As I think back on discussions I have had about Jonah, I think almost every single one has focused on the whale and "did it happen?" Some folks do not believe the story, other folks believe it thoroughly. A few can get almost violent about it.
Reading the Bible is perilous for us because we live in an unbelieving age. Our social environment is literally toxic to faith. I have heard that an African bishop was glad to leave the USA because he said it was too hard to live here. Material benefits abound, but he felt that faith gets choked here. Since I went to seminary doubts and struggles have been a huge feature of my faith journey. I prayed for healing about this a few years ago and was annointed by a man in the healing ministry. Since then I do have more peace. Part of the peace has been found in asking the question, "What is the biblical author communicating?" As I said yesterday, Jonah is not about the whale. It is, I think, a parable about Israel's call. God made Abraham the focal point of God's "Operation Rescue: Saving the World" (Gen 12:1-3 begins this). The Jews, Abraham's descendents, are Chosen People. Throughout the OT we read that all the nations will find God through them. In the NT Jesus also says the same thing. Matthew 5:13-20 (You are the Salt & Light of the world). It was years before it dawned on me that Jesus is talking to Jews here! The Jewish vocation (John 4:22 ...salvation is from the Jews) is to bring people to God, but sometimes the conflicts with Gentiles led in other directions. Being "Chosen" made some feel separate from the world. Think how many Christians talk today (I am saved, you are going to hell) and you get the idea. In Jonah, we have a proto-typical prophet (called by God) who does wrong. The 'evil' Assyrians are God's concern (Shock) The prophet wants to flee his vocation (an image of Israel failing in her vocation). The wonderful result (king and all the people repent) is the largest full scale conversion in the bible. Meanwhile, grumpy Jonah wishes he were dead because he is mad. A Jew reading this (probably during their exile in foreign lands) would be confronted with a challenge. Am I doing my vocation? Am I seeing God's love for these people? Am I proclaiming God's kingdom?
I think that today the question about the whale is Satan's way of keeping us from being addressed by the story. The real question is not "did it happen?" The real question for me and you is "will I make it happen?" Will I proclaim the kingdom? Will I see God's heartfelt desire to be in relationship with all of His creation? Will I be light to the world? The word is alive. It is a calling. Arguing historical details is really a distraction. Is Jonah a true story? You bet it is, I live it every day! How about you?