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June 21, 2009
The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Pastor Brad Davick
Belly of the Whale
Grace and peace to you.
This summer during worship we are addressing the questions that you, the people of St. Paul’s, have asked about faith, theology, and the ELCA. Today we tackle the questions,“Should the Bible be interpreted literally? Was Jonah actually swallowed by a whale?”
To ask this question raises other:
- What kind of fish could have swallowed Jonah?
- Is there any scientific evidence suggesting being swallowed by a fish and surviving is possible?
How did Jonah survive for three days? What do you think?
Let’s see if we can come up with an answer to each question as we explore the broader question,“Should the Bible be interpreted literally?”
What kind of fish could have swallowed Jonah? A big one, right! How many of you learned today’s story in Sunday School? What was it called? Jonah and the whale! If it was actually a whale, it couldn’t have been a pilot whale nor a Cuvier’s beaked whale; not large enough and they’re both carnivores feeding on a diet of fish and squid. Could have been sperm whale; they’re big enough. But sperm whales are also carnivores; giant squids, sharks and other large deep water fishes are a typical diet. So it probably wasn’t a whale that swallowed Jonah, based on diet. Additionally, it’s not likely it was a whale because the Hebrew word used in the story means “great fish.”
Let me guess; you’re wondering,“Pastor Brad, what do you mean it couldn’t have been a carnivore...Jonah’s humanness aside, isn’t Jonah a piece of meat...and unless zoology has changed, I’m fairly certain, carnivores eat meat!”
Good point. However, verse 17 of the story tells us that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights. He survived for three whole days; if it was a whale, that happened to be a carnivore, no more Jonah...end of story, right? Go with me here and let’s see if there is any biblical and scientific evidence suggesting being swallowed by a fish and surviving is possible?
With a high level of confidence that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, what kind of fish are we looking for. Well...Jonah survived three days and nights in the belly of some gargantuan fish, and Jonah is meat, aren’t we looking for herbivore?
While Jonah is in the belly of the fish, the second chapter of the story tells us that Jonah prayed to God. Listen to these two verses of his prayer:
“You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head...(Jonah 2:3,5)
There it is! The gargantuan fish that swallowed Jonah was a veggie. And that’s how he survived; being a veggie, the fish would have different digestive enzymes in it’s stomach, ones that would breakdown weeds, but not protein. Jonah could have survived being swallowed by the great fish because it was a herbivore.
Thus far we’ve figured out that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, not a whale, and that fish was a veggie having different digestive enzymes than those meat eaters. So from a purely zoological and biochemical perspective, Jonah wouldn’t have been digested.
Maybe you’re thinking,“okay, so he didn’t get digested, but...he’s still in the belly of some huge fish; how would he have survived physically for those three days and nights?
Well, surprisingly enough, Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, gives us an idea of what was the condition of Jonah inside the belly of the ‘great fish’.
“for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)
When the Lord Jesus Christ was in the ‘heart of the earth’, His body was dead or unconscious. The probability of Jonah being also in the same situation can be gleaned from the phrase “for just as Jonah… so will the Son of Man be.” Therefore, Jonah, too, was dead or unconscious while in the belly of the fish. This is supported biblically, again, by Jonah’s prayer. In the 6th verse of the 2nd chapter, he prayed:
“ ...at the roots of the mountains, I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me
forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord, my God. (Jonah 2:6) So...Jesus..dead or unconscious three days and nights in the heart of the earth; Jonah...dead or unconscious three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Jesus, raised after three days...Jonah, spewed out upon the dry land, after three days.
To recap our query:
- Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, not a whale.
- That fish was a veggie having different digestive enzymes than those meat eating whales and thus, as a protein based life form, Jonah would not have been digested.
Jonah survived for three days and nights because he was unconscious or dead. All of which brings us to the broader question,“Should the Bible be interpreted literally?”
