Saturday, 14 June 2014

Silly Bible - The Fishy Tale Of Jonah

It's sometimes fun to read through the Bible and work out which of the tales in it is the least plausible, the most pointless, the least well thought out, etc.

A strong contender for all three of these is the story of Jonah. It must rate alongside the Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel stories as the silliest and, given that the Tower of Babel tale actually tries to explain why different people speak different languages so has some point to it, like Noah's Ark, the tale of Jonah doesn't actually offer anything by way explanation for anything we can observe.

Nor is it any more plausible because the scientific evidence shows that it couldn't have happened, although, to be fair to whomsoever made up the Jonah myth, at least there is no direct scientific evidence that it didn't happen, as there is with the Noah nonsense. He or she seems to have had the good sense to make up a story which wouldn't have left any evidence if it had really happened.

Like the Noah myth, the only purpose of the Jonah tale seems to be to warn people that God is quite capable of simply zapping people if they don't obey him, or, more likely, if they don't obey the same priests who made up these stories. "If you don't do what I say, my invisible friend is gonna get you, then you'll be sorry!". Ring any bells?

Let's run through it a chapter at a time. Mercifully, there are only four and they are all very short.

Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.

And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.

Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him. Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

Jonah 1:1-15

We're not told who this Jonah is other than that he was the son of someone called Amittai's, but never-the-less we are expected to believe a random man could go to a major city with a message from God - or at least God thinks that's what will do the trick. Having decided to destroy the city of Nineveh for wickedness, this mighty god can't simply tell the King of Nineveh or make a message appear on a wall somewhere. Instead, he needs a total stranger to go and tell them.

Yep! That sounds like a plan! Imagine a city like New York, and this stranger turns up in Time Square or Central Park, or maybe outside Grand Central and tells everyone to repent, the end is nigh. I bet that works every time!

But anyway, Jonah, knowing all about God and his powers, declines his offer and tries to run away to somewhere where this omnipresent god won't be and gets on a boat to Tarshish. Apparently, the omnipresent, omniscient god isn't in Tarshish and won't know Jonah is either.

And now the story starts to get really silly! When a storm gets up the sailors, who have different gods, throw stuff overboard to lighten the ship and call on their gods for help. Then they draw lots to find out whose fault the storm is! Apparently, even though they have different gods, none of the sailors nor Jonah question the drawing of lots to determine blame. Same beliefs, just different gods, apparently.

Anyway, no sooner does Jonah explain that it was his god, the god of the Hebrews, who had done this to them, than they all abandon their own religions and believe in "the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land", but not enough to do what Jonah tells them at first and throw him overboard. Quite why Jonah didn't throw himself overboard is not clear.

It's only when the sailors, who are now completely convinced they've had the wrong gods all their lives, have convinced themselves that throwing a man overboard on the drawing of lots is not their fault, that they actually do so. It never seems to have occurred to Jonah, or God for that matter, to do the decent thing and avoid the sailors getting blood on their hands by jumping overboard himself.

The Story then moves from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah 1:16-17

At least it doesn't say 'whale' as the popular version of the myth says. That idea didn't creep in until St Jerome translated the Greek Septuagint into the Latin 'Vulgate' version and translated the Greek ketos megas (huge fish) correctly in Jonah 1 and 2 but in Matthew's typically fatuous attempt to fit his version of the Jesus myth into a Jewish Messianic prophecy by making the Jonah story look like an allegory for the story of Jesus he was pushing, Jerome lost the plot and translated the same phrase as cetus (whale).

As an aside: apparently, the original Hebrew Jonah was swallowed by a dag gado (great male fish) but he was vomited up by a daga (female fish). Somehow the fish managed to change gender between chapters 1 and 2.

But that technicality aside, the notion of a man being swallowed by a fish, remaining alive and untouched for three days could only have been written by someone having not the slightest idea of fish anatomy and physiology. What on earth did they imagine happens to the things that fish eat, and where did they think Jonah was going to get oxygen from? Jonah would have been dead from suffocation within a few minutes and would have been substantially, if not completely, digested within three days. There would be nothing to pray and whatever was vomited up onto a beach would be fit only for gulls and other passing scavengers.

Even the early Christian fathers were embarrassed by this tale, apparently. We have a record of Augustine of Hippo trying to cope with the ridicule Christians were getting for it:

The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: "In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale's belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?" Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.

Let's move on now to Chapter 2 to see if the story can get any sillier.

Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.

Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.

When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.

And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Jonah 2

At that point, according to the original Hebrew, the fish had changed from males to female.

But we learn something even more remarkable here. We learn that being swallowed by a fish can actually resuscitate a drowning person, though we aren't told how this works. Anyway, completely unaffected by lack of oxygen or fish digestive enzymes, and, one assumes, fully clothed, Jonah finds himself on dry land. Phew! That was a close call, eh?

So, apparently still unable to come up with a better way to warn the people of Ninevah of their impending mass destruction, God tries again with his original plan:

And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.

So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

Jonah 3

So, you're a citizen of this great city and along comes a total stranger and tells you you're about to get zapped by a magic invisible sky boogeyman, and he knows this because the voice in his head said so. You'd obviously believe him, convert immediately to worshipping his magic, genocidal friend and start begging it for forgiveness, right?

Well, we're expected to believe that, not only did all the people of Nineveh believe him but when their king donned sackcloth and ashes, ordered everyone to do likewise and forbade them from eating and drinking they meekly did so and immediately gave up their wicked ways, whatever they were. Even though they were habitually violent people they didn't see fit to overthrow a king who was listening to a stranger who heard voices and issuing bizarre orders that would embarrass even a military dictator of a banana republic.

