Last week I put up a post summarizing Walter Moberly’s chapter on Jonah, Forget the Fish Already!. The post focused on the genre and message of the book. Moberly, like most OT scholars, considers the book to be something of a parable rather than a record of an historical event. Many Christians object to this reading, not because the Bible cannot contain books other than history, but because of the references Jesus made to Jonah.
Although no comments brought this up (this time), I did receive e-mail expressing this concern. The point raised is that Jesus specifically connects with his own death and resurrection with the event recorded in Jonah. Thus relegating Jonah to meaningful fiction may well be equivalent to relegating the death and resurrection of Jesus to a meaningful fiction. At very least it is a step too far … likely off the cliff.
This is an issue worth digging into more deeply.
The references to Jonah in the Gospels (and the only references in the New Testament) are:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
The key question is whether these passages carry the intended meaning if the book of Jonah is a parable or story rather than history. If the meaning depends on the genre of the book of Jonah, then we have a serious issue here. If the meaning remains the same, then there is no conflict and there should be no objection to allowing the book of Jonah itself inform us as to its genre.
The first passage from Matthew is the one that causes the most trouble because here Jesus draws a specific parallel between Jonah’s time in the fish and his own death and subsequent resurrection. The reference to Jonah is a quote from the Septuagint (some translations indicate this specifically others, like the NIV, do not). Most commentaries I consulted note that the comparison uses a common Jewish phrase and it is of no concern that Jesus was not in the heart of the earth three nights according to our standard Holy Week reckoning, and only a part of three days. Thus we do not believe that Jesus meant “three days and three nights” with mathematical precision. The importance is in the parallel.