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Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1974
AuthorsTvedtnes, John A.
Issue Number6
Date PublishedJune 1974
KeywordsAssyria; Historicity; Jonah (Prophet)

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By John A. Tvedtnes

The historicity of the story of Jonah has been questioned by some scholars on several counts. First, they say, the account is vague, and while some specific places are mentioned (Nineveh, Joppa, Tarshish), the king of Nineveh, for example, is never mentioned.

Second, the Old Testament provides the only account of the dramatic repentance of the Ninevites.

Third, the very nature of the Book of Jonah leads some experts to believe that it is pure fiction, written for the express purpose of proving the omnipresence and love of the God of the Hebrews (hence its lack of historical milieu).

Fourth, some have argued that there exists no whale or “great fish” whose throat is large enough to permit it to swallow a man whole.

The first three objections are negative in nature and not conclusive. A true story could easily be written without historical perspective if the purpose of the narrative is to prove a given point. Without the change brought about by the repentance of the people of Nineveh, the story of Jonah is without historical value. But the moral value of the story does justify its existence and demonstrates again God’s love when we are obedient to what he asks of us.

Jonah’s apprehension at being called to preach repentance to Nineveh is easier to understand when one learns of the cruelty for which the Assyrians were known. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, for example, made known how he tortured captives, including women and children. Some were left to die of thirst, while others were imprisoned or burnt alive. Still others were impaled on stakes, flayed, and left to dehydrate in the sun. The now-famous wall panel of Sennacherib from Nineveh, depicting the taking of Lachish, shows Assyrians torturing Israelite captives in this manner. The luckier ones escaped with minor tortures, such as amputation of a hand, an ear, a finger, a nose, or having their eyes put out.

Jonah’s fear of the Assyrians, then, was not without justification. It was only after suffering through a dangerous storm at sea and the harrowing experience of being swallowed by a fish or whale that he decided to brave the wicked population of Nineveh.

Jesus’ reference to Jonah, however, has added credibility to the account. (See Matt. 12:38–41; Matt. 16:4; Luke 11:29–30.) And it is interesting to note that the Greek New Testament uses the word “whale,” while the Hebrew book of Jonah says that “the Lord had prepared a great fish.” (Jonah 1:17.)

The fact that the animal was “prepared” could indicate that it was not a conventional animal, and that it was easily capable of swallowing a man whole. In addition, there exists a more recently documented case of a man who was actually swallowed by a whale and lived to tell about it.

In 1891, a whaling crew operating off the Falkland Islands was beset with difficulties. A whale, which emerged when a harpoon sunk into its flesh, turned on the small boat and capsized it. Three of the men who were overboard were unable to make it back to the mother vessel.

Later that evening, the dying whale surfaced and was rigged to the side of the whaling ship. When the crew began the task of butchering it, one of the three missing men, James Bartley, was found inside the whale’s stomach. He had survived in his mammalian undersea prison for 15 hours! The acidity of the whale’s stomach had permanently bleached his skin and removed his hair, and he was almost blind. Unable to continue his chosen trade, Bartley turned to shoe making and remained a cobbler the rest of his life.

The seemingly impossible story of Jonah becomes more believeable when viewed in relationship to the equally fantastic—but true—modern event. And as for the historicity of the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, he is known to have lived in the days of Jeroboam II. (See 2 Kgs. 14:25.)

Brother Tvedtnes is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He serves as counselor in the Jerusalem Branch presidency.