in and formed by the story of God’s work in the world. (Far better than spending the time immersed in talk radio (HT T)). Toward the end of what became a rather long post a few weeks ago I sketched my current thoughts on the sweep of Scripture (see the end of Human Evolution and the Bible). The sweep of Scripture is not adequately captured in the “introduction – problem – solution – conclusion” format, most commonly stated as “creation-fall-redemption-new creation”. Although there are elements of problem (the persistence of chaos and the rebellion of humans) and there is certainly a solution (we need to take atonement seriously), the sweep of Scripture is far deeper than this version allows.

Another take. In his book Kingdom Conspiracy Scot McKnight outlines a somewhat different view of the sweep of Scripture.

⇒ It starts with God as king of his people (Genesis – 1 Samuel 7). This is plan A. The people rebel, but they are still under God’s direct kingship.

⇒ In 1 Samuel 8 the story moves to plan B. The people of Israel ask for a human king as they follow the desire to be like the surrounding nations. As the Lord told Samuel “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (8:7) God accommodates Israel by granting them a human king. God alone is still king – he doesn’t abdicate, but a human king is enthroned. This is definitely a plan B. Eventually this attempt as a human kingdom leads to exile, an exile that will only end when God is again enthroned as king.

⇒ In the New Testament we find a move back to God himself as king. Plan A revised. God himself is the savior, redeemer, and ruler of his people through his son, the Messiah, Jesus.

Jesus is all of Israel’s major leaders, and more: he’s a new Moses and especially a new David and a new Solomon and a new Servant and a new Son of Man and a whole new redemptive order. Joseph and Mary name him Yeshua because he will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The story is that in Jesus God now rules, and God’s kind of ruling is saving, rescuing, atoning, justifying, and reconciling. (p. 35)

When Jesus said “the kingdom of God has drawn near,” he announced a new day in an old story. … It is first and foremost the story of God as King, and God is King in King Jesus, so the story begins right there – just as the one and only gospel reveals: it’s a story about Jesus, the Lord, the King, the Messiah, and the Savior. He is those titles now, and he will be those titles when the kingdom is fully established. … That is the story that alone makes sense of Jesus’ choice of the word “kingdom” to explain the mission of God in this world. (p. 35)

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Forget the Fish Already!

Forget the fish! God can work the miraculous. This is assumed in Jonah, but it isn’t the point of the story. The fish has only a bit swim on part. Focus instead on divine mercy and compassion.

Sennacherib as Prisoners from Lachish are broughtA while back I wrote a post Satire or History exploring the genre of the book of Jonah. The point isn’t to dismiss the book or to identify “error” in the Bible, but to correctly identify the genre and purpose of the book. In the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary John Walton has some interesting observations on the book of Jonah in its ancient Near Eastern context.

In current trends within critical scholarship, Jonah is commonly labeled as parody or satire. The former typically lampoons a piece of literature, while the latter targets people (specific or stereotyped categories) or events as Jonah does. Satire can be either an enactment or a written composition in which vice, folly, or incompetence is held up for ridicule. The closer to reality a satire can be, the more effective it is. By definition it targets real people and tries to use the mannerisms and words that they use. Satire exaggerates reality, but is based on reality.

Satire and parody are both known in the ancient world and in the Bible. … In similar ways, most would agree that the book of Jonah wants us to laugh at the prophet’s incongruity and senselessness even as we are appalled by his behavior and attitude. (p. 104)

Good satire will be intentionally realistic – and the closer to reality, the more effective. Thus, if the book is a satire we should not find a clear indication of this for that would negate the satire and we should expect to find realistic details placing the story in time and place. Apparent history is not proof that the book should be considered historical.

Satire or A Powerful Parable? But is satire really the appropriate classification for the genre of Jonah? Walter Moberly in Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture suggests that a more appropriate classification may be something close to “parable.” The book is short (shorter than most of my posts including this one) and contains memorable elements designed to get those who read or hear the story thinking. It is “an exploration and portrayal of moral and theological issues in memorable narrative rather than abstract form.” (p. 187) The story of Jonah isn’t simple history and was never intended to be read as history. Focusing on the identity of the big fish or the size of Nineveh is a colossal exercise in missing the point. Rather:

My thesis is that the story of Jonah can well be read as probing of this basic perennial problem within Jewish and Christian (and other) faiths: religious language that on one level appears simple and straightforward is in fact harder to understand and appropriate than it initially appears. (p. 182)

Jonah contains elements of satire, but we need to dig down to the message behind the imagery. According to Moberly, the issue in focus is the nature of divine mercy or compassion. The author may want us to laugh at Jonah, but he also wants us to think about Jonah’s problem.

