The Enduring Influence of Jonah and the Whale in Childrens Literature

Categories: Fairy Tale

Jonah and the whale is a very popular children’s story, the classic Sunday school lesson. However, many children grow up with the idea and picture of Geppetto and Pinocchio being swallowing by the whale and sneezed out back onto shore. Though we may not want to tell our children every gruesome detail about Jonah, we can at least get the wording correct and say Jonah and the big or great fish, since there is no evidence that it was a whale in particular.

Even though the story of Jonah has caused many scholarly arguments about the genre and the type of narrative it is, whether it allegorical, a fable, or a parable, in the prophet Jonah’s story there are many lessons to be learned about God.1 In Jonah 1:11-17, we find God brings good and punishment from our weaknesses and disobedience. In this paper there are several areas that will be explored. First, a content analysis of Jonah 1:11-17, then a brief history about Nineveh and Jonah’s decision, who the main characters are, Jonah’s rebellion and the good brought out of that, and finishing off with a practical application.

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Content Analysis

In the New International Version, Jonah 1:11-17 reads, “The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”  “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.

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” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.

Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. 17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

In verse 11, the subject of the sailors thinking has turned from them to Jonah and what he has done to cause such a thing and how he can fix it.2 Since they know Jonah is a Hebrew and follows the Hebrew God, they have come to realize and fear his God. Since they asked what they needed to do with him in verse 11, Jonah’s response to them in verse 12 is not pleasing to them. If Jonah would die from being thrown over board then the blood of his life is on their hands and on their time. So in verse 13, the sailors exhaust their last option of trying their best to row back to shore. Earlier they were throwing the cargo overboard to lighten the ship, which considering what the Tarshish ships were famous for transporting, luxury items (see section: Nineveh and Jonah’s Decision, below) the cargo they discarded may have been of a valuable loss.

The sea growing even wilder is an example of chaos and God’s willingness to upset the order of nature and his creation to draw humans closer to him and awareness of his existence. By verse 14, the sailors are crying out to God and asking for the blood of Jonah to not be held against them because they did not know what he had done. If they were to throw an innocent man overboard the blood of innocence would be worse than facing the storm they were in. After they pleaded to the God they now know is the true God, they throw Jonah over board and the sea grew calm and the sailors were able to continue on their way. In 16, the fact that the sea grew calm just as Jonah said it would after they threw him overboard made them fear God.

They made a sacrifice, which would have been an animal sacrifice offered for the one they fear as act of worship and obedience. Fear in this case denotes an attitude or reverence and honor towards the Lord. In verse 17, having a fish arranged to swallow Jonah can be seen as something of a punishment or a lifesaver. After the last couple events, it is easy to say the fish is both punishment and a lifesaver. Punishment for running the opposite direction and the fact that God could have allowed something a little less severe to save him. Also, the fish was Jonah’s earthly lifesaver because sharks, sea urchins, or other things could have led to Jonah’s death from being cast into the sea. Nineveh and Jonah’s Decision

Nineveh was a very important city in the Assyrian empire on the brink of destruction. It was not until 705 that the city was officially called the capitol of Assyria. It is often noted at the “great city.” It is often argued what the word, great, means in this context. The Greeks saw Nineveh as a wealthy and powerful city.Another view of “great” is that it was a big city with a large population, of about 120,000 with estimations rising all the way up to 600,000.

Great in these two senses is about the same, and though it seems to be the correct meaning in this context, it is import to note that it could also mean something else in a different context. Later on in Jonah it means that the city is great even in God’s eyes. Even though the Hebrews knew the city as being very evil, it was still a great city to God and mattered just as much. I have heard the actions of Nineveh be equated to the Holocaust. “The Ninevites followed a pagan path and practiced violence.” We find in Nahum chapter three, that Nineveh is described as a bloody city, full of lies and plunder, and many other evils.

