I had been raised to believe that everything in the Bible stories had really happened, and that belief of mine caused me to think poorly of an older seminary student of mine named Eamonn. He had been sent to advanced schools in Rome and Jerusalem, and after he came back he published an article in which he said Jonah could not have lived in a whale. That had me telling everyone that the fancy schools Eamonn had attended should be shut down in punishment for speaking against Bible truth.
But through the years, I have come around to seeing that Eamonn and those schools were right. For one thing, careful scholars have shown us that the style and the vocabulary in the story of Jonah only came into use around the year 400 B.C., while Nineveh, the great city in the story, had been destroyed by the Babylonians before 600 B.C.
The Catholic teaching about the books of the Bible is that many of them are not factual, rather they were myths or fables, or humorous inventions like this book. By insisting that they be read as factual accounts we misread them altogether, and we miss out on God’s message to us in that book.
As in understanding every Bible book, it helps to see the circumstances that caused the book to be written. Now, back in the year 400 B.C. when the Book of Jonah was written, the Jews had become a hermit people. They hated foreigners so much that Jonah, as a typical Jew, fled across the sea in hopes of getting away from God. After a whale supposedly swallowed him, then up-chucked him on his own shore, he grudgingly went to Nineveh. Going through the streets, he predicted the total destruction of Nineveh after forty more days. Then, he went wild with anger when Nineveh repented and was saved. God asked him if it was wrong for him as God to have had concern for Nineveh’s twenty thousand people and their animals.
We must see that God lets his sense of humor come though in this book.