The Historicity of Jonah Examined
The following is my response to some charges presented against the historical accuracy of the book of Jonah. It is indeed unfortunate that there are some who profess to believe in the Lord Jesus while attacking the accuracy of the Old Testament. The reason why this is unfortunate will become apparent as we develop our arguments against the false accusations against the book of Jonah.
All names will be omitted in order to protect the parties' identities. According to one gentleman Jonah is wrong because:
(Name omitted) et. al.,
Indeed, the accusation is a valid one if in fact the book claimed that Jonah was thrown on the land of Ninevah. Seeing that this is not what the book of Jonah claims, the problem is therefore with the objector's misreading of the text. This is what the text actually says:
Notice that the text does not say where Jonah landed. In fact, when one reads what immediately follows it is clear that the fish did not vomit Jonah anywhere near Nineveh:
This clearly implies that Jonah had not been vomited on the land of Nineveh since had he been there would have been no reason for God to recall him to Nineveh. Jonah would have realized that the reason why the great fish vomited him on the land of Nineveh was to preach the message God had given him for the people. The fact that the text states that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time clearly implies that after coming out from the fish's belly, a period of time had elapsed before God recalled him. Presumably, Jonah returned to Israel from the place where the fish had vomited him.
Jonah 1:3 supports this interpretation. There, the prophet is said to have taken a ship headed towards Tarshish. Some scholars believe that Tarshish is actually a place in Spain called Tartessus. As the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 1, Old Testament, indicates:
Therefore, Jonah could have been vomited anywhere near the Mediterranean.
Hence, there is no problem with the text of Jonah. Rather, the problem stems from the objector's ignorance of what the Scripture actually says, choosing to insert his own words into the book and forcing it to contradict.
The objector continues:
This again demonstrates an ignorance of the text of the Holy Bible. The reason why God wiped out whole nations is due to the abominations that these nations committed:
Some of the wickedness of these nations included the following:
This is called justice, not bloody massacres. In fact, the Holy Bible affirms that God patiently waited for these nations to come into repentance, even giving them a certain period of time before entering into judgment against them:
Speaking of the very people Israel was to later displace in the land of Canaan, God clearly specifies a certain limit to the sin that the Amorites would be allowed to commit. This demonstrates clearly that God in his mercy grants time for repentance. Yet, God's justice demands that nations be punished for committing abominable acts.
Furthermore, the same God that gave the land to Israel also distributed lands to other nations, lands that Israel was forbidden to take:
"Then the LORD said to me, 'Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.' (The Emites used to live there - a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. Like the Anakites, they too were considered Rephaites, but the Mooabites called them Emites. Horites used to live in Seir, but the descendants of Esau drove them out. They destroyed the Horites from before them and settled in their place, just as Israel did in the land the LORD gave them as their possession.)" Deuteronomy 2:9-12
"Now when the last of these fighting men among the people had died, the LORD said to me, 'Today you are to pass by the region of Moab at Ar. When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.' (That too was considered a land of the Rephaites, who used to live there; but the Ammonites called them Zamzummites. They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The LORD destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. The LORD had done the same for the descendants of Esau, who lived in Seir, when he destroyed the Horites from before them. They drove them out and have lived in their place to this day." Deuteronomy 2:16-22
"Are not you Israelites THE SAME TO ME as the Cushites? declares the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" Amos 9:7
This demonstrates God's concern for other nations, highlighting his impartiality and care for humanity as a whole, as these passages show:
"In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, Blessed be Egypt MY PEOPLE, Assyria MY HANDIWORK, and Israel MY INHERITANCE." Isaiah 19:23-25
Thirdly, God gave Israel strict orders not to chase after other nations and wipe them out. Rather, Israel was to first negotiate peaceably with them:
Finally, it is amazing that the objector could make such assertions seeing that the entire theme of Jonah is God's love for all nations, not just Israel. In fact, it was Jonah who was angry that God spared Nineveh. Notice the exchange between God and his disenchanted prophet:
The whole point of the book is to highlight that Yahweh is not a nationalistic deity. Rather, Yahweh is the God of all creation and cares for all peoples and desires none to perish. Yahweh even cares for the animals of the earth! This theme is also stated in the New Testament:
How then can anyone claim that God is an "unforgiving fellow" seeing that God relented from bringing destruction upon a pagan nation due to their repentance is beyond us.
