As I’ve mentioned before, I recently held the rather weak conviction that Jonah might have been allegorical rather than historical. That weak conviction has been altered; I’m now weakly convicted that it is historical and not allegorical.
One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about it is the choice of Jonah in the first place.
Jonah is a book about God’s acceptance and desire for piety from all people; Jonah, the eponymous prophet of the book, is an ardent nationalist who has no problems with Noachides but rejects God’s call to carry His message to the Assyrians, who – despite their cruelty and opposition to Israel – are still valuable to Him.
After God calls Jonah, Jonah runs directly away from God’s will (he’s called to go northeast, so Jonah runs directly west) and into the belly of a “great fish” (דג גדול), which deposits him back on dry land after three days. Jonah then goes to Nineveh, “that great city,” and tells the Assyrians that they have forty days – and they repent. Jonah then pouts, and despairs that a plant that gave him shelter was withered by a worm – and God scolds him, saying “You cared about this plant, which you had nothing to do with, but did not care about those people that I created.”
So my thought was: why couldn’t God just look at Jonah running away, and choose someone else to be blessed to be His prophet? Why reward Jonah – if it’s a reward to be known as Jonah is known – when Jonah chose to oppose God?
To me, God chose Jonah the way He did because if He didn’t, the message would have been much weaker. The illustration offered by Jonah’s journey wouldn’t be as powerful if God hadn’t committed to using Jonah to put into motion His will for Nineveh (which, incidentally, got absolutely crushed by Babylon years later… to the point where its mere location was in question.)
God wasn’t just speaking to the Assyrians, the way I understand it; God was speaking to us. If God chose a more convenient route (“Oh, Jonah went thataway when I wanted him to go thisaway, I’ll just choose someone else or abandon the Assyrians”) then we wouldn’t have had the illustration of God showing how He values everyone.
And God does value everyone. Remember, He called Jonah to call to the Assryians, who were the ones who crushed Israel out of existence (and Judah survived only as a vassal nation.) These were enemies of the chosen nation (and enemies of pretty much everyone, really.) Jonah was being told to help the enemies of the entire free world, because God valued them.
So why historical and not allegorical?
It’s not a simple question to answer, sadly. I think it has more to do with the history of Israel, intertwined with what we know of Assyria. I guess it has to do with how I see God looking at Israel – the northern kingdom, not necessarily the modern nation – and how God saw their evil ways and loved them enough to let them wander and return, wander and return.
I see a parallel in Jonah for the Assyrians: God values them and calls to them as well. The parallels are very strong, although not perfect – the lack of perfection is a hint of authenticity.
I don’t know that I can say for sure that I think it’s historical. I don’t see why it could not be – if God is omnipotent, then there’s nothing preventing it from being historical whatsoever. And there are enough references in it to God’s mercy and love for all mankind that make me think that maybe there’s more to it than useful myth.
(Originally published on January 31, 2012)