QUESTION: I’ve heard people say that the story of Jonah is only a parable. What do you think?
Many contradictory voices are out there creating confusion. Please read prayerfully the book of Jonah, and allow it to speak to you on its own terms. Human voices are often unreliable, unless they are clearly grounded on the biblical text. I will discuss why some consider the book of Jonah to be historically unreliable, as well as reasons to consider it a historical narrative.
1. A Unique Prophetic Book: When the book of Jonah is compared to the rest of the minor prophets it appears to be quite different. Those books emphasize the proclamation of God’s mes- sage to His people. In Jonah the emphasis is on the ex- perience of the prophet and little is said about the message itself. We seem to be dealing with a narrative rather than with a piece of prophetic literature. Therefore scholars begin by asking, what type of book is Jonah?
Many answers have been given to the question; what you’ve heard is one of them. A parable compares something with something else in order to instruct. But the
problem with that suggestion is that it is difficult for scholars to agree about what Jonah is comparing. The result has been contradictory opinions. If you simply read the book it is about a prophet commissioned by God to deliver a message of judgment against a non-Israelite city. It combines narrative and message in a way similar to that found in the stories of Elijah and Elisha.
2. Nonhistoricity of the Book: In trying to determine what the book of Jonah is, many scholars work under the assumption that it is not a historical account, just a piece of literary fiction that never happened. Their reasons for this include, for instance, the narrative’s lack of credibility. How can a person be inside a big fish and come out of it alive after three days? Other arguments used to question the historicity of the book are: (1) walking throughout the city would take much less than a journey of three days (chap. 3:3); (2) the reference to the “king of Nineveh” is wrong, it should be “king of Assyria”; and (3) the conversion of an entire heathen city can seem unbelievable.
3. Historicity of the Narrative: If we accept the biblical text at face value, it would not be difficult to conclude that it is a prophetic book in the form of a narrative. In other words the narrative contains a prophetic message; and the one does not exclude the reliability of the other. This was how the book was read until about 200 years ago, when biblical authority was replaced by human reason. This modern approach left no room for divine intervention in human history. This made it necessary for scholars to redefine the nature of the book of Jonah.
But the historicity of the book is stated in its introduction (chap. 1:1), and was endorsed by Jesus Himself (Matt. 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32). Once we accept that God can intervene in history in ways beyond our comprehension, the story of the big fish and Jonah becomes part of a reliable narrative.
The alleged historical contradictions are not really contradictory. If the noun “Nineveh” is taken to designate the district of Nineveh, which covered anywhere from 30 to 60 miles, a journey of three days would be correct. Sometimes kings were identified by the city of residence (e.g., 1 Kings 21:1); therefore the phrase “king of Nineveh” is historically reliable. The conversion of a whole city should not be too difficult to conceive, even if there is no extra biblical evidence to support it. Scholars have pointed out that at about the time Jonah went to Nineveh a series of events happened that psychologically prepared its citizens for a change. Two plagues hit the city and there was an eclipse, considered a bad omen. Obviously, however, they soon forgot about the true God.
Human wisdom is useful. But when it replaces what is clearly revealed in the Word of God, we should listen to the Word. That is our only safety in a world of disorientation and confusion.