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The Book of Jonah "Fish Story" or Genuine History?

By Wayne Jackson

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Edwin Settle, retired college professor and minister (with a doctorate from Yale Divinity School), recently directed a sharp 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, p. B-4). Professor Settle then proceeded to list several inaccuracies allegedly contained in the book. These are:

  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. Describing Nineveh as 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 learn from the lessons of this ancient document and allow them to motivate us toward a higher level of human existence. Prior to giving some consideration to the accusations contained in Settle's article, 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 maturer level of spiritual responsibility by reflecting upon a narrative that is filled with lies. How does error encourage truth? That makes no sense whatever. 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 (Matt. 12:40). He even argued that this was a topological 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 smacks of an atheistic mentality. That aside, even from a strictly naturalistic viewpoint, survival after being swallowed by a huge fish is not impossible. In the late 1920s 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, p. 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 (Matt. 12:41). Frankly, the Lord has a bit more credibility than any modern critic who has abandoned his confidence in the Bible, if indeed he ever had any.

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 seaweed. This objection is truly one of desperation that simply refuses to consider a reasonable approach to the inspired text.

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 Kings 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 at times exercised significant dominion, "at this stage the Assyrian king exercised absolute control over a very limited region centered on Nineveh - hence the designation 'king of Nineveh'" (Alexander, p. 60). This objection is 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 proper. In Genesis 10 we note, "Out of that land he went forth into Assyria, and builded Nineveh and Calah (the same is the great city)" (vv. 10, 11). C.F. Keil 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 p. 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.


Notes

Alexander, Desmond (1988), "Jonah," Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D. J. Wiseman, Ed. (Downer's Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press).

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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Published November 1993