How Can I Believe That Jonah Was Swallowed By A Fish?

jonahslider

The book of Jonah tells the famous story of a big fish (not whale) swallowing Jonah for three
days until the prophet emerged unscathed. To someone like me with more of skeptical point-of-view,
this episode is hard to swallow.

Jonah had fled from the land of Israel after God set for him an unpleasant task, encouraging the
Jews’ enemy to repent. But you can’t hide from God. As Jonah’s boat was sailing, a storm
threatened to drown all the sailors who opted to save themselves by throwing Jonah
overboard. Jonah was swallowed by a fish and remained alive inside it for three days. Jonah
prayed to God, agreeing to fulfill his appointed task. The fish vomited Jonah onto dry land,
enabling the prophet to continue on his path.

I’ve never been swallowed by an animal, but I’m pretty sure no human can survive the ordeal.
Jonah should have been crushed, chewed, suffocated and starved, even if the fish somehow
had food pipes large enough to allow an intact human body to flow through. This story seems
quite unrealistic. The obvious response is that this is a miracle, but that seems a bit too easy.

Any implausible story, including magic tricks and mind reading cons, can be called a miracle.
Does Judaism expect us to be gullible?

Rambam (Maimonides) reinterprets many miraculous stories of the Bible. For example, he
believes that any time a person interacts with an angel, whether speaking, arguing or wrestling,
the story represents a vision, not a physical interaction (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42). In a letter on the
concept of a general resurrection, Rambam writes that he considers something a miracle only
when it is explicitly identified as such and cannot be reinterpreted (Letters, ed. Kafach, p. 88).
Rambam believes that we should not immediately take every miracle story at face value.
Rather, we have to dig deeper and understand what really happened.

However, Rambam also believes that Judaism requires acceptance of the possibility of miracles.
His primary objection to the idea of an eternal universe, which at the time was the scientific
consensus, is that it precludes the possibility of miracles (Moreh Nevukhim 2:25). If God did not
create the universe, if He did not author the laws of nature, then He cannot intervene in nature
through miracles. A lack of belief in miracles constitutes a diminution of God’s ability. His will is
not absolute if He is handcuffed by the rules of nature. Belief in God’s absolute ability includes
the possibility of performing miracles. However, while miracles must be possible, they need not
be frequent.

There are two types of belief in miracles — a Naturalist approach and an Interventionist view.
Rambam seems to have moved from one to the other. In his earliest work, Rambam writes very
clearly that all miracles were programmed into nature during Creation. The Sages of the
Mishnah (Avos 5:6) list ten miraculous items that were created during the last moments of the
six days of Creation. Rambam explains that this non-exhaustive list implies that, during the
process of Creation, God built certain exceptions into the laws of nature. Any miracle that
would ever occur was decided at that moment, by God, who is above time and history. In this
way, miracles are a part of nature.

A midrash lists a few exceptions that were programmed into nature (Bereishis Rabbah 5:5).
Among them are the sea splitting (Ex. 14), the sun stopping in its place (Josh. 6), ravens feeding
Elijah (1 Kings 17), three Jewish leaders surviving being thrown into a furnace (Dan. 3), Daniel
surviving the lion’s den (Dan. 6) and Jonah surviving being swallowed by the fish (Jonah 2). This
midrash accepts the Naturalist view. Any miracle that occurs in history must have been
embedded along with the laws of nature during Creation.

Later in life, Rambam seems to have changed his mind. In some sense, this Naturalist view
limits God’s ability. An omnipotent God can intervene and change anything, even if not pre-
programmed in Nature. Rambam writes that God actively changes nature by rewarding the
fulfillment of commandments and punishing their violation (Moreh Nevukhim 3:32). This
implies an Interventionist view, in which God temporarily modifies the laws of nature to allow
for exceptions. Rambam even calls the idea that miracles are pre-programmed into Creation
“very strange” (Moreh Nevukhim 2:29). Miracles are a temporary change of nature, a divine
intervention.

I have not seen in traditional Bible commentaries, whether written by Naturalists or
Interventionists, any attempt to reinterpret the story of Jonah and the fish. They seem to
accept it as one of the few miracles in history. The book of Jonah (2:1) says, “And the Lord
prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” A midrash highlights the word “prepared,”
suggesting that this miracle was already in existence since the time of Creation (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, 10).
While this midrash implies a Naturalist view of the miracle, an Interventionist would read this
literally: God prepared the miraculous fish immediately through intervention in nature, and not
centuries earlier.

Even someone who believes in miracles need not believe in frequent miracles. We can be
suspicious of dubious claims without rejecting the concept of miracles. However, if we are
skeptical of everything, we imply that God is incapable of intervening in the world He created.
Effectively, we are saying that God is bound by the rules of nature. God is bigger than any fish
that swallowed Jonah.

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Gil Student About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com He has published two books and writes frequently in magazines on Jewish topics.

Comments

  1. bill price says:

    wow! whenever i find overwhelming wisdom, it comes from jews. at 69 years old, it is too late for me to become a “real” jew, but i will always be a friend to jews and israel. i can barely remember 5 or 6 hebrew words–and a dozen or so yiddish. this old dog could never learn enough to be a jew, but i know enough to believe in and love judiasm. and jew in the city! so wonderfully enlightening! may you, your family, all the jews and israel be blessed!

  2. I found your post interesting, but perplexing. As believing Jews, why should skepticism be our initial response to miraculous events recorded in the Torah? Given that the major commentaries, as you note, do not reinterpret the story, there doesn’t seem to be any place for skepticism. Why does it “seem a bit too easy” to interpret the story literally? And no, the Torah doesn’t expect us to be gullible. But, again, as believing Jews who encounter a text that speaks of a miracle, and without the commentaries explaining otherwise, to NOT consider it a miracle would be problematic.

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