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I Wish Pastors Knew … Part 2

CampusIn his first letter to the Corinthians Paul includes the oft quoted statement “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (9:22) One application of this and the surrounding context is the need to meet people where they are. In order to do meet people where they are it is necessary to make the effort to understand the contexts in which people live and the ways in which they think. There are a multitude of ways this can play out, and it will be different for an inner city church, a rural church, or a suburban church.

As an academic and a scientist in a community dominated by a local University this need to meet people where they are is something I have pondered often. In this environment, a church or a pastor that desires to make an impact beyond undergraduate students could be well advised to understand the academic environment, the way academics think, and the experience of academics in Christian communities.

J. Aaron Simmons put up a pair of posts at Seminarium recently, Seven Things I Wish All Pastors Knew About AcademicsPart 1 and Part 2. This isn’t intended as a criticism, or some statement of superiority. It is a desire for understanding. Aaron’s list focuses particularly on the experience of Christians in Christian communities, but some (especially 3 and 4) are equally important for outreach. Some items on Simmons’ list are not as relevant for scientists as for social scientists or humanists (Simmons is a philosopher), but they are all worth some discussion. You can read Aaron’s posts in their entirety at the links above. I will summarize the list including a few select quotes and add a few comments of my own.

1) Academics, as academics, are not pastors—and we are not trying to be.

“Often confusion and mistrust result from the suspicion that academics are threatening to the office of the pastor. This is unfortunate and rarely grounded in reality. Academics should be threatening to sloppy thinking, falsehood, unjustified assertions, and resistance to critique, but these are all things that pastors should seek to avoid as well. Indeed, if pastors saw academics as resources in the way that they see coaches, business owners, and civic leaders, then the life of the mind and the life of faith might be more commonly integrated in churches.”

2) Academics generally understand that disagreement does not imply disunity.

3) Appeals to “non-negotiables” are often problematic for academics due to a general comfort with ambiguity.

4) Asking critical questions is a primary way in which academics build relationships.

“Accordingly, asking critical questions is a sign of taking something seriously and, hence, of wanting further engagement with it. Too often pastors assume that asking such questions is a sign of arrogance or unbelief.”

5) Academics have “gifts” too.

6) Like most people, academics don’t like being stereotyped.

“Christians often protest against the stereotypical ways in which they are presented in popular culture. Similarly, academics don’t like being stereotyped by Christians as simply being liberal atheists who are dangerous to the spiritual life of those who would be swayed by our influence.”

7) Many academics realize that the life of the mind and the life of faith are not at odds.

Campus 2There are some points that Simmons makes that I disagree with, or would argue differently. But this is OK (disagreement doesn’t imply disunity). Sometimes it is simply that my perspective as a scientist in a secular university differs from his perspective as a philosopher of religion. Sometimes though, I wonder if it is because we have a slightly different view of Christian faith. I think that there are some things that are “non-negotiables” in the Christian faith, not because they can’t be questioned or shouldn’t be explored, but because if one moves in certain directions one is no longer a Christian. Of course, the only way one learns what is truly “non-negotiable” is by asking critical questions and digging into the how and why. In the sciences there are certainly things that become “non-negotiables” simply because the arguments are so strong.

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Scripture and (Ancient) Cosmology

Map of the World ca 500-700 BCThe Bible is a collection of ancient texts. The most recent, by any reckoning, were written over nineteen hundred years ago. The oldest date back another five hundred to a thousand years and likely use sources dating back even further. They relate events that happened in the ancient world and were originally intended for an audience immersed in those long-ago cultures. As a result we rely on scholars to help translate that culture and bring it alive for us today. Only then will we get the most out of the text. The ancient understanding of the world provides a context for understanding the Scripture.

It is uncontroversial that we better understand the covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 if we understand the cultural context of the ceremony related in this passage.

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half… When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land. (15:9-10, 17-18)

Halves of animals, birds, a firepot and torch? What does this represent? Unfortunately no clear cultural parallel seems to exist and we are left speculating a bit. In the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on Genesis John Walton offers a couple of suggestions involving a covenant ceremony, purification, or confirming signs, none of which he finds completely satisfactory. If we ever find evidence that makes better sense of the ceremony our understanding of the nature of the covenant will improve, although the main point is a covenant between God and Abraham and this is clear today.

