Jonah is four short chapters. I’ve done a lot with Jonah in the past, addressing the short book several times, from several angles, including the history question. In brief, if you’re focused on the “whale” instead of the last four verses of chapter 4, you’re entirely missing the point.
- A podcast all about Jonah with a transcript. I ad-libbed a bit, so read and listen if you have time. Check out the page, too, with my notes, and some good links. I mention McKenzie’s How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature–Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today. While I have some disagreements with the rest of his book, his intro section on Jonah and genre is pretty good.
- The Scriptures, An Anthology: or, Why Jonah and the Book of Mormon (and historicity) Have Nothing To Do With Each Other
- addressing the “slippery slope” argument with common sense and a library.
- Jonah: The Insufficiency of the New Testament Argument
- Why Jesus mentioning Jonah doesn’t make Jonah historical, contra to some who seem eager to accuse. (See recent story here.)
- An Institute handout I made.
- Why “literal vs. figurative” is a false dichotomy.
- And of course, my podcast on genre and part 4 (“Literary Context”) of my Sperry Symposium paper.
When I taught the 8-yr old class in Primary, it happened to be all boys. During the Exodus lesson, we become seriously bogged down in a lively debate over whether the destroying angel of the Exodus…wore a cape or not. It took nearly 10 minutes to rein in that discussion, which as adults know is completely irrelevant. So it is with the whale and questions of historicity; it’s almost totally irrelevant. (Julie Smith makes a good comment hereabout how to head this off in class.) Jonah strikes me as very much as a satirical parable, and I explain this in the podcast. But what is ultimately important is the last few verses of the last chapter. Not whether the whale wore a cape, so to speak.
One of our difficulties reading ancient scripture is that our assumptions lead us to read it as if it were written today, as modern journalistic history. I’m skimming a short book by John Widtsoe, in which he wisely says,
LITERARY FORM.As in all good books every literary device is used in the Bible that will drive the lesson home.It contains, history, poetry and allegory. These are not always distinguishable, now that the centuries have passed away since the original writing. The ideas in the Bible, the fundamental, constant ones, are true; the vehicle is human and often confusing. Much needless discussion has come about because critics would not separate the message from its form of presentation. Latter-day Saints strive to read the Bible intelligently. Brigham Young asked the pertinent question: “Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them, a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?” That is the only way by which the variety of the Biblical style and form may be understood; but the essential moral doctrines presented are clear without such scholarship, to every reader….EventsThe events recorded in the Bible must be read in the same intelligent manner. Every recorded event should be read and interpreted in the light of the times when it occurred. In every age man accepts inspiration according to his understanding…..there is no reason why the so-called miracles in the Bible should not be weighed by human intelligence. Is the recorded miracle a real event, or a literary device of teaching, as an allegory or a parable? In some cases that may not be susceptible of determination.
Nine different guys in the Old Testament are named Micah, the shortened form (nickname?) of Micaiah (“Who is like Yahweh?”) and Michael (“Who is like ‘El?”) As chapter 1 verse 1 shows, Micah is set in the time of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and thus contemporary with Isaiah (8th century BC). Micah is the first of “The Twelve” or “The Minor Prophets” that we’ll be reading.
The Book of the Twelve functions as a collection of twelve individual prophetic works and as a single prophetic book. According to the [traditional Hebrew text], the twelve prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. –Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, “Twelve, Book of the”
As we get into Micah, we encounter for the first time in our Old Testament study (and definitely not the last) the problem of interpreting scripture in the future tense. To make this perfectly clear, I’m going to use what I consider an over-the-top example.
Some Protestants get obsessed with what they call “End Times Prophecy” or figuring out the specific historical events, dates, and groups connected with Jesus’ return, The End of Days, The Rapture™, and other such quasi-technical terms that get capitalized because They Are Important. Many groups have predicted specific dates for this. Wikipedia has a list of groups and individuals who did so, though it includes non-Judeo-Christian predictions as well. There’s another list just for Christian predictions. Most recently, you might recall hearing about Harold Camping, a non-denominational Protestant with a long-running radio show who predicted the end for May 21, 2011. Shortly after May 21, he pushed back to Oct 21, 2011, which even those of us without watches might note has come and gone.
As it turns out, Christians (and some Jews) have been predicting the end of the world since probably before Jesus was born (in the case of the Dead Sea Scroll community). Like Camping, however, they are never the ones predicting it. From their perspective, it’s Scripture that says so, not them; they’re just helping us understand what the Bible “clearly” teaches, without interpretation. We’ll return to that in a minute.
