December 21, 2012 — This may come as a surprise to you, but Jonah wasn’t really swallowed by a whale. In spite of what children’s story Bibles, coloring books, Veggie Tales, and—gulp!—your Sunday school teacher may have taught you, it was a fish that swallowed the runaway prophet, albeit a big fish—a huge fish, as the Hebrew (Jon. 1:17) and Greek (Matt. 12:40) terms imply. But we can’t say with any amount of certainty that the fish was a whale or, as one of my 6-year-old Sunday school kids recently hypothesized, “a shark because they have really wide mouths.”
Confession time: In the 25 years I’ve taught Sunday school, I may have described the fish as a whale. But as a curriculum editor who receives regular input from theologians whose job it is to make sure we get the story right, biblically speaking, I’ve been set straight on that whale issue. I’ve also discovered some other fishy “facts” that need to be reeled in. Read on to see if any of these tall tales sound familiar.
The whole world was beautiful when God created it. The Hebrew word for the garden in which God placed Adam and Eve is gam, which means, literally, “bounded place, a pleasant place isolated from surrounding wilderness.” There’s no doubt that the world God called into being was good. But while beauty is most certainly in the eye of the beholder, the creation probably didn’t look anything like the manicured gardens at Versailles.
Eve ate an apple. If this part of God’s story—humanity’s fall into sin—had taken place in the 21st century, and if Eve had been standing in an orchard in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia or in Wenatchee, Washington, she might have picked a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith off the tree. But Eve was in the Garden of Eden, and that garden was located in the Middle East. So it’s much more likely that the fruit she plucked from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was a pomegranate or a fig—or some one-of-a-kind fruit that was never seen again (Gen. 3:1-7).
There were two of every animal on the ark. True, God told Noah to take two of every kind of animal on board the ark (Gen. 6:19-20). But God also instructed him to to take seven pairs of every clean animal (Gen. 7:2-3) for burnt offerings (8:20) and food (9:3). So while we’re not sure if the animals boarded the boat in a parade of pairs, we do know that the ark was quite a zoo.
Mordecai was Esther’s uncle. Truth is that the two of them were cousins, not uncle and niece (Esther 2:7).
An angel choir sang to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. Scripture indicates that “a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel” (Luke 2:13). But in spite of what’s depicted in countless Christmas dramas and story Bibles, they were saying the good news, not singing it.
A virgin (in this case, Mary the mother of Jesus) is someone who isn’t married. Sunday school teachers are most likely to give this truth-bending answer when a young child, after singing “Silent Night” or after hearing the story of Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:26-38) and birth, pipes up with the question, “What’s a virgin?” If you think that’s an awkward moment when you’re a parent, just imagine what it’s like when you’re standing in front of a class of wide-eyed 5-year-olds looking up at you! (That same awkwardness may lead a Sunday school teacher to tell kids that Rahab was an innkeeper or that Potiphar’s wife just wanted Joseph to stay a little longer.)
There was no room at the inn. While it’s true that there was no room for Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem, it’s also true that there was no inn! The Greek word καταλύματι (katalumati) indicates the guest room of a house. In this case it may have been the house of a relative who already had extra company.The 2011 New International Version of the Bible corrects this misconception by translating it like this: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:7).
There were three wise men. The more accurate title for these special visitors is “Magi,” and we don’t know how many of them came to see Jesus. We know they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11), but that doesn’t mean there were three Magi any more than counting the gifts at a baby shower will tell you how many guests were at the party.
The Magi visited baby Jesus on the night of his birth. Although your tabletop manger scene may include a set of three wise men to place alongside the shepherds, Jesus probably wasn’t a newborn when the Magi arrived. The Magi traveled first to Jerusalem to look for the “one who has been born King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-2) and then to Bethlehem, where, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (v. 11). The fact that Herod ordered the execution of all boy babies up to the age of 2 “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (v. 16) also indicates that Jesus was older than a newborn when the Magi visited.
The Bible is primarily a book of stories with morals that teach us how to be good people. While it’s tempting to teach Scripture as a series of virtues that help us grow in wisdom and stature, that’s not the intention of God’s Word. The Bible is the story of God’s redemption and restoration of his fallen world through Jesus. Its purpose is to put us in touch with the God who, by God’s Word and work, transforms us. Understanding the Bible as a book of morals may make you a nice person, but it won’t provide you with any more hope and comfort than you’ll get from a book of etiquette.
Sunday school teachers have all the answers. If you’ve read this far, you already know that, like parents, preachers, theologians, and other believers around the globe, Sunday school teachers don’t know everything. The Bible is full of things that are hard to understand. It’s important to resist the urge to fill in the blanks when we don’t have an answer to a question. Instead, we can invite kids to wonder along with us and show them that we have much more to discover about God and God’s ways. We need to admit honestly that the Bible contains many things we can’t explain. But we believe anyway. That’s what faith is all about! And that’s the best kind of confession of all.