The past month I’ve been preaching on the Old Testament book of Jonah. You know Jonah—the story about a guy who God calls to go to the wicked city of Nineveh. He kind of hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want to go, so he disobeys God and gets on a ship heading the wrong way. God finds him, though, and sends a storm to stop the ship. Jonah gets thrown off the boat to his death, but God provides a great fish to rescue him. He survives inside the fish and gets vomited up on shore, where he heads to Nineveh and preaches to the residents. They repent and God decides to forgive their city.
That’s Jonah. We’ve had a lot of fun with the book. His story has a lot to say to us about obedience, repentance, racism, and the love of God for all. But during the series, I’ve skipped over one fairly important question that a couple people have asked me about: Am I supposed to actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a fish and lived to tell about it? I mean, a man inside a fish? For three days? Did that really happen?
Biblical literalists say, Of course it did. Some, like John Morris at The Institute for Creation Research (here), even say that believing Jonah was a real guy who got swallowed by a real fish is essential to faith. Why? Because Jesus talks about it: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). To not believe that Jonah was swallowed whole is, in their minds, to contradict the very words of Jesus. It is to give in to the slippery slope of theological liberalism, in which a once-authoritative Bible is reduced to fun stories with important points. It is to deny the power of God, who can do whatever he wants whether it sounds ridiculous or not. It is to contradict centuries of believers, who (literalists say) never believed anything other than the literal truth of Jonah’s tale.
I’m sympathetic to these views and this passionate defense of the Bible. I consider myself a conservative, and have a very high view of Scripture. However, defending the literal historicity of Jonah’s story is kind of tricky, and problematic. It ignores some important elements of the story and, more importantly, it distracts us from the real point and purpose of the account.
Historical Miracle or Timeless Parable?
Literalists argue that we should read the story of Jonah inside the fish as a literal event because we should read the Bible as literal whenever possible, to preserve its authority and reliability. When you start re-interpreting miraculous accounts as non-historical stories with lessons, you eventually end up with the Jeffersonian Bible. (Famously, TJ excised out all the miraculous parts of the New Testament.) Besides which, literalists say, the story of Jonah is filled with historical details that seem to indicate the author was placing the story in the historical timeline of Israel. Jonah, for example, was an actual prophet who appears in other historical books (2 Kings 14). He had an actual father, Amittai (Jon. 1:1). And Nineveh is a real city filled with real enemies who did battle against Israel. The author seems to be telling us something that really happened.
But is he? I’d argue that the probability that Jonah is an ahistorical parable is just as high. (“Ahistoric” means not concerned with actual history, and “parable” loosely means a story with a point.) In fact, the author might even intend us to read the story as a parable, not a literal event. Why? Because Jonah is filled with impossible things that make much more sense as story. The incident in the fish is an easy example, but there are others. When Jonah preaches his message of judgment to the Ninevites, for example, every single resident in the city repents. They all, immediately, give up their evil ways. All of them. 120,000 people. At once. Heck, even their pets put on sackcloth (3:7). The point of this mass conversion is to show God the depth and breadth of their grief so that they might stave off His divine wrath.
Now, could this have happened? Sure. With God, anything’s possible. Normally an entire city wouldn’t be spiritually enlightened so quickly, but God has his ways. Just because miracles are possible, though, does not mean that every miracle in the Bible is intended to be understood as an actual historical miracle. We have to make that judgment based on authorial intent. In this case, there’s a high probability that the author is intending to tell a parable with historical references and exaggerated details to make an important point to his audience. Besides which, if this actually happened, the historical and archaeological record should give us some indication of a mass conversion in Nineveh. But to my knowledge, there is no historical evidence (aside from Jonah itself) of a mass Assyrian conversion, in which a city of 120,000 people becomes, overnight, a shining city of monotheistic worship to the One True God. No Ninevite missionaries, no Ninevite synagogues, no Ninevite news reports. Furthermore, if this mass conversion were a miracle, does it even make sense? Why would God send Jonah to Nineveh to announce its destruction, knowing he is going to miraculously inspire them all to repent, anyway?
Yes, there are historical elements in the story. But we include historical elements in our non-literal stories all the time. I tell stories to my daughter Miranda involving her brothers, Max and Mitchell. (Max and Mitchell are real people.) That doesn’t make those stories historically true. Even Jesus told non-historical parables involving real historical people (Luke 16:19-31). And Just because Jesus mentioned Jonah doesn’t mean much, either. Jesus was always drawing truth from ahistoric examples.
