What are the stakes involved in saying that the book of Jonah is not historically accurate? That conclusion, which has only been suggested in modern times, comes in various forms. Jonah, some scholars say, is a parable, an allegory, or a midrash (a Jewish form of commentary via storytelling). But make no mistake about it. The reasons certain skeptics offer such alternative suggestions is likely because they take offense at the miracle revealed within the book: Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Because of his disobedience for not being willing to preach God’s message to the city of Nineveh, the LORD judged the prophet, and consequently “he was in the fish three days and three nights,” after which “the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground.” (Jonah 1:17; 2:10)
Some critics consider this biblical claim, and simply conclude “This is the original big fish story! It couldn’t have happened.” But a person would only say this if they had some reservation about supernatural interventions by God into the natural order. In other words, they think it is unlikely that a man could survive in the body of a beast at sea for several days and live to tell the tale. Other than that, it is hard to see why someone would think the book could not have a historical origin. As a matter of fact, all of the internal biblical evidence argues in favor of the facticity of book of Jonah. Consider the following:
- If the suggestion that Jonah is an allegory, midrash, or parable is true, why is it that the story does not actually carefully follow the form of any of these ancient literary genres? In other words, when you compare Jonah to other Ancient Near Eastern fictional stories, it still reads more like history than any other type of literature.
- The book of 2 Kings 14:25 speaks about Jonah, son of Amittai, as being a prophet of Israel from Gath Hepher, a small community near Nazareth. It also states that previously Jonah had the pleasant task from of delivering the good report from God that Israel would enjoy a season of peace. That background actually fits with the psychological profile of the prophet we meet in the book of Jonah, the same individual, “the son of Amittai.” Presumably, he was quite happy to be the prophet announcing safety and good times to his countrymen in 2 Kings 14, but rather grumpy and recalcitrant when it came to deliver a message of deliverance to Israel’s then arch enemies: the cruel Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh.
- According to the distinguished archeologist Donald J. Wiseman, a careful analysis of the historical evidence shows that the details related in the book of Jonah “exhibit an intimate and accurate knowledge of Assyria which could stem from an historical event as early as the eighth century BC,” and as such “The story of Jonah need not be considered as a late story or parable…” Stated simply, the archeological evidence we have today conforms to the details presented in the book of Jonah. (See Wiseman’s argument in its completeness).
- Finally, Jesus himself considered the Jonah story to be historical, and frankly, if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you. In Matthew 12:39-41, Christ pointed to Jonah’s sojourn into the belly of the fish as a precursor and a sign pointing to his own death, burial, and resurrection. There is absolutely no wiggle room here, for what is often not remembered is that Jesus also points to the revival in Nineveh as a historical fact. He states: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look – something greater than Jonah is here!” If the men of Nineveh will make an appearance at the judgment, then that means they were REAL men, living in REAL history, who heard a REAL message of repentance from a historical prophet Jonah.
And if you can’t accept the testimony of the biblical authors, archeologists, and the Lord Jesus himself, would Tony Stark do? In the current Avengers movie, Iron Man is confronted with how to defeat a giant flying whale-like beast. Referencing the prophet Jonah, the hero decides to take on the creature from the inside out – literally. As ridiculous as a reference from the comics might be, what Joss Whedon, the writer and director of the Avengers intuitively thinks is true was actually the case: Jonah was really inside the belly of that fish – and God brought him through to the other side.