This city was known to be evil, so Jonah receiving the call to go preach repentance to the people instantly made Jonah mad. There were two things that could happen if Jonah would go, and neither of them were good in his eyes. First, if Jonah were to just prance into Nineveh with the message of repentance against the evil they were practicing the odds weren’t in his favor if the people rejected his message. Surely this call was an inevitable call to Jonah’s demise. He would be captured and tortured by the Ninevites. This scenario doesn’t even seem to be the worst case for Jonah.

He is more concerned with the fact that if they do repent from their ways they will no longer have what is coming to them. For all the evil and bloody mess they have been a part of and have caused, they deserve to be harshly judged and punished! Jonah becomes very angry with this call to minister and wishes that he would rather be dead. God answers him in a very brief question about his right to be angry. This puts Jonah in check with his emotions and settles the point that it isn’t Jonah who gets to decide or judge the people. The sins of Nineveh were not necessarily against Jonah.

Since neither situation of Jonah’s call seemed to fit his idea of fair, he fled the opposite direction of Nineveh. He paid to get on a ship that was on its way to Tarshish, which is generally thought to be a part of Spain. First of all fleeing to Tarshish from Israel, and away from Nineveh is interesting because Tarshish isn’t clean like the holy land of Israel, but it isn’t unclean like Nineveh. It almost seems like Jonah was trying to hide or just become part of a land that has no good or bad connotations. Second, there is the fact that is often not read into that Jonah was able to pay to get on the ship. Money handlings was a relatively new aspect to their world and only people who were well to do would have been able to afford ship fare. So it would make since that Jonah could just up and go to Tarshish, because he had the funds to do so.

The boat Jonah paid to board was transporting cargo. Ships of Tarshish were famous for carrying large quantities of expensive metals and luxuries such as gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. Knowing this, it is safe to assume that Jonah is moving up in the world. He has money to board, and is now on a ship that is probably transporting some items that could be useful in gaining wealth, however, the text of Jonah repeatedly says that he went “down.” He was fleeing from the Lord, so this action of going down can be considered to have a symbolic meaning of falling or getting further from the Lord. However, just as we see in the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, we find that there is nowhere you can run to hide from the Lord.

Main Characters


In any motif, it is helpful to know who the characters are and a little about their history. The first words in the book of Jonah are the words from God. He is a very important person throughout the whole Bible, and in this book, he has many correspondences with Jonah. Throughout the story we see God’s character being reinforced from what one can learn in earlier books of the Bible. God is compassionate, caring for people no matter what they have done, and just goes to show his unpredictability. We see God’s compassion and caring nature through the sending of his prophet to them for a chance to repent before judgment comes. Though our human nature naturally wants bad things and punishment to be bestowed upon the evildoers, God sees this in a different perspective. He wants good things for all his people.


Jonah is the central character in the book of Jonah. God commands him to preach to Nineveh in the first chapter, and refers to Jonah as the son of Amittai.16 Throughout the Old Testament we see that anyone who is going to be important has a lineage i.e. son of. Though Jonah is only mentioned as son of one man, this is still significant. “Jonah’s name means ‘dove.’17 Doves have two meanings attached to them. It is a symbol of love and a sign of peace. Not only are they symbols of love and peace, they also carry the connotation of being a messenger bird. We see this in the Noah and the ark narrative when Noah sends out a dove and it returns, acting as a messenger, with an olive branch, acting as a sign of peace because the chaos of flooding the whole earth had ceased. Next, the meaning of Amittai is “truth.”18 So ‘Jonah son of Amittai’ can be translated into peaceful messenger of truth.

