One could argue that the story of Jonah is not really analogous to a child’s story, as if it’s like something from Jungle Book. Of course the meme assumes that this would be the case; namely, that Jonah’s episode of being swallowed by a fish is a silly little story. But the actual story doesn’t seem to support that. We shall consider points in turn.
What happens is that Jonah flees in fear from God’s instruction to “go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). Trusting the biblical traditions we find that this wickedness was a result of violence, blood & battle, and immorality. According to Nahum this city was full of “a great number of bodies, countless corpses; they stumble over the corpses” as well as full of a “multitude of harlotries of the seductive harlot, the mistress of sorceries, who sells nations through her harlotries, and families through her sorceries” (Nahum 3). One would probably be hard pressed to sell this kind of narrative to children. But when Jonah flees on a ship God sends a violent storm. However, Jonah knows that this is a sign from God showing that he has been angered by Jonah’s disobedience, so Jonah tells those on the ship to “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12). So the crew fearing for their lives do as he says and thus throw him off the ship. Jonah was probably being victimized by waves and the ocean; he is probably expecting to drown slowly which would be something of an agonizing death. This is when God allegedly saves him by sending “a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
The story itself concerning judgment on a wicked city, a fearful man being thrown off of a ship to drown & to be miraculously saved etc. wouldn’t be the first thing to come to mind when creating a story for children. One could argue, granted that this really happened (namely that a miracle really occurred concerning Jonah’s fish, a miracle will by God) it would have been quite a big & serious event.
What About the Fish/Miracle Part?
In truth it is really open to interpretation.
Firstly, I’ve seen scholars (Christian and non-Christian alike) who have persuasively argued that the story of Jonah was never meant to be taken as a literal reading of history. Many of these scholars would, alongside Jonah, include the book of Job as a “fictional story” imbued with significant lessons about God, human nature and so on. One Christian scholar, Thom Stark, argues that Jonah is a polemical tale, explaining that “the fictional short story was an established genre among Jewish sacred writings… to say that it is fictional is not to discredit it or deny its status as inspired scripture. It is simply a matter of recognizing its proper genre, and treating it as such.”
Stark argues that “Jonah is a profound and brilliant piece of satire.” Essentially the author dresses up Jonah in a way that is rebellious against God’s will to to share his blessing with other nations, peoples, cities other than Israel. The book exposes Jonah’s narrow mindedness which is to show that “it is a piece of comedy, and Jonah is the butt of the joke… the gentiles in the story are portrayed as better worshipers of Yahweh than Jonah himself.”
The point being is that Jonah was not penned to be a literal historical report. If this argument follows it would be to miss the point to ask the question of the historicity of the miracle. The story is not of the same genre that we find in our biographical gospels detailing Jesus’ movements.
On the other hand one finds Christians who argue for the historicity of this event. If Jonah really was swallowed by a large fish, and lived to talk about it, then it was nothing short of a miracle, namely a supernatural intervention by God. The only way, I’d argue, that this proposition could be refuted was if a critic could undermine the claim that the Bible is inspired (however one may define what it would mean to be inspired). If the critic could show that God does not exist, or at least that Christianity is a false religion, then it would follow that this miracle did not happen. If so, there was no God to perform the miracle. However, assuming that the Christian God really exists and has really intervened in history through, for example, Jesus’ resurrection then there is no reason to deny that this event could have really happened. The critic would have to show that God would be incapable of doing this, which would be troublesome if he accepted Christian theism’s concept of God. One writer captured this line of thought with an informative analogy. Basically, he argues, if God really created this infinitely and overwhelmingly large universe with all that it is in it, would it really be so difficulty for him to intervene in the way described in the book of Jonah? If the universe God created were analogous to a bulky encyclopedia to deny that God could preform a dramatic miracle would be like denying that he could type in a full stop at the end of a sentence in that encyclopedia. If this is the line that the Christian takes she would do well to argue that the critic behind the meme essentially espouses some form of anti-supernatural bias. The Christian could show that that would be merely an unwarranted assumption against the supernatural.