Jonah: A Fairytale?

Some time ago, I heard a person say something to the effect of “In Pinocchio, a person is trapped in the belly of a whale, and it is a fairy tale. In the Bible, a person is trapped in the belly of a whale, and it is somehow not a fairy tale.” If you think the most crucial element of the story of Jonah is that someone was literally in the belly of a whale for three days, you have missed the point. The centerpiece of this story is not to communicate a one-dimensional recounting of history - it does not read that way at all. It reads like satire or a parable that demonstrates a more universally important idea.
 
God (Yahweh) calls Jonah to go to Nineveh (an Assyrian city) and tell them of God’s mercy. Jonah refused, because Jonah (like most of Israel at the time) not only hated Nineveh and thought they were terribly wicked, but also did not want God to forgive his enemies, so Jonah did everything in his power to suppress this. In his attempts to escape, he ends up being swallowed by a “great fish.” A detail that is often not explained is that the Ninevites worshipped a fish-god of the sea named Dagon, and thus a “great fish” would have been sort of icon or image for this Ninevite god. The irony and humor at this point of the story is that, in spite of Jonah’s disdain for the Ninevites and refusal to tell them of God’s mercy, God uses a representative of the Ninevite god as a vehicle to get Jonah to the city.
 
In the fifth century (probably when Jonah was written), many Jews felt that they could only retain holiness by keeping wholly separate from Gentile culture. Jonah sees God (Yahweh) as a national god strictly of their territory, Jonah exhibits xenophobia, and would rather have God destroy Nineveh rather than show compassion and change them. The main theme of this book is that God’s boundaries do not correspond with those created by religious establishment, and that God overrides these expectations. Jonah’s character illustrates the sort exclusivism and bigotry that pervades the world as we know it. The thesis made is that God is actively calling people to break down barriers of prejudice and intolerance that segregate humanity. This is the subversive challenge of the book of Jonah, and I cannot think of a more important message for the present.
 
If the book of Jonah is completely non-historical, I do not think that diminishes the value of its content. There is no way to really test the historical veracity of the story, so that should not be of primary concern. Rather, it should be asked what the story means in and of itself. Jesus refers to Jonah at a couple of points (Matthew 12:40, Luke 11:30), but again it does not seem that Jesus was concerned with its historicity; Jesus instead seems to use the story to reinforce his own message, which challenged the religious power structures of his time.
 
Indeed, the God found in Jesus practices consistent and surprising forgiveness. Forgiveness always frustrates those witness it, because when is forgiveness ever deserved? Yet, forgiveness is perhaps the strongest and most transformative experience a person can have. Few things can generate such deep change as being fully known with all your mistakes and failures and being accepted in spite of them. The message of Jesus (and of Jonah) is that God has such love not only for you, but for your enemies. It is this message that has survived throughout the ages because it is able to tear down dividing walls and bind humanity together, and that is Good News.