We have to recognize what is, so that we can jointly salvage what can be

On the 1st of March, 2018, I sat atop the collapsing roof of Saddam Hussein’s former Guesthouse Palace, gazing across the ravaged cityscape of war-torn Mosul in northern Iraq. The city had fallen to the Islamic State in a matter of days in early June 2014, and the resulting nine-month campaign of round-the-clock artillery bombardment by United States and Iraqi forces in 2017 had left thousands dead, reducing much of the ancient city to rubble.

I was on mission to one of my brigade’s infantry battalions, which had fortified its position inside the palace despite the massive shelling that had destabilized every floor with jagged craters and immovable debris. Horrified by the devastation I’d seen while flying in low over the city — and cognizant of the region’s historical significance — I grabbed a Bible and ascended several flights toward the gaping hole in the ceiling, to experience a moment of spiritual significance.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, the same Nineveh that serves as the backdrop for the biblical story of Jonah. Jonah’s account comes from the last book of the Nevi’im in the Tanakh, but is also a critical fixture in both the Old Testament and the Quran.

The details are largely the same in each depiction: God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh to preach against the wickedness therein; he refuses, is caught in a massive storm while fleeing by ship, and is then cast overboard and swallowed by a giant fish (mistranslated as “whale”) in whose belly he spends three days and nights. Jonah finally throws himself upon God’s mercy, who then commands the fish to regurgitate him so he can travel to Nineveh in fulfilment of God’s will.

Reading those ancient verses in the wreckage of the very city from which they derived was powerful.  Yet when I later recounted the experience to one of my soldiers, he merely shrugged, noting that Jonah wasn’t the only person ever to have survived being swallowed by a whale.

“In fact,” he continued — indifferent to my moment — “150 years ago, a fisherman was swallowed by a whale and had to be cut out of its stomach a week later.”

As it happened, I was already familiar with the fraudulent account of a supposed James Bartley, which had appeared as an anonymous article published in American newspapers at the turn of the 20th Century.  Rendering a quick google search with our unit’s spotty internet service, I confirmed that the story had indeed been discredited as a hoax.

But in a rebuttal search of his own, the young man quickly found a dubious blog post detailing the harrowing experience of a Spanish fisherman named Luigi Marquez, who claimed to have survived 72 hours in a whale’s stomach after having being swallowed by one in — wait for it — 2016.

“Hold up,” I said. “Are you trying to prove that Jonah was swallowed by a whale by citing Luigi, or are you trying to prove that Luigi was swallowed by a whale by citing Jonah?”  

“Both,” he said.  “The accounts prove each other.”


This column decries society’s departure from a shared objective reality, and the discord which erupts where conflicting realities meet. As I prepare for another deployment to an entirely different country where a reconstituted ISIS once again menaces a population that disputes its particular version of divine history, I’m hyper-sensitive to the religious arguments that often stress our own national community.

For many, rather than asking, “What is it saying?” the Bible instead compels a different question: “Is it true?”

Yet, with a planet heating up, an economy slowing down, and societies the world over splintering into tribes, we have neither the time nor might to impose a universal truth. At best, we must coexist — each of us equipped with a different sense of what may have happened in the past, but united in executing the mission to secure our future.

So let me audaciously propose a compromise: Everything in the Bible is true, but any effort to prove as much is blasphemy.

With that settled, can we please finally work together to warrant salvation?


In 2016, biblical literalist Ken Ham opened the Creationist theme park “Ark Encounter,” the centerpiece of which is a replica of Noah’s Ark — a construction 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 5 stories high. The project took half a decade, over a thousand craftsmen, and more than $100 million to complete.

But what, exactly, had he shown? That you can put a price tag on God’s miracles? That you can replicate God’s work with enough men and minutes and money? Would Mr. Ham also endeavor to rebuild the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 5-8), blaspheming the word of God merely to prove it?

While I can’t personally say that God parted the Red Sea to allow the Jews safe passage in their flight from Egyptian slavery, the Bible (or Torah or Quran) can, and does so in Exodus 14:22-28. That’s what makes Ron Wyatt’s now fully discredited claim to have found an Egyptian chariot at the bottom of the Red Sea so viciously blasphemous; in deciding that God’s own words weren’t sufficiently convincing, he manufactured evidence to corroborate them.

