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Finding Common Ground in a Big Fish

Image: Tim Peacock

Twenty miles south of Beirut is a sandy beach called Jiyeh. It’s a rare interlude in Lebanon’s rocky coastline, and if you were out in the Mediterranean, crying for deliverance as currents swirled about you, waves and breakers sweeping over you, this is where you’d want God to command a fish to vomit you onto dry land.

And this is, in fact, the spot where ancient legend says that the Hebrew prophet Jonah was delivered safely to shore.

Jonah has long been honored here. Mosaics found in the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church show the prophet who tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh getting turned around by a large fish. And today there is a Muslim mosque on the site with a shrine to Jonah.

The Hebrew story of the reluctant prophet is beloved not only by Christians but also by those who hold the Qur’an to be the final revelation of God. And chiseled on the shrine is the verse that he prayed from the belly of the fish, which Muhammad urged Muslims to recite when in trouble.

“The most common prayer of Muslims during times of crisis is the prayer of Jonah,” Emad Botros, professor of Old Testament at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, told CT. “We share a heritage with Muslims. And what is better to share than stories?”

Botros is one of a few scholars turning to Jonah as a site of common interest connecting Christians and Muslims. He has written a book, Jonah: Bible Commentaries from Muslim Contexts, the second volume in a series on reading the Bible in the context of Islam. He thinks the story of the prophet—along with other shared stories—can help start a conversation across the faiths.

“The prophets of old were the heroes of Muhammad,” Botros said. “Knowing his reflections helps us communicate our biblical stories more effectively.” The Qur’an’s account of Jonah—which Muslims believe was divinely revealed through the archangel Gabriel—is different from the version in the Hebrew Bible. In the Muslim version, the city he’s going to is…

This article was originally published in the December print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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