The old Sunday School lesson says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and spit out three days later to preach God’s message to Nineveh. So the story goes anyway. While the original text does not require the specific word whale be used, Jonah 1:17 does give that account. Historically, the event would have taken place during the reign Jeroboam II around 793 – 753 BC. The context is one of Jonah being commanded by God to go and preach to Nineveh which he didn’t want to do because of his personal and national animosities to the Assyrians. Nineveh was their capital city. Jonah rebelled and went in the opposite direction by sea. God intervened and the men of the ship threw Jonah overboard into the ocean which is where the oversize critter showed up for lunch. It was during his time in the big tuna that Jonah himself repented and thus God caused the fish to vomit Jonah up onto dry land giving the prophet a second chance at obedience. Jonah did obey this time and the text tells us that after his preaching to Nineveh the city repented and accepted God’s grace. Nice story. But did it actually happen and so what?
While one way to look at this question is to search out scientific research tools which you can do at institutes such as the ICR, Answers in Gensis, or other resources, the real question though in this discussion is what Jesus said on the issue. If people acknowledge that Jesus was smart and Christians believe He is divine, then He’s got to know something. In Matthew 12:39-41 Jesus brings Jonah up and in such a manner that He believed in the historicity of the fishy events just as much as in Noah and the Ark.
In the context of Matthew 12, Jesus was dealing with religious leaders who were rejecting His message and grace. They wanted Jesus to prove his authority with a special sign. As usual, Jesus was having none of their games and pointed the Jewish rulers back to their own history and simply noted that just as “Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish” so He would be in the grave three days only to rise on the third. He went on to say that the men of Nineveh, who were totally anti-Jewish, had repented at Jonah’s preaching and that they would rise in the judgment and condemn these present leaders because “someone greater than Jonah” was now preaching to them in the present.
So yes, Jesus did believe the account of Jonah and the whale as historical fact. So now what? Just another history lesson? Or is there something to be learned from both events? For the Jewish leaders and the self-righteous today, the lesson was clear. Jesus brings grace; don’t turn up your nose in arrogance.
But from the ancient text of Jonah there seems to be a much larger application. As noted, these Assyrians in the capital of Nineveh were anti-Jewish and that is putting it mildly. They were totally opposed to God and everything good. But yet, despite all their rebellion; God still reached out to them in love. In fact, from the very last verses of the book of Jonah, God attempts to appeal to the prophet’s compassion noting that the 120,000 people of the great city did not even have the ability to “tell their right hand from their left” when it came to ultimate truth. Jonah’s time in the fish taught him and can teach us today of God’s consistent “desire that everyone might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” This is not universalism in the sense that everyone makes it, but rather God’s universal outreach. The people of Nineveh still had their personal choice to accept or reject. But the love was extended. The love IS extended. Everyone is invited. The ones we naturally like and the ones who rub us the wrong way. The grace extended is the same.
The divisions are huge today between the figurative Hebrews and Ninevites. Between the Democrats and Republicans. Between leftist LGBTs and the radical right jerks. The Dallas Cowboy fans and Philadelphia Eagles fans. The list can go on. But no matter where the differences happen to be, we all share a humanity that God is radically in love with. The real question is whether we, who know that love, can step across to our Nineveh and share it with others.