Sociologists and historians have noted that in religious communities, expectations of the End tend to increase under persecution. Think of it this way. You’re a religious group, probably a minority, holding out against the World and/or the oppressive Majority. As persecution, real or perceived, increases, these groups tend to focus on scriptural passages talking about oppression and deliverance, but not in a spiritual way; rather, God as the warrior will sweep away the evil of the earth, justify his true believers, and thus usher in the Golden Age.
This is what the Dead Sea Scroll community did, isolated from the larger Judaic community, but then especially when encountering the Romans, who were The Enemy. This is what Christians have done numerous times, including in the New Testament (Paul and the Thessalonians) and many times since. (See A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization ) And this happens to have taken place in LDS circles also.
Joseph Smith was born into a place and time laden with expectations of Jesus’ imminent return, and then physical persecution of LDS increased that expectation. Joseph Smith actually inquired at one point (in the D&C!), but was given an ambiguous answer. Wilford Woodruff kept a journal largely devoted to noting earthquakes, storms, wars, and other signs of the times. Given the government persecution of the saints during his tenure (1889-1898), Woodruff died surprised that he had not seen Jesus return. (You can read his journals, published as Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff.) The more persecution mounted, the more the Saints prayed, hoped, preached, and expected Christ to return triumphantly, destroying the evil US Government in the process.
This general belief is called Millenariansm, and it’s been studied a good bit. Note the very last very short paragraph at the bottom of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “Millenarianism”, written by BYU prof. Grant Underwood. His dissertation was published as The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism.
Now, what does all this have to do with Micah?
All of these groups grounded their expectation and predictions of the (imminent) future in scripture. Scripture, however, is not so clear, which is why so many groups have been so wrong so often. In order to tease out certain things, you often have to use a certain translation, and combine this part of a verse in Isaiah with that snippet from Malachi. But when read in context, it’s very difficult to make the argument that, e.g. “this piece is clearly prophesying of the Restoration” but then it’s immediately thereafter talking about The Millennium. Read in context, it’s hard to see how these passages are doing that at all, but especially with the claimed specificity. Anyone who makes a scriptural claim of the date/time of Christ’s return will be made up of very specific non-contextual interpretations of scripture, while simultaneously denying that any interpreting is going on.
Now, I’m not denying prophecy in the least, but I am suggesting that the only way certain passages mean certain things to us is because we say or think they do, based on tradition, culture, etc. It’s a bit circular.
Scriptural timeframes tend to be blurred, both for grammatical, stylistic (again, see my paper), and other reasons; even prophets “see through a glass, darkly” and our manuals, while “approved” are hardly revealed directly from heaven.
Look at Micah 4:1-3.
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (NRSV)
First, the text is nearly identical to Isaiah 2, Isaiah being Micah’s contemporary. Who borrowed from whom?
Second, and more importantly, look at how the time is blurred, in our interpretation. Vss. 3-4 talk about beating swords into plowshares, typically understood as reflective of a time of peace when Jesus returns. But we also typically interpret vss. 1-2 as referring to the restoration of the gospel and the Salt Lake Temple. But from Micah’s prophet perspective, they are just smushed together, in the same time period.
In other words, having seen how difficult it is to tease out what scripture actually says about the future AND how often and easily many intelligent people over 2000 years have gotten it wrong, I am very reluctant to commit to blithe discussions such as “Micah says in the last days, x will happen because of Y. Who or what is Y?” If, as Paul did, as Christians have done numerous times since then, we assume we’re in the last days and It’s Going to Happen Soon, we’re going to try to shoehorn something in. Clearly, Micah is talking about the Romans. Or the Russians. Of the US Government. Or Islamic fundamentalists. Or gay marriage. Or, maybe in a Gospel Doctrine classroom in 50 years, the Chinese. Whoever the big bad apocalyptic enemy happens to be at the time.
I’m a practical guy. I figure I’ll focus my life on discipleship, instead of trying to pin things down that we simply can’t really do without further detailed and clear revelation. Let’s not force those square pegs into round holes; that way lies naught but confusion and distraction from productive discipleship. For more detailed questions and thoughts on Micah, see Jim Faulconer’s old lesson here. He is a BYU Philosophy professor who’s done some very good work. Most recently, many of his scriptural questions and analyses have been published in volumes like The Old Testament Made Harder. See here for a summary of the series and here for an interview in Religious Educator.