Some also try to point to additional problems with the story. For instance, it is claimed that the statement in Jonah 3:3 that it would take three days to visit Nineveh is an exaggeration. The Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary comments on the amount of days it would have taken Jonah to travel throughout Ninevah:
"A visit required three days" is literally "a distance of three days." This could mean that it took three days to go either across it or around it; but it certainly does not mean what the NIV rendering might be taken to imply, that it would take three days to visit every part of it. Modern archaeology has shown that the inner wall had a length of almost eight miles. (Ibid., pp. 1463-64)
The NIV Study Bible's footnote on Jonah 3:3 states:
Christian Apologists Norman Geisler & Thomas Howe add:
Other commentators propose that Jonah is not claiming that it would take three days to walk straight through the city. Rather, Jonah observed that it would take three days to go through all the various areas in the entire city. Those who hold this position point out that Jonah went to Nineveh in order to proclaim the message of judgment to the people. This would require him to go to every part of the city, not simply to walk through the middle from one side to the other. This also fits the statement of verse 4 in which Jonah enters the city and, in the first day's walk, proclaimed the message as he went along." (When Critic's Ask - A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties [Victor Books 1992], p. 308)
Another argument is that there could not have been 120,000 young children living in Nineveh as Jonah 4:11 mistakenly claims. Such a number is too high for the estimated population of Nineveh at the time. Again, the Zondervan NIV Commentary notes:
That the phrase "children" is referring to the entire population of Nineveh, and not just to the children, can be seen from the fact that the entire nation of Israel is spoken of as young children carried by God in the same way that a father carries his young:
"For the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions." Deuteronomy 32:9-11
"You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth. The LORD saw this and rejected them because he was angered by his sons and daughters." Deuteronomy 32:18-19
"Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you." Isaiah 46:3-4
"'Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. But Zion said, 'The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.' Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. Your sons hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. Lift up your eyes and look around; all your sons gather and come to you. As surely as I live,' declares the LORD, 'you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride. Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away. The children born during your bereavement will yet say in your hearing, "This place is too small for us; give us more space to live in." Then you will say in your heart, "Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren; I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up? I was left all alone, but these - where have they come from?"' This is what the Sovereign LORD says: 'See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders. Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.'" Isaiah 49:13-23
In light of the preceding factors and plausible explanations, we find that there are no real historical objections to the book of Jonah. The burden of proof rests upon the one claiming that actual contradictions do exist. One must demonstrate a real bonafide error. It is not enough to assert that there are problems or apparent contradictions seeing that these alleged problems are easily resolved by a careful reading of the context.
Another objector was rather verbose about the story of the fish swallowing Jonah. We include the email in its entirety since it is relevant to our discussion:
(Name withheld) wrote:
This ship was bound for the Hawaiian Islands ( were there hot babes on board ?? ) when all of a sudden the sea turned violent. Everyone decided it was Jonah's fault and threw him over board. Here's were the weirdo fish comes in the picture......this fish was obviously hungry. Now the fish swallows Jonah. Jonah is in it's stomach for three days?? And then the fish had an upset stomach, so, Jonah was barft-out again?? I don't know about you guys, but, I don't know of too many fish that get upset stomachs. If the this fish had an upset stomach, then why didn't it go to Walgreen's and buy some Pepto-Bizmo??
