Q&A – Theological Rationalism & Understanding the Bible’s Really Weird Animals.


“Some people I debated with come up with excuses to avoid the Bible. If I present the resurrection they bring up some of the stories in the Bible where animals speak and other similar miracles. This is to undermine the Bible and make it silly like a bedtime story for kids. What’s a good approach with this?”


1. Theological Rationalism.

How would I make sense of this? Simply put I am a theological rationalist (let me briefly explain what I mean by this. Hopefully it will put my view concerning the question into perspective). This means I weigh evidence and decide whether or not evidence gives persuasive reasons for accepting theological truths. For example, do we have persuasive evidence for Jesus resurrection? What about his miracles during Jesus’ ministry? Are there reasons for accepting the inspiration of the Bible? Is there evidence of contemporary miracles? Does science and philosophical reasoning support belief in God? Does Christianity provide an adequate diagnosis of reality as we experience it? Etc. In this way rationalism is key component to my faith. I have searched, and I have evidently found, rational reasons for accepting the truth of Christianity, Jesus’ deity and resurrection, and God’s existence. Thus, my faith is not blind nor is it wishful, instead I believe in it because I think there are good reasons for doing so. If I did not think there were persuasive reasons for belief in Christianity’s truth then I wouldn’t believe as I do. Thus, having researched and written on this subject for some years now I view Christianity as true and its relationship with rationalism as compatible and, in fact, mutually supportive of one another.

Traditionally, theological rationalists accept parts of the Bible as divinely inspired and use reason as their criterion for what to accept or reject. I wouldn’t disagree, in fact, as a non-inerrantist my goal is to develop a model of biblical inspiration or at least come to terms with models already in existence. At the moment I find myself agreeing with much of Peter Enns’ model of Incarnational Theology though I find myself on my own journey in pursuit of truth.

One major self-critique of my theological rationalist approach is that I rely too much on rationalism. This is because part-and-parcel of Christianity is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In other words, being a Christian is not only about syllogisms and arguments. There is definitely a place for reason in the framework but there is far more especially given that Christianity is that of having a personal relationship with God. Thus, having a relationship with God does not always take the form of considering historical and scientific evidence or even philosophical reasoning. Rather it is the heart, one’s faith, and one’s willingness to lead a life that reflects God’s own nature.

However, putting that side, what does this say in relation to Samuel’s dilemma of the weird animals in the Bible? In answer, it simply doesn’t matter. Whether or not Jonah was really transported in the belly of a big fish or that Balaam’s donkey really spoke says absolutely nothing about the theological rationalist’s reasons for believing in the truth of Christianity. But this doesn’t somehow suggest that I don’t care about those stories. For example, if the Bible is God’s inspired revelation to man (however, one defines inspiration) then it might be a good idea to try and understand it. That means one ought to make sense of the narratives, and this is what I will try and do in hindsight of this question.

2. The Talking Snake of Genesis.

In my earlier article There’s a Serpent in Your Bible I attempted to flesh out in some more detail what the author of Genesis intended by including a talking snake in his narrative. The serpent was a prominent religious symbol used in Canaan, Mesopotamia and Greece. In these cultures it stood as a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld as well as a symbol of fertility, life and healing. This would explain why the author, who was nestled within an Ancient Near Eastern milieu, made use of a serpent in his story. His audience would understand it and it would create a powerful effect. Professor Walter Brueggemann explains that the use of the serpent symbolizes “the seductive voice of evil intrinsic to creation; that is, the creation in principle is under siege from evil that contradicts the intention of the Creator” (1). This explanation makes sense in the broader context in which Adam and Eve are introduced to readers. The Genesis creation unit, and particularly the finer details pertaining to the Garden of Eden, is full of symbolism from the very names “Adam” and “Eve,” to Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:22), to God’s making man from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and to a tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). The snake is yet another symbol symbolic for something else that is cunning, crafty, and ominous. Was there really a snake that spoke? Probably not, nor did the author intend for his readers to perceive in such a way.

3. Balaam’s Talking Donkey.

In the Numbers 22:21-39 unit we have an interesting story in which a donkey speaks to its rider Balaam who was a pagan prophet. The story goes that King Balak of Moab enlists Balaam to assault the Israelites by cursing them. Yet on Balaam’s journey God becomes angered and sends an angel to confront him. However, only Balaam’s donkey could see the angel and, being frightened, it tried to veer off course. The donkey then accidentally bashes Balaam’s foot against a wall and then proceeds to lie down on the path. Balaam, evidently in pain and angry because of the donkey’s hold up, uses his staff to beat it some three times. It is then that “the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’” Then Balaam and the donkey proceeded to have a conversation about the situation, with Balaam angrily berating the donkey, after which the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes to see the angel and understand why his journey was stopped” (Num. 22:28).

