|Minor Prophets: Major Messages
The Book of Jonah
1. A slow unhurried reading of Jonah is essential. Reading the chapter before looking at the notes, while working with the notes, and after finishing with the notes will give each researcher a powerful sense of the series of meanings within each chapter. It is important to be comfortable with all the names and places in the prophecy and to understand the announcements the prophet makes on behalf of the Lord. When possible, historical information will be included in the notes to increase reading comprehension and enhance application.
2. Our study of each chapter of Jonah will begin with quotes from a work of the Writings called Summary Exposition of the Prophets and Psalms. This work includes a verse-by-verse overview of all four chapters of Jonah that provide general information about the internal sense. Our research will help move us from the generals to the particulars of the internal sense.
3. Another important reference tool is Searle’s General Index to Swedenborg’s Scripture Quotations. This reference is used to find passages in the Writings where a verse(s) from the Word is either explained specifically or used to illustrate a doctrinal point that we can use in our study. There is also another use of this work. As we study, each researcher will be led by the Lord’s Providence in myriad ways, according to specific needs or states. Knowing how to use this book will help each of us to explore relevant topics and look up related passages to increase our knowledge of the three-fold Word.
4. You will soon discover that not every verse, word, name, etc. is directly quoted in the Writings. But there are often other references to the same name, place, or thing in the explanation of a different verse of the Word. The hope is that reflection on these other doctrinal explanations will help us see possible applications to our study of Jonah. We will need to use "derived doctrine" often. Please don’t run away from this maligned term. If we use it properly and admit openly that it is derived doctrine, we bring no harm to the internal sense.
5. Keep some kind of notebook handy during your study times. Write out insights, questions, and any summaries you find helpful in organizing your thoughts about each chapter. The goal of this study guide is not to give a detailed summary of the internal sense but to start each researcher’s quest for deeper insight.
6. At the end of each chapter in the study guide, you will find a study review. The review includes a summary of each section to help you reinforce and build on your understanding of several of the key points.
7. Begin each study unit with a devotional prayer asking the Lord to guide and direct your thoughts. Certainly beginning in this sphere has the power to inspire and open our minds with a higher spiritual priority that will keep us in the company of the Lord’s angels. As the Writings teach, we must seek to love truth for truth’s sake. Such an approach will free each reader from preconceived ideas that might limit his or her ability to "see" the intent and message of the Lord’s Word.
Say the name Jonah and what other word quickly comes to mind?
The number one answer would most likely be whale. Sunday school materials, children’s movies, and cartoons show a whale rescuing the drowning Jonah. But in the adult world outside the New Church, many articles stoutly urge us to eliminate the word "whale" and substitute the words "sea creature," "special fish," or "special leviathan monster." To the authors of these articles, holding onto the word "whale" is not only laughable but reduces the Word to absurdity and makes its message vulnerable to other scientific difficulties. For instance, critics ask, how could Jonah have survived three days and three nights in the belly of a whale? Would he not have been severely "bleached" by the digestive juices of the whale, fish, or sea monster? Wouldn’t his air supply have been severely threatened if not eliminated in the belly of the whale? With the great feeding cycle of whales and the repeated intake of water, how could Jonah have had time to compose a reflective and repentant prayer to the Lord?
If we were to research denominational beliefs regarding Jonah being swallowed by a whale, we would soon discover that this was, and is, a hot doctrinal issue. For the fundamentalist, it is one of the litmus tests used to expose dangerously liberal biblical scholarship. One denomination (the Lutheran Missouri Synod) suffered a painful schism within its membership over the whale question. Those holding the fundamental view insisted it was a whale. The Word says it happened, and Jesus referenced Jonah in the belly of the whale, so there should be no question about its accuracy. Proponents of the liberal view could not tolerate or support that doctrinal insistence. The result was a split in their organization.
George Adam Smith, considered a liberal Biblical scholar, offers this cautionary argument: "We sin against the spirit of the book [Jonah] in trying to take it as real history." Another writer, R.H. Pfeiffer, states, "It is fiction—a short story with a moral—like the book of Ruth…or the stories about Daniel…[Jonah] is a perfectly good short story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end…[the author of Jonah] composed a charming story intended to teach a lesson…that Jehovah’s loving-kindness and compassion are not restricted to the Jews but [are offered] to the heathen as well." (Introduction to the Old Testament, pages 587-588.)
J.M.P. Smith is quoted in the Encyclopedia of Religion as saying: "…Jonah is religious fiction, with the key happenings historically impossible…This book is allegory…[Jonah’s] three days [in the belly of the whale] symbolize the three [Jewish] exiles…This satire on prevalent beliefs is one of the greatest, yet one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible."
Raymond Calkins in his book, The Modern Message of the Minor Prophets, writes: "[Jonah]…is not literal history—it is not a short story but an allegory, similar to the Parables of Jesus." Calkins, on page 168 of his book, illustrates this with his list of allegorical meanings:
Do we have any helpful doctrinal teachings in the New Church that might clear up the controversial "whale" question? As we might expect, the first three passages cited below highlight the need to pay attention to the spiritual sense (internal sense) of the word "whale."
But then we find a startling, thought-provoking passage in the work called Spiritual Experiences (SE) that brings us full circle to the literal sense of the "whale" swallowing Jonah. Consider the impact of this quote:
For effect, let me highlight that passage once again so we get the crux of what is said in SE 1391:
"Jonah WAS swallowed by a whale, which ACTUALLY happened in the world; AS ALSO DID THE MIRACLES OF EGYPT, and many other [necessary effects] called miracles."
