Jonah – Parable, Allegory or History?
In his book Introduction to the Old Testament, RK Harrison1 says there are three main viewpoints on the style of literature presented to us in the book of Jonah: it is either an allegory, a parable or historical narrative. There may be other views, but they don’t rate highly. So which is it?
An allegory is a style of writing a bit like a huge metaphor. A metaphor compares one reality with a symbol, but if I extended that throughout an entire narrative, I would be producing an allegorical text. In an allegory, symbolic figures represent a truth which is being hidden. The symbols are not genuine, but the truth they point to is.
So straight away you can see that if the book of Jonah is allegorical, then Jonah himself never existed in history. He would represent Israel which has turned its back on the Lord. Being swallowed by a fish could be the Babylonian captivity and exile, while the preaching at Nineveh might mean Israel finally gets on board with God’s plan.
Allegories are not “un-Biblical” but they are notoriously hard to pin down. There are no rules governing their interpretation so the preacher gets free reign to make anything of it he likes.
I was attending a men’s breakfast some years ago at which the speaker was recounting the story of David going to face Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. David goes to the battleground, approaches Saul and offers to fight the Philistine. After a brief exchange between the two Saul agrees.
Then Saul clothed David with his armour. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armour. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd's pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine. (1 Samuel 17:38-40 ESV).
To my amazement, I listened as the speaker told us Saul’s armour represented our modern day Bible colleges who continually restrict theological students with regulations and teachings which are quenching the Holy Spirit!
That is an allegory, although that speaker wanted to say that David & Goliath actually existed as well. Confusing to say the least.
There is nothing in the text to suggest the story of Jonah is an allegory. Somewhere along the line we would need an explanation of the meaning and none is given.
No doubt those who believe Jonah is an allegory point to Jesus’ words in Matthew 12 where he says the three days Jonah was in the fish represent Jesus’ time in the tomb. Fair enough, but I think that’s more of a ‘type’ in the manner of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12) or the snake held up on the pole (Numbers 21). I still don’t think we have enough evidence to say this is an allegory.
A more common view is that the book of Jonah is one long parable. Again, that has the problem of meaning that Jonah probably didn’t exist. Not everyone is bothered by that. Jesus told lots of parables & no one suggests the people spoken of in those were real. Perhaps this is just an Old Testament version of the same. There seems to be no reason from within the book of Jonah itself why this could not be the case.
In fact there are plenty of examples of Old Testament parables, even if they are not as lengthy as a whole book. Harrison points out that when the prophet Nathan confronted David in 2 Samuel 12 about his adultery with Bathsheba, he used a parable about sheep to drive home his point.
Likewise, when Jesus told a parable it was pretty obvious but he didn’t use real names to indicate where the characters stood in history. He always spoke of “a certain man”, not one of the prophets by name, unless he really did want to make a point about something they said.
Again, if this was a parable, then no meaning is given. There is no obvious reason for the fish miracle and the central character, Jonah, is not even persuaded by his own message. If Jonah was the central character in one long Old Testament parable, then he is not a type of Christ, because he represents rebellion, not devotion and certainly not obedience to the Father’s will.
But Jesus specifically uses 'the sign of the prophet Jonah' in relation to himself. I don’t think it adds up.
Consequently, I am happy to accept the historicity of Jonah and all that is said about him – including the fish miracle. I suspect the whole argument over the truth of this account sprang up in the 19th century as liberalism flexed its muscles in the western Church.
Some have tried to counter the scepticism by pointing out that many sailors have been reported as surviving a night in a whale. The story of James Bartley3 is probably the most famous, but I’m not much interested in that. All that will come from such investigations (if they actually prove true, which is by no means certain!) is an explanation from the laws of physics which the ancients unwittingly assumed was a miracle. And where does that leave us?
I believe in a miraculous God and I’m happy to accept he did a miracle with Jonah. I can’t ‘prove’ any of it empriically, but taking that position does help us understand the real meaning of the passage.
Put simply, if you are prepared to accept that Jesus lay in the tomb for three days and then rose to life, why would you have trouble accepting that a fish swallowed a man, kept him alive and spat him out at the beach?
The sign of Jonah
But having said all of that, there is one highly significant reason why I think we should all accept the story as historical truth: Jesus did. If you turn to Matthew 12, I think you will see the closing argument in this debate.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-41)
What is significant about this? That Jesus knew who Jonah was? Yes, that’s important because it immediately puts the burden of proof on those who say he didn’t exist. It must at least now be argued that Jesus was saying he was aware of the story, but did not accept it as anything more than that.
But look at the final sentence. Jesus says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” (vs41)
So now we have Jesus saying that the real city of Nineveh actually heard the real Jonah and repented in response to his message. Now ask yourself; is Jesus saying this never happened? It’s just a parable? No, Jesus clearly believes it did happen.
So here we have Jesus wrapping up the past (Nineveh), the present (this generation) and the future (judgement) in one sentence. And remind me: which parts are not true?
Allegories and parables are legitimate literary devices used by the Bible’s authors, but I am convinced Jesus did not believe the book of Jonah was in either form.
The gospel in Jonah
When the words of Jesus are analysed, it is obvious why we can’t go fiddling with the book of Jonah. If he believed Jonah existed and that he preached to Nineveh who repented in response and if he then says the “sign of the prophet Jonah” is analogous to his own death & resurrection, then the stakes are extremely high.
If it turns out that Jonah never really existed, then what does that say about Jesus’ claims to have risen from the dead and to be returning in judgement?
Remember, Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment.” (Matt 12:41)
If it never happened as written, then Jesus has based his promise to return in judgement on a falsehood. In fact, the entire chronology of the Old Testament (at least back to the book of Kings) would have to be shredded.
We started out trying to find a way of accepting the lessons from Jonah without believing it as history and we have ended up undermining the inerrancy of Scripture.
The word of the Lord endures forever. Why not let him alone decide what he meant by that?
Terry Allen is currently preaching an eight week series on Jonah which will be made available at Christianfaith.com upon completion.
1. Harrison, RK. 1969, Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Co.
2. Ibid. p912