I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture. What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts? Here’s why I think it’s important:
1) Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism. At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do. I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy. That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals. Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition). Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever. Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.
2) These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example. A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings. That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly. I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth. But that’s the picture in Genesis. No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space. Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts). I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.
So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written. And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be. Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then? What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1? How did it challenge existing ideologies?” We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis. This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?” “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us. But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text. It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.
It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”