The historicity of Jonah (Jonah 3)

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Illustration: Artistic rendering of the prophet Jonah

There is no question that Jonah was a historical person; he is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, where he is said to have predicted the expansion of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. The fact that Jonah was cited for having made a prediction of military success suggests that h was one of the more nationalistic and militaristic prophets, perhaps not too different from Zedekiah, whom the prophet Micaiah opposed in 1 Kings 22. This, in itself, however, sheds no light on whether the book of Jonah is a factual, historical account. If it is pure fiction, its author could have used this prophet as a character because he wanted to make a point about divine compassion; God, in showing mercy to the Ninevites, humbled this angry, super-patriotic prophet.

Arguments against reading Jonah are as follows:

  • Jonah 3:9 is similar to Joel 2:14, suggesting that Jonah was a late work, written long after the lifetime of the historical prophet.
  • The story of Jonah being swallowed alive by “a great fish” seems too far-fetched to be believable.
  • Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2) makes no sense in context. The prophet is depicted as praising God for his salvation while still inside the fish.
  • The account lacks evidence of a real understanding of Nineveh and its history. For example, the author greatly exaggerate the city’s size in claiming that it would require three days to cross it on foot (3:3).
  • There is no historical record thar Nineveh experienced a mass revival or conversion (chapter 3).

It is possible, however, to convincingly address these arguments:

  • It is notoriously difficult to prove which Old Testament text is original when two books contain similar wording. There would be no way in this case to determine whether Jonah or Joel was original or whether the authors of both were merely employing common language.
  • The story of the great fish is miraculous only in the sense that God supernaturally provided a whale to swallow Jonah. There are three critical issues here: (1) The great fish may indeed have been a large whale, which would not normally have been found in the eastern Mediterranean, but the provision of the whale so far from its usual habitat is the miraculous part of the account. (2) The word for “belly” (a term used in some translations) in Hebrew is imprecise and does not necessarily mean “stomach”. Jonah may have been in the oval cavity of a large-mouthed whale. (3) A whale, being a mammal, is a warm-blooded air breather that periodically resurfaces for air. It therefore would have provided Jonah with oxygen, while its body heat would have prevented the prophet from being overcome with hypothermia.
  • The psalm of Jonah 2 is intelligible if we reconstruct events as follows: (1) Jonah, cast overboard during a storm and unable to swim, sank immediately (2:6). (2) A whale scooped him up and carried him to the surface, allowing him to breathe. (3) When the whale kept Jonah near the surface, the prophet recognized God’s provision and was able to praise him.
  • Jonah 3:3 says literally that Nineveh was “a three-days walk”, a possible reference to walking straight across the middle of the city or around its perimeter. But Jonah was required to walk to every neighbourhood and proclaim his message of warning.
  • The Ninevites’ repentance by no means indicated that they became worshipers of Yahweh or converted to the Israelites’ religion but suggests that they ritually asked God to spare them. Historically, this was a short-lived event – unlikely to have shown up in the city’s annals.

Those who regard Jonah as postexilic fiction typically view the work as a counter to the nationalistic zeal of Ezra and Nehemiah. The book presents pagans as ready to repent (chapters 1 and 3) and portrays the Israelite prophet as disobedient, angry and vengeful. There is no doubt that the book of Jonah makes the point that God is compassionate to all people and cares about the Gentiles just as He does about Israel. It is unnecessary, however, to take it to be a postexilic work or a critique of Ezra and Nehemiah. If, as suggested above, Jonah was a nationalistic prophet along the lines of Zedekiah in 1 Kings 22, the events he experienced and the book itself were a corrective to his misguided zeal. God is, as Jonah himself confessed, the maker of both the sea and the dry land (Jonah 1:9), and He does not play favourites in the manner Jonah would have liked.


 

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