Can We Trust Jonah?

Every year I pick a book of the Bible to study. I had a hard time deciding what book I was going to pour over but I finally landed on Jonah. It’s amazing how much I’ve just assumed I understood about this book, but careful study has exposed whole new avenues and angles from which to view the story of this prophet. The part that has struck me the most, as of late, is the style of the writing. I’ve often wondered if we can really legitimately believe that Jonah is a historical account. That is to say, did the author intend for us to read the book as a historical event or something more fictional? It is, after all, kind of hard to…well…um…swallow. I mean a guy gets swallowed by a fish, spit up on dry land, and then leads a whole nation to repent of their wickedness! It’s a bit crazy, even for the Old Testament. But I have recently come to believe that such is in fact exactly what the author wanted us to understand as a real historical event.

It is always important when reading anything to consider the genre. If you’re reading an autobiography that talks about riding magical unicorns to the great cloud city you should probably start inquire about your author. If, however, you’re reading a fantasy novel it seems rather fitting. So when we hear a story about a man being swallowed by a giant fish we have to ask, what kind of genre is this. I mean that piece of information itself seems far-fetched and fictional, but does the author intend for us to take it as history? And how can we determine that? Not a few scholars have determined that Jonah is actually a parable. The story, they say, is not describing a real historical event. But when we consider what governs a parable in Biblical literature I think we are hard pressed to see parallels in the Book of Jonah.

We could look at the parable of the little ewe-lamb told by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12:1-4), or the two brothers and the avengers of blood in 2 Samuel 14:6-7, or the one of Jotham (Judges 9:8-15) and then a later one by Jehoash (2 Kings 14:9). When we examine each of these parables in the Old Testament we see to overarching features: (1) they are simple, and (2) they are followed by an explanation of their meaning. Applying those principles to Jonah we see that they don’t quite fit.

Jonah, for example, is far more complex than the simple parable of the little ewe-lamb. In it and the other parables of the Old Testament there is only one point to the story. In Jonah, however, there are at least two parts: (1) his run from God; and (2) his preaching in Nineveh. If this is a parable what might be the lesson? The lesson, so many say, and I am inclined to agree, is that the national prejudice and racial bigotry of Jonah is sinful. But what, then, has the incident with the fish to do with that point. The complexity of the story does not match up with the expectation for an Old Testament parable.

Likewise, when we look for an explicit interpretation of the parable we find none. The book ends with God’s rebuke of Jonah and nothing more. There is no resolution, no repentance, no change. Jonah is a self-righteous bigot and God says that it is wrong to act as such. The end. Contrast that with the parables and we find Nathan telling David he is like the man who stole the ewe-lamb. The woman of Tekoah explains her parable, as does King Jehoash. The same can be said of allegories in the Old Testament. The allegory of old age and death in Ecclesiastes 12:3-5, or the wine-cup in Jeremiah 25:15-29, or the eagles and the vine in Ezekiel 27:3-10 all have clear indications that they are allegorical (in addition to being very short, unlike Jonah).

This may not convince some. There will always be those who hold out some doubt over this rather hard to believe account. But the style of the writing does seem to suggest it was intended to be taken as historically accurate. It doesn’t make the story itself any less hard to wrestle with. How can a man be swallowed whole by a fish and survive. But the truth is, that if you’re an Evangelical it shouldn’t be that hard to believe. After all, if we can accept that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead three days, then we can believe God brought a man back from a fish gut after three days too. Do I believe Jonah? Yes, perhaps to my own surprise, I think I do.


  1. rhonda dunlap says:

    I am a new Christian and have only recently begun to study the bible. I found this post intriquing and pointing me in a direction of what to look at next. Here’s my comment slash question. I don’t find the story of Jonah as hard to ‘swallow’ as the story of Jesus send the evil spirits into the pigs and the pigs then jumping off the cliff. I believe in evil and sin and seperartion from GOD, and delivery from it. Seen it with my own eyes. But I don’t get the rest. Any recomendations to increase my understanding?

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Yeah, there are lots of variously difficult passages that are hard to understand throughout the Bible. One strikes me as hard this day, and another on another day. I don’t know that I have anything specific for you to read or check out, since I am not really sure what in particular strikes you about the passage. Here is a video sermon on the whole passage and you can check that out if you’d like.
      Or if you’d like to just shoot me a message, Rhonda, about the specifics of your struggle I’ll do my best to give an explanation.

      God bless,

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