1. A Red Herring

 A Journey with Jonah – 1
“The Fish is a Red Herring”

 From childhood I have been interested in Old Testament Book of Jonah.  It was frequent fare in Sunday School and children’s Bible Story books.  Years later, as an Old Testament Prof, I became interested in it for different reasons.  Of all the Old Testament books this may be the most Christian.    When I was writing the book “The Prodigal, the Profligate and the Puritan” It was interesting to note that this story has some very similar characters and events.

  • The Father of the Parable is just like the God in the book of Jonah
  • The Younger son is just like the Gentiles in this story
  • The Older son is just like Jonah
  • Both stories have runaways
  • Both stories have a far country
  • both stories are about human redemption

To get a good feel for this book you might want to read the story of the lost son again in Luke 15.

I have attached the text of the Book of Jonah. You might want to read it through without pausing.  There is reason for this.  Great stories, like great poems, need to be read over and over until we lodge the lines deeply within the imagination. Of course, there is another reason.  It might have been a long time since you read this book.  After all the minor prophets are not among the favourite reading material of a lot of us.  So I’d like you to read the story again, for the first time.

If the story known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the best short story ever told, the story of Jonah may qualify as the best short story told in the Old Testament.  It is a story created by a master craftsman.   Where all the other prophets of the Old Testament are preachers, the prophet who writes this book is a story teller.   Most of the other prophets come across as very serious people.  The one who writes this account may be serious, but he uses humour to drive his message home. Some have called this book a Theological Cartoon, in a way similar to our political cartoons.  Humour is the pin that is used to puncture our over inflated balloons.  The author wants us to laugh at Jonah so we can laugh at ourselves and then offer ourselves to God for his remedial work.

The Fight over the fish

Some years ago the book of Jonah got caught up in the middle of a terrible storm – a storm of controversy.  Some would have called it the storm of the century. The furor was over a fish.  For when the issue of the fish surfaced, it resulted in a flood of angry words.  Torrents of articles and books poured forth defending or attacking the fish.

The fight was between two opposing sides.  On the one side were the “Liberals” and on the other side were the “Conservatives” (sometimes called “The Modernists” and “The Fundamentalists”).  These two sides had scrapped with each other before on other issues, but the book of Jonah served as a lightening rod for those who wanted to take the fight to the next level.

Those of more liberal mind had trouble with the book of Jonah.  They insisted that the book was not historical.   It was fiction.   It was a parable.  It was an allegory.   They particularly focused on the fish.  “Fish do not swallow people” they said, “People swallow fish.”   They argued that if by chance a whale did swallow someone they would either drown in the water that filled and surrounded it, or the person would be suffocated by the body tissue of the whale.

Some of these well meaning people tried to find a way out of the dilemma.  They offered other possibilities.  Some noted that the Hebrew word for “fish” and the word for a “barge” are very similar.   So Jonah was picked up by a passing barge and returned to the Palestinian shore.   Others suggested that a ship called “The Great Fish” was in the area and Jonah was picked up and placed in the belly of the boat until he got to land and then his rescuers threw up this irritating man on the shore. (An early version of Captain Nemo in 40,000 Leagues under the Sea?)

Those of more conservative mind would not take those ideas lying down so they marshaled their arguments, particularly in defence of our fine fish.  They said first of all it is a fish not a whale.  They knew that the structure of a whale made swallowing a person impossible.  That’s why they always insisted that the Bible did not call it a whale, just a fish.

Some then told and retold a story that had been told during the 19th century. It was the story of a sailor called  James Bartley who claimed to have fallen over board from the ship “Star of the East” and had survived a day and a night inside a sperm whale that had swallowed him.  The problem was no one else could confirm his story.  But the story was used whenever Jonah was discussed, for if it could happen to a sailor, it could have happened to a prophet.

Some were wiser and did not fight over whether it was a fish or a whale, but simply said, God can do what he jolly well pleases, thank you, and so God must have created a special fish for this purpose.

