Is the Story of Jonah and the Whale a Historical Account or a Parable? (Jonah 1 and 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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15So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. 17And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

1Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me. —Jonah 1:15-2:3

A Historical Account or Simply a Parable?

Throughout the centuries, the most common approach to Jonah was to read it as a historical account. In more recent times, however, many have read Jonah as a parable: a story that is not true but is meant to convey a certain point. This second approach would not take away from the lessons the book is teaching. Jesus often taught in parables and expected his hearers to learn and act on the truth the parables conveyed. But is “parable” the best approach to Jonah?

ESV Expository Commentary

Thirteen contributors explain the shorter Prophetic Books of the Old Testament—Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—with biblical insight and pastoral wisdom, showing readers the hope that is offered even amidst judgment.

Those in favor of this approach tend to argue that: (1) Jonah has an improbable number of miracles. (2) The literary artistry of Jonah, with all its hyperbole, irony, and wordplay, is more suggestive of parable than historical account. (3) Various inaccuracies in the book suggest a distance from historical realities.1 By way of response, it may be noted: (1) It is not clear what standard is being used when the number of miracles is labeled “improbable”; that this approach is much more common in recent times than in ancient ones suggests it is connected to a modern scientific worldview, with its skepticism toward the miraculous. The biblical worldview has no such skepticism, which should at least give us pause before using the word “improbable” too quickly. (2) It would be accurate to say these types of literary artistry (hyperbole, irony, wordplay) may be more common in parable than in historical writing, but they are not exclusive to parable; history writers may and do make use of these same literary techniques (and more besides!) as they select and arrange their material.2 (3) Supposed instances of historical errors (such as the “king” of Nineveh at Jonah 3:6) are found to be unpersuasive.

Does anything speak in favor of reading this work as actual history? It has been noted that, from a literary perspective, Jonah is similar to the account in 1 Kings 17–19, concerning the prophet Elijah.3 Like Jonah, these chapters are also about a prophet, are full of miracles (even miracles involving animals; 1 Kings 17:6), and recount at least some events outside Israel (1 Kings 17:8–24). Significantly, these chapters are found right in the middle of historical narrative. The reader is to understand that these events, some of which—such as a person rising from the dead or fire coming down from heaven—are just as miraculous as anything in Jonah, actually happened. This opens up the possibility of reading Jonah in the same way.

The above observations neither disprove a parabolic approach nor prove a historical approach (and again, the book’s lessons remain no matter which approach is taken). In the absence of strong arguments to the contrary, I find myself hesitant to take an approach different from that of the majority of readers since ancient times, especially considering that their worldview was probably more in keeping with the writer of Jonah’s than is my own.

The Story of a God Who Saves

To our surprise, Jonah does not die after being hurled into the sea. Instead, the Lord shows him mercy and grace by sending a great creature of the sea to keep him alive (1:17). Showing his sovereignty over nature, “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” The most incredible part about this is not that a sea creature swallowed Jonah;4 it is that he somehow remained alive in its belly “three days and three nights.” For some, this is too hard to believe, and so they read the story as a parable. For others, this is no more difficult for the Lord than giving sight to a person born blind (John 9:1–7, 30–33), healing the incurable (Matt. 15:30–31), or raising Jesus from the dead—and doing so after three days (Matt. 12:40; Acts 4:10).5

However we judge the historicity of the event, we are still left to wonder why Jonah waited three days and nights before praying.6 No answer is given, but there are at least three possible reasons for the length of time involved, all of which may be true. First, perhaps the details of this verse are there to orient the listener in terms of space and time. Where is Jonah? In the fish’s belly. How long is he there before he prays? Three days and three nights. By orienting us to these things, the narrator helps us focus on the content of the prayer itself.7 Second, it is possible the phrase “three days and three nights” had extra significance to the original readers, such as to indicate the typical amount of time needed for a significant journey (Gen. 22:4; Ex. 3:18). Third, in the context of this story, this time period might be mentioned in order to highlight a contrast between Jonah and a different group of pagans (Jonah 3:5, “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them”). It is almost impossible not to notice the contrast between the Ninevites and Jonah. It took Jonah three days to reach the point where he could utter his prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord (Jonah 1:17–2:1). But here—when Jonah is only on day one of a city that takes three days to visit—the people are already turning to the Lord. Once more, the pagans are far more spiritually sensitive and humble than the Hebrew prophet.

The Discipline of the Lord

​​In many places, the Bible describes how the Lord, like a loving parent, brings strong discipline on his wayward children to direct them back to obedience and thus to the good paths in which he wants them to walk (e.g., Prov. 3:11–12; 1 Cor. 11:32; Heb. 12:4–7). This is exactly what happens here. Jonah had been fleeing from the Lord since the story’s beginning (Jonah 1:3), a flight that took him in an increasing spiral downward (cf. comment on Jonah 1:3). The Lord disciplines Jonah by propelling him further down this path—to the very bottom of the sea (Jonah 2:6)! It is as though he says to Jonah, “You want to flee from me? Then let me make very clear where this path will lead!” As a result of such discipline, he brings Jonah to the complete end of his own strength and ability. Jonah comes to his senses and turns back to the Lord, finally “calling out” to him for help (Jonah 2:2). This is one of the goals of the Lord’s discipline of his children when they disobey: he desires them to turn back to him in obedient faith, walking in his paths and thus in close fellowship with him.


  1. Cf., e.g., Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 176–177, 186.
  2. See discussion in V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 58–76, especially 58–63.
  3. Alexander, “Jonah,” 76.
  4. The word translated “fish” can refer to a sea creature in general. It appears that sperm whales and great white sharks, both of which can be found in the Mediterranean, can grow to sufficient size to swallow a human. See Thomas H. Lineaweaver III and Richard H. Backus, The Natural History of Sharks (New York: Nick Lyons Books/Schocken, 1984), 34, 109–111.
  5. See further in Introduction: Preaching from Jonah: The Miraculous Events; Introduction: Interpretive Challenges.
  6. According to Israelite ways of speaking, the phrase “three days and three nights” may have meant Jonah was there until the third day after being swallowed (as opposed to a full seventy-two hours); cf. Esther 4:16 with 5:1 (C. F. Keil, Minor Prophets [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988], 398).
  7. Cf. Sasson, Jonah, 158.

This article is by Jay Sklar and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Volume 7) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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