FOR SKEPTICS, LIBERALS: The Trouble With Jonah

Written by Wes Walker on August 1, 2014

One of the more popular criticisms of biblical authority is now being challenged from an unexpected direction — the news.  There are several groups for whom Jonah — the prophet who preached in Nineveh — presents a problem.

Until recently, the greatest difficulty, by far, was presented to believers who accepted the account of Jonah as historical.  Jonah has become almost shorthand for “absurd religious fairy-tale”.  Truly, this criticism requires an answer, but Christians are not the only group affected by Jonah.

Muslims, apparently, are affected, too.  We’re seeing the divisions between sects emerge. Islam isn’t a monolithic monotheism, but one of fractured factions. Some Muslims revered Jonah as a historical figure worthy of honor — an odd position, considering his story. Others, however respond with a violently iconoclastic impulse.

These particular iconoclasts — ISIS — were so bothered by Jonah, that they not only smashed his tomb with hammers, but they followed that up with a large explosion.  I suppose that for them — as for many others — uncomfortable facts are more easily destroyed or suppressed than faced.

The fact that he even has a tomb presents a problem for yet another group of people.  It’s a problem for the skeptics.  Skeptics, in this instance, aren’t just the atheists, but also agnostics, and liberal theologians that like to dismiss as myth the more embarrassing passages of scripture.  Myths, you see, don’t need a tomb. How do you explain the fact that he even has a tomb?  Take care how you answer, because whatever answer you accept, it must square with all known facts, and not just one or two of the more obvious ones.

To understand why a physical tomb poses a difficulty, you must consider the cultures at play, and how they interacted with each other.

Mosul, site of ancient Nineveh, had an Islamic holy site housing Jonah’s tomb.  Before that, a Christian holy site, before that, the ebb and flow of conquering empires and dynasties going back to ancient Assyria.

The fact that a Jewish prophet even traveled to Nineveh is itself somewhat awkward, for reasons that to anyone who’s read the biblical account bearing Jonah’s name would become obvious.  Since Israel was God’s chosen nation and people, why would a prophet of the Most High God ever want to leave the Jewish people to present a message of any kind to a foreign and hostile nation?  Even worse, why would he possibly want to bring “those people” a message of peace and forgiveness?

Do you remember that Jonah ran away? Rather than obey directly, and bring God’s message to Nineveh, Jonah hopped a ship, and went as far as he could in the other direction.  Later, when he’s frustrated with God, he tells us the reason he ran away. Jonah was concerned that by giving a message of warning from God, Nineveh would repent of their wrongdoing, and avoid the judgment that Jonah thought their sins (and nation) truly deserved. Does that seem harsh to you? Maybe that’s because you aren’t as familiar with their atrocities as he was.

Ancient Assyrian kings used torture and bloodshed as a tool of intimidation on their subjects and (especially) their enemies.  Some of the cruelty they bragged about — prisoner treatment, for example — would place them squarely among such historical notables as Genghis Khan, or the Nazi SS.

By Jonah’s day, Assyria was maybe a generation or two from Tiglath-Pilezer III’s conquest and scattering of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. His concerns about this powerful, hostile empire were justified, and it’s not surprising that destruction, rather than mercy was what he’d want for them.  The sulking Jonah did after mercy was shown Nineveh is just another awkward detail that (were it merely fiction) would be better left out if the story: it shows Jonah in a bad light.

Maybe you’ve thought of an explanation that might account for all these things. That’s great, but hold on another minute. That’s only one half of the story.

Whatever your answer is, it also has to account for the fact that Nineveh accepted him, received him, and gave him an honorable burial in a notable tomb.

Why would a great empire — explicitly and officially pagan, you might remember — receive Jonah as an honored prophet, rather than some foreign interloper? Why would they give him an honored burial place, and continue to maintain it long after they’d smashed his homeland to atoms? History is written by the victors, right? What would justify them caring about the burial place of an intolerant foreign-born Monotheist who told them they were sinning and in danger of judgment from a foreign God they didn’t worship or acknowledge?

Why would a conquering Muslim empire protect, care for, and even improve the tomb of a Jewish prophet? Knowing what you know about historical interactions between Muslims and Jews, shouldn’t this require some sort of an explanation?

It might be strange to our Western minds, but people who’ve settled the same location for literally thousands of years have a very long historical memory.  If there had not been a local claim about *someone* named Jonah having accomplished *something* noteworthy in that place, would a foreign imposter’s shrine ever have been truly embraced, let alone carefully maintained for more than two Millennia?

It’s true there might be reasonable answers to these questions — for Christian and skeptic alike — but the tomb itself should take us past the “glib dismissal of a myth” stage, and force us into some actual, thoughtful dialogue… for a change.