The story of Jonah gives us an example of the harm done by a Fundamentalist approach to the Bible.
I remember being a Fundamentalist on the Book of Jonah. In the seminary I had a high regard for a young man five years older than me. After he was ordained a priest he was sent to Rome and Jerusalem for a graduate degree in Scripture studies. After he completed his studies he wrote an article on the Book of Jonah, and in it he wrote that Jonah could not have been swallowed by a whale.
I was so disappointed in that young priest. It had me railing against graduate studies that taught students to ignore God’s word in the Bible. To me, the whole message of the Book of Jonah was that God can work miracles like letting a man live in a whale.
As the years went on, and as I came to understand the Church’s teaching on the Bible, I came to see not only that the Book of Jonah was written as a fable, but that by insisting on a literal meaning for the story I had altogether missed out on God’s important message in the Book of Jonah.
About 450 B.C. there was a reform movement in Jerusalem that had the Jews breaking off relations with people who worshipped idols and practiced thing like human sacrifices. The movement went too far. It had Jews not only avoiding, but detesting, foreigners. God inspired a humorous writer to compose the Book of Jonah to remind people that foreigners were also his children.
At that historical period the harshest foreigners were the Assyrians with their capitol of Nineveh. The storyteller imagined God telling a Jew to go preach repentance to the people of Nineveh to save them. Jonah, a Jew like many others, hated the people of Nineveh so much that he went to sea to get out of saving his enemy. God brought him back, and he sent him to Nineveh.
Jonah, hoping they would ignore him, told the people to repent. When they did, and when they were saved from God’s vengeance, Jonah went off onto a hilltop where he sulked over not getting to see the destruction of his enemies. He made himself comfortable sitting under a leafy plant that shaded his head. But when a worm ate the leaves exposing Jonah to the hot sun he was angry. God then spoke to him, saying that if Jonah was sorrowing over the loss of one plant, shouldn’t he, God, have felt bad about the possible loss of the hundred and twenty thousand citizens of Nineveh who might have perished along with their animals?