These holy shams sew the seeds of broader strife, and risk surrendering the late Senator Moynihan’s “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts” to the more recently fashionable “alternative facts.”

Recall Job in Job 13:7-10: “Are you defending God with lies? Do you make your dishonest arguments for His sake? You will be in trouble with Him if you slant your testimony in His favor.”

There is nothing righteous about proving the word of God if you rely on specious whispers to do so.

Interpreting literally the biblical account of Jonah requires recognition that his journey through a fish’s digestive tract illustrates God’s irreplicable signature. Thus, citing provably baseless evidence that some jerk recently spent a weekend in a whale minimizes the magnitude of God’s past interventions.

Those who believe that the Bible is the word of God bear no burden to “prove” it.  Indeed, the search for extra-biblical corroboration is the point at which believers veer from the path of faith.

In Joshua 10:13, the sun is recorded as having “stood still ... in the middle of the sky” for a whole day.  Yet believers and non-believers alike should condemn the legions of websites falsely claiming that “NASA computers” once detected proof of that so-called “missing day” in the celestial calendar.

No such detection ever occurred, of course, and that’s as it should be. For if God is the author of the physical laws governing our universe, then God can also suspend them.

It’s therefore not inconsistent to believe both that the Earth always and unalterably rotates on its axis, but that there was also a miraculous and indiscernible instant where, for a day, it didn’t. That’s why it’s a miracle, operating outside the normal laws of physics and immune to probative testing. If the world stopped turning every second Tuesday of March, Joshua wouldn’t have thought to record it.

Contorting the laws governing our existence to devise bogus “scientific” explanations for how Seth lived to the age of 912 (Genesis 5:8), for example, is the core of blasphemy — an attempt to prove that which is designed to be unprovable.

And it is through this practice of conjuring false evidence in the service of a partisan belief that people come to trust fake news and conspiracy theories, to become untethered from reality, to be rendered vulnerable to the hucksters on cable news.

These are not just religious concerns; they are political ones. Our clergy and politicians should be equally committed to fostering the critical reasoning skills among congregants and voters alike so that they can identify both devil and dictator.

The ramifications of not doing so are dire. A citizenry that denigrates the process of rational inquiry cannot maintain the very institutions which accommodate, for example, freedom of religion.

Yet there’s an even more pressing reason to unite in identifying and denouncing the “Deceitists” who traffic in deception, who manufacture fake blood stains on the shroud of Turin, or who — most devastatingly — attribute to God’s divine will the irreparable harm our species is inflicting on the global climate.

And that is this: Earth is our Ark. It’s damaged, and we need to repair it.

The world God has bequeathed unto us to taste and touch, to smell and see, should be embraced for the miracle it is on the terms God has constructed for us to witness. It’s a world worth saving.

But it’s a world we can save only if all humankind agrees on what it is that we taste and touch and smell and see. Rather than prove what was, we have to recognize what is, so we can jointly salvage what can be.

The Christian’s belief in Jesus’s resurrection may contrast sharply with the atheist’s perspective on the physical viability of post-mortem levitation, but surely both Christians and atheists can agree that the extinction of over 500 vertebrate species in the last 100 years isn’t ideal. Aren’t these beings, too, worthy of rescue? Two-by-two is better than none.

The account of Noah’s Ark can be true even if reports of ancient wooden beams discovered atop a mountain are not. It can be true even without Mr. Ham contriving tourist attractions out of “miracles” made achievable solely through the ample application of municipal tax incentives.

And it can be true even if, this time, God isn’t the reason that the waters are rising. Though God may have once sent the flood in response to human wickedness, human wickedness now invites the flood all on its own.

In short, those who endeavor to prove that a fish can swallow a man are focused on the wrong miracle.  Now, it’s the miracle of life on this planet which humanity must endeavor to prove. The choice before us is stark: Will the rising tide lift all boats, or will battle-scarred cities disappear beneath the sea?


Back at the top of Saddam’s palace — from my vantage point above the vast stretches of pockmarked edifices crumbling into rubble — I wondered what Jonah would say if he were summoned once more to preach in Nineveh. The deathly silence bespoke lessons unlearned from his prior ministry.

Looking one last time at the blackened landscape, it occurred to me then that the essential fact in the Book of Jonah is not that a man was swallowed by a whale, but that humanity has a heartbreaking tendency to turn its back on God.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.