Jonah: Historical, Metaphorical, or Just a Fish Tale?


"Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah...saying, 'Arise, go to Ninevah.'" (Jonah 1:1)

"Jonah: Historical, Metaphorical, or Just a Fish Story?" by Steppes of Faith

“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah…saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah.’” (Jonah 1:1)

Many people, believers and non-believers alike, know the story of Jonah from the Old Testament. However, controversy surrounds the Book of Jonah among scholars and other academics.

Some argue Jonah is a historical account, while others suggest it is only symbolic and metaphorical. Still, others believe it is a fable full of impossible events with little meaning. If it is only a fish story or simply metaphorical, why is it in the Bible, and what can it possibly teach us?

First, let us recall who Jonah was. The Bible and other sources tell us he was an actual person who came from Galilee in Israel and prophesied to the northern tribes during the time of King Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.), according to 2 Kings 14:25. His ministry occurred just prior to his prophetic contemporary Amos (circa 760 B.C.).

“He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.”

Jonah 1:1 confirms the account.

“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah, the son of Amittai.”

The Lord Jesus also confirms Jonah’s existence in Matthew 12 and Luke 11.

“But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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 Ninevah will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. And indeed, a greater than Jonah is here.” (Mt 12:39-41)

“For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.” (Lk 11:30)

Jesus Says Jonah Existed

Jesus does not refer to Jonah as a fictional character but as a human man who served the Lord in the office of prophet. Based on this alone, we can conclude that the book of Jonah is a historical account, yet there is far more evidence.

  1. Jewish tradition has accepted the book of Jonah as historical for centuries.
  2. The non-canonical Book of Tobit, fragments of which have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, provides an eyewitness account of Jonah visiting Ninevah (14:4).
  3. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jonah in his book Antiquities of the Jews in which Josephus recalls how Jonah acted as an advisor to King Jeroboam as well as Jonah’s time in the belly of a “whale” (Antiquities IX, 10:1-2).
  4. Though written in the third person, the Book of Jonah is presented as a narrative, a common form of writing in the Old Testament (e.g., ex 11:3; 1 Sam 12:11), even if the author himself is the writer. Therefore, Jonah is likely the author.
  5. The introduction of Jonah in the third person is similar to the introductions of other minor prophet’s books, such as Hosea, Joel, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zechariah.
  6. The Book of Jonah contains autobiographical information and first-hand accounts of the events and experiences that only Jonah could know.

Substantial evidence supports Jonah’s physical existence.

Recapping the Story

Despite the historicity of Jonah, many believe his story is simply metaphorical and only meant to convey important biblical tenets. They point to many fantastic moments in the story as proof. Truthfully, the story is rich in symbolism.

To recap, Jonah ran from God’s command to go to Ninevah to preach repentance by boarding a boat to Tarshish (Jnh 1:3). It is understandable for Jonah to be reluctant.

Ninevah was deeply involved in pagan worship. Those who opposed the emperor’s gods were brutally tortured and left to die while tied to the city’s walls. Guards denied others food and water until their deaths, only to have their severed heads posted on stakes. Many times, the consequences were far worse. Ninevah was notoriously evil.

One can understand why Jonah did not want to go. In his mind, death awaited him, and, besides, the people of Ninevah were probably well beyond God’s grace anyway. What was the point in going?

So Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish. Suddenly, a violent storm erupted, causing the Gentile sailors to cast lots to see who was responsible for the trouble. Jonah confessed that God was angry with him and that he was the cause, so they cast him overboard and then repented (1:7-16).

Soon, a great fish swallowed him, and Jonah stayed in the fish’s belly for three days and nights. The fish spit Jonah out onto dry land. Several days later, Jonah arrived as an apparently reformed prophet in Ninevah and preached God’s message.

Biblically speaking, Jonah represents unrepentant Israel, and Ninevah represents repentant Gentiles. Some suggest there are several other symbols.

  • The Sea= Gentile world of chaos
  • Storm= Divine judgment
  • Being cast into the sea= Israel in exile
  • Fish= Gentile rulers

The numerous symbols cause some to believe Jonah’s story is just a fish tale, but others point more to its miracles.

Possible locations of the city of Tarshish

Possible Locations of Tarshish

Where is Tarshish?

Jonah left Israel, heading to Tarshish. Somewhere out at sea, a fish swallowed and spit him out in an unknown location. Several days later, he arrived in Ninevah.

Many modern scholars and non-scholars alike believe Tarshish is modern-day Tartessos in southern Spain, about 670 miles (1,060 km) west of Israel and 2,500 miles (4,023 km) from Ninevah to the east. How did Jonah get from Israel to Spain and then Ninevah in just a few days?

He didn’t. Maybe.

The actual location of Tarshish is unknown.

According to Josephus, Tarshish is “Tarsus” in south-central Turkey, about 15 miles (25 km) from the port city of Mersin along the Mediterranean coast. However, archaeologists describe an inscription attributed to Assyria’s King Sennacherib’s son, Esarhaddon, that refers to a city called “Tarsisi,” west of Cyprus and Greece. Genesis 10:4 also connects Noah’s grandson, Tarshish, and Cyprus.

“The sons of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these, the coastland peoples of the Gentiles were separated into their lands.”

