The last three days our first readings have been from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Everybody knows about Jonah. He spent three days in the belly of a whale. Gershwin had a song about him: “O Jonah he lived in a whale. He made his home in that fish’s abdomen. O Jonah he lived in a whale.”
Mention of Jonah makes me think of Father Eamon O’Doherty. Eamon was five years ahead of me in the seminary. He had such a fine voice and quick wit that I came close to idolizing him. After his ordination they sent Eamon to Jerusalem and Rome to get a degree in Scripture studies, but after he came back he wrote an article that turned me against him. He wrote that Jonah couldn’t have lived in a whale. He said the story was a fable. That had me saying, “Those smart alec teachers over there don’t even believe in what the Bible says.”
That whale was very real to me. When I was ten my dad saw where the train yard in St. Louis was playing host to a whale housed in a box car, shipped up from New Orleans. My dad brought my twelve-year-old sister Peg and me down on the streetcar to see the whale. We were able to crawl up into its mouth, but we couldn’t see how Jonah could have got down the narrow gullet.
Over the years as I did more and more reading I was brought to see that the story of Jonah was fiction. It described the city of Nineveh as so wide it took three days to walk across it, but the real Nineveh was just a couple of stone throws across.
My reading told me that in 400 b.c. when the story of Jonah first appeared, the Jews saw it as so wild that no one took it as real. For any one to take is as fact would have been as mistaken as it would be for people a thousand years from now to take it as a fact that the meek newspaper man Clark Kent could turn into Superman.
Our Church has a clear teaching about the Bible's 79 books. It says some of them are myths, some fables, some accurate histories. People who insist that the fables have to be factual don’t come to understand what the Bible book is teaching. The Book of Jonah was written in 400 b.c. after the Jewish people had adopted a new moral code that forbade them from entering into marriages with non-Jews. In accepting that new code they went beyond it, coming to look on all non-Jews as people to be hated. The Book of Jonah was written to turn them away from that.
In the story Yahweh told Jonah to go warn the people of Nineveh to save them from being damned for their sins. But Jonah, hating foreigners, didn’t want to see them saved. He sailed west to get away from Yahweh, and that had had him ending up in the whale. Still hating it, he went off to Nineveh, shouting, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” He couldn’t wait to see them destroyed; so when they repented, and were saved, he went off to a hillside and pouted about it. He sat under a plant that kept the sun off his baldhead, but then a worm ate the plant; and Jonah got furious about that.
The Lord said, “You are concerned over the death of the silly plant, shouldn’t I have been concerned about the fate of Nineveh’s hundred and twenty-five thousand people, not to mention the lives of their animals?”