Likewise we understand the story of Sarah and Hagar better when we realize that it was expected in the ancient Near Eastern context that a servant could be called on to produce an heir if the wife was barren. This wasn’t God’s plan for Abraham and Sarah as the story line makes clear, but it was an entirely acceptable practice well attested in contemporary literature. The same is true when Rachel provided Bilhah, her servant, to Jacob. There was nothing unusual in this practice and Rachel rejoiced that God had given her a son and named him Dan.

Although more controversial for some in the church, the same can be said for biblical cosmology. We will better understand the Scripture when we understand the ancient Near Eastern context in which it was written. This includes the cosmologies assumed in these cultures. Much has been learned about these cosmologies over the last couple of centuries from archaeological excavations all around the area and from the decipherment of the texts and inscriptions found on monuments and tablets. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the average Christian, or the busy pastor or teacher, to dig into the scholarly literature on the topic and as a result it is often ignored.

Scripture and CosmologyI recently received from the publisher a new book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science by Kyle Greenwood, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Colorado Christian University. This is a book written at an accessible level directed at lay Christians as well as pastors and teachers. Asked for the main point in this book Kyle’s responds:

It is my contention that a high view of Scripture employs a hermeneutic that accommodates the biblical writers’ immersion in its ancient, pre-Enlightenment cultural context. As with other cultural matters, such as social customs and language, the biblical texts reflect that worldview in their written communication. So, I show how the ancient Hebrews thought of the cosmos as being constructed of three tiers: heaven, earth and sea. This viewpoint was not borrowed from surrounding cultures, but it was part of a shared culture among ancient Near Eastern people.

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I Wish Pastors Knew … Part 1

Ishtar Gate 2Pastoring is a hard job. No question about this. People are messy and pain and suffering are quite real. I don’t want to criticize. But there are some things I wish pastors knew about life as a scientist, or for that matter about life as an academic across a range of disciplines.

But first …

Scot recently linked a book I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. Seeing Walter Moberly, whose book on Old Testament Theology I’ve slowly been working through, on the list of contributors I immediately ordered a copy. The back cover to the book poses the question: “Is serious academic study of the Bible a threat to faith?” and the contributors were asked to address a series of questions including “Have there been ways in which you felt your faith to be in jeopardy as a result of your study?” and “How might you address the question of “losing faith” through serious study of the Bible?

Two of these chapters are worth a serious look today, Walter Moberly and Bruce Waltke.

Walter Moberly relates how, when preparing for ministry or perhaps to alternate between academic and ministerial positions, he contracted a chronic illness that decided the matter:

In Christian ministry you need an energy that I no longer have, an availability that I can no longer offer. The academic life is more structured and sedentary that Christian ministry, and I am also a private citizen at evenings and weekends, which are necessary recovery times. … [Eventually] I was able to accept my limitation as part of God’s good purpose for me. Alongside that acceptance came also a growing sense of vocation to be a theologian working with Scripture. (p. 204)

As I said, pastoral work is hard and deserves our support and respect. But there is more to Moberly’s story. Over the years he describes his professional life as “a continuing process of learning, trying to find categories and frames of reference that would help me genuinely unite head and heart, i.e. unite rigorous scholarly work with the priorities of faith in the study of the Bible.” (p. 206)

As an Old Testament scholar one significant challenge is the relationship between the text and reality, a challenge that confronted him early on.

The problem lay with material that has no clear indication of genre, whose genre must therefore be inferred. My initial assumption was that if a narrative were “history-like” then it should be considered “history.” (p. 206)

Epic of Creation - Marduk celebrated as champion of the gods 4Many Christians today hold a similar position. It is a push-back that I have gotten repeatedly as I’ve explored interpretations of Genesis 1-11 and other passages of Scripture (Job and Jonah for example). Genesis 1 (creation) or 11 (the tower of Babel) is history-like prose and should therefore be taken at face value as history. Moberly grew to realize that this is an overly simplistic approach. In contemporary literature we often make judgements about genre for texts that are “history-like.” The stories carry meaning whatever the genre. He goes on:

The oddity, or so it came to seem to me, is to combine a flexible understanding of the nature and purpose of genre in contemporary material with a rather inflexible understanding of the nature and purpose of genre in biblical material.

As I reflected on the fact that literature may validly portray reality through a variety of genres, I cam to ask myself: If a literary genre – say myth or legend – is widely attested in the pre-modern world and was meaningful to those who used it, why should it not be present in Scripture? Or more theologically, why should God not be able to make use of such meaningful genre as a part of inspired Scripture? (p. 207)

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