So! More than one person has come up to me since my sermon a couple weeks ago on Jonah, to express surprise at the fact that, I “don’t believe that Jonah is true.”
Let me start by being really REALLY clear about one thing. We receive the Bible from the hand of God and everything in it is in it because God intends for it to be in it. It is without defect. Another thing you should understand about me, is that I believe that the primary purpose of the Bible is to lead us to the foot of the cross where we may encounter and be transformed by the Living Word of God by whom the world (and we) is (are) both created and redeemed (Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word, the second person of the Trinity).
I am NOT however, a biblical literalist (biblical literalism is a relatively new concept that is only about 150 years old and I DON’T subscribe to it). The Bible is not so much a “book” as it is a “library”. It contains worship songs, love poems, laws, customs, histories, collections of correspondence, accounts of events that actually happened, and works of fiction that did NOT actually happen, but nevertheless convey profound truths about ourselves, our God, and our relationship to our God. Among these last are the parables that Jesus told during his ministry, but they are not the only ones. Telling the truth about God by telling stories (narrative theology) is as old as humanity and is deeply embedded in Biblical culture.
SO… having said that… let me be as clear as I can be. I believe that the story of Jonah is TRUE! PROFOUNDLY TRUE! ALL OF IT… but not literally true. It is a work of fiction whose purpose is to teach us about the relentless call of God to be the servants and ambassadors of his sovereign Love in the wider world. I do not believe this to be true because I find it impossible to believe that God could send a fish to swallow a prophet and then vomit him up onto the beach. God created the universe and can do anything God chooses to do. I don’t believe that God, in fact, did that however. I don’t think that God or the author of the Book of Jonah ever intended for me to think that these events actually happened.
In short, while a “fact” is always also “the Truth” , the “Truth” is bigger than mere “facts” and there are many forms of “truth” that are not also “facts”. The Book of Jonah is one of these. It is a brief work of fiction that embodies and conveys a profound truth that God obviously wants for us to understand and act upon.
Hope this helps.