It’s an interesting story that many Christians read as history, especially since Jonah shows up elsewhere in the Bible. But some Christians and Christian scholars as well say they read the story as fiction, but with a real person playing an imaginary role. They say they see in the story many characteristics of the kind of parables Jesus told.
I don’t think most Christians read it that way. So let me give a few reasons Christians on the fiction side of the argument say it reads like a parable.
Argument for Jonah as fiction-parable
It’s short and action-packed. It’s a bit longer than the parables Jesus told, but not that much longer than the parable of the prodigal son, which is pretty much what Jonah was for a while.
It puts Jonah in a fish’s belly for three days. Science takes a bite out of that account of the facts. Common sense wants a bite, too.
Animals wear sackcloth. All the people in Nineveh and the livestock are to wear sackcloth mourning clothes and repent of their sins so God doesn’t destroy the city. It feels like an exaggeration to help emphasize an idea. It’s hard enough to see sweaters on dogs. But sackcloth on a bull rings like fiction to some Christians.
Jonah converts a pagan nation. Israel’s prophets couldn’t even convert the Israelites.
Jonah gets crazy livid with God for sparing the converted nation. He had told the Assyrians that Nineveh had 40 days to doomsday. Didn’t happen. Jonah told God to kill him now.
Oddest ending of a Bible book. Jonah is sitting by a shade bush that just died in a day, still pouting about God’s compassion. God tells him, “You cared about a bush even though you didn’t plant it or water it. That bush was here one day and gone the next. But it’s not okay for me to care about this huge city of Nineveh? There are more than 120,000 people here” (Jonah 4:10). That’s the kind of zinger Jesus liked to end with when he told a parable.
Many, perhaps most, read it as history
I’m not trying to convert anyone, or talk them into throwing Jonah out with the baby. But there are different ways to find truth in the Bible.
If this is a parable, the lesson seems to be that God cares about everyone, not just the Chosen Nation of Israel. That lesson adds fuel to Paul’s argument: “If you’re one of the Messiah’s people, then you’re a descendant of Abraham. You’re part of the family. And you’re going to inherit what God promised,” (Galatians 3:29).
If Jonah is history, add the lesson that God does miracles and bulls can wear clothes.
Actually, both of those are probably true even if Jonah’s story is a parable.
It’s a really short story. You can read it in about 10 minutes. Give it a read if you can spare a dime.