Also, this name and son of can be cross-referenced in the Old Testament in 2 Kings during the reign of Jeroboam II, giving us a time frame reference for when this book was written or when these events took place.19 Though God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah is never taken into God’s confidence.20 This means Jonah didn’t know what God’s intentions were behind this decree. Was God simply warning the Ninevites about their upcoming judgment day, or was this going to be what made them have a change of heart and accept Jonah’s message? This was left up to Jonah to grapple with, but as we see Jonah heads straight to anger in the fact that God is even considering giving them a chance to repent! SAILORS:

The sailors on the ship going to Tarshish, were the first to come into physical contact with Jonah. This contact happened to be during Jonah’s fleeing from the Lord’s command. The sailors were Gentiles and having to deal with Tarshish puts them into the category of not being clean or unclean. They had their own gods and deities to which they prayed and pleaded too when the sea went chaotic. Though they are not particularly doing anything wrong from what they know, they handle themselves very well from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.21 They are just ignorant; yet carry out their duties as best they can.22 They cry out to their gods and cast lots and when they know it is Jonah, the Hebrew, whom they must throw off the ship, they do everything they can to avoid killing a man and having his blood on their hands. NINEVITES:

The people of Nineveh is the evil community whom Jonah has been instructed to preach about the day of judgment coming to them and that they must repent or be punished. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, which was overthrown not long after their repentance. Jonah’s Rebellion and God’s Grace

Jonah 1:11-17 is the after math of Jonah’s rebellion and what his punishment was, for not obeying the first time God commanded him to go to Nineveh. In the first part of Jonah 1, Jonah is called to go, but out of discomfort towards the idea of Nineveh getting off scot free from their offenses he flees the opposite direction. Thinking he can escape from the face of the Lord, God follows wherever he goes and creates chaos to show his anger and disappointment that he disobeyed. Jonah must be thrown overboard to save the sailors and their ship. However, it is because of Jonah’s rebellion that these sailors come to know of the Hebrew God’s power. If it were not for Jonah disobeying, these sailors may never have heard or experienced God in such a powerful way. They turned from their old ways and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and repented to the one true God. Though there is no further evidence, these sailors probably had families, so the rebellion may have led to a domino effect and impacted their families and friends.

Jonah’s missionary commission was not revoked just because of his disobedience.23 God’s resistance to letting Jonah get away with his disobedience act was enough to save Jonah by providing a fish to swallow him up and pretty much put him in timeout so he could think and pray about what he had done and what he will have to do. This fish conveniently spits him up on the shore of Nineveh so his journey there is not as long. Jonah completed what could have been an easy task when he finished his journey through the city of Nineveh. This journey of preaching of the soon upcoming destruction if they don’t repent and turn from their ways.

In conclusion of Jonah’s disobedience, the Jonah’s negligence to accept God’s call the first time ended up bringing more good than if he would have just gone the first time. A whole ship crew was won over because of the stormy sea and the calming after throwing Jonah overboard. This ship crew would have told their families and friends which might have led to domino effect. Also, the city of Nineveh was won over by Jonah’s message. Whether it was because during the days of Jonah’s running, God was preparing their hearts to receive the message, or because of Jonah’s awful stench from being in the fish for three days and nights, God brought so much good out of Jonah’s mistake.


In an overall conclusion, the book of Jonah has some very unique and intriguing aspects about God and his divine plan. There is also no telling who is going to be used in God’s plan or who will accept His grace and forgiveness, so as we research the history of the characters in the Bible narratives we find many diversities. Even though those characters may screw up or deliberately disobey, God can bring good out of it, if we are willing to confess and do the write thing. God makes all things work together for good. He also cares for all of His creation, but He is willing to create some chaos in nature if it means bringing His creation, made in His image, closer to him. Practical Application

A young woman, named Welma, was recently married to a man named Harry. All Welma ever wanted to do was to be a stay at home mom and be a loyal, supporting wife so she never went to college. She met Harry at a grocery store one night and one thing led to another. Now that they are married Harry has been feeling a great deal of passion to work in a prison ministry and felt particularly led towards helping men, who had sexually abused or assaulted someone, get over any shame or guilt they may have.

Though Welma loves and wants to fully support Harry, she was a victim of sexual abuse and she feels as if Harry is betraying her by wanting to help men who have committed such a crime. She feels as if it is an unforgivable sin and they should have to suffer through the guilt and whatever punishment that comes their way. So though she agreed to be supportive in all Harry does, she can’t bring herself to come along side him and help in any way. Since this is how she feels she avoids the topics at all possible cost.

