Tell me if you’ve heard this story before. God tells Jonah to go on a short-term missions trip to Nineveh. But cowardly Jonah sails in the opposite direction. God sends a storm, Jonah falls overboard, and a big fish swallows Jonah. Three days later, Jonah says he’s sorry, and the fish spits Jonah onto dry land. He goes to Nineveh, and they all say yes to Jesus, and Jonah is a hero. So ends the story of Jonah and the whale.
If you’ve heard that story before, congrats! You’re probably in therapy now (just like me). If you haven’t, consider it a cultural experience.
(I saw a spider in my room after writing the line above. Don’t worry, I did exactly what you would have done.)
What’s so wrong with this version of Jonah?
Well first, it’s not how the story actually goes. Jonah is a rich story about a deeply flawed character. But you wouldn’t know that if you grew up in the average conservative church. Instead, the story is often treated as a holiness-detector test. Here’s how the argument usually goes:
1. The Bible says Jonah survived three days in the belly of the whale.
2. Jesus affirms the story of Jonah and the whale.
3. So if you don’t believe the story actually happened, then you don’t trust Jesus.
4. If you don’t trust Jesus, you’re not a real Christian.
But here’s the problem, we wasted so much time learning how to prove that Jonah really happened that we never let the story move us toward meaningful action.
What is Jonah and the whale about?
Jonah is an Israelite. Israelites hate Nineveh and its people. After all, Nineveh was the biggest bully on the playground of the ancient near east for a few hundred years.
So God calls Jonah to turn the city over. “Turn over” meant one of two things, destruction or a revolutionary change. Jonah has an inkling of how God’s moving, so he sails away.
God sends a storm, and Jonah gets woken up by the sailors who fear the ship will break apart. They discover that Jonah is the cause of their problem. But instead of throwing him overboard, they go out of their way to save this man they’ve never met. But it’s no use. The storm won’t stop.
But Jonah knows what God is like. At any moment, Jonah could have asked for forgiveness, and the storm would stop. That’s why his next choice is so disturbing. He asks to be thrown overboard to almost certain death.
Wait, why do we teach this book to kids?
Jonah sinks, and God sends a whale to save him. After three days, Jonah prays, and the fish throws him up on dry land. He goes to Nineveh and preaches some sort of message. The people all repent (including the cows) and find a better way to live.
Meanwhile, Jonah sits on a hill overlooking the city, desperately hoping God will kill every man, woman, and child. God plants a tree to give Jonah shade, but a little later, God kills the plant. Jonah gets really hot and wants to die (relatable).
The story closes with a question from God that I’ll summarize: “Jonah, you didn’t put any work into that plant, but you cared for it. Now is it wrong for me to care for these people in Nineveh and their cows?”
Yes, the last word in Jonah is the word for cow or livestock. Why? Because it’s a deeply strange book. There’s so much nuance, humor, and wisdom to learn from this book. But we miss the story’s point when we spend all of our time trying to prove that it actually happened.
But did Jonah and the whale actually happen?
I don’t think so, but I know plenty of people who do. I don’t think less of them, and they don’t think less of me. And yes, I’m aware that Jesus mentions Jonah. But he doesn’t say, “Jonah was a real person.” Instead, he connects a plot point from the Jonah story to his experience.
It’s like how a coach says they had a “cinderella story” of a season. They’re not commenting on the historicity of the Cinderella movie. Instead, they use the popular story as shorthand for a big idea.
Talking history vs. moving forward.
I’m a history nerd, and I love talking about the Bible’s relationship with history. But if you had to plan a sermon or Bible study on Jonah, which would be more impactful.
1. How to prove Jonah happened so you can win online arguments.
2. How to love a God who also loves our worst enemies.
I think we can agree that the first one is easier, but the second is more meaningful.
Let’s use the Bible well.
Jonah and the whale is just one example of this problem. Creation, Noah’s ark, and Jericho are a few places we can get stuck on the wrong issues. So let’s keep looking for answers together and definitely keep studying history. But let’s remember that Jesus didn’t call us to win arguments. He’s called us to live like him.
Jesus is the anti-Jonah. He stepped into God’s call and allowed himself to become a victim for the sake of everyone. Now we get to follow his lead. One of the best ways to find out how is by reading the story of Jonah and talking about it with others. If you’re interested in learning more about Jonah, check out this podcast.