Jonah: A “Fish Story” or History?

By Wayne Jackson

Edwin Settle, a former college professor and minister (with a doctorate from Yale Divinity School), has directed an arrogant attack against the book of Jonah. His ill-conceived article, titled “Jonah’s big fish story teaches important lesson,” contains the following charge: “The book of Jonah cannot be accepted as history” (Settle, B-4).

Professor Settle listed several “inaccuracies” allegedly contained in the book.

(1) It is incredible that one could be alive for three days in a fish’s belly.

(2) It is unlikely that a city would so unanimously respond to the preaching of someone of a different language and religion.

(3) Jonah speaks of “weeds wrapped about [his] head,” which does not fit the description of being inside a fish.

(4) While there was a king of Assyria, there was no “king of Nineveh,” as suggested in the book.

(5) 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 from the 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 upon a narrative that is filled with lies. How does error encourage 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 that this 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.

(1) 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” (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 1920’s 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).

(2) 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 as to the moral reformation on the part of the Ninevites must stand. 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).

(3) 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 it is not impossible that Jonah could have been consumed along with a quantity of sea-weed. This quibble is truly one of desperation.

(4) 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, whereas Assyria sometimes wielded significant dominion, “at this stage the Assyrian king exercised absolute control over a very limited region centred on Nineveh — hence the designation ‘king of Nineveh’” (Alexander, 60). This objection is thus without validity.

(5) Was Nineveh a city “of three days’ journey” (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.

What 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 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)” (10,11). C.F. Keil thus 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.

Sources/Footnotes
  • 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.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.