But anyway, this was enough to convince inerrant, omniscient God that he had been wrong so he didn't destroy Nineveh after all. For some reason, this seemed to upset our hero, who, as we shall see from the next chapter, had settled down to enjoy the spectacle of mass genocide.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.

Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry? So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.

But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Jonah 4

So, being disappointed that he's not going to witness a genocide and apparently miffed that he'd been put to all that trouble when God could have just spared Nineveh anyway, Jonah goes into a big sulk and sits down outside the city wall in the sun, apparently thinking this will shame God into destroying Nineveh after all.

Then we get this curious and apparently pointless tale of the gourd which, frankly, raises more questions that it answers. If Jonah had already built himself a 'booth' for shade, what was the gourd for exactly? This just looks like bad editing to me. And just how was this gourd going to deliver him from grief?

Then, for equally obscure reasons, God send a 'worm' to make the gourd shrivel and Jonah's booth is no longer, apparently, so he just sits in the sun and sulks a bit more, this time because he feels sorry for the gourd! "You promised I could watch you destroy Nineveh, now you've shrivelled my lovely gourd! Might as well kill me now! Life's not worth living any more!"

Well, says God, if you wanted me to spare the gourd why was it wrong for me to spare Nineveh? Anyway, those idiots in Nineveh don't know their right hand from their left, and what about all the cattle?

And that's it. We're never told what happened to the shrivelled up wonder gourd, nor Jonah, nor the King of Nineveh who has issued those bizarre orders on the say so of a lunatic who came to the city with tales about living in a fish for three days and who is now sitting in a sulk outside the city walls under a shrivelled gourd waiting for his failed prophecy to come true.

And how did the scribe who wrote this stuff down get to know about it? Did Jonah write it and people believed him or did he tell someone and they believed him?

Of course, this must be true because it's in God's inerrant book of truth! No. Don't laugh at them. It's not nice.

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  1. Yea, verily, 'tis a tale most fishy; but hath Jonah perhaps a prophet motive?

    But Christian apologetists claim the point of the exercise is that you can "run from God but you can't hide". That begs the question of how you can run from an omnipresent god anyway.

    1. Well, according to Genesis, Adam & Eve hid from God and he had to come down to the Garden of Eden and call for them because he didn't know where they were. :-)

  2. Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.

    I can just imagine that. Those pagans must have been similar in spirit to the atheist bloggers of today. Nice to know there have always been people who saw this drivel for what it is.

  3. Can anyone disagree with you and have their views posted?

    1. Yes, provided you stick to the subject of the blog, manage to avoid abuse and gratuitous obscenities, debate like an adult and don't imagine your 'faith' gives you a special privilege to parasitise the blog for the purpose of telling people what to believe and/or threatening them if they don't conform, like preachers do.

      Have you anything to say worth posting?

    2. "that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish."

      That's the beauty of Art: I have a collection of Jonah Jaypegs where in 28 pictures the old zoophiliac is depicted naked. Then there are quite a few where his cloak/shawl/loincloth is on the verge of slipping off. But these are the homo-erotic versions, so they don't count.
      Religious art is a feast for the male2male oriented (and for those who fervently deny such interest). The Cain+Abel episode (my favorite bible subject, seriously); delicious. Jacob+Angel, hot! I HATE the St Sebastian soft SM pederasty, so I don't collect those.
      But many of these paintings and sketches and sculptures (from ancient days up till the 21st c) are very beautiful. I would give a link to my art blog if the non-religious posts weren't so, um, shockingly anti-taboo.

  4. I would consider myself quite a rational person. Having studied philosophy and sociology as majors and going on to do a degree in education (now a high school/college teacher). And, I would have to say, before I became a Christian (at 21) I would have agreed with most of the comments here regarding the stories of the bible (ie being fables, myths, children's stories, nonsense, etc). But I would now agree strongly with CS Lewis's: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

    It is obviously a long discussion, but in short: Your presuppositions, which you hold on to ever so firmly, are limited to simply a closed system, and by doing this you exclude miracles for no good reason (rather like one observes an orange (fruit) and reasons that that is all to the orange; that is, the shape itself. In doing so, one excludes the inside flesh of the orange).

    When one encounters Jesus, his or her eyes are open to the Truth ("I am the way, the truth and the life" said Jesus-- John 14:6). If only dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12).

    1. How about dealing with the content of the blog instead of spamming with smugly self-satisfied, evidence-free condescension?

    2. Any more anonymous preaching will be removed. Please try not to be a parasite on this blog even if you have nothing else to offer.

    3. How about dealing with the content of the blog instead of spamming with smugly self-satisfied, evidence-free condescension?

    4. Nononono, Anonymous Sept 2015. If you stick to the true word of Jesus, you are obliged to stick to the literally true word of His Father too. And that makes no sense, as Rosa points out. So I advise you to just believe in an almighty deity who talks to you and watches over you personally (your conscience and sense, I call it), and throw the bible and all other biblical rubbish into the trash can. He who art in Heaven didn't write them. Prophets and spiritual scholars did, and both are humans. And you can't trust humans. Humans, in case you never noticed, can be mentally unstable, irrational and quite manipulative. But then, they are not God. Right?
      Maybe God should ask Himself why He did create Man. Or rather, why He never immediately considered to un-create them again. Is He a masochist, or what?

  5. I love that the anonymous authors of the bible managed to stumble across the fact that there are several species of fish that do change sex, but only got that part right through bad writing. Even when they get it right they're wrong!

    1. Of course! I wonder how the author knew that lots of fish change sex when they swallowed a man and had him living inside them for three days.


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