17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. – Jonah 1:17 ESV
Now we come to the part of the story that catches everyone’s imagination. The very idea of a giant fish swallowing a man is both terrifying and fascinating. It catches the reader’s imagination and creates a certain sense of incredulity. Up to this point, the account of Jonah’s life has had a decidedly biographical and historical feel to it. But when the big fish enters the scene, it all takes on the character of a tall tale. Suddenly, the chronicle of Jonah’s travels reads more like a page out of Aesop’s Fables. This one aspect of the story, while not entirely impossible, seems highly improbable. That is what has led so many modern biblical scholars and commentators to classify the book of Jonah as either allegorical or parabolic. They reject the historicity of the book, characterizing it as an allegorical story that portrays Jonah as a symbol of Israel and the fish as a representation of Babylon. The rebellious Jonah is swallowed by a divinely ordained monster, just as God’s rebellious and unrepentant people will be consumed and taken captive by the Babylonians. They will spend an extended time in “the belly of the great fish” only to find themselves graciously disgorged back into the land of promise at the end of their 70-year exile.
Others have chosen to interpret the story of Jonah as simply a parable. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a parable is a “short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” It is a common teaching methodology that attempts to convey deeper truths using simple, easy-to-understand stories that utilize simile and metaphor. Seen as a parable, the story of Jonah becomes a visual illustration that decries the danger of narrow-minded nationalism or promotes the universal love of God. Everything in the story takes on a comparative quality, requiring the reader to determine the symbolism behind each actor and action.
But for centuries, most Jewish and Christian scholars used the historical interpretive model when approaching the book of Jonah. They viewed Jonah as a real person and the contents of the book bearing his name as a record of actual events. They viewed the fantastic and somewhat fanciful scenes described in the story through their understanding of God’s omnipotence and the clear record of God’s inexplicable actions as found in the rest of the Scriptures. The likelihood of God causing a great fish to swallow Jonah is no less plausible than His dividing of the waters of the Red Sea so that the people of Israel could cross over on dry ground. In their minds, Yahweh was the God of the impossible. It was Jeremiah the prophet who wrote, “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV). And God would respond to the prophet with a rhetorical question: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 ESV). Jesus Himself said of His Heavenly Father, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).
To claim the historicity of the book of Jonah is not to say that it contains no allegorical elements or parabolic lessons. It clearly does. But to deny that the book has any credible historical value seems to contradict the view that Jesus held. Over in the gospel of Matthew, there is a record of Jesus’ encounter with some scribes and Pharisees who had demanded that He perform a sign. These skeptical Jewish religious leaders were attempting to set Jesus up. They were hoping they could entice Him to perform a miracle that would violate their laws against doing work on the Sabbath. But Jesus refused to take the bait. Instead, He recounted the story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.
“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.” – Matthew 12:39-41 ESV
Jesus did not treat the story of Jonah as some allegorical tale or a parable with a moral lesson. He described Jonah as spending three days and nights in the belly of the fish. And this historical event was meant to foreshadow His own pending death and burial. These men would have been intimately familiar with the story of Jonah. Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s release from his aquatic confinement, but they knew that the “resurrected” Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh and declared the word of the Lord. And the result was the redemption of the city’s pagan inhabitants. Yes, Jonah was intended to be a sign of something greater to come, but that does not eliminate the fact that the events of his life actually happened. And Jesus will revisit the story of Jonah’s life again. As Jesus’ popularity increased so did the size of the crowds who followed Him. But He knew that many of the Jewish people were attracted to Him for the wrong reasons. They were intrigued by His miracles and wished to see Him do more. This led Him to compare them to the people of Nineveh.
“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.…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.” – Luke 11:29, 31 ESV
In this case, Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Instead, He declares that Jonah himself was “a sign” to the people of Nineveh. After his “resurrection” from the dead, Jonah appeared in Nineveh preaching a message of pending judgment.
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV
But this message of doom was accompanied by a call to repentance because the text goes on to say, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” ( Jonah 3:5 ESV). And Jesus goes on to commend the wicked people of Nineveh for heeding the words of Jonah and experiencing the salvation of God. Then He declares boldly declares Himself to be greater than Jonah. He had come preaching a message of repentance but the people of Israel were refusing to respond and believe. They wanted to see signs, but were rejecting the “sign of Jonah” – the call to repent.
On yet another occasion, a contingent of Sadducees and Pharisees came to Jesus demanding that He perform a “sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1 ESV). They were looking for verifiable proof that He was the Son of God. They refused to believe that He was the Messiah and viewed all His previous miracles as nothing more than the works of Satan. But, once again, Jesus refused to give in to their demands. Instead, he exposed their inability to see “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3 ESV). They could successfully predict the weather by looking at the sky but were blind to the many visible proofs of Jesus’ identity and mission. So, He told them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4 ESV).
These religious leaders were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the story of Jonah. They would have believed in the historicity of Jonah’s encounter with the fish and his ultimate rescue by the hand of God. The story of the prophet’s venture into the Assyrian capital and the repentance of its wicked inhabitants would have been familiar to them. But Jesus wants them to know that the only sign they are going to receive will be His own death and resurrection. And even that miraculous sign will refuse to convince them. Despite the incredible nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the majority of the Jewish people will remain “an evil and adulterous generation.”
As the apostle John wrote in his gospel account, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). The light of God penetrated the darkness of the world, but “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).
Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who had ministered to the king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Yet God had commissioned him to go to a pagan city full of wicked idolaters. But Jonah chose to disobey God’s orders by seeking passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. In his attempt to escape God’s call, he soon found himself surrounded by pagan sailors in the midst of a life-threatening storm. And his stubborn refusal to obey the word of Yahweh resulted in him being thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish.
Preposterous? Possibly. Difficult to believe? Most certainly. But the story’s believability does not invalidate its credibility. Everything about this story is meant to be beyond the scope of human reason. Why would God send His prophet to a nation that was marked by wickedness and evil beyond description? Why would He threaten the lives of the men on board the ship, by hurling “a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV)? What was the purpose behind the sailors casting lots and Jonah being exposed as the guilty party? And what are we to do with the unbelievable statement that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 ESV)?
Simply put, we are to believe. The story of Jonah is real and it points to the even greater and more implausible story of God sending His Son into a world darkened by sin so that He might be the light to the nations. And the apostle John succinctly summarizes the incredible story of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV
Jonah was swallowed by the fish. Jesus was swallowed by the grave. But both were resurrected by the sovereign will of God the Father and went on to declare the gracious plan of redemption to all those who would believe.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.