Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Homily on Jonah: fact or fiction?

I attended Mass today during my lunch break. The First Reading today was from Jonah. Just as the Gospel was concluded, I was hoping to myself that the priest would not dismiss the book of Jonah as a fable.

He did. The first words out of his mouth were something like: "I hope I don't disappoint any of you, but the book of Jonah isn't true; it's simply impossible."

He said he had "done the math" a year or so ago and figured out that for a whale to have swum from near Spain (which is where Tarshish is believed to be) to near Nineveh (in modern day Iraq), the whale would need to swim at speeds over 200 MPH for three straight days. (Besides, he said, how would Jonah survive? How wouldn't he be digested?) His math argument is based on the assumptions that the boat Jonah was on was traveling around the bottom of Africa and that the boat was most of the way there.

I'd like to examine this argument and its assumptions.

The shortest journey from the southwestern part of Spain, around Africa, and up through the Red Sea to the southern tip of Israel is approximately 12,000 miles. (The journey is about the same if we end in the Persian Gulf, for easier access to Nineveh, which was on the Tigris.) That distance can be traveled in 72 hours at a constant speed of about 170 MPH. Still pretty ambitious for a sea-monster, although if it were expending all its energy to make the journey, perhaps it could not spare any time for digestion! (That's a joke.)

But the Scriptures do not say how far along in the journey the boat was nor that the whale brought Jonah to Nineveh.
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. ... Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. ... And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:3-4, 13; 2:10)
We do not know where in the voyage Jonah was thrown overboard nor where the whale finally deposited him, although they tried to "bring the ship back to land", which implies they were reasonably close to Joppa (where they could go back to).

But we do know where Joppa was. Joppa was not a city on the Red Sea, but on the Mediterranean Sea! The first image (on the left) shows the relative geography. Jonah went from Geth-hepher to Joppa, a port city, to flee to Tarshish. Joppa is to the south of Geth-hepher, and Tarshish is to the west. Nineveh is to the north and east of Israel. The trip to Tarshish was over water; the journey to Nineveh would be over land. Jonah stowed away with a crowd; Jonah was called to go to Nineveh alone. Jonah's acts were a sign of direct contradiction to the will of God.

If Tarshish, then, was in southwestern Spain, there would be no need to travel around Africa, but rather between Africa and Europe; the journey from Joppa (near modern Tel Aviv) would have been around 2600 miles. That journey could be made in 72 hours going less than 40 MPH. Again, this assumes the crisis on the boat occurred near Tarshish and that the whale brought Jonah back to Joppa.

Let's assume that the whale did deposit Jonah on the coast of Israel, whether at Joppa or further north near Gath-hepher (about 60 miles north-northeast of Joppa, near Nazareth) where Jonah was originally from. Then, perhaps — if the Scripture can be believed — Jonah was cast into the sea shortly into the journey, somewhere still to the east of Greece. That's the scenario imagined in the second image (on the right).

So what's the point of all this?

Why cast unneeded doubt on Sacred Scripture? What is more believable, that a man could survive in the belly of a whale for three days... or that a virgin could conceive and bear a child by the Holy Spirit, a child who is fully man and fully God, a child who would heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, multiply bread and fish, and eventually die on a cross and be raised to new life on the third day, walk through closed doors, disappear from sight, and ascend into heaven and take his place at the right hand of God the Father Almighty?

I can believe both.

8 comments:

Weekend Fisher said...

If there's one thing more irksome than a man 'bravely' taking potshots at a conventional target, it's a man 'bravely' taking potshots at a conventional target without even bothering to do a basic fact-check.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Gretchen said...

The exact same thing happened to me! The priest actually made a joke that one of the truths from the Bible came from a book of fiction!

Scelata said...

What is more believable, that a man could survive in the belly of a whale for three days... or that a virgin could conceive and bear a child by the Holy Spirit, a child who is fully man and fully God, a child who would heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, multiply bread and fish, and eventually die on a cross and be raised to new life on the third day, walk through closed doors, disappear from sight, and ascend into heaven and take his place at the right hand of God the Father Almighty?

Well, there's you answer -- we Catholics have no guarantee that your preacher DOES believe "a virgin could conceive and bear a child by the Holy Spirit, a child who is fully man and fully God, etc."

Far too many hired men masquerading as shepherd.

I wonder if it was better in the day, before, as I understand it, the Church began to value the homily so highly.

Maybe those with doubts or unbelief or irresistible desire to question kept their mouths shut while on "official business."

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

Scelata - "I wonder if it was better in the day, before, as I understand it, the Church began to value the homily so highly."

Well, I seem to recall a lot of excellent homilies from certain Church Fathers. Was the homily/sermon "part of the liturgy" then?

Moonshadow said...

So what's the point of all this? ... Why cast unneeded doubt on Sacred Scripture?

I hadn't heard this particular criticism before.

Rather, how could Nineveh be so large that it takes three days to walk through?

And if Jonah were your typical OT prophet, wouldn't more of his message been preserved? And how ironic the efficacy of his preaching, these goyim convert with a simple warning! (That is, at least for 100 years or so until they are destroyed by the Babylonians for their wickedness ... you see, I just got done studying Nahum at Princeton Alliance).

It doesn't add up ... forcing it only distorts it. Still, it's scandalous for a priest to waste his homily time seeking to make converts of this comparatively paltry sort, to view scripture as he does ...

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

moonshadow - it is true that the book of Jonah is unlike the other books of prophets. But the content of Jonah's message was not the point that the book was designed to make: the circumstances and the personal reaction are the point of the book.

And there's absolutely nothing unbelievable about a city so big it takes three days to go through it. I never imagined that to mean that to walk from one end to the other would take three days. I have always understood that to mean it would have taken Jonah three days to go all throughout the city preaching: down each street, back and forth, weaving throughout the city.

Moonshadow said...

Look, I'm not for scandalizing people ... and I hope this experience doesn't keep you from a noon-time liturgy ... because that's a very important activity.

Peace.

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

I just go to a different place (Princeton University) for my noon-time Mass. The other place has liturgical aberrations (by the priest in question and others) that I'd rather not have as distractions.

The noon Mass at Princeton is preceded by the Angelus, involves liturgically appropriate music, sometimes includes chant, has a decent homily, etc. I feel much more comfortable (liturgically) going to Mass there.