The Old Testament consists of books of twelve minor prophets. There is no book more confusing than Jonah. It tells a moral tale of a real person. He ran from God, was humbled in the belly of a fish, preached to a city, and blamed God for saving them. For millennia scholars have debated whether his story is a historical narrative or a symbolic story. Historical in that it actually happened in the way it is portrayed in the story and symbolic its message of God’s mercy and long-suffering.
It would be easy to say that Jonah was an allegory. It has implausible circumstances and a moral message for the Jews. However, we can’t write it off as mentioned as such because Jonah was a real person who lived during the reign of Amaziah. 2 Kings 14:23-25 states:
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.
Further acknowledgement is made in Matthew 12:38-41
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
What are we to do then? Should we consider Jonah as a historical figure and then ignore the unlikely situation he found himself in? Jesus said that he would be in the heart of the earth like Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Since Christians believe that Jesus was dead for three days then the statement regarding Jonah must be seen as a historical narrative. And the acknowledgement on Jesus’ part about Nineveh’s repentance gives further credence to that view. The repentance of Nineveh was so profound that every inhabitant of the city and their animals wore sackcloth as a sign of repentance.
To determine what Jonah’s intended meaning is, we need to examine how the biblical writers interpreted the meaning. R.C Sproul states,
“Biblical interpreters are not given the license to spiritualize or allegorize a text against the grammatical structure and form of the text itself. The Bible is not to be reinterpreted to be brought into conformity with contemporary philosophies but is to be understood in its intended meaning and word usage as it was written at the time it was composed.”
Sproul, R. C. (2009). Can I Trust the Bible? (Vol. 2, pp. 61–62). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
I said previously that this has been a debate for millennia and I am not qualified to go into a deep analysis of the subject here. I believe that Jonah is a literal and historically accurate story and should be treated as such. Fortunately, many scholars have addressed this issue in great detail over the years. I would like to refer you to the essay The Problem of the Book of Jonah by G.CH Aalders faithfully prepared by Robert I Bradshaw.
It is my hope that you will read this article and find some value in it. I know that I did. History is replete with great minds grappling with touch issues. I would be remise if I did not lean on their wisdom to increase our own.
Categories: Questions of Inerrancy