A Tall Fish Tale?

A Tall Fish Tale?

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. Jonah 2:10

I love the story of Jonah because I identify so well with this man who believed in God and yet remained so deeply flawed. I empathize with his self-inflicted misery and I understand that he only became willing to follow God when all else was lost. I’m not suggesting that Jonah is a model to follow. I’m just saying I get him.

I’m hesitant to admit this, but I sometimes wonder if Jonah is a true story or if it’s fiction with a lesson, like Jesus’ parables. I’m not going to make a case for either interpretation (history or fiction) here. I’m just going to point out that for some, belief in the Jonah story is a litmus test for whether one is a true believer or not: If you don’t believe in a literal Jonah story, then you don’t truly believe the Bible or follow God.

I will insist though, that whether one follows God in his behavior is a far better litmus test for faith than whether one believes in the great fish or not. Most of my life, I’ve believed in the Jonah account as historical fact. During this same time, I lived mostly for me. My belief in Jonah meant very little.

The true importance of Jonah’s story, to me, is that this man followed himself to disaster and in that disaster, repented and followed God. He didn’t do it perfectly, but he obeyed God and went to Nineveh. Jonah believed in God, and that belief (eventually) affected his behavior.

That, according to James, is a far better litmus test for faith (James 2). If we say we believe in the Bible, but we still live only for ourselves, we have a false faith. Belief or knowledge alone, isn’t enough. Faith must translate to changed behavior or it is just useless knowledge. Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19)!

If God wanted, he absolutely could keep a man alive inside a giant fish. I believe that. The point of Jonah though, isn’t about the fish. It’s about true faith and following God, even when we want to run the other way.

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  1. Samuel Greene says:

    A story I always shared with my students…
    One time, as I was mowing my lawn, I spotted a large bull snake with an even larger frog half way in his mouth. My thought at the time was, no way will he swallow that frog. After several mowing passes, and getting closer and closer to the frog and snake, I knew the next pass I would either have to move them or mow over them. As the mower approached the spot, I noticed that the snake was gone, but the frog was still there, half of it bleached white from stomach acid. The Lord made me immediately think of Jonah. The life saving message he told the people of Nineveh had added proof by his story on how he came to be in their evil city. He COULD have been hairless and bleached white. Just thinking…

    • Scott says:

      I’ve come across several references to Jonah being bleached white. Is that in the Bible anywhere? Is it church tradition?

  2. Peter says:

    Check out Perry Stone’s theory on this. Once I learned and read into the story more, it makes a lot more sense. Shoel is the underworld – I believe what the Bible actually says in this story – that the whale *preserved Jonah’s body* in the whale, while Jonah was in the underworld for 3 days, before being resurrected and bringing deliverance to a people by preaching the word of God that they might repent. I love how the old testament consistently points to Jesus! Consider this interpretation then read the book of Jonah again – it becomes way more real (and believable!)

    • Scott says:

      I’ve not heard that before, but I had the same thought, reading of Jonah’s reference to Sheol. It makes sense and contributes to Jonah being a Christ-type. I don’t have any difficulty believing in God miraculously keeping Jonah alive or resurrecting Jonah after his death. My point was just that for me, the question is not how I view the story, but rather, whether I truly follow and obey God or not. I’ve known many (including myself) who have claimed true faith because they believe in a literal story of Jonah, but have completely ignored following God in their behavior.

      Thanks Peter! I appreciate the insight and I love the theory!

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