Why is Jonah taught to Christian children without its satirical undertones? Do Christians intentionally teach stories highlighting rather than opposing assimilation?

Well, this is one of my favorite questions, and I don’t know for sure, but I do think that Jonah is palatable for the same reason that Luke is Christians’ favorite gospel–they are both highly sympathetic to non-Jews. Luke goes so far as to tell the story of the prodigal son in which the youngest son, emblematic of the gentile Jesus movement, gets the “fatted calf” while the oldest son–or Jews–looks like a sap for believing in YHWH all along. These stories suggest gentiles were the heirs of God’s chesed, and I’m sure that’s why Christians like them.

For the same reason, many Christians eschew Matthew, perhaps because of its emphasis on Torah law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5.17-19). The author of Matthew believed Jesus was a Jewish messiah, and that he preached to Jews only: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'” (Matt 10.5-7). 

Back to Jonah. As you probably know, some Christians teach that the three days Jonah spent in the whale are emblematic of Jesus’s three day period spent–wherever–between his death and resurrection. I find this connection odd. 12, 7, and 3 are sacred numbers in many traditions, and the “three” is the only connection I see–except the fish. Early Christians used the fish as the sign of their faith because the Greek word for fish was an acronym or acrostic for Jesus:

  • Iota (i), Iēsoûs (Ἰησοῦς), “Jesus”
  • Chi (ch), Khrīstós (Χρῑστός), “anointed”
  • Theta (th), Theoû (Θεοῦ), “of God”, the genitive singular of Θεóς, Theós, “God”
  • Upsilon (y or u), (h)uiós[10] (Yἱός), “Son”
  • Sigma (s), sōtḗr (Σωτήρ), “Savior”

Christians assumed Jonah was one of the prophecies, not a story about the prophet, and they read the the prophecies as prefiguring Jesus. That’s because gospel authors littered the gospels with references to the Septuagint (Greek version of TNK). The gospel authors use these quotes to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.

Or maybe Jonah is taught to children because it is short and palatable, like the 10 commandments. These became popular among Christians, most of whom don’t know about the other 600+ laws, only after the Protestant reformation (more on this in another entry on this blog).

By the same token, we know that Christians dislike some stories that resist assimilation. Martin Luther hated Esther, though he wasn’t the only one, even though it’s very popular with my students and modern feminists. Most Christians do not dwell on the Jewish laws that advocate separateness, but modern conservative Christians love the holiness code in Leviticus because of the male-to-male sex business. So, yes, Christians do pick and choose the laws and the stories they read, but some read the entire TNK as existing only to foreshadow Jesus.

As for why these Christians don’t see Jonah as satirical, I accuse them–most unfairly–of over-earnestness. Jesus himself joked about dietary laws (Mark 7.14 “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.'” This is a poop joke. No one ever points that out.) The bible can be funny. Esther’s 30-day banquets and year-long regimen being marinated in myrrh is a good example. Tobit being blinded by bird poop is another.

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