The minor prophets cover a span of about 300 years, from 760-450 BC, and Jonah appears right in the middle of that. Jonah overlaps Amos and Hosea in northern Israel, and he finishes his ministry just before Isaiah’s ministry begins in southern Judah.
Jonah is the only narrative in the minor prophets. He was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II when Israel was temporarily growing in strength. He is the first of Israel’s prophets to be sent to a non-Jewish population.
Critics have raised questions about this book. Questions like: Did Jonah write this book himself or is it just a story about him? Is this book historical or allegorical?
The five biggest objections that are raised to Jonah’s historicity are:
- The hyper-nationalistic feel is more like when Ezra and Nehemiah led people back to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon, and not during the time of Jeroboam II.
- Parts of Jonah appear copied from the prophet Joel.
- There are no (or incorrect) details about the major city of Nineveh that Jonah visited.
- There are no extra-biblical historical records of a revival in Nineveh.
- Jonah was swallowed by a fish?!
I think there are very good reasons to believe that Jonah was both autobiographical and historically accurate.
First, there was a revival of sorts (although not religiously) in Israel during the time of Jeroboam II. This was a time that Israel felt like it could flex its muscles again, so Jonah would not be acting out of character to be so pro-Israel.
Second, Jonah 3:9 and Joel 2:14 sound similar, but scholars cannot tell which was written first. Couldn’t God amplify a message? Consider how many parts of the Gospel of Mark are used in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. And it’s a regular practice for authors even today to directly quote other sources.
Third, regarding the lack of details about Nineveh, the biblical writers give very few details of any places outside of Israel or Judah. The only “incorrect” detail skeptics point to is Jonah 3:3 stating that the city was so big that it would take three days to walk around it. Nineveh was a city of about 120,000 inhabitants, so it could easily take three days of walking and preaching in order to get the message to everyone.
Fourth, the revival in Nineveh was clearly short-lived. Jonah was probably in Nineveh around 760 BC. Assyria was rising politically and militarily during that time and defeated Israel just 40 years after Jonah’s preaching. Assyria itself was then defeated in 605 BC.
Finally, Jonah was swallowed by a fish?! The root word for fish in Hebrew means something that has grown to such an enormous size that it overshadows everything else. But notice that what caused the sailors to be in awe of God was not the whale/fish swallowing Jonah, but the immediate calming of the ocean when Jonah was thrown overboard (Jonah 1:15-16). Miracles appear throughout this book. And throughout the entire Bible!
Why should the appearance of miracles surprise us? Some people have a bias against the supernatural, where they wrongly believe that we can know everything through naturalistic means. C.S. Lewis pointed out, “I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power. … Nature as a whole is herself one huge result of the Supernatural: God created her.”
I don’t think this story is a parable or an allegory because nowhere else in the Bible are such details given in the form of a parable.
I believe this story is historical because Jesus talked about the historicity of Jonah in the same breath as He talked about other historical people: the Queen of the South and Solomon (Matthew 12:38-42). Jesus clearly viewed Jonah as historically reliable and accurate. To call Jonah into question is to call into question the truthfulness of Jesus Himself!
History matters because all of History is God’s story!
Our belief in the message of the Bible is not based upon “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s based upon real people in real places, especially the historicity of Jesus (notice all of the historical details Luke lists in the birth account of Jesus).
Jonah was clearly one of those historical people, in an historic place, and at a precise moment in world history that tells the story of Jesus and our redemption which He purchased!
If you want to check out all of the messages in our series on the major lessons from the minor prophets, you can find that list by clicking here.