So this week we are talking about Darkness and we are talking about the symbols of the wheel and the fish (if you are unfamiliar with the wheel symbol, you will just have to come to worship on Sunday to find out what I am talking about). When Sarah Kotchian and I were planning this, and were thinking about what Scriptures speak to darkness, the idea of Jonah being stuck in the belly of the fish was somehow where our minds wandered.
Needless to say, it didn’t take much convincing for me to get on board because Jonah is my favorite book of the bible. I love the message in Jonah, and more importantly, I love the way that the message is conveyed. Jonah uses humor and satire to poke fun at us religious folk, who far too often take ourselves too seriously.
Let’s start with a quick discussion on a very important key to understanding Jonah—the fish! Have you ever heard people arguing over whether it is a fish or a whale? The answer is…durm roll please…it wasn’t really either, because Jonah was not actually swallowed by anything in real life. Yep, that is your pastor telling you, this story is not a historical event. And if you think it is, let me tell you about a bridge that I am selling in Brooklyn…
Jonah is not an historical account, plain and simple. Jonah is satire. Jonah makes fun of religious people who spend way too much time arguing over things like whether it was a fish or a whale that ate Jonah. You can tell this by how it is written. You can tell this from the original Hebrew. You can tell this because it is a story about a person being eaten by a fish. Unfortunately, we have made ourselves into the butt of the joke by being the very thing that Jonah makes fun of—religious elites.
What is important to learn from this is that scripture has genres. Some scripture is meant to be read seriously with an eye toward historical accuracy (though their definition of history and ours differ widely). Some is poetry and is meant to be read as figurative. Some is philosophical argument, and is meant to force us to ask big questions. Unfortunately, we often approach scripture as though it were just one thing—serious history. Incidentally, this is exactly why I have big problems with Ken Ham and his creationist museum (If you don’t know about that, Google it).
Jonah is satire. Jonah is humor. Jonah is meant to be read like you would read the Sunday morning comics, or like you would watch Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert. It is supposed to be fun and outlandish, and if you don’t read it that way, you are signing up to be the butt of the joke. You are the over-serious Jonah who is just waiting to be chewed up and spit out!
The story features only a few characters—Jonah, God, a handful of Sailors, a few Ninevites, a worm and a fish. Guess who does God’s bidding on the first try in this story—the non-Hebrew sailors and the non-Hebrew Ninevites. The guy called by God fights every step of the way. This points fun at religious people that think they are better than everyone else, but often miss the point. The conversation about Jonah being thrown overboard is funny stuff. Tarshish is quite literally the exact opposite direction from Ninevah. The man of God is quite literally FISH VOMIT. And if that wasn’t enough, the very last sentence of the book is God making a potty-humor joke that is worthy of an 8th grade boy (hint: people in that culture at that time used their right hand to eat and their left hand to wipe themselves).
All of this teaches us something that is extremely important—FAITH NEEDS HUMOR! If humor plays no role in our life of faith then we are not doing it right. We need to be able to laugh—especially at ourselves! We need to be ready to see that God doesn’t just work through prose and boredom—God engages us through any means necessary—even potty humor! That is why this book doesn’t need to be about historical fact at all. Trying to engage the question of historicity with Jonah is a total waste of time. I mean, the book is literally about prophetic fish vomit! It also teaches us that “Truth” with a capital “T” isn’t about historical fact, it is bigger than that. Truth is about how we find meaning in our lives.
If you want to find meaning in your life; if you want to find Truth; take a lesson from Jonah and have a little more fun with your faith. Embrace the absurd and the hilarious and look for God’s hand when you find yourself the butt of a joke.