Basically, as much as we want to believe Jonah is a literal event, it shouldn't scandalize Christians to think it’s a very clever, creative, and even divinely inspired story told with historical characters to make an important point to its readers.
A Classic Lesson in How to Miss the Point
This, though, is the most unfortunate part of defending the historicity of Jonah. It distracts us from the real point of the story. For example, an article on gotquestions.org (here) goes to great lengths to explain how the story of Jonah could have really happened. According to the author, the immediate and sudden conversion of the Ninevites—while hard to believe—can be explained if you consider the miraculous nature of Jonah’s arrival to the Mediterranean shore. Very few things would have been as persuasive to an audience as seeing a man spit up by a fish onto the beach. (“Wow Mom, look! That man just came out of that whale’s blowhole! Let’s hear him!”) The ancient Philistines of the eastern Mediterranean even worshipped a pagan fish-god named Dagon, and Jonah’s arrival might have been aided by the ancient world's reverence for fish-gods who rose from the sea. (Of course, this ignores the fact that Nineveh is hundreds of miles from the ocean, and nobody in Nineveh would have seen Jonah regurgitated. Although the smell might have lingered.) The writer goes on to say that “some scholars have speculated that Jonah’s appearance, no doubt bleached white from the action of the fish’s digestive acids, would have been of great help to his cause.”
Good grief. No wonder Christians are thought to be anti-intellectual. I want to be respectful here, but this is just silly, arguing that a digestively-bleached-Jonah was made all the more compelling as a prophet. The thing is, Christians believe this. They even argue for this in public forums. Now, I don’t find it silly because I find all miracles silly. I believe in miracles—even silly ones. (Like a man rising from the dead. The miraculous nature of that event is wholly different from the miracles recorded in Jonah.) No, I find it silly because it has no place in the story. The author of Jonah makes no attempt AT ALL to explain why the Ninevites repented of their evil ways, and certainly doesn’t explain their conversion by Jonah’s bleached appearance. To argue that their conversion happens because they see Dagon the fish-God emerge from the sea, bleached by fish acids is, as they say, reading into the text.
The point of Jonah is not that a 100% conversion rate is possible or that men can survive in fishes. The point is that God “is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). For some reason, though, we love to argue over and defend the historicity of the story, as though the very credibility of our faith hangs in the balance. But it doesn't. Do not ask me to count the number of articles I found online that discussed what type of “great fish” is the most likely candidate to be able to hold a man in its stomach for three days, and how it might have happened. (Apparently it’s the great white shark, or maybe the whale shark, or the sperm whale.) Don Landis of Answers in Genesis (here) supposes that in a whale’s multi-chambered stomach, it’s the second stomach that contains the digestive juices, while the first chamber is where the food is crushed. So if Jonah could hang on in the first chamber without getting crushed, and hopefully find an air pocket there, he could avoid being digested in the second chamber in order to make it out alive.
Lordy. People, THIS IS NOT THE POINT. The point is not how Jonah could have possibly survived in the great fish/sperm whale/great white shark. The point is that the fish was a vessel sent by God to deliver Jonah from his demise, so that he could have a second shot at a very important gig. The point is that God gives us lots and lots and lots of opportunities to obey him after we disobey him first. The point is that God perseveres with us, hoping we repent of our ways so we can be forgiven of our sins, as the Ninevites were.
So was Jonah really swallowed and then regurgitated by a great fish? Maybe. Maybe not. Personally, I think the author probably knew he was telling a fiction with historical details. And I personally think we lose nothing from the story by reading it as a divinely inspired parable that Jesus himself referenced as a template for his own miraculous resurrection. You can still believe in the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus and not the miracle of Jonah in the fish. They’re different incidents. But like I said, that’s all mostly beside the point. Because whether a parable or historical event, the story of Jonah is very, very true. Undeniably true, in fact. It’s true in my life and yours in a way as important as the actual account. The truth is that I have disobeyed God on numerous, uncountable occasions, as Jonah did. The truth is that I have discriminated against people I dislike, as Jonah did. And the truth is, furthermore, that God has pursued me over and over again, giving me every opportunity to answer his call after I swam for the hills. The truth is that God has shown me forgiveness where I did not deserve it, and love where I had no reason to receive it. That’s the literal truth of Jonah.
And that's no fish tale.
What do you think? Parable? Historical account? Miracle? Myth? Post below, and please be kind.