But the arguments raged on, and still continues in some circles to this day.  So I feel impelled to say a few words about our fish.  We have more important fish to fry and more crucial matters to resolve before this brief book is finished, so with your permission, let us dispense with the fish  as fast as we can.

A Red Herring

I think I have made a discovery about this fish that may help us all.  I have discovered that the fish was not a whale, not a shark, nor a great tuna or a sockeye salmon.  The fish was a herring.  A red herring.

What is a red herring?  Well it is a herring that has been dried, smoked and cured and in the process has turned red.   But because of its rather pungent fragrance it is overpowering as a scent.  If a red herring was dragged over the path of a weaker scent, it would divert attention away from the fox being chased by the hounds and the hunters.  Following a red herring means to be involved in a wild goose chase. It means to be put off the scent of something important, and to become preoccupied with something incidental.

Why do I say that the fish was a red herring?   The book of Jonah gives three verses out of 48 verses to the fish, and then never refers to it again.  It is obviously not the purpose of this author to have us spend a lot of time puzzling over the fish.  If we give it too much prominence, it will have gotten us off the track of something far more crucial.  For the tragedy about this book for the past century is that if you were to ask children what this book is about, they would tell you, it is about a fish that swallowed a man.  (Did you hear about  the Sunday school teacher who asked her primary aged children the name of the man who was swallowed by a fish?  The answer came back, “Pinocchio”.)

If you were to ask the fighters in the controversy what this book is all about, very quickly they would answer with a defence or an attack upon our friendly fish.  It has been a tragedy that this book’s value has been impaired by the fish stealing center stage.  How would you like to be an actor upstaged by a fish?   The book is a book about redemption, and we have turned it into a book about Ichthyology.

May I suggest to us that we forget about the fish.  Let us not ask the question about this book, is it history or is it fiction?  It is the wrong question.  If we get caught up on that question we shall follow a red herring to our impoverishment.

I do not know the answer to the question.  In my mind this is what I think has happened. The one who writes this story is a prophet, but one who lived several centuries after Jonah lived.  Jonah lived about 750 B.C. (See II Kings 14:25) and served in the court of King Jeroboam the 2nd.  But our author lived around 400 B.C.   We do not know the author’s name.  He is anonymous like many other Biblical writers.   He writes about Jonah in the 3rd person   It is why some of us are pretty sure Jonah didn’t squeal on himself.

Our author, however, has heard the story of ancient Jonah who was a prophet of God who ran away from God’s call.  That story was passed along in the oral traditions of Israel and included Jonah’s deliverance by way of a great fish.  Our author wants to rewrite that story so that it helps the people of his own day.  So this wonderful story is something old and something new, and something borrowed. The one who re-tells us Jonah’s story, however, has no intention of telling us a fish story. He is telling a story about God and His people, about God’s people and God’s lost world.


So, beware of the red herrings of life!  We can miss the message of God, if we get preoccupied with incidentals.  Do you recall the nursery rhyme of your childhood,
Pussy cat, pussy cat, Where have you been, “I’ve been to London to see the Queen.”
Pussy cat, pussy cat what did you there? “I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”

The cat went to court, to London, into the presence of royalty, but its primary memory is seeing and frightening a little mouse.   It as though someone crossed the world to see Niagara Falls, but whose attention was captivated by the great pancakes in the local Waffle House, and upon returning that was their most indelible memory.  It is easy to be preoccupied with “much ado about nothing.”  We can make mountains out of molehills.  We can let the little issues of life upstage the important things.

Jesus knew the danger of red herrings. He said to the leaders of Judaism, “You tithe of mint, dill and cummin, (little herbs used in seasoning,) but you have neglected the weightier matters of the law such as justice, mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the other. Instead you strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Now I cannot, nor should I, give you advice on every issue and tell you how important it should be on your agenda. But this I can say, “beware of the red herrings” that will distract you from life’s more important matters.

1 Response to 1. A Red Herring

  1. Stephen Merriman says:

    David, blessings! I re read this and it is brilliant. I too grew into the faith with the issue in Jonah always being about the fish and the important part of this message being missed. Thank you David. You’re back up to Canada soon. Stephen

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