Others, including early Christian sources, believe Tarshish is either “Tharsis” in northern Africa or a general term for “far-off islands.” Wherever it is, 1 Kings 10:22 describes that ships going to Tarshish would not return for three years, indicating that the true location of Tarshish is very far away from Israel.

The Bible’s point is that Jonah sought to go as far away from God as possible. However, many conclude that since Tarshish is (in every direction) very opposite of Ninevah, there is no plausible way he could have traveled to Ninevah in a matter of days.

However, the Bible describes a great sea creature swallowing Jonah. And that leads to another incredible story that many skeptics refute.

Jonah and the Fish/Whale

Certain scholars and skeptics conclude that Jonah’s story is metaphorical based on Jesus’s words in Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-32 (see above).

Both apostles describe an encounter Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees, who demanded a sign of astronomical proportions to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus never performed miracles on demand and certainly not for unbelieving Pharisees. Instead, He gave them a spiritual sign based on Jonah’s experience in the belly of a “great fish” (which Josephus interprets as a whale).

Jonah 1:17 tells us Jonah was in the fish/whale for “three days and three nights.” In the New Testament, Jesus says He will, similarly, be “in the heart of the earth,” referring to the time encompassing His death and resurrection.

Though they agree upon the timeframe of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they find it hard to believe that a giant sea creature swallowed a man only to spit him out on dry land three days and nights later. Somehow, he survived the experience. Surely, that is not possible.

Nevertheless, Jesus refers to it as an actual historical event. If one is to trust Jesus’ words, then one must trust all that He says, even if it seems unusual or unexplainable. If Jesus believes it, then we should, too.

[READ MORE: How the Sign of Jonah Points to Jesus]

But where did the fish/whale spit out Jonah?

The Bible indicates that Jonah never made it to Tarshish. Instead, scholars believe the fish/whale returned him to Israel, where he started, to allow him to repent. Many believe the location is Joppa (modern Jaffa; see Josephus IX, 10:2; Jon 1:3), about 6 miles (9 km) south of Tel Aviv.

Though difficult to imagine, Jonah’s time in the fish/whale’s belly makes sense. It gives Jonah plenty of time to think about his disobedience and repent. God did the same thing to the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness for forty years looking for the Promised Land (it should have been a three-week journey).

God was trying to teach Jonah, His divinely chosen prophet, a lesson about obedience. Regardless of the time or distance, God took him back to Israel to begin again, keeping with His continual character of mercy and grace.

He is the God of second chances.

Jaffa, Israel

Jonah in Ninevah

A third support of the symbolic argument is how rapidly Jonah walked across Ninevah once he arrived. Jonah 3:4 says the city “was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.” How could Jonah have preached to the entire city so quickly?

The Bible does not tell us how long Jonah wandered the city, only that he entered “on the first day’s walk (Jon 3:4).

However, the second part of verse four recalls Jonah crying to the Ninevite people, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” Scripture authors often use time as a general expression. “Forty days and forty nights,” thus, can mean a time longer than one month. Similarly, Jesus’ use of “three days and three nights” to describe Jonah’s experience inside the fish/whale indicates a short time.

Referring to Jonah 3:4, the prophet plausibly preached God’s call to repentance for all or part of forty days.

God’s Mercy

Jonah 4:6-7 provides a fourth support for the symbolic argument.

“And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day, God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered.”

Skeptics quickly point to these verses, declaring that it is impossible for a plant to grow and a worm to destroy it so quickly. Therefore, the metaphor is that God cares and shows compassion for those He loves but will also allow them to suffer consequences. The lesson is undeniably true, but not in Jonah’s context.

Some translate “misery” in Jonah 4:6 as  “discomfort.” The Hebrew word here is ra-ah, which has a variety of meanings. It can mean moral evil (3:8) or judgment (3:10). Here, in Jonah 4:6, it means “distress.” God grew the plant (presumably a castor oil plant known for rapid growth) to help Jonah repent of his sour attitude.

But Jonah only sensed the plant’s shade and relief. He failed to realize God’s mercy. His own comfort was more important to him than Ninevah’s repentance. Knowing Jonah’s heart, God sent a worm to destroy the plant (Ezk 17:10) and a hot east wind to blow to stir him to repentance.

Jonah should have learned to love others as yourself (Mt 7:12) and show mercy to your enemies (Mt 5:43-45), but he did not. Perhaps the apostle John sums it up best.

“There is a danger of loving one’s own people more than God. The only way to love God’s people truly is to obey God fully.” (1 John 5:1)

Ancient Ninevite Gate

God is Sovereign

In some ways, Jonah’s story seems fantastic, created out of someone’s imagination. Many believe it is. But these people do not understand God’s power over His creation.

God is sovereign and has total control over all creation, which came into existence through Him and responds to His every word. He can use anything He desires, including nature, to accomplish His will and plan. In this case, it was to prove that He extends His love and mercy to all creatures, not only to His chosen people.

Some may still claim the Book of Jonah is just a fish tale. Maybe it is metaphorical or, perhaps, satirical. Truthfully, it contains much symbolism and humanly unimaginable events. But it does not preclude it from being historical.

However one views Jonah’s story, one should come away with a reminder of God’s unwavering faithfulness, righteousness, and grace. He desires for all to come to Him.

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