Andy Borgmann
UBBL311 - Hebrew Prophets I
Dr. Gerald Wilson
October 8, 2002
The Case for Jonah's Historicity
The book of Jonah is one that has captured people's attention for ages. A story about a man who defies God's plan for his life and then swallowed by "a great fish" has drawn the attention of both young and old. But is it just a story? Is it really possible for a man to be swallowed by a fish and live for three days? Is this story even consistent with God's character? Although interesting in content, the book of Jonah does raise some serious questions that must be addressed.
The book of Jonah has basically two parts to it: (1) Jonah's attempts to flee God's plan, and (2) Jonah's reluctant attitude when completing God's plan. Each part of the book is made up of two chapters (which therefore become a total of four chapters to the book). Each chapter also has their own unique location. Chapter one begins with Jonah in the town called Joppa when he first hears the calling of the Lord to go to Nineveh. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah attempts to go as far away to Tarshish, probably located in Spain. Unfortunately for Jonah, he never makes it to Tarshish, because after a huge storm at sea, Jonah is swallowed by "a great fish." The attitude of Jonah in chapter one is one of discontent for God's plan and even apathy for his own life (Jonah 1:12). Chapter two finds Jonah in the belly of the fish while he cries out to God. His prayer is just a simple declaration of who God is and what he has done. Finally in chapter three, Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh, where he preaches God's "turn or burn" message. Nineveh responds positively and turns from their evil ways, so God holds back His anger and does not bring destruction upon the city. The end of the book finds Jonah alone out in the east part of the city. He is somewhat depressed over the situation, although, it is unclear why. It is only evident that he is angry towards God and just wishes he could die.
The prayer that is contained in chapter two is an interesting one because it does not seem to address any problem Jonah has created for himself. His prayer is simply a declaration of who he knows God to be, and what he has done by having him swallowed by the fish. It almost appears like Jonah is truly thankful for being in the fish and finds that it is some sort of temporary temple in which he is allowed to worship God in. His response does not seem to fit with the first chapter context because there is almost no mention by Jonah in his prayer that he has done anything wrong and needs to return back to God. I would think after clearly defying the word of God, Jonah would be quick to request forgiveness and then promise to complete the will if saved from the fish. But there is not even mention of a request from Jonah to be taken out of the fish. This begs the question, what was it about this prayer that brought the response of God to vomit Jonah out of the fish? How, from this prayer, can a reader tell that Jonah's response to being swallowed was a correct and godly response? Did Jonah not even feel he did anything wrong? His prayer would indicate that he felt he was somewhat in the position of Job. It explains that he is in a poor position, but that God has the ability to provide salvation when He chooses. This response seems very odd compared to Jonah's statement in chapter 1 verse 12, which shows that Jonah knew he was to blame for the great storm. So why as a response to his own shame and guilt over the situation does he never request forgiveness from God in the fish? Ultimately coming to the conclusion that this prayer never took place or at least not in this context is not an acceptable answer. There is something about God's character that is exemplified in this passage. I personally think the success of the Jonah's "belly of the fish prayer" is the fact that it declares what needed to be declared in the beginning of the book of Jonah: God is big enough to bring salvation to Nineveh. Where does this come from? Verse 8 and 9 indicates that Jonah recognizes that there is grace found in those who turn from idols and evil and that salvation can only come from the Lord. If Jonah had declared this in the beginning, he probably would have had the confidence to pursue Nineveh in the manner in which God wanted him to.
Having just read the beginning of chapter one, a couple of conclusion could be drawn from the text about the context in which Jonah lived. It appears that he comes from a family of great wealth. The reasoning for this is because he has the ability to drop everything and head of to Tarshish when things do not seem to be going his way at home. There had to be some way in which he was able to support himself, and I doubt he was planning on taking a long boat ride to a far off land with out any financial security. The second conclusion that can be expunged is the fact he was single and had little responsibility. He probably was not in any sort of education system and potentially did not have a job. If he did have a job, it was probably one of little responsibility. This may also be indicated by his immaturity. It might be a stretch to pull that from the text, but one almost gets the sense from the story that Jonah is a spoiled rich kid and his response to a troubling request from God is that he wishes he could just die. Jonah's response at the end of the book, after the success of his message, is still mind-boggling. What person preaches to a great city, with great success and still wishes he would die? I'd say a spoiled, immature young man. Which brings the last conclusion: Jonah was fairly young. You can see somewhat of a youthful rebellious attitude and as indicated above a slight immaturity. The biggest evidence though is probably found in the fact he was able to survive the storm in which he was thrown into. Even if God calmed the storm and swallowed him up by the fish, it still seems evident that there was some time in which Jonah had to stabilize himself in the ocean, which an older man might not have been able to do.
2Kings 14:25 proves that the life of the prophet Jonah did exists. It does not necessarily indicate that the book of Jonah is an accurate rendition of his mission to Nineveh though. However, we at least know that Jonah lived and he was respected as a prophet. Something else that could be drawn from this brief text is that assuming the book of Jonah is true, it is probably safe to say that Jonah did eventually get up from under the "withered tree" and made something of his life. It would be sketchy at best to think that the author of 2Kings would mention Jonah in the book if all he was ever respected for was his ridiculous behavior found in the four short chapters of the book of Jonah. It seems apparent that Jonah must have raised himself from underneath that tree and developed himself as a prophet that eventually became respected amongst his society.
