How the Story of Jonah Works — A Writer Explains Jonah

How Stories Work with Jay Sherer
21 min readJan 26, 2022


(Watch the video version below or keep reading for the full article!)

The story of Jonah — from the Bible — is not about a man who gets swallowed by a “whale.” Some of us learned that in Sunday school while others got the bizarro version of Jonah on the Joe Rogan Experience.

But the story of Jonah has a deeper and far more important message that resonates with many of us in the modern day. And that message is delivered through an engaging narrative that feels like an episode of Game of Thrones.

A fugitive prophet. An evil city. A sea monster sent by God. And an ending that forces the audience to ask themselves a deep, introspective question.

How does the story of Jonah work? Let’s break it down.

The meaning of the story of Jonah revolves around God’s simple but powerful question, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

(If you enjoy this article and want to dig even deeper into the story of Jonah, I created a study guide to go along with this show. It’s easy to use for self study or in a writing group or a small group.)

Let’s start with a question that most people ask about the story of Jonah: Did it really happen?


Before we get into the actual story, we have to address the sea monster in the room (*groan*), the one critical question that often comes up every time someone references the story of Jonah: Did it actually happen? Is this an historical account or is it a parable?

My definitive answer: It doesn’t matter.

Whether or not the story of Jonah is an historical account or a parable has no impact on the Truth we can extract from the story.

If it actually happened — if this is real-life history — then the story of Jonah is an important story with an important message. But, if it’s a parable… it’s an important story with an important message.

Many Evangelical and Catholic churches teach the story of Jonah as if it actually happened. But others — including many Jewish scholars — contend that the story of Jonah is just a parable.

Here’s the thing, though, it doesn’t matter. The important part of the story of Jonah is not about him surviving for three days inside a “whale” (which, by the way, might be better translated as “large sea creature,” or my personal favorite, “sea monster”). Fixating on whether or not the story of Jonah really happened means sacrificing a far more important conversation about the nature of God, how humans should interact with one another, and also our own view of morality.

Whether or not the story of Jonah is an historical account or a parable has no impact on the Truth we can extract from the story. Jesus himself told parables that contain Truth, and many spiritual books from all kinds of faiths use parables to illustrate Truth about our shared human experience and our relationship with the Divine.

So, let’s put aside the argument about whether or not the story of Jonah is historically accurate and dive into the more important aspects of what the storyteller is attempting to convey.


Chapter 1, Verses 1–3

Act I — the setup — is short and sweet. It’s just three verses. That’s likely because the story is a small piece of a more expansive narrative. In other words, the Book of Jonah can stand alone, but it’s intended to be understood as part of a larger narrative universe — in this case, the Old Testament/Tanakh [just like Captain America: Winter Soldier can stand alone, but it helps to have the greater context of all the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films]. Part of the reason people tend to miss some of the deeper messages in Jonah is because they aren’t familiar with the wider biblical context, or they don’t factor it into the equation.

I’ll touch on this bigger picture as we go, but I encourage anyone and everyone to read the entire Old Testament. After all, the Bible is perhaps the most significant book in human history; it’s at least the most-read book in the world. For now, let’s explore Jonah’s brief introductory section.

The story begins with God giving Jonah a directive — basically a quest. He instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh. God refers to Nineveh as a “great city,” probably because it’s both large and influential. God wants Jonah to “cry out against Nineveh” because “…their wickedness has come up before me.”

In other words, Nineveh has become so evil that God feels the need to intervene. Jonah will serve as God’s messenger, and his objective will be to let the people of Nineveh know that God has seen their wickedness.

Based on this simple setup, we now know:

  • Jonah has received a directive (I like calling it a “quest”) from God.
  • The people of Nineveh — a large and influential city — are participating in behaviors that God considers evil or wicked.
  • God has asked Jonah to “cry out” against them.

Then, in verse three, we hit Plot Point I (i.e., an inflection point that takes the story in a new direction): Instead of embarking on his quest, Jonah attempts to flee from the presence of the Lord. He boards a ship for Tarshish rather than heading for Nineveh.

God gives Jonah a directive and Jonah immediately bails. That’s Act I, a brief setup for the story of Jonah.


Chapter 1, Verses 4–16

Act II starts with Jonah fleeing the presence of God, but as an audience, we don’t know why… yet. That’s still coming, but in the meantime this first half of Act II ramps up the conflict right away.

Jonah’s headed to Tarshish, fleeing the presence of God, when God sends a violent storm that threatens to sink the ship he’s on. This storm is so severe that the sailors are afraid for their lives. Meanwhile, Jonah is fast asleep belowdecks, a detail I find fascinating because it’s a subtle clue (i.e., amazing foreshadowing) about Jonah’s mindset.

