The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the most iconic tales in the Old Testament. The story has a flair of the dramatic. The prophet of God refuses to preach a message of mercy. A terrible storm turns calm when the prophet is thrown into the sea. A huge sea creature swallows the prophet and spits him up again, alive, three days later. In the end, the reader discovers the hero is really the villain. The book of Jonah is incredible, but is it true?
None deny the remarkable nature of the book of Jonah. It stands out among the prophets. The text itself presents the story as if it is a factual account. Nothing in the book of Jonah indicates it is a fable. The only reason to suppose the story of Jonah is not true is because of the miraculous events it contains. However, any God who can part the Red Sea, can feed an entire nation with a daily supply of manna for forty years, can keep three men from burning to death in a furnace and can cause a city to collapse when some priests blow their trumpets can certainly keep a man alive in a large ocean creature for three days, can direct that creature to the shoreline and can cause the creature to regurgitate the disagreeable prophet at the proper time. Jonah is full of miracles, but the presence of the miraculous is not proof of fiction.
Most importantly, Jesus treated the story of Jonah as if it was true. When the scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus that He was the promised Messiah He told them the only sign they would see was “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39) Jesus then said he would spend three days in the tomb like Jonah was three days in the whale. Jesus warned the skeptics by pointing to the repentance of Nineveh. The Ninevites will condemn the scribes and Pharisees because they believed the preaching of Jonah, but the religious leaders refused to listen to the One greater than Jonah. In that conversation Jesus treats the story of Jonah as if it contained actual history. He does not respond to the tale of Jonah as if it was just a Jewish fable designed to teach a lesson on obedience or compassion. Jesus represents Jonah as historical truth that pictures the greater historical truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Does it matter if Jonah is true or not? As with all the miraculous events of the Bible, it matters a great deal if the events actually occurred or if they were fictions created by the prophets to teach deeper spiritual truths. It matters because the rest of the Bible responds to the miracles as if they were real events. If the Bible cannot be trusted to distinguish between moral fable and genuine history, how can it be trusted to distinguish between theological truth and religious error? The stories of the Bible matter. If the Bible is not reliable in matters of history, how can it be reliable on matters of salvation?