Jonah’s story has been debated for millennia. Being swallowed by and praying in the belly of a fish sure seems like fiction. However, evidence for the veracity of the story is powerful. Consider the following:
- Jonah is described in the Bible as a true historical figure identified as a prophet. (2 Kings 14:25) Yet, The book portrays Jonah in a bad light. Why would an author write a derogatory fictionalized account of a person who otherwise is presented as a real person serving God in a positive manner?
- The book of Jonah is included in a collection of writings of God’s prophets who are genuine, historical figures. Why would the compilers of these books include a fictitious account of one of these prophets?
- The supernatural occurrences in the book–from the storm being stilled when Jonah was thrown from the boat to the plant that spontaneously arose to provide shade and just as quickly withered–are all within the realm of possibility. Don’t they look like many other miracles we read about in the Bible?
- Jesus, the son of God, affirmed the historical accuracy of Jonah and referenced Jonah being in the fish. (Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32). Jesus also noted that the men of Nineveh repented which wouldn’t make sense if Jonah hadn’t preached to them. Are we to assume that Jesus was wrong when he said that Jonah was a real prophet and his story as recorded in the book bearing his name was true?
- Scholars point out that Nineveh, the Assyrian city that stood near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq, was not so large that it would take three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3). They point to this seeming discrepancy to suggest that the Jonah account is fiction. Could Jonah be referring to the entire region around the capital city, including “suburban” towns nearby? Or, might he have been describing the size of the city from the perspective of a person who was stopping on every corner to preach and prophecy about the calamity that was to befall the city?
Getting past the question of whether or not Jonah is a true account of God’s call and Jonah’s response to go to Nineveh, one should look at what the story says about God and his relation to mankind. Here it is most interesting that God is showing a positive attitude to Gentiles, even ones who will eventually conquer Israel.
God’s grace is on display in this story as He is described as being “merciful and compassionate” (Jonah 4:2) towards Nineveh.
Also on display is the sovereignty of God over the natural world. He sends a storm, stops it, allows an individual to be swallowed by a great fish and survive for three days, and he raises a plant overnight to provide shade for His prophet.
Most importantly, Jonah’s story shows the futility of running from God, and the difficulties that befall those who try. If you would like to know the God that Jonah served and learn the proper way to respond to His call on your life, we encourage you to read our post, How does one become a Christian?