So, what does one make of this? I see no more than two options: it either happened or it didn’t. First, we should note the context itself, namely that it is God who “opened the donkey’s mouth.” The donkey isn’t doing this through its own means for everyone knows (ancient Israelites included) that donkeys cannot speak. In other words, this is an event that is very much out of the ordinary which is what a miracle by definition is. If donkeys lifted their faces and routinely chatted away in human languages then we wouldn’t consider it to be miraculous. It’s also worth noting that it is not the donkey that is speaking as opposed to God speaking through it. After all, God speaks through a diverse range of agents in the Bible. God, for instance, speaks through the Bible itself (2 Tim 3:16, Psalm 119:11, 105), the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:12, Acts 13:2, Acts 16:6-7, 1 Kings 19:12, Isaiah 30:19-21), through men and women (Prov. 12:15), an audible voice (Acts 9:4-5), dreams (Matthew 1:20-21), visions (Acts 10:9-18), angels (Luke 1: 26-38), and so on. Thus, it is clear that God isn’t under any limitation and thus he can speak through what he wishes to; including a donkey! Surely this wouldn’t be such an effort for the very creator and sustainer of the universe.

Alternatively, the author is creatively constructing a narrative that ultimately makes Balaam look like a bit of an idiot (we see this in Jonah’s narrative as we shall touch on in a minute). Essentially Balaam is dressed in such a way as to make him seemingly spiritually inferior to a mere common animal, that of a donkey. It is the donkey through which God speaks as opposed to speaking directly to Balaam. It is the donkey that is able to see the angel as opposed to Balaam (yet in most cases within the biblical record people do see the angel that God sends to them; so why not Balaam?). It is the donkey that ultimately disobeys Balaam by lying down on the path after having physically inflicted pain on him by crushing his foot on a wall. Balaam is shown to be short tempered and willing to beat a defenseless animal, and it is Balaam with whom God is angry. Essentially Balaam can’t control his own donkey while he is also inferior to the donkey in that he cannot see God’s messenger angel. Balaam could only see the angel when God “opened” his eyes; does this mean that the donkey is somehow more spiritually in tune with God than Balaam is? Further, it is the donkey that actually saves Balaam’s life three times in this story through it deliberately trying to avoid the angel that God places in Balaam’s way. In fact, God says to Balaam that if it wasn’t for his donkey, “I would have slain you…” It thus seems like a very deliberate effort to make Balaam appear like a fool for opposing God because of his intent to curse Israel. In his exegesis of this narrative Robert Deffinbaugh rightly explains that it is quite remarkable that “Balaam cannot “see” the Angel of the LORD, but the donkey can, and this donkey then speaks to Balaam, rebuking him (cf. 2 Peter 2:16) for his sin. The donkey is a better “prophet” (or “seer”) than Balaam. Let no prophet ever attempt to take credit for what he sees and says, for God can do as much through a donkey” (2). If this is the correct explanation of the verse then it would be to miss the point to ask whether or not Balaam’s donkey really spoke. However, I wouldn’t constrain God in his ability to speak through an animal should he so wish.

3. Jonah and a Really Big Fish.

For a larger examination of the Jonah episode see this article. However, the general scholarly view is quite divided over the historicity of the story though we shall touch on that in a second.

The very general, simplified setting is that a prophet by the name of Jonah is commissioned by God to go to a city, Nineveh, in order to prophesy its destruction because of its inhabitants’ wickedness (Jonah 1:2, for the city’s wickedness see Nahum 3). However, it is clear that Jonah has an immense dislike for the Ninevites and thus tries to flee from his mission of saving them (Jonah 1-2). However, sometime later Jonah, in his flight, finds himself on a ship of which he is eventually thrown off into the sea (he, and the sailors, believe that God was angry with him for fleeing his mission and, as a result, that God sent a massive storm to encompass the vessel. The only way to get the ocean calm again, they believed, was to hurl Jonah off the ship; Jonah 1:12). Jonah is now tumbling about in the ocean only to then be swallowed by a big fish that holds him for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Sometime later the fish spits him back out onto dry land. He then reluctantly continues on his mission of saving Nineveh (Jonah. 3-4).

Firstly, concerning the actual historicity, I’ve read scholars (Christian and non-Christian alike) who have argued that the story of Jonah was never meant to be taken as a literal reading of history. Many of these scholars would, alongside Jonah, include the book of Job as a “fictional story” imbued with significant lessons about God, human nature and so on. One Christian scholar, Thom Stark, argues that Jonah is a polemical tale, explaining that “the fictional short story was an established genre among Jewish sacred writings… to say that it is fictional is not to discredit it or deny its status as inspired scripture. It is simply a matter of recognizing its proper genre, and treating it as such.”

