How the Story of Jonah Works — A Writer Explains Jonah

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE’S STUNNING CRITIQUE OF HUMANITY

DID THE STORY OF JONAH REALLY HAPPEN? HISTORICAL ACCOUNT VS. PARABLE

Before we get into the actual story, we have to address the sea monster in the room (*groan*), the one critical question that often comes up every time someone references the story of Jonah: Did it actually happen? Is this an historical account or is it a parable?

SETUP: ACT I — JONAH’S QUEST

Chapter 1, Verses 1–3

  • Jonah has received a directive (I like calling it a “quest”) from God.
  • The people of Nineveh — a large and influential city — are participating in behaviors that God considers evil or wicked.
  • God has asked Jonah to “cry out” against them.

CONFLICT: ACT II, PART 1 — JONAH THE FUGITIVE

Chapter 1, Verses 4–16

  • Jonah claims to fear God, but is openly disobedient to Him.
  • Jonah also seems to have a pretty clear conscience. In other words, it seems like he feels justified in fleeing from God.
  • The storyteller has also — utilizing the conflict — contrasted Jonah’s attitude with that of the sailors who demonstrate a more acute fear of God. And while they initially attempt to row to shore, they quickly come around to throwing Jonah overboard in obedience to God.

CONFLICT: ACT II, PART 2 — JONAH THE CAPTIVE

Chapter 1, Verse 17 — Chapter 2, Verse 10

  1. Changing the term from “sea monster” to “whale” doesn’t improve the story. In fact, I’m willing to bet many modern day readers would be far more interested in a story that had a “sea monster” rather than a “whale.”
  2. The story of Jonah isn’t even about the sea monster, which means attempting to alter the storyteller’s original description might detract from the narrative arc, and therefore the entire meaning of the story.
  1. It swallows Jonah.
  2. Jonah is in its belly for three days and three nights.
  3. Jonah prays to the Lord from the sea monster’s belly, and then it vomits him up onto the shore.
  1. Jonah seems to be confident that God will hear and answer his prayer because he starts the prayer by praising God for hearing and answering his prayer.
  2. Jonah is miserable inside the sea monster. It’s not a penthouse suite. It’s bad. He uses intense metaphors to describe his discomfort and even references Sheol to suggest that being inside the sea monster is like being in hell.
  3. Jonah says something very interesting at the tail end of his prayer. He prays, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy.” Doesn’t that seem like a strange thing to say for a guy stuck in the belly of a sea monster? Remember that because it tells us something very important about Jonah in this moment. It’s another bit of subtle foreshadowing that’s easy to miss.

THE RESOLUTION: ACT III: JONAH GOES TO NINEVEH

Chapter 3, Verse 1 — Chapter 4, Verse 11

  1. Everyone in Nineveh was truly evil — meaning that they were actually harming one another. And I note that because, based on other biblical narratives, a city has to get pretty bad before God issues a warning of this nature. The story of Jonah doesn’t provide us with any details, but we can assume that given Nineveh’s repentance, the king’s own words, Jonah’s reaction — which we’ll see in a minute — and additional context from other stories that fall within the “narrative universe” of the Bible, the people of Nineveh are committing some serious crimes against one another.
  2. According to the story, everyone in the city knew their city was evil, and knew it was wrong. Their collective response was to turn away from their violent, wicked ways.
  • God has a quest for Jonah.
  • Jonah doesn’t want to complete it. He flees from God, but we don’t know why.
  • After God redirects Jonah by sending a storm and sea monster to teach him a lesson, Jonah changes his mind and obeys God.
  • Jonah goes to Nineveh, declares they need to repent from their evil ways, and then everyone is happy!
  1. In his prayer, Jonah says that he told God why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh, a detail the storyteller chose not to reveal until now. This means God has always known why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah predicted the outcome of completing the quest before he ever embarked on it. He says, “…I know you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm…” In other words, Jonah suspected God would show mercy to the people of Nineveh, which means he also likely knew Nineveh would repent.
  3. Jonah is so pissed off about the people of Nineveh receiving mercy that he prays, “…Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

JONAH EXPLAINED — THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF THE STORY OF JONAH

So what is the story of Jonah all about? It’s definitely not about him getting swallowed by a “whale,” right? The meaning of the story of Jonah revolves around God’s simple but powerful question, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

JAY SHERER’S BIO:

Jay Sherer is the co-writer of the full cast audiobook and novel, Death of a Bounty Hunter, and the time travel serial story, Timeslingers. He also runs the How Stories Work with Jay Sherer YouTube channel, podcast, and blog where his goal is to learn to tell better stories, help audiences understand popular stories, and help other storytellers improve their own storytelling.

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Jay Sherer

I love storytelling. I write novels and screenplays. My latest book, DEATH OF A BOUNTY HUNTER, is out now!