In most stories, fugitives don’t sleep well, but here Jonah is “fast asleep” in the middle of a raging storm. The sailors — who are terrified the ship will sink — have to wake Jonah up. In other words, Jonah doesn’t seem to have a guilty conscience at all. Despite fleeing from the presence of God and being beset by a violent storm, he’s sleeping like a baby.

When the sailors wake Jonah up, the captain tells him to pray to his God. They’re all praying to their own gods, and they might as well have Jonah pray, too. Maybe one of the gods will choose to save them. If not, given the severity of this storm, they’re all going to die.

The sailors have an interesting theory — one we still encounter in modern times: They blame their misfortune on someone’s behavior. Somebody must have done something to make the gods angry, and in turn, the gods sent the storm to punish that person.

To figure out who the gods are angry at, they “cast lots” — which is essentially like drawing straws or rolling dice — to see who on the boat has caused the storm, the assumption being that the gods will reveal who the problematic person is… and it works! The casting of lots identifies Jonah as the source of the problem, which of course we already know to be true. God sent the storm because Jonah fled.

The sailors begin to pepper Jonah with questions about where he’s from, who his God is, and what he did to upset his God. Jonah tells them who he is, and then says:

“…I fear the Lord, the God of heaven…”

Doesn’t that seem like an odd thing for Jonah to say? Everyone around Jonah is terrified, but he just woke up from an unperturbed, deep sleep. And yet, he claims that he fears God. Keep in mind, at this point we still don’t know why Jonah is fleeing from the presence of God, but does it make sense to disobey a deity that you fear? Someone who truly feared God above all else would do what God wanted them to do, right?

The story will circle back to this later, but I bring it up because it’s another example of subtle foreshadowing that works phenomenally well in giving us some insight into Jonah’s character and his motivation.

As the storm continues to get worse, the sailors ask Jonah what they should do to appease God. Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. At first, they don’t want to. They try to head for the shore instead, but they can’t make it. The storm is too intense for them to fight it, and before long, their ship will sink. So, the sailors finally cry out to God for mercy and then proceed to throw Jonah into the sea as he suggested.

Right after Jonah gets tossed in, the storm stops. The storyteller notes here that the sailors feared the Lord exceedingly, offered sacrifices to Him, and took vows — I would assume vows to make Jonah’s God their own God.

This set of scenes showcases compelling conflict. A prophet of God flees from His presence. A storm arises that terrifies a group of seasoned sailors and threatens to sink their ship and take their lives. They nervously cast lots to see who’s behavior has caused the storm, and then when they find out that it’s Jonah, they reluctantly throw him overboard.

It’s a fantastic start to the story of Jonah, and the conflict in the first half of Act II really sucks the audience in and makes us want to see what happens next. Plus, the storyteller has already hinted at more conflict to come. At this midpoint of the story of Jonah, we’ve learned a little bit more about what’s happening:

  • Jonah claims to fear God, but is openly disobedient to Him.
  • Jonah also seems to have a pretty clear conscience. In other words, it seems like he feels justified in fleeing from God.
  • The storyteller has also — utilizing the conflict — contrasted Jonah’s attitude with that of the sailors who demonstrate a more acute fear of God. And while they initially attempt to row to shore, they quickly come around to throwing Jonah overboard in obedience to God.

Now here comes the sea monster.


Chapter 1, Verse 17 — Chapter 2, Verse 10

The first half of Act II ends in verse 16, and the second half of Act II begins when the sailors throw Jonah overboard. That’s where we hit the classic scene everybody knows…

A giant sea monster swallows Jonah whole.

Note that it doesn’t say “whale,” and when Jesus refers to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew (like the TV show Hawkeye referencing the events of Avengers: Endgame), that word, which is translated from Greek rather than Hebrew, doesn’t necessarily mean “whale,” either. The actual words referenced in both stories could be translated to “great sea creature” or even “sea monster.”

The reason I bring this up is that suggesting that the “fish” or the “sea monster” is a whale seems to be an attempt to make this element of the story more believable. It’s almost as if someone has already determined that the story must be historically accurate in order for it to be meaningful, and since calling it a “sea monster” or even “great sea creature” might make it seem less realistic, some interpreters replace that descriptor with one that seems more realistic to them.

…sanitizing the content here doesn’t help.

Since we’re breaking Jonah down as a story without attempting to determine whether it actually happened, I have to come to two conclusions about altering the narrative:

  1. Changing the term from “sea monster” to “whale” doesn’t improve the story. In fact, I’m willing to bet many modern day readers would be far more interested in a story that had a “sea monster” rather than a “whale.”
  2. The story of Jonah isn’t even about the sea monster, which means attempting to alter the storyteller’s original description might detract from the narrative arc, and therefore the entire meaning of the story.