What is this passage calling us to look at before making up our minds about the reality of a whale swallowing Jonah? As you look over the list of miracles below, ask yourself this question: Why do we find it easy to believe some miracles in the Word and yet doubtfully question others? Do we get to pick and choose what the Lord can and cannot do? Divine miracles don’t seem to follow fixed order so they are called into question. But we must allow that what is order to the Lord goes infinitely beyond our finite comprehension of order. He knows things we will never know. So let’s look at some of the miracles the children of Israel benefited from while in Egypt and on the way to the Promised Land:
How many more miracles might we cite from Genesis to Revelation? Can we verify the Lord walking on water or turning water into wine? How did He take five loaves and two fish and multiply them so that 5,000 were fed with twelve full baskets left over? Can we validate something as simple as the cruse of oil that never ran out or as amazing as the fantastic healing of the blind, sick, palsied, deaf, and dumb, and the raising of the dead? Do we risk trivializing or making the Word laughable if we believe that any, or all, of these things ACTUALLY happened? Do we fear the ridicule of science because miracles seem beyond the reach of logical scientific explanation? If the Lord could furnish manna and quail for forty years; if the Lord could keep clothing from wearing out for forty years, could He not cause a whale, or a special fish, to swallow Jonah? Are any of these miracles beyond His power?
Finding a "whale" answer in Spiritual Experiences will cause some New Church people to doubt its appropriateness as a doctrine. But before dismissing it, let its powerful perspective work for a few minutes in your mind. It seems to put the "Jonah was swallowed by a whale" question into a positive framework for us to find an answer. What do you think? Does SE 1391 resolve the whale issue for you?
Maybe using the words "special fish" or "great fish" would be a better translation of the original Hebrew word than "whale." But to dismiss the possibility of Jonah being miraculously swallowed by a special fish seems to be an error that leads to falsity. To deny God’s power to actually perform this miracle makes Him small and limits His Infinite Power and Knowledge. Matthew 19:26 states well what needs to be our attitude toward miracles: "…with God all things are possible."
As we leave the question of Jonah and the whale, please note how AC 1188  states that the book of Jonah deals with both actual history and correspondential (allegorical) meanings. Let’s say it again: The Book of Jonah is both historical and prophetical. The Book of Jonah is not the creative story of a human author. It is a Divine lesson plan of the Lord’s that holds infinite truths to be studied forever. These truths will never be exhausted. Angels will thrill with the story of the whale, special fish, or great fish, forever. To them, the book of Jonah will not be laughable or absurd. Nor will they worry about scientific difficulties or objections. They don’t see or read the natural names and places. Instead, they see the spiritual meaning with its important illustrations and applications to their lives and uses. They see the Word of the Lord as a resplendent array of colors and beauty. The truths of the Word are like shining stars in the heavens.
What do we know about a man named Jonah? In II Kings 14:25, we read: "He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher."
Should we agree with scholars that the book of Jonah had to be written by an unknown author? Are we to agree that if words or phrases cited in the book of Jonah sound as if they were borrowed from Jeremiah or Isaiah that this conclusively proves Jonah had to be written during postexilic times?
Truth is not the creation of human prudence. All truth originates in the Lord. We have no "original" thoughts. The prophets were inspired to deliver the words of the Lord, not their own words. Why do we have to assume Jonah was influenced by Jeremiah or Isaiah? Couldn’t the Lord have given Jonah a similar view of His truth? It seems foolish to limit teachings to people, dates, and world events. Nor does it seem prudent to ascribe ownership of any of the Lord’s truths to a specific prophet. Things written in the Psalms by David were repeated verbatim by the Lord. Do we bother ourselves by who "said it first"?
As for saying Jonah could not have been alive during Jeremiah and Isaiah’s times, are we on solid ground with this assumption? Have we forgotten the longevity of Methuselah, Abraham, Moses, and other Biblical patriarchs? Scholarship is a wonderful tool, but scholarly researchers must remain humble and open to what the Lord can and will do with His servants. If the Divine chose to extend the longevity of Jonah, it would have been done regardless of research findings. Let’s close this whole question of "whale," "laughable," "embarrassing conclusion," and all other doubts of the historical and prophetic debate with this quote from the Arcana:
"What a man believes from authority belongs to others in himself, and is not his own; and what is merely believed from this source by virtue of confirmation appears after confirmation as truth, even although it is false; as can be very plainly seen from the faith of every religion, and from the variety of this in the whole world." (AC 10124 )
The point of this quote seems to be that we should keep an open mind to the spiritual sense, in this case while reading the Book of Jonah. Paul, in II Corinthians 3:6, reminded his readers that the written letter of the Word kills but the spirit gives life. This is the message of the New Church, too. Don’t get pulled into the debates of liberal versus conservative theology. Instead, we need to remain deeply committed to the Lord’s guiding influx. We need to supplicate and rely on the Lord’s help to find and see the spiritual sense. This is what the Lord intends for angels and humanity: To be in His truth, to be lead by His truth, and to strive to work for His truth.
With this dedication in mind, let’s turn now to the historical and prophetical sense of the Book of Jonah and read with a degree of inspired awe and excitement. Like the angels, we need to look beyond the limitations of the literal sense so we can walk among the vast applications of the Lord’s spiritual sense. After all, the Word is a story about the life of the Lord and it is a story about our regeneration. Every letter, comma, period, and every jot and tittle holds this invitation: "O taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Psalm 34:8)