Introduction to Jonah – Jonah lived during Jeroboam II’s reign over the Northern Kingdom of Israel (793-753 B.C.). The probable date of composition is about 780 B.C. (somewhere between the death of Elisha and the prophesying of Amos). Some modern scholars believe the entire Book is allegorical, but Jesus referred to Jonah as an actual person and spoke of the great fish as an actual event lending much credibility to the literal, historical interpretation. In addition, Jonah’s dad is mentioned in the Book. I think it is safe to assert that there may be some symbolic meanings and typologies in the Book, but this surely does not dictate the allegorical conclusion that some hold.

How important is it to believe that this Book was literal history? It strongly supports a literal resurrection of Jesus Christ rather than leading future folks to believe He physically did not do this. Therefore, I believe that both Jesus and Jonah were “gone” for three days. No symbolism here. The Book’s purpose is to reveal to God’s people of His sovereign power and loving concern for all His creatures, even animals (4:11). Both Jonah and his people needed to learn this. God’s grace was given to a strong enemy of Israel (the Assyrians) and they were more responsive to God’s message than was Israel, all to the chagrin of Jonah.

Jonah 1 – God orders Jonah to cry against the evil city of Nineveh, but Jonah ran away from His presence and “escaped” onto a ship bound for Tarshish. God caused a great storm and it threatened the lives of all aboard. None of the ship men were Hebrews and they cried out to their gods for help but none came. Somehow they thought there was one person on board that was causing this so they cast lots to find out who it was. Jonah “won.” They now turned to him, found out he was a Hebrew, and Jonah told them to throw him overboard because he believed the sea would then calm down and spare them all. Instead they rowed harder and tried to make it to land. But the storm increased its strength so they called upon Jonah’s God at this point and threw him into the sea. The sea calmed and God appointed a “great fish” to swallow him. He was in the fish for three days and three nights.

Why did Jonah run? First, he ran “from the presence of the Lord.” This implies that he did not want to move in His spirit. He most likely wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed, since they were his enemies, and he also might have been thinking of his own safety. Another thought is perhaps going to Nineveh was the equivalent of a Jew going to Germany during WWII and ordering the Nazi’s to repent. Nineveh was in Assyria. The Assyrians were perhaps the worst enemies in Israel’s history. When I was in Israel in 1977, a Jewish taxi cab driver talked to me about him fighting in three wars to secure Israel’s new nation since 1948. One thing he said to me was that the worst fate for any Israeli soldier was to fall into the hands of the Syrian army. There is a long bloody history there.

Jonah’s statement about God was something the ship men needed to hear, namely, that there is One God and He is sovereign over all. Pagans generally have several gods who are believed to have specific powers but not over everything. Jonah’s willingness to be thrown overboard rather than having the ship return him to land indicated he wanted to die rather than face God and His work, but at least it seems he had concern for the safety of those men on the ship.

What about that “great fish?” Skeptics, of course, ridicule this part of the Book. However, over the years there have been cases where humans have lived inside big fish for days and have survived. The sperm whale or the whale shark could have been summoned to get Jonah. Jesus related this story as an actual historic event when He compared it to His upcoming resurrection. So the length of time that Jonah was in the fish is important. I assume there is enough oxygen in a great fish to support a human life for a brief time, and, if you really think about this, perhaps it also was good staging on God’s part. Specifically, Jonah’s clothes and skin may have been somewhat bleached white from the stomach acid, and if someone approached you looking like some ghost demanding repentance, it would get your attention! 🙂

Other critics claim the story is faulty because a “whale” is not a “fish.” First, we cannot be sure that it was a whale since the Bible says “great fish.” Second, biological categorizing came much later in history. To many people prior to this, any animal that lived in the water and goes under water was a fish whether or not it had gills or lungs, or be warm or cold-blooded. Types and categories are man-made.

Applications for Today:

1) No one can hide from God. Adam and Eve were the first who tried and failed.
2) When we are out of God’s will we become even more self-centered therefore we will not be reflecting God’s character.
3) God loves all people and nationalities (no matter how evil they may have been).

Jonah 2 – Jonah began remembering God and praying to Him from the fish’s belly (he even had weeds around his head). Finally, God had the fish vomit out Jonah on to dry land. There have been several cases where whales get washed up near shore and they do vomit, so even though there are some miraculous aspects to this account of Jonah, there are also natural, feasible aspects as well.

Jonah 3 – God again told Jonah to go to Nineveh, so he did. Nineveh was so large it took a 3-day walk to cover it. Once there, Jonah walked for a full day within the city proclaiming destruction within 40 days. Surprisingly, the people, including the king, repented and turned to God. The king ordered a city-wide fast as well. Consequently, God relented and did not overthrow Nineveh.

Feedback Question:

Peter M – Years ago in a Bible Study we were looking at the Book of Jonah and came upon something rather unexpected: Assyria, and specifically Nineveh, are in a desert. What large body of water is close to Nineveh? The book implies that it was a big body of water, certainly bigger than any of the Finger Lakes. I’d appreciate any insight you might have on this, thanks.

Dave – We cannot assume from the Scriptural account that Jonah was “deposited” very close to Nineveh. Since it is clear that Jonah was off to Tarshish, which is located NNW of Joppa, the Mediterranean Sea had to be the large body of water that the fish was in. It would seem that Jonah therefore had a bit of a trek to get to Nineveh from where the whale vomited. We do know from Scripture that once a person was in the city, it took 3 days to walk through it because it was so large. It had to have taken Jonah weeks to reach Nineveh from the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.

My River Route Theory is another possibility. If we want to get Jonah closer to Nineveh than the Mediterranean Sea shoreline, we could consider the rivers of his day. There are some rivers today in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. One flows into it in the NE corner near where Jonah’s ship would have been located. Back in Jonah’s day that one river may have forked – one branch toward the Med Sea’s NE corner while the other branch was the Euphrates River. The two rivers are not connected today, but maybe they were then. The great fish then could have gone up the one river from the sea, then turned right into the Euphrates branch, then turned left up the Habor River, and then ejected Jonah much closer to Nineveh which was located on the Tigris River. If the fish took a “river route,” it may also explain in a natural sense why the fish vomited. It may have been due to shallow water (as beached whales do today) or the change from salt to fresh water could have triggered the reverse peristalsis. According to maps today that reflect what the rivers looked like in Jonah’s day (which is guesswork), it leaves him about 150 miles away.

Jonah 4 – God sparing Nineveh ticked off Jonah. Still self-absorbed, a sulking Jonah left the city, made a make-shift shelter, and sat and waited to see if God would destroy Nineveh. Jonah knew the deep compassion in God but he apparently did not want to see it given to his enemies. God rebuked him in the end saying that Jonah loved things he did not even work for, so why shouldn’t God have love toward a people (and even their animals) who really don’t know much about what they are doing in life – a people in which He has invested some work.

Applications for Today:

1) God continually works to help the human race. The fact that He let’s us play a role in that Plan is awesome.
2) When God leads us to do something and we don’t think we can do it, we must lean upon His mercy and grace to pull it off. God never says to us, “C’mon, I know you can do it!” He knows His standards are higher than human abilities. This is why He wrote into His Word Galatians 3:24 and John 15:5. The only way we can be free and able to fulfill God’s call is to rely upon His grace.
3) Let us not hate our enemies for whom Christ died.