Much like what we just saw with Balaam’s talking donkey we see a deliberate effort to make the central character, the one who opposes Israel and its one true God, look like a fool. Stark argues that “Jonah is a profound and brilliant piece of satire” because the author dresses up Jonah in a way that is rebellious against God’s will to share his blessing with other nations, peoples, and cities. The book exposes Jonah’s narrow mindedness which is to show that “it is a piece of comedy, and Jonah is the butt of the joke… the gentiles in the story are portrayed as better worshipers of Yahweh than Jonah himself.” The point being is that Jonah was not penned to be a literal historical report. If this is true then it would be to miss the point to ask the question of the historicity of the miracle.

Other Christians, however, would argue for the historicity of this event. If Jonah really was swallowed by a large fish, and lived to talk about it, then it was nothing short of a miracle, namely a supernatural intervention by God. And since God is the creator and sustainer of the very universe in which this remarkable event is said to have occurred, it would hardly be too much of an effort for God to perform such a task.

4. There Be Dinosaurs in your Bible (or Not).

One can engage a further article for a more in depth examination of this question. However, briefly speaking, there are a handful of verses in the Old Testament in which some Christians, hoping to preserve a Young Earth reading of scripture (the belief that the Earth is just 6000 years old), allege that dinosaurs are mentioned. The hope is that this somehow proves that dinosaurs existed alongside man a mere few thousand years ago as opposed to their generally accepted extinction of millions of years. However, as I argued this is an alien reading of scripture (the biblical author, and his audience, wouldn’t have even known what a dinosaur was). None of the biblical examples, however, necessitate that a dinosaur is being mentioned. For example, there is the Leviathan in Job 41 that breathes fire and as far as we know there was no such dinosaur that could breathe fire (Job 41:21). Nor do dinosaurs have bones of bronze and limbs like iron (Job 40:18). Rather, what the author is doing is simply using metaphors to describe a powerful animal or a mythological creature (3). There is disagreement among scholars as to what the Leviathan or the Behemoth actually was or is. Since we know that no animals (or at least one with “limbs like iron”) are able to breathe fire it is far more reasonable to conclude that the author is making reference to a mythological beast. Pertaining to the Behemoth scholars have argued in favour of an elephant, hippopotamus, rhinoceros or buffalo (4). Simply put we don’t exactly know what animal or beast the author is referring to although we do know that it isn’t a dinosaur.

5. Unicorns?

The translators of the KJV, a product of the early 17th century, used the word “unicorn” to translate a single Hebrew word (רְאֵם reym) since they did not know what the original Hebrew word meant (see the KJV of Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; Isaiah 34:7). However, since textual criticism has advanced to such an extent since the early 18th century scholars are now far more easily able to identify the animals being referred to in these passages with superior knowledge. For example, the “unicorn” in Isaiah 34:7,  Job 39:9 & Psalm 22:21 is actually a wild ox.

6. Concluding Remarks.

What I find interesting, Samuel, is your noting that critics tend to come up with “excuses” for not believing in the Bible as well as Christianity. I’d agree with you on this point. For example, I’ve seldom, if ever, come across a skeptic whose disbelief in the Bible stems primarily from its mentioning of a talking donkey or snake. Usually, this is just an add on for the skeptic. It is kind of like the skeptic saying, “There’s no evidence for your God, or Jesus’ resurrection, ‘and’ you believe in talking snakes and donkeys because your Bible says so.” They would seem to have it tag along just as an additional point for not believing in Christianity. However, even if we granted his argument, then so what? It certainly doesn’t undermine other parts of the Bible, or Jesus’ deity and resurrection. And, as we’ve seen, it’s clearly not that simple. For example, from a purely theological rationalist perspective these questions don’t feature in the ultimate question of importance: Is Christianity true? Whether Jonah was transported in the belly of the fish doesn’t help us answer that question nor does Christianity’s truth depend on it. I’ve also shown that there are different ways that we are able to read these accounts. I hope this answers the question as well as provides a little bit of guidance when considering these texts.


1. Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. p. 37.

2. Deffinbaugh, R. 2004. Balaam, Part I (Numbers 22:1-35). Available.

3. Metzger, B. & Coogan, M. 2004. The Oxford Guide To People And Places Of The Bible. p. 33.

4. Metzger, B. & Coogan, M. 2004. Ibid.



5 responses to “Q&A – Theological Rationalism & Understanding the Bible’s Really Weird Animals.

  1. Pingback: Q&A – On the Bible’s Sexism. | James Bishop's Theology & Apologetics.·

  2. Pingback: Do Serpents Really Speak? Genesis as a Tale [Part B]. | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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