Critics of the Bible consider the book of Jonah as fiction since they reject miracles and other details of this account. Zealous fundamentalist evangelical Protestant defenders point to the absence of historical and archaeological evidence as proof that the book is actually true. So for example, whether there was a mass conversion of the Ninevites, there is no evidence for this, so it must have occurred. But the absence of evidence is not a good indicator of truth. If this were the case we should accept Scientology as true since there is no evidence for it whatsoever. I can imagine all kinds of systems of thought that can be built upon absence of evidence; merely find those areas lacking evidence and invent "facts" to fill the gaps. Mormonism does this.
I suppose I should mention my opinion of whether or not the book of Jonah is fact or fiction. Jonah is mentioned in the book of 2 Kings and was a historical character as described there. Jesus mentions Jonah in the fish and that Nineveh repented at his preaching. But I conclude the book of Jonah is fiction for three reasons: (1) the mass conversion of the Ninevites from a foreign preacher is unlikely, (2) there is no historical or archaeological evidence of such a thing occurring, and (3) their rapid abandonment of their repentance implies it never occurred to begin with. A mass conversion would have been a big deal and surely would have left an imprint as there are artifacts of archaeology from this time period.
(Jonah 1:1) Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
(Jonah 1:2) Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
Even in Old Testament times God wished for even non-Jews to be redeemed.
Before judging the wicked, God first gives them opportunity to repent, even sending them an unwilling prophet.
(Jonah 1:3) But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
A surprising verse: God's presence was in Nineveh.
(Jonah 1:4) But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
We should wonder why God would endanger the lives of the others because of his interactions with Jonah.
(Jonah 1:5) Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
(Jonah 1:6) So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
(Jonah 1:7) And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
An odd way to discover the truth about something: by resorting to randomness. This reminds me of some of the wrongminded practices that were once common, for example, torture or seeing if they sink or float. Just because God provided the right answer this once doesn't mean we should use it regularly. This is the difficulty with using the Bible as the final authority for truth: you must first know the correct interpretation. In this case you must first know that casting lots is not trustworthy.
(Jonah 1:8) Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?
(Jonah 1:9) And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.
(Jonah 1:10) Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
(Jonah 1:11) Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
(Jonah 1:12) And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
(Jonah 1:13) Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
(Jonah 1:14) Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.
(Jonah 1:15) So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
(Jonah 1:16) Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
(Jonah 1:17) Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The only reason we might suspect this creature to be a whale is because of its size, big enough to swallow a person and they remain alive inside for 3 days. Probably there are no examples of people surviving being swallowed by a whale so Jonah is unique, certainly a miracle.
(Jonah 2:1) Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly,
(Jonah 2:2) And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
(Jonah 2:3) For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods [currents] compassed me about: all thy billows [swell] and thy waves passed over me.
The deep is just deep water, the ocean or Mediterranean Sea.
(Jonah 2:4) Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
Jonah apparently thought he would imminently die. Perhaps he knew of the yet-future resurrection and the new heavens and new earth. I think he refers to looking again toward the temple with his physical body, not merely with his soul/spirit from the spiritual realm after death. Perhaps he merely thought (or hoped) he would live though his ordeal. I doubt he is thinking of a spiritual temple or a mental image or memory of the temple but, rather, a real temple, the temple in the spiritual realm.
(Jonah 2:5) The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds [seaweed] were wrapped about my head.
Seaweed grows attached to the bottom so they were in shallow water, less than 100 feet.
(Jonah 2:6) I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.
The bars signify a prison from which escape is impossible. Jonah went under the water and probably drowned. The mountains near the coast go into the water and their "bottoms" or roots are underneath. All these images are from the perspective of people in Jonah's day. It is unclear how the earth imprisoned Jonah unless he is using the image of being buried after death to describe his death.
Notice the word "forever". Death is forever; you don't fade in and out of death; it is permanent. The word "forever" here does not mean forever. At some yet-future day the redeemed will be resurrected to live again.
(Jonah 2:7) When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
As Jonah was dying he called out to God knowing God hears our cries and prayers.
(Jonah 2:8) They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
(Jonah 2:9) But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.
(Jonah 2:10) And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
God speaks to the fish and it obeys. This implies the fish is able to understand what is wanted. In my view, fish have souls residing in the spiritual realm and God's spirit can communicate to the fish using images understandable to the soul of the fish. In this case, God's word spoken to the fish was not humanly understandable language. Thus, the phrase "word of God" does not mean language.
The fish was able to vomit up Jonah at will implying it had control of the muscles needed to do this. Perhaps Jonah's presence in its stomach had been irritating it for days but it suppressed the urge to vomit him out hoping he would finally be digested and provide nourishment.
The fish did not come up on land; Jonah had to swim to shore. Probably the salt water irritated his skin and even healed it after being immersed in stomach acids for days.
(Jonah 3:1) And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying,
(Jonah 3:2) Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
(Jonah 3:3) So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.
Maybe it took three days to walk around the city, with its hills and crags, rivers to cross, and being spread out. Or maybe it would take three days to wander through all the sections of the city, being bumped and jostled by the crowds.
(Jonah 3:4) And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
(Jonah 3:5) So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
(Jonah 3:6) For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
(Jonah 3:7) And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
(Jonah 3:8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
(Jonah 3:9) Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
(Jonah 3:10) And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
(Jonah 4:1) But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
(Jonah 4:2) And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
(Jonah 4:3) Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
(Jonah 4:4) Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?
(Jonah 4:5) So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
(Jonah 4:6) And the LORD God prepared a gourd [a leafy plant], and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd [a leafy plant].
(Jonah 4:7) But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd [a leafy plant] that it withered.
(Jonah 4:8) And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
(Jonah 4:9) And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
(Jonah 4:10) Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd [a leafy plant], for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
(Jonah 4:11) And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore [120,000] thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Perhaps the 120,000 undiscerning people refers to young people below the age of accountability who, upon hearing Jonah's preaching, would choose to love the monotheistic God. But it was unlikely that Nineveh had a population of several times this number.
Why the mention of cattle? Perhaps merely to reinforce the idea of a multitude of people. Or perhaps to signify that God cares about the cattle and didn't want these destroyed in divine judgment.
A lesson to Jonah, that if he was so concerned with killing a plant, why did he allow his prejudice prevent him from being concerned about the redemption of 120,000 people?
There is no historical or archaeological evidence that the city of Nineveh converted to the monotheism of Israel. If so, why did they destroy Israel maybe 100 years later?
King James Version