They have only been married three years, and she doesn’t want him to feel like she is abandoning him, even though under the surface that was exactly what she was doing. She was running from the call to help her husband preach the good news of repentance and grace. It is during this time of running that she is forced to face some issues that she has been dealing with since this ministry came back up. While Harry is away at the prisons, she is reading her Bible and meditating on why she feels so hurt by Harry’s insistence on helping such bad people.

She spends her time doing this at a local coffee shop and there are a group of young girls, probably in high school who have a class break during the time Welma studies at the coffee shop. Since the girls go in there on a regular basis they often see Welma studying. Two of these girls have been raised in the church, but weren’t living out God’s commands, and the other two girls had no clue what Welma was always intently studying and why should would often just be sitting there with a puzzled look on her face. One morning, while Wilma was just getting through her studies the girls decide to go say hi. Welma is somewhat surprised by this because she recalls wanting nothing to do with people her age when she was in high school.

The girls ask her what she is always doing there and why she looked puzzled most of the time. Feeling bold, Welma decided to explain to her situation to the girls, and ask what they might do in that place. The two girls who were not raised in the church immediately said they would leave him. Let him do what he wants, if he is going to hurt her like that. However, the other two girls were slower to answer because deep down they had a feeling they knew what was the right thing to do. So one girl spoke up and told Welma to work it out with God and pray for the strength to forgive and move on from that incident.

She told her to pray for her husband’s ministry and that God could slowly work Welma into helping him with small tasks at first, but gradually be brought in and help out with big things. The girl’s three friends were shocked at how their friend answered Welma’s question. They had never heard her talk like that or heard her talk about God. With this, being such a shock, the girls were instantly intrigued and in awe of this wisdom and advice, which sounded like there was more behind it. So together Welma and the two girls who had grown up in church were able to minister to the other two girls.

Over time Welma was able to jump into helped Harry with what she could, but mostly just supporting him since it was mostly just a men’s prison ministry. Welma was able to let go of her past and let God heal her and even better, Welma was able to start a high school ministry with those girls and teens that were in abusive situations.

Through Welma’s distress and discomfort with the Gospel message being brought to people who had done terrible things, God was able to mend Welma’s broken heart, strengthen her marriage, and start a whole other ministry with girls who had been in her same scenario.


  1. Baker, D.W., T. Desmond Alexander, Bruce K. Waltke. Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Pr, 1988.
  2. Bolin, Thomas M. “Should i Not Also Pity Nineveh? Divine Freedom in the Book of Jonah.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 67 (1995): 109-20. Cary, Phillip. Jonah. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.
  3. Ferguson, Paul. “Who Was the King of Nineveh in Jonah 3: 6.” Tyndale Bulletin 42, no. 7 (1996): 301-14. Forti, Tova. “Of Ships and Seas, and Fish and Beasts: Viewing the Concept of Universal Providence in the Book of Jonah through the Prism of Psalms.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament35, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 359-374.Sargent James E., Basic Bible Commentary: Hosea through Jonah. Graded Press, 1988. Jenson, Philip Peter. Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: a Theological Commentary. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.
  4. Lamb, Christopher. “Nineveh Revisited: Theory and Practice in Interfaith Relations.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (October 1984): 156-58. Limburg, James. Jonah: a Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
  5. Sargent, James E. Hosea through Jonah. Graded Press, 1988.
  6. Sasson, Jack M. Jonah (the Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries). London: Yale University Press, 1995. Timmer, Daniel C. “A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah.” Westminster Theological Journal (March 1, 2008): 159-75. Wiseman, Donald J. “Jonah's Nineveh.” The Tyndale Biblical Archaeology Lecture (1997): 29-51.
Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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The Enduring Influence of Jonah and the Whale in Childrens Literature. (2016, Apr 29). Retrieved from

The Enduring Influence of Jonah and the Whale in Childrens Literature essay
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