Implicit in the objector's sarcasm is a denial of the supernatural, that to even imagine that a fish would actually swallow a man only to barf him out on dry land is utterly foolish. Yet, if one reads the text carefully one discovers that this act was caused by God's intervention:
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. Jonah 2:10
The point of the story is to demonstrate God's sovereign control over all creation, including the seas and animals. In fact, the irony of the story is that whereas the fish knew to obey God's command Jonah, a rational agent, did not obey God but thought that he could run from his Creator!
Therefore, if one begins with the assumption that a Sovereign, Almighty and All-knowing God exists then one should have no problem that this all-powerful Being can intervene within time and space and override the very natural laws that he himself instituted. Seeing that the objector later in his email claims to believe in the Lord Jesus we really cannot understand how he could therefore object to this miraculous intervention of God.
The objector continues:
Aside from the very rude and offensive snide remarks, let us see the reason behind the inhabitants of Nineveh believing the message of this foreign prophet:
"As the crowds increased, Jesus said, 'This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except THE SIGN OF JONAH. For as Jonah WAS A SIGN to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.'" Luke 11:29-32
In the preceding passages Jesus affirms:
Noted Christian Apologist John Gilchrist expounds:
"You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" Jonah 4.10-11
The second great event in this story, that is, the repentance of the whole city of Nineveh, was all the more remarkable when one considers that the Assyrians neither knew nor feared God and had no obvious reason why they should heed the word and warning which Jonah brought. There was no sign that the city would be destroyed in forty days as Jonah warned as life was just going on normally from day to day without any suggestion from the weather or the elements that any danger was near.
No thunderclouds formed over the city as had happened at the time of Noah when the great flood burst on the earth. Nineveh was a mighty city and was in no way under any military threat. All that the city heard was the solitary voice of a Jewish prophet who came proclaiming: "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (Jonah 3.4).
We often see cartoons of bearded old men carrying placards "the world ends tonight" and such men are always a source of amusement when they appear on the streets with such messages. Indeed the Ninevites might have considered that Jonah was just one of these religious freaks and while being amused at his apparent earnestness, they might have become somewhat indignant at the content of his warning.
When the Apostle Paul went to the city of Athens he was met with such a reception. In response to his preaching some said "What would this babbler say"? (Acts 17.18). The people of Nineveh listening to the Hebrew prophet Jonah might well have mused as the Athenians did about the Apostle Paul, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities" (Acts 17.18). We discover, however, that:
The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Jonah 3.5
From the throne of the king down to the least of the common folk the hundreds of thousands of Ninevites took Jonah in all seriousness, repented in great earnest, and desperately sought to remove the imminent judgment from their city. Jonah in no way endeavoured to persuade them of the truth of his short, simple warning - he just proclaimed it as a matter of fact. He also gave them no assurance that God would spare the city if they repented. It was, on the contrary, his wish and expectation that the city would be destroyed in terms of God's warning whether the Ninevites took him seriously or not.
Why then did the whole city repent and do so in the hope that God would not cause them to perish? (Jonah 3.9). Jewish historians were fascinated by this story and concluded that the only possible explanation was that the Ninevites knew that Jonah had been swallowed up by a fish as God's judgment on his disobedience, and also knew that while he would normally die in such circumstances, God in mercy kept him alive and delivered him from the stomach of the fish on the third day. This alone could explain the seriousness with which they listened to Jonah and their hope of mercy if they repented.
The Jewish historians concluded that the Ninevites reasoned that if God treats his beloved prophets so severely when they disobey him, what could they expect when the city was in the gall of bitterness against him and in the bond of iniquity and sin?
The reasoning of the Jews was correct. Jesus confirmed that Nineveh's repentance came about as a result of their full knowledge of Jonah's ordeal of the preceding days. He made this quite plain when he said:
"Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh". Luke 11.30
In saying this Jesus put the seal of authenticity on the story of Jonah's ordeal and Nineveh's repentance and confirmed that it was historically true. At the same time he also gave credence to the theory that the people of Nineveh had heard of Jonah's ordeal and remarkable deliverance and as a result of this took his message in all seriousness, hoping for a similar deliverance in turning from their wickedness in repentance before God. By saying that Jonah had become a sign to the men of Nineveh he made it plain that the city knew of the recent history of God's dealing with the rebellious Jewish prophet. This explained the earnestness with which the Ninevites repented before God.
