When we talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan the discussion centers on what we learn from it, and how it applies to our lives. Sometimes the discussion centers on why Jesus chose a Samaritan to be the protagonist in his parable, but the question of historical or factual accuracy never comes up. In talking about the parable we do not ask if there really was a historical Samaritan who stopped to help a man who was left for dead on the side of the road. Neither do we argue that a Samaritan would never actually stop to help a Jew, nor do we question Jesus for having the priest and the Levite walk by without stopping. Those questions in the story do not distract us from the point of the parable which is that we must treat everyone, even people we may not like, as our neighbor.

We do not mistake the parable for an actual story that must be analyzed for its historicity or whether or not the characters were based on real people. Even though the story is not historical we do not consider it to be untrue. We recognize the purpose of the story is not to convey history but to teach a moral.

This sets the parable of the Good Samaritan apart from some of the other stories in the New Testament. For example, the story of Jesus’ baptism is not presented as a story with a moral, but as a historical event. With this story it is appropriate to discuss where exactly it took place, even to point out that it happened because there was much water there. For the story of Christ’s baptism, it is appropriate, and probably necessary, to consider the historical context, while the parable of the Good Samaritan can be told independently of the historical context.

If we were to focus our discussion of the Good Samaritan on whether or not it was historically accurate we would miss the point, that it is a parable or a morality tale. If we were to talk about the baptism of Jesus as only an inspirational metaphor then we would be missing the obvious indicators of it as a historical event.

While some things in the Bible are clearly labeled as a parable or a prophecy or history, there are some things that are not clearly labeled. It is these things that can sometimes cause confusion. If we treat something as literal history when it is a parable, teaching tool, or a social commentary then we run the risk of looking beyond the mark and lose the intent of what we find in the Bible. If we make this mistake then we will go looking for historical events that never happened. We might get caught up in a pointless debate about whether or not there actually were any Samaritans who traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and miss the point entirely.

While it may seem silly to debate the historicity of the Good Samaritan, there are other stories in the Bible that were written to teach a moral and provide social commentary, and not be literal history, but are unfortunately interpreted as history. One such story is the story of Jonah.

Discussions about Jonah center on analyzing the motivations and actions of him as a real man, as well as whether or not someone could actually survive for three days in the belly of a whale. That is, the central concern that we have when we discuss Jonah is Sometimes we are more concerned with confirming the literal fulfillment of an apparent miracle than we are, of learning the central message of the story. While Jonah was a real person, the actual book of Jonah never presents itself as literal history, and there are some subtle things about it that set it apart from all the other writings of the prophets.

To give Jonah a little perspective we have to realize that Jonah, the historical man, lived less than 50 years before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, which capital city was Nineveh. The book of Jonah was not written by Jonah and was most likely written after Israel was destroyed by armies from Nineveh.

Whoever wrote the book of Jonah was making a somewhat ironic point by having Jonah go to Nineveh. In the story, everyone, including the pagan sailors and all the illiterate citizens of Nineveh, obeyed God’s commands. Everyone, that is, except the Israelite. The one who is supposed to be the most faithful and chosen of God is consistently less faithful than the scripturally illiterate and superstitious sailors and citizens.

These things, and a few others, mark the story of Jonah as a parable or a social commentary. It is not trying to pass itself off as literal history. For some, this would seem to undermine the story of Jonah, but recognizing the genre of the Book of Jonah no more undermines it than recognizing that the story of the Good Samaritan as a parable destroys its lessons and power to teach. But by understanding it for what it is, we can get over the big fish and understand the message of Jonah.

 

However, there is this from two days ago.

18 COMMENTS

  1. In Robert Graves’ “Claudius the God” there is an account of the Good Samaritan, as told by King Herod Agrippa to Claudius. It’s more detailed than the Bible story.
    Graves gathered all the historical records he could find on which to base his fiction, but the core facts are very similar to the Bible’s.

  2. My pet theory, which admittedly I’ve spent zero time attempting to prove or disprove, was that when Jesus said “there was a man” or whatever, He was relating a story about an actual person/persons. And moreover, that those listening to Him tell the story may have been able to recognize the specific persons involved.

    It’s that or we are confronted with the alternative, being that Jesus was actually a native of The Republic of Texas where the telling of tall tales is traditionally an admirable and honorable proclivity. Just kidding about that, of course, but why would the Son of the Father need to lie or stretch the truth about anything?

  3. I’m trying to formulate a position. Have been for a while.
    Both these tales play into that.
    There was racial rancor between the Samaritan and the Israelite.
    The Israelite was not a threat to the Samaritan.
    The Samaritan was not a threat to the Israelite.
    The brigands who waylaid the Israelite were a threat to both.
    Were the brigands to be considered neighbors?
    If someone were to be an active threat to me or my liberty, can they be my neighbor?

    In the story of Jonah, Jonah was also to overcome his prejudices, as were the Israelites Jesus was talking to.
    Nineveh was an active threat. But God was warning Nineveh through Jonah that they must repent or be destroyed. If they repented, they would no longer be a threat. They did and they weren’t.
    But Jonah couldn’t get over his thirst for revenge, could not forgive.

    Is it up to us to warn the swamp creatures that threaten us that God will ultimately destroy them if they do not repent? Yes.
    But if they do not repent, does God use us to destroy them, or do we wait for another?

    I haven’t completed this analysis.

    • There is a slippery slope when we come to the point of specifically identifying friend and foe. Jonah slid down that slope when identifying the people of Nineveh as foes beyond redemption. Who can blame him after all the harm they did?

      God softened the hearts of the wicked and they repented and Jonah was angry with God and with the people of Nineveh because they avoided destruction through their apparently sincere repentance.

      Ed, we act in defense. Yes, you can conflate that into a preemptive strike but that’s not the way we need to think. They’re all Americans, even though deluded. We always need to give them the option not to attack their countrymen.

  4. As a tangential coincidence, we just had a Jonah incident here in New England. A lobster diver got sucked in a and spit out by a humpback. Fortunately for him, not a toothy whale.

    Apparently it’s put him right off diving.

    -Kle.

  5. Funny how ‘fiction’ from the Bible keeps coming back to reality. Almost as if all those stories actually happened in one form or another. Hmmmmm….

    And whales, whales are assholes. Have been, will be. People who think otherwise are misguided and haven’t seen whales doing what whales do best, being whales. The toothed whales tend to be the real jerks, but the baleen whales aren’t exactly nice either.

    Yeah, we screwed them over, until the petroleum industry saved them by making whale oil uneconomical. But, well, there’s a reason that in the whale hunting cultures (Pacific Northwest, Iceland, Greenland, places like that) a whale hunt is a right of passage and not everyone survives even to this day.

    And people who go to sea not believing in God find out real quick how real he is. There are no atheists in foxholes or in really bad seas.

  6. This a great sermon and I like all the ensuing homilies. It seems VM is turning into a veritable College of Preachers!

    And seriously, the Word demands literacy. That’s in short supply and getting shorter, hence the need for imagery and the rise of the meme.

    Speaking of which, the left still can’t meme, it’s beyond them. There’s a sermon in that, come to think of it.

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