Most American people have heard about Jonah and the fish. Even someone from a home with no Bible influence could tell some very basic details of the story of Jonah. Let’s refresh ourselves with those basic details.
Jonah was commanded to go to the Assyrian capital city, Nineveh to tell them that God was going to destroy them. Jonah didn’t want to go because he didn’t like the fact that God would forgive them if they repented (4:2). So, he got on a boat and tried to flee from God’s command.
While on the boat, a great storm came and put all on the boat in perilous danger. The bible says that the ship was about to “be broken up”. The sailors on the boat began to cry out to their pagan gods, and started to throw their cargo overboard. All the while Jonah is down inside the boat asleep. It is realized and admitted by Jonah that his fleeing is the cause for the storm, and they would need to throw him overboard in order to calm the seas. Jonah is thrown overboard and is ultimately swallowed by a giant fish in whose belly he stays for 3 days and 3 nights. After the time is up Jonah is spit up by the fish and he then goes to carry out God’s mission of preaching to Nineveh, and bringing great repentance to those wicked people.
While the narrative is host to a number of important lessons, it is also the source of much criticism. Of all the stories that Bible believers are ridiculed for, this one would be in the top three. People tell the story of Jonah in a mocking way. They say in a condescending tone “You expect me to believe that a man was swallowed by a fish for three days and lived?”.
To many, the story of Jonah is incredible. Not incredible in the sense of amazing, but incredible in the literal sense. They believe it is simply not credible. This criticism has caused more and more of the population to give up their belief that the biblical narrative is reliable.
On the surface, the story of Jonah IS incredible. If someone came to me today and had a modern-day version of Jonah that included a storm, a fish, an entire nation repenting, and a miraculous gourd, I would immediately say “no, that did not happen”.
We are not supposed to be mindless people that believe the testimony of every single person that walks by. The bible testifies that we need to “test” what we hear because “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). And as far as a modern-day miracle is concerned, I know that God does not work like that anymore. Miracles had a purpose of confirming the word that was being preached. Now that we have the completed Bible, miracles are unnecessary and have been phased out of God’s revelatory process (1 Cor 13:8ff).
Jonah is credible though. And in examining the evidence from Jonah, we will have a mini-lesson on why ALL the Bible is credible.
First, Jonah is historically credible. Jonah is mentioned in the historical account of 2 Kings 14:25 which places him somewhere between 793-752BC. He was a real person that lived.
In this time, the Assyrian Empire was dominant and it was ruthless. Their leaders were measured by the amount of enemy blood that was spilled. Adad-Nirari who reigned from 810-783bc was such a King. He helped Assyria and its capital city Nineveh gain power by brute force. History testifies to Jonah saying they were “wicked” (1:2).
Interestingly, the next three rulers of Assyria are noted as “weak”. This designation is made due to the lack of violence and conquering attached to their reign. What could be the cause for this 180-degree change in character? Well another word for that is repentance, and that is precisely what the book of Jonah says they did. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). The sequence of events of Jonah are historically credible.
Secondly, Jonah’s work would never come from an Israelite mind. Jonah hated Nineveh and the Assyrians. He wanted them to be destroyed. He did not want salvation to be extended to them (4:2).
The point is furthered when you consider the enemy that Nineveh was and would be to the Israelites. They were already making the Israelites pay tribute, and were an increasing threat until they destroyed the Northern Kingdom in 722BC. What would be the purpose of making up a story like this?
While Jonah is the hero of the story, the story does not portray him in a heroic light. In many ways, his behavior would be that which you would not want recorded if you were Jonah or an Israelite. From the salvation to Assyria, to the sometimes childish behavior of Jonah himself.
This book would not be written unless it was actually true.
Jonah is not some fable or fairy tale that gets fuzzy on specifics. It is a narrative of what actually happened with details that can be checked against history. And the same could be said for every historical narrative recorded in the Bible.
There are some who will try and find examples of people who were swallowed by fish or whales and lived to prove Jonah is true. They look to the explaining of miracles to strengthen their “faith”. Why?
This is an injustice to the word of God. The word of God has proved itself to be credible in every aspect that can be checked by a human. Jonah is just a small example.
When we read of the miraculous, we have no reason to doubt it. I don’t need an example of someone being eaten by a fish. Just like I don’t need an example of the world being created by God speaking. Just like I don’t need an example of the Nile turning to blood. Just like I don’t need an example of someone walking on water.
If I call myself a Christian and I can’t believe Jonah was swallowed by a fish, how could I ever believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead?
The real question then, is not how could you believe an incredible story like Jonah. It is, “Why do you think its incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8).
*In J.W. McGarvey's book titled "Jesus and Jonah", he dives deeper into this very subject. Click here to be directed to the PDF of that work.* *Wayne Jackson has an article that explores other historical evidence within Jonah that can be found by clicking here.*