Today’s evidence is overwhelming. I’m going to have to revisit my theological position regarding to biblical interpretation. Yes, we should read the bible literally. We just proved that what happened to Jonah is scientifically possible based on scriptural evidence. Wasn’t that an exciting exercise?
Pastor Caroline (gets up more chair, walks toward PB saying) “Pastor Brad, are you serious, seriously! I can poke holes in your so-called proof that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish who just happens to be vegetarian, and survived three days and nights in the belly of the beast with one question.
Pastor Brad (competitively to PC) “Bring it on!”
Pastor Caroline “If Jonah was in the belly of some great non-whale like fish, how was he able to pray? You just said Jonah was either unconscious or dead.
Pastor Brad (sullen) Thanks a lot! You had to bring THAT up!
Okay, Pastor Caroline busted the interpretation I just shared. Maybe it happened like that? Maybe it didn’t happen like that? Either way, isn’t there a message in the story of Jonah that matters more than the details of whale vs. Fish, meat eater vs. Veggie, and dead or unconscious in the belly vs. Praying from the belly?
As we said last week, ELCA Lutherans do not believe that the written word is inerrant or that it should be interpreted literally; however, we would say that every word matters. In other words, while Jonah may or may not have been literally swallowed by a fish, this story still “reveals God’s person and presence.”
As our new Lutheran Study Bible says,“The message of the book of Jonah is not about what kind of fish swallowed Jonah, nor about how he was able to survive inside the fish for three days. Nor is the message to be found in knowing just how big Nineveh was at the time, or what kind of plant grew up overnight to shade Jonah from the sun. Instead, we must look for the message of Jonah in the gracious action of God in the history of God’s people, and in relationship to God’s creation.”
That’s what we’re looking for in the story of Jonah; the gracious action of God in the history of God’s people...we’re looking for ways that the story of Jonah “reveals God’s person and presence.
Here are a couple of possibilities that may reveal the gracious action of God:
- God is full of surprises. “God often has different things in store for us than what we had planned or imagined for ourselves (Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1497).” God wanted Jonah to travel to Nineveh to tell the people to shape up or else. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. The Assyrian kings and his armies had waged war against the people Israel, and won. The Assyrians were like the arch-enemies of God’s chosen. God called Jonah to be God’s prophet. Jonah turns and runs...God, I’ll take a pass on the whole prophet thing. Surprise! You can run, but you can’t hide, Jonah. Surprise...you will be my prophet. No matter the condition or situation one is found to be in, God finds a way to change one’s situation, so that one can do all that God intends.
- God cares for all people. God had enough of the Assyrians...God’s ready to bring the hammer, they deserved judgement. Surprise! God didn’t. This gracious action of
- God is that “God stands ready to extend mercy to all the people of the world, no matter how much they deserve judgment” (Fretheim, p.67)
- For me, the most significant gracious action of God is that God changed God’s mind. Jonah proclaims God’s message in Nineveh;“40 days and you are all toast. 40 days more and its over.” The people of Nineveh, by the King’s decree have a dramatic change of heart; fasting and sackcloth rule...evil and violent ways are history. Maybe just maybe God will relent and not pass judgement! Surprise...God changed God’s mind; God did relent and spared the 120K people of Nineveh. For many Christians, and incorrectly in my opinion, God is believed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging; God’s will is set and cannot be altered nor changed. Such a God scars me.
- I need to believe in a God who is willing to change: verse 10 of the 3rd chapter of today’s story gives me hope and assurance:
- “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)
This gracious action of God in the story of Jonah reminds us that God’s loving kindness and mercy toward all of God’s creation is stronger than God’s determination to hold God’s people accountable. God is not deaf to the cries of God’s people. God is powerful enough to give over a bit power to be fully gracious and merciful. All this is what I take away from the story of Jonah.
What about you? What gracious action of God is revealed to you in the story of Jonah Take some time this week to read the book of Jonah. See if God’s person and presence is revealed to you in new and powerful ways.
Let us pray.