“Dude, you’ll never believe the fish I caught on my last trip to the lake…” We’ve all heard stories that began something like this. However, we’ve learned to listen to fishing stories with somewhat of a skeptical eye because we realize that every time the story is told, the fish seems to get bigger and bigger. Recently at Maranatha Baptist Church, we began a study through the book of Jonah during our Sunday Night service. While Jonah is one of the most familiar Bible stories, I have a feeling that many people consider it to be another “fish story”; something that is too fantastical to be true. While Jonah is a fish story, in fact the biggest fish story ever told, I think readers of this ancient book must take into account all of the evidence before you make a decision.
While the book of Jonah has been the subject of much debate as to its historical and literal validity, some are willing to conclude that the question of Jonah’s historicity is not important because the lessons of the text can be understood and taught apart from a historical background. Therefore, some would claim, Jonah can be read as an allegorical or mythological text that is intended to relay truths about God; however, the events themselves never truly happened in time. Unfortunately, this is not a tenable position for Bible-believing Christians. Either Jonah happened or it didn’t. And if it didn’t, then we have a big issue on our hands because the Bible presents Jonah, not as a fairy tale, but as true history. So how can we come to any conclusion on this book?
While the amount of space given in this article does not allow for an in-depth discussion, an overview of the issue will suffice. First, the question must be asked, “Why do people assume Jonah cannot be a true historical record?” The reasoning behind these assumptions are: 1) the events of the “great fish” seem far too fantastical and unrealistic, 2) our contemporary understanding of Nineveh doesn’t match with Jonah’s account, and 3) there seems to be no historical verification of Nineveh’s repentance.
First, is has been debated as to whether a whale (a likely candidate for the “great fish”) could actually swallow a human whole. Once in the belly of the animal, how could Jonah have survived for three days? Yes, these questions are valid; however, they miss an important part of the narrative, namely, that God is involved in all of these circumstances. An argument based on the whale/fish is merely a denial of the supernatural. The God who created this world and all living things in it can certainly make them do things that would normally be impossible; that’s the very definition of a miracle (cf. Matt. 19:26). So while things beyond human understanding occur at times in Biblical events, that does not, in and of itself, prove the record false.
Secondly, through excavations and other archeological work, information has been gathered about ancient Nineveh and its surrounding walls. It has been concluded that the city was not as “an exceedingly great/large city” as Jonah makes it out to be (3:3). However, the possibility of Jonah referring to the territory around the city, as some expositors conclude, or the fact that Jonah may have seen more than is available to archeologists today both make this a weak claim on the historicity of the text.
Finally, the claim that no extra-biblical text contains a record of the repentance of Nineveh as proof of its lack of historicity is found wanting. For example, the repentance of Nineveh only lasted for a short time, as later God brings judgment upon the nation for its continued sin and corruption and how the nation leads people astray (cf. Nahum 2:8, 3:7). With this in mind, it is understandable why there would be no record of the repentance of the people.
The primary reason, however, to trust the book of Jonah as historical fact is because that is the way the Lord Jesus Christ treated the book. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:40).” In this text Jesus compares His own death and resurrection, truly historical events, with that of the Jonah’s time spent in the great fish. Therefore, if one is going to doubt the historical validity of Jonah, one may be dangerously close to doubting the historical validity of the resurrection of Christ.
Instead of coming to the book of Jonah with suspicion, it is better to regard the book just as it claims to be: a true and historical record of a prophet raised up by God for a particular reason in a particular time in history. While many people work tirelessly in order to somehow disprove the Bible or cause you to question its validity, the Bible can be trusted. The Bible is true. The Bible is the Word of God. Likewise, the record of the prophet Jonah is not merely a “fish story”, rather, it is the true Word of God.
Add your voice to the conversation. Questions, concerns, clarifications can be sent to AskPastorJones@gmail.com.
By Pastor Nick Jones
Maranatha Baptist Church
1320 E. Saguaro Dr. Globe, AZ