Jonah: A “Fish Story” or History?

Is the Old Testament account of Jonah a myth or a credible recording of actual events? Some point to alleged inaccuracies to claim the account is a fable.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Several years ago, Edwin Settle wrote a syndicated news article titled “Jonah’s big fish story teaches important lesson.” Mr. Settle was a former college professor (COE College) and minister with a doctorate from Yale Divinity School.

In his article, he attacked the book of Jonah by stating: “The book of Jonah cannot be accepted as history” (Settle, B-4).

Professor Settle listed several alleged inaccuracies contained in the book.

  • It is incredible that one could be alive for three days in a fish’s belly.
  • It is unlikely that a city would so unanimously respond to the preaching of someone of a different language and religion.
  • Jonah speaks of “weeds wrapped about [his] head,” which does not fit the description of being inside a fish.
  • While there was a king of Assyria, there was no “king of Nineveh,” as suggested in the book.
  • The descriptive that Nineveh was a city of “three days journey” is erroneous; the metropolis was not nearly so large.

In spite of these supposed blunders, Dr. Settle contends that there are valuable spiritual truths in the book of Jonah (e.g., nations ought to live peaceably with one another, etc.). He suggests that we should learn important lessons of this ancient document and allow them to motivate us toward a higher level of ethical existence.

Prior to giving some consideration to the accusations contained in Settle’s misguided diatribe, a couple of preliminary observations are in order.

First, it is certainly a curious twist of logic that contends one can be motivated toward a more mature level of spiritual responsibility by reflecting on a narrative filled with lies.

How does error support truth? That makes no sense whatsoever.

Second, if the book of Jonah is actually a fictitious account with no historical basis, what does this do to the credibility of Jesus of Nazareth? The Lord plainly declared that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish (Mt. 12:40). He even argued this event was a typological preview of his confinement in the tomb for the same period of time.

If the episode regarding Jonah never happened, Christ reasoned falsely, and his divine status is clearly impeached.

But let us consider the professor’s charges. Is the book of Jonah filled with historical fiction as charged?

Incredible survival

Is it incredible that Jonah could have survived for three days in the fish’s belly? Only if divine intervention is incredible. The fact is, the record clearly states that “God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jon. 1:17). The objection thus actually smacks of an atheistic mentality.

That aside, even from a strictly naturalistic viewpoint, survival after being swallowed by huge fish is not impossible. In the late 1920s, a seaman was swallowed by a large sperm whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. After three days, he was recovered unconscious but alive, though he had some damage to his skin (Harrison, 907).

Unlikely mass conversion

Is it unlikely that such a mass conversion could have taken place? Perhaps, but unlikely is not impossible. The question is: are we dealing with a credible historical document?

If there is no logical reason to doubt the historicity of the book of Jonah, then its testimony about the moral reformation on the part of the Ninevites stands. There is no evidence against such a concept. We should also remind ourselves that Jesus Christ affirmed that the people of Nineveh did, in fact, repent (Mt. 12:41).

No see no seaweed?

Is Jonah’s description of weeds about his head inconsistent with his sojourn in the fish’s belly

It apparently never occurred to Dr. Settle that the prophet’s declaration regarding the weeds could have been descriptive of his descent into the murky waters prior to actually being swallowed by the sea creature. Or is it possible that Jonah could have been consumed along with a quantity of sea-weed?

This quibble is truly one of desperation.

No king of Ninevah

But what of the objection that there was no “king of Nineveh.”

First, it overlooks a common biblical usage by which a capital city sometimes stands for the nation itself. Hence the “king of Samaria” (1 Kgs. 21:1) is the equivalent of the king of Israel and the “king of Damascus” (2 Chron. 24:23) is the same as the king of Syria.

Moreover, Assyria sometimes wielded significant dominion. “[A]t this stage the Assyrian king exercised absolute control over a very limited region centered on Nineveh — hence the designation ‘king of Nineveh’” (Alexander, 60). This objection is not valid.

Three-day walk?

Was Nineveh a city “of three days’ journey” (Jon. 3:3)? Since archaeological excavations have shown that Nineveh was about eight miles in circumference, it is argued that it would not have taken “three days” to walk through, or around, the city.

The thing our critical friend fails to realize, however, is that the term “city” actually encompassed a larger region than the territory within the walls. In Genesis 10:10-11, we note:

Out of that land he went forth into Assyria, and builded Nineveh, and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (the same is the great city).

C. F. Keil notes that these four places composed a large composite city consisting of “a range of towns, to which the name of the (well-known) great city of Nineveh was applied” (Keil, 167).

When those who are consumed with modernistic presumptions assert that there are mistakes in the sacred volume, they reveal that the problem is with their own limited knowledge. The Bible is accurate.

  • Alexander, Desmond. 1988. Jonah – Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. D. J. Wiseman, Ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity).
  • Keil, C. F. 1980, reprint). The Pentateuch. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Harrison, R. K. 1969. Introduction to the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Settle, Edwin. 1993. “Jonah’s big fish story teaches important lesson,” Stockton [CA] Record.