Postmodernism, the Old Testament and Jonah

#article #Jonah
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Drew Leonard

February 10, 2021

“Postmodernism” is said, by Oxford Languages, to “have at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”1 This, ultimately, stems from principles of “naturalism” or “Darwinism.” Those, who are skilled in analyzing “worldview” and the shape that the world has largely taken, are capable of noting exactly how the human race “evolved” from previous “worldviews” into the one that largely dominates. In previous eras, the rejection of God and the supernatural was already accepted, but the vehicle to make such “plausible” was not discovered . . . until Darwin promoted “natural selection,” and then, “naturalism” crept into all of society, including art, music and literature. Since literature did not remain “unaffected,” it was inevitable that the Bible was also tainted. In one area of this permeation, the biblical text of “Jonah” was reassessed and “fitted” into this mold. It is this issue that will stand, in this article, as a sample for the entire “naturalistic” worldview and how it has determined to read the biblical literature.

Literary Purpose and Intent

Jim McGuiggan reminds readers that a writer's purpose and/or intent has much to do with how one reads a text.2 This is true. Nobody proposes to read Luke 15's “parable of the prodigal son” as a literal history3, nor should one insist that Gog and Magog (of Ezekiel 38,39) are literal nations within past human history. The writer's intent and purpose with the devices and tools before him affect the way that his literature is to be read. It is this angle that skilled readers must seek to recover.

But, while there is this “angle” – which, at times, may remain “unrecoverable” – it needs to be remembered that there is an objectively “right” or “wrong” way of reading these texts. (For instance, one may insist that a speaker's remark, “It is black” is in reference to the television set in the room; however, in spite of intentions and sincerity, the remark either was or was not fitting and therefore about or not about the television set. Even if an interpreter, sitting on the couch with his back to the window and the wall, understood the speaker to be looking at the television set as he pointed – therefore perceiving no other way to interpret the remark – it may have been the case that the speaker was pointing just beyond the television set, out the window, at a vehicle that had pulled into the driveway, and beyond the view of the interpreter/listener. This would certainly reshape the remark's interpretation. But, the interpreter's lack of information and/or sincerity would not reduce the actuality of the remark's being about the intended object of the speaker.) In the present case, it is important that interpreters of the biblical text analyze and consider these kinds of “angles” so that nothing is missed and that the interpretations given are not “skewed” in relation to the intent and purpose of the original author.

What Jonah's Text Said . . .

If one is not familiar with the “story”4 of Jonah, it speaks of a reluctant prophet, the son of Amittai (1:1), that was supposed to go to Nineveh. He gets onto a ship and heads in the opposite way, towards Tarshish. Because of his disobedience, God brings a storm against the ship, at which point Jonah is “discerned” through the “casting of lots” to be the causer of the tumult. He is then thrown overboard as a means to calm the storm but results in being swallowed by a great fish. After prayer, Jonah is “spat out” onto dry ground (conveniently?).5 After preaching to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the people repented, yet Jonah remains sour towards the situation.

Miracles Are “On the Table”

For whatever reasons, some have read the “story” of Jonah and concluded that it is a mere fable, didactic, novel, prophetic legend, parable or allegory.6 (Childs concludes that it is “parable-like.”7) Surely, the element of Jonah's being swallowed by a fish and living in the belly of the fish for 3-days is the “unbelievable” part of the narrative for many, but this cannot be ruled out.8 It is true that one could smirk at the text of Jonah with a smug look, snickering with a condescending doubt, but this would be somewhat catastrophic. Would one doubt the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, the healing miracles of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, the existence of angels, the resurrection of Jesus and/or the world's having been spoken into existence? The truth of the matter is that to smirk at Jonah (for “naturalistic” purposes) is to smirk at Jesus, who seemed to treat Jonah as an historical personage (cf. Mat. 12:38-41). The existence of past miracles is not determined by whether or not they are “believable” or acceptable to the naturalists, but instead, they are a matter of revelation. (One will not be able to recreate circumstances to “legitimize” past miracles scientifically, nor will one be able to deduce particular miracles by philosophical or rationalistic principles; they either did or did not happen, and they hang on the credibility of the biblical witness, therefore, a matter of revelation.)

Reasons for the Historical Angle About Jonah

Oddly, OT professor at ACU, J.T. Willis once argued for the historical credibility of Jonah on the basis that 1) 2 Kings 14:25 shows Jonah to be an historical character, 2) that Jesus considered the conversion of Nineveh to be an historical fact, cf. Mat. 12:38-41 and 3) that Elijah and Elisha had previously campaigned in Sidon and Syria, cf. 1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5.9 These appear to be good arguments; however, later, Willis favored that Jonah's text was “probably a religious drama” and “meant to be memorized and performed or recited before God's people,” seemingly leaving the impression (by also favoring a post-exilic date of the text, and therefore betraying the “date” that the book of Jonah with the Kings record places upon it, cf. Jon. 1:1; 2 Kin. 14:25) that the narrative is historically incredible and therefore fictitious.10 Are there really any solid reasons for doubting the historicity of the text of Jonah? (Surely, it does not need to be added that a skepticism towards the “supernatural” is not a “solid reason”?)

Objecting to the Historicity of Jonah

In conclusion, a “naturalistic” or “postmodern” philosophy has driven people to an extreme doubt of the supernatural. This is probably because of how many “false” claims exist in religions and because of how many are now being trained to think. (At no point is “sincerity” a question here.) But, as stated earlier, Jonah's text – while, perhaps, not the focal point of the book – either is or is not legitimate human history. Should one persist that Jonah's text is “non-historical,” one's concern should, perhaps, not be with whether or not that is his view but with “why” it is his view. One's objecting to Jonah's historicity because of text forms, authorial intent or purpose or literary genre is one thing, but one's objecting to Jonah's historicity because of skepticism of “all things supernatural” is another and has extremely severe implications attached to it. To end, one might ask himself the question, “What real reason is there for doubting the historicity of Jonah?”

1Definition: “Postmodernism”. Oxford University Press. <> 2021. Definition. Online.

2McGuiggan, Jim, How Shall One Read Jonah? (1) <> Article. Online.

3This article simply will not concern itself with a definition of “history” but will proceed on what one has called the “stupid” or “common” sense of the word.

4I, Drew Leonard, am using the word “story” in a flexible manner in this article; by the word, there is not necessarily a “fictitious” element involved but at times may be; I will allow the context to stand as a determinant and also be “neutral” at times.

5McGuiggan, How Shall One Read Jonah? (2)

6Childs, Brevard, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pg. 419, Fortress Press. Philadelphia, PA. 1979. Print.


8It should be noted that seeking modern accounts or testimonies of human beings' being swallowed by fish are purposeless for this discussion; it accomplishes nothing for one to find these kinds of phenomena in the modern world, since the Bible elsewhere claims miracles as a reality, which are not to be “recreated” or “located” in a non-miraculous environment. Locating modern cases of what could be understood to be “miracle” just postpones the issue and pushes the skeptic to a different “miracle,” like the resurrection of Jesus, which will not be located within the present atmosphere; therefore, finding a modern recurrence of Jonah's being swallowed by the fish is pointless and unhelpful for the present discussion.

9Willis, John T., My Servants the Prophets: vol. 1, pg. 46, ACU Press. Abilene, TX. 1971. Print.

10Willis, John T., The Transforming Word: Jonah, pg. 689, ACU Press. Abilene, TX. 2009. Print.

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