It was not Jesus' intention merely to confirm Jewish speculations, however. He wished to show that what had happened at the time of Jonah and its sequel was applicable to the people of Israel in his own generation and that a similar sign was about to be given which would likewise lead to the redemption of those who received it and the destruction of all those who did not. (Gilchrist, What Indeed was the Sign of Jonah? [Jesus to the Muslims, PO Box 1804, Benoni, 1500 Republic of South Africa], pp. 11-14)
We observe that
Therefore, for anyone claiming to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and his resurrection must also by necessity believe in Jonah and the story of the fish. To deny one is to deny the other.
The objector continues:
The objector claims to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet he then proceeds to mock anyone who affirms the historicity of the book of Jonah, going so far as to say that a child who believes in the story of Jonah might accuse his father of being hooked on crack. This means that, God forbid, Jesus must have been hooked on crack also since he clearly affirms the story of Jonah as actual history. The fact that the Lord Jesus left the tomb empty on the third basically means we can take Jesus at his word. We know of no one else who rose from the dead on the third day as a vindication of his claims of being the eternal Son of God who came down from heaven. Until someone else is able to come back alive from the dead, we will put our money on Jesus and say that the only ones on crack are those who indirectly accuse Jesus of being a liar for claiming that the story of Jonah is actual history.
Geisler and Howe nicely summarize the evidence that establishes the historicity of Jonah:
First, the tendency to deny the historicity of Jonah stems from an antisupernatural bias. If miracles are possible, there is no real reason to deny that Jonah is historical.
Second, Jonah and his prophetic ministry is mentioned in the historical book of 2 Kings (14:25). If his supernatural prediction is mentioned in a historical book, why should the historical nature of his prophetical book be rejected!
Third, the most devastating argument against the denial of the historical accuracy of Jonah is found in Matthew 12:40. In this passage Jesus predicts His own burial and resurrection, and provides the doubting scribes and Pharisees the sign that they demanded. The sign is the experience of Jonah. Jesus says, "For as Jonah was three days and three night in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." If the tale of Jonah's experience in the belly of the great fish was only fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus' claim. The point of making reference to Jonah is that if they did not believe the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish, then they would not believe the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of His own death, burial and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one was to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12). Likewise, if they believed one, they should believe the other.
Fourth, Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign verified His claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here Jesus was in the presence of His own people, the very people of God, and yet they refused to believe. Therefore, the men of Nineveh would stand up in judgment against them, "because they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah" (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the Book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.
Finally, there is archaeological confirmation of a prophet named Jonah whose grave is found in northern Israel. In addition, some ancient coins have been unearthed with an inscription of a man coming out of a fish's mouth." (Geisler & Howe, pp. 307-308)
In light of all that has been said, we proudly take our stand on the side of the archaeological evidence as well as the testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ and affirm that Jonah is in fact true history. Those who clam otherwise will have to give an answer to our Lord Jesus on the day he returns to judge both the living and the dead.
In the service of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ forever. Amen. Come Lord Jesus. We love you and believe in every word you have spoken. We know that you being God can never lie, but always speak the truth.
"Sanctify them by the truth; YOUR WORD IS TRUTH." John 17:17
"a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, WHO DOES NOT LIE, promised before the beginning of time," Titus 1:2
"God did this so that, by two unchangeable things IN WHICH IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD TO LIE, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged." Hebrews 6:18
"and from Jesus Christ, WHO IS THE FAITHFUL WITNESS, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father-to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Revelation 1:5-6
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, THE FAITHFUL AND TRUE WITNESS, the ruler of God's creation." Revelation 3:14
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