Why Is the Story and Meaning of Jonah and the Whale Often Mistaken?

What we discover upon deep inspection of Jonah is that the book has very little to do with fish or whales; Jonah evokes themes of depravity, denial, doubt, and obedience both outside the church and within. He deserves a closer look.

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 11, 2020
Why Is the Story and Meaning of Jonah and the Whale Often Mistaken?

When atheists want to make their point against Christianity, they often look to Jonah. They say that a fish could not swallow a man or spit him out. Christians reply that the “fish” was probably a whale and that a whale is easily large enough to swallow a man.

We know that a whale’s stomach can hold at least the equivalent of a man in terms of weight and volume. Just consider the recent story of a dead sperm whale in Scotland whose stomach contained a 220lb “litter ball.” Once the fish-whale matter is cleared up, however, it turns out that believers and unbelievers make far weightier mistakes about the book of Jonah. Here is why.

We Like Heroes

Christians are as frequently as guilty as anyone of believing that Jonah represents a flawed hero — the good guy — while the pagans are simply the bad guys. One set of unbelievers throws Jonah into the sea. Another set of pagans is as hard-living and debauched as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Yet, the case is not clear-cut. As “the sea grew more and more tempestuous,” the crew of the ship Jonah sailed on asked, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” (Jonah 1:11). Jonah responded, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea” (Jonah 1:12).

Instead, the men tried to get to shore by rowing harder. They even called out “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” (Jonah 1:14). After this, they threw Jonah overboard.

As Tim Keller writes, these bad men “show more moral virtue than [the] prophet.” Firstly, they tried not to throw him overboard. The men believed Jonah would die and preferred to save him. They also recognized that Jonah’s God was in charge of the situation.

Jonah, in the meantime, put these men in the difficult position of having to risk the displeasure of God. If the Lord was displeased enough with his own prophet to put him in mortal peril, imagine what he might have done to these pagans if they had killed Jonah? He should have jumped. Instead, he forced the sailors to throw him into the water. In other words, Jonah was not a hero; the sailors were not villains.

The epic proportions of God’s power were famous; he didn’t need Jonah to spread the news. Jonah acknowledged as much: “You are a gracious God and merciful” (Jonah 4:2). His kindness was well known. Jonah, meanwhile, “refused to treat [the pagans] as human beings in the image of God, and therefore of equal worth with him and his people,” writes Keller.

Jonah did not concern himself with the well-being of the sailors. Furthermore, he was so reluctant to share God’s mercy with the “evil” Ninevites that he ran from God’s commission. He was not the “good guy” in this story but a normal, flawed human being who only did what he was told as a matter of duty, after being given a second chance. God was merciful and demonstrated his mercy through both his control over nature (the fish, the comforting shade of a plant) and through the pagans he sought to reach by his merciful word.

We Mistake Recognition for Mass Conversion

Everyone got a second chance here: Jonah as the legalistic, judgmental Jew; the pagans as lost men and women. We want the story of Jonah to be one of the sailors and Ninevites not only recognizing God but also turning to him as their Lord. Some of the language even suggests as much.

The king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Next, the king called for a fast and decreed “let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Then, “God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:6-9).

The sailors called out to the Lord, they believed in him, but there is no indication that they put their trust in him as the one true God. Meanwhile, in his explanation of Jonah, Tim Keller says “we tend to think that the Ninevites’ repentance was a mass conversion.” Yet, all that Scripture tells us is that “they stopped doing violence to each other — they stopped exploiting, abusing, and killing each other.”

This amounted not to repentance and conversion but to “social reform,” which pleased God enough to “spare the city.” This confusion is understandable given the king’s decree; yet, as Keller indicates, becoming the people of God would also have involved circumcision and putting away idols.

In that case, one cannot say with certainty that the Ninevites or the sailors were converted by their experience of a holy and powerful God. They certainly recognized his power, though, and the Ninevites were convicted of their sin.

Jonah did not repent by the end of this chapter either. His heart needed turning. The prophet did the right things, just as the sailors and Ninevites did, but he did not love the Lord by the end. His second chance at recognizing his own depth of depravity, his deep need for mercy, might have been squandered after all.

We Forget Israel’s Pride as a Nation

“It displeased Jonah exceedingly” that Nineveh was spared; that his God was so “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:1-3). One explanation is that Jonah resented God’s kindness towards depraved people he believed were unworthy of mercy. He acted like the Pharisees, shocked that Jesus would hang out with sinners. Perhaps Jonah thought the evil Ninevites would return to their wickedness and make a fool of the Lord after Jonah departed.

If so, Jonah forgot that God’s message to these people had nothing to do with Jonah; he was the instrument of God’s glory, power, and mercy. Jonah did his duty, but God wanted “steadfast love, not sacrifice” from Jonah (Hosea 6:6). He also wanted Jonah’s humility: After all, “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).

Jonah did feel superior at a spiritual level — he looked down on the pagans from his lofty position one of God’s chosen people. The poor of Spirit desperately needed to hear God’s word, but Jonah “would shame the plans of the poor,” for whom “the Lord is their refuge” (Psalm 14:6).

However, Keller proposes another interpretation of Jonah’s resentment and a reason why he fled from God: Nineveh’s second chance might have seemed like a threat to Jonah and his nation. Jonah “put his national interests ahead of the Ninevites’ need to hear God’s truth.” Israel meant more to him than “love for and service to God.”

He was well aware of what happened when God withheld favor from a country, whether that was Israel or Israel’s enemy. Showing grace to Nineveh might have given them an opportunity to earn God’s favor over Israel. A jealous prophet was less interested in God’s will than in his personal status and perhaps felt Israel alone was entitled to God’s favor.

It’s Simpler to Say Jonah Foreshadows Jesus

Jonah points to Jesus, but an argument that Jesus is a better Jonah would not stand up to intelligent discussion. Many men behaved more admirably than Jonah even within this short book, not to mention many more men (and women) throughout Scripture. Jonah is not the namesake of impaired wisdom or imperfect courage but of cowardice and resentment.

Jonah’s ordeal inside the belly of the whale certainly evokes Christ’s death and resurrection over the same time period. Jesus, however, experienced the full wrath of God, which he endured willingly for our sakes. Jonah would not weep over a people who came close to destruction, but “Jesus, the true prophet, did.”

While “Jonah went outside the city, hoping to witness its condemnation, [...] Jesus Christ went outside the city to die on a cross to accomplish its salvation” Keller remarks. In every parallel, Jonah emerges as an example of how not to behave, and only the direction of his travel changes.

One might more profitably compare Jonah with Paul, who risked his life in loving service to God, to believers, and to unbelievers. When a Gentile jailer threatened suicide because his Christian prisoners were about to escape, “Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here’” (Acts 16:28).

He was courageous, loving, and obedient to the Lord. God rebukes Jonah: “Should not I pity Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). Paul’s heart, however, was moved by unbelief, such as in Athens when he “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).

Jonah felt entitled to see God enact justice against non-Jews, blind to the reality that the Ninevites were God’s children, his created works, more valuable than the shade plant pitied by Jonah, that “came into being in a night and perished in a night” (Jonah 4:10).

Jonah proudly pitied the plant more than the people. Paul wrote, “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). God wants our hearts to be moved for those who are lost. Paul is a better Jonah. Jesus is in a class by himself.

What Does This Mean?

We all desperately need the Lord. Jonah enjoyed direct guidance from God, something many of us crave, and yet he rejected it. What we discover upon deep inspection of Jonah is that the book has very little to do with fish or whales; Jonah evokes themes of depravity, denial, doubt, and obedience both outside the church and within. He deserves a closer look.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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