Jonah's social location at the time of his mission was not exactly a positive environment. According to 2Kings, Israel's borders had been restored, the state of it's morality was in serious question. It is not evident from the text if the entire nation of Israel was in great sin or just King Jeroboam, but ultimately God was not happy with the state Israel was in during the time of Jonah. The text almost implies that God even had a slight desire to "blot their name out," however, only reserving this desire because of the promise He made to them earlier in history. It would be safe to say that because of God's unhappiness with the state of Israel, it was probably not an easy concept for Jonah to go to a foreign land and preach the truth to a sinful society.
The last observation that can be pulled from the text is that most likely it was a very successful and prosperous time for Israel despite, their evil. The end of chapter 14 in 2Kings would imply that there was great military success through out the nation and it is easy to conclude that when there was great military success there was also great monetary success.
The internal evidence of the historical accuracy of Jonah is bleak at best. There is not even a mention of who is reigning in the kingdom when all this is taking place. 2Kings would indicate that Jeroboam is king, however, Jonah makes no mention of this. Despite the vagueness, a couple of things can be concluded about the time period and historicity of Jonah. It is known from the text that Jonah was attempting to go to Tarshish. Tarshish is believed now to be in Spain, which was the furthest point in the known world. What can be concluded, is that Jonah had to take place sometime after trade routes had been set up between Spain and the Mediterranean. Although subtle, this point should not be overlooked because the text's original readers would not have overlooked it. Tarshish may be an unknown city to people today, however, it was not to Israel. The second historical point is the state that Nineveh was in before Jonah came and preached to them. If any of this story was true, there would have to be a great change in the city itself. Although today's scholar's may not have access to this type of information, the text's original readers would have been able to know fairly accurately the date in which the massive change of Nineveh took place. With the trade routes established, and the change in Nineveh, it would have been easy to know the exact timing of this story. The original Jews that were in charge of "canonizing" their Bible, would have known all this information, and had enough faith in Jonah's timeless aspect to include it. It is evident that there was more information floating around than what we read about in the book of Jonah because of already what was said in 2Kings. Therefore, a reader could conclude that all the historical evidence is not found in the text, but the original people had enough faith in the evidence at that time. Scholars today should continue to understand the book of Jonah as people from the past ages have. as a historically accurate book.
From just the text of Jonah alone, it is a easier to build the case of it non-historicity. Simply put there just is not a great amount of clearly defined evidence found in the book itself. With out the aid of other Biblical books and extra-biblical sources, the historicity of Jonah cannot be confirmed with great certainty. This may indicate that God, or the writer, did not want the book to be taken as a historical book. Other books in the Bible are grouped in this category including, Revelation and even parts of Genesis and Exodus. In these books it is evident that the main point is not the historical accuracy, but rather the message behind the story that is told. God did not necessarily create the world in seven literal days, however, what the creation story says about God's character is the true center of the story. The same thing is possible with Jonah. Does it really matter if a big fish ate Jonah, or if it just appeared that way to him? Maybe he was purposefully using metaphor, or maybe God actually does have the ability to put his prophet in a fish before sending him out to preach to a great city. Whatever actually happened does not change the message of the book of Jonah one bit. One might argue that if the biblical story cannot be proven true, then God's own character of honesty is put on trial. However, that is taking something God created, in this case the message found in the book of Jonah, and putting society's stipulations on it. If a reader looks at the story from the beginning and sees that God never intended it to be a true story, but rather somewhat parabolic, then it is not hard for a reader to grasp the truth of the story and the integrity of God. If readers have no problem accepting Jesus' parables as accurate messages of truth, even though the stories themselves are not "historically accurate," then the story of Jonah could be true also. Regardless of what someone concludes about the historicity of Jonah, the simple truth that is evident form the story, is that the message is more important than the details.
One of my motto's when reading any book of the Bible, especially those that are under critique, is that I am going to hold to the traditional stand point until it can be proved otherwise. Many times in my personal endeavor with the Bible I have had to correct myself because something has been defended so well that it makes more sense. However, this is not one of those times! Personally, I have no reason to doubt that the book of Jonah is in fact a historical approach to the narrative story. I will be the first to admit that the evidence that supports the historicity of the book is vague, however, not vague enough to prove that it should not be look at as history. On top of that, I think the focus of Jonah was never to be a history book. Therefore, when something is not set out to be a history book, regardless of its accuracy, it will never come off as historically accurate as something like Exodus or Acts, because it never had the intent to. The point of Jonah is two fold: (1) to see God's forgiving power over people who turn from evil to Him (i.e. Nineveh), and (2) to show God's ability to work through and with complaining people who do not want to do His will (i.e. Jonah). Again, I do feel it is historically accurate; Jonah did try to flee to Tarshish, he did get swallowed by some sort of a great fish, he did eventually preach to Nineveh and he did get angry towards God at the end. However, the value is not on these events themselves, but rather the value that comes from the message of these events.
Jonah will always be an interesting book to study, preach and learn from. The debate over its historicity will never come to an end, however, continuing to seek out the truth will only bring a reader closer to the true message God intended them to learn from.