In other words, sanitizing the content here doesn’t help.

I do understand why so many people focus on this aspect of the story. It’s definitely a strong marketing tool. There’s not another story in the Bible about a sea monster, which makes it instantly memorable. In fact, if Hollywood made a film about the story of Jonah, this scene would be on the poster: a giant sea monster swallowing Jonah whole. It’d be a pretty rad poster, honestly.

*Movie Trailer Voice* “A massive creature from the depths of the ocean swallows a fugitive prophet of God… Jonah, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This summer, stay out of the water.”

As a fan of fantasy, I find the addition of the sea monster compelling, but the story of Jonah isn’t about the sea monster. In fact, there are only three verses that mention the creature. Here’s everything that’s said about the sea monster:

  1. It swallows Jonah.
  2. Jonah is in its belly for three days and three nights.
  3. Jonah prays to the Lord from the sea monster’s belly, and then it vomits him up onto the shore.

The only description of the sea monster is that it’s “great,” which likely means large (just like with the city of Nineveh). That’s it. We don’t get any other details. Why? Because that’s not where we’re supposed to spend our time and attention.

So, while Jonah is inside the sea monster, he prays to God, which is where the conflict of Act II really shines. Act II is more about Jonah’s internal conflict than anything else. You can read the entire prayer, but here are some things I think we can ascertain from it:

  1. Jonah seems to be confident that God will hear and answer his prayer because he starts the prayer by praising God for hearing and answering his prayer.
  2. Jonah is miserable inside the sea monster. It’s not a penthouse suite. It’s bad. He uses intense metaphors to describe his discomfort and even references Sheol to suggest that being inside the sea monster is like being in hell.
  3. Jonah says something very interesting at the tail end of his prayer. He prays, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy.” Doesn’t that seem like a strange thing to say for a guy stuck in the belly of a sea monster? Remember that because it tells us something very important about Jonah in this moment. It’s another bit of subtle foreshadowing that’s easy to miss.

This prayer reveals a lot about Jonah’s character. He seems to understand how God works, and he loves the Lord and wants to follow Him. But he’s still holding onto some baggage that will be revealed in Act III, including why he fled from God in the first place.

Act II ends with the sea monster vomiting Jonah onto dry ground. And then — some unspecified time later — God tells Jonah to go back to Nineveh to deliver a message to the Ninevite people. Jonah gets a second chance to complete his quest.

By the way, if you think about the story of Jonah as one story within a much larger “narrative universe,” there are parallels and references to later installments. My favorite follows the similarities and critically important differences between the story of Jonah and the accounts of the Gospels that cover the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Check out my Aftershow on my Patreon account (for free!) to learn more about how Jonah and Jesus are connected (it’s mind-blowing, at least to me).

For now, let’s get into Act III where we finally begin to understand why Jonah fled from God.


Chapter 3, Verse 1 — Chapter 4, Verse 11

Act III takes the story straight to Nineveh. God calls Jonah to Nineveh again, and this time, Jonah actually goes. It notes here that it takes three days to traverse throughout Nineveh — so Nineveh is huge. And this time around, Jonah completes his quest by walking through the city of Nineveh crying out, “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!”

In a Hollywood blockbuster, this story would be about Jonah’s fear. He would need to overcome his fear in order to do the right thing.

And the people listen. They believe Jonah. When word reaches the king, he tells the entire city that everyone in Nineveh needs to repent. And they do — collectively as a city, they all acknowledge and turn away from their wickedness. Some audience members might balk at such a rapid turn in the hearts of the Ninevite people. But, I recently watched several episodes of the Vice series BLACK MARKET, which showcases illegal activities in major cities in today’s world. And part of the philosophy of that show — which it documents extraordinarily well — is that most of the people involved in the illegal activity know it’s wrong and don’t want to be part of it, but they’re desperate. I imagine that the people of Nineveh felt the same way. They knew their city was evil — and that they’re partially at fault — which is likely why repentance comes so easily for them.

To give us an idea of how bad Nineveh had become, the storyteller documents that the king says, “Let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” There are a couple of implications here:

  1. Everyone in Nineveh was truly evil — meaning that they were actually harming one another. And I note that because, based on other biblical narratives, a city has to get pretty bad before God issues a warning of this nature. The story of Jonah doesn’t provide us with any details, but we can assume that given Nineveh’s repentance, the king’s own words, Jonah’s reaction — which we’ll see in a minute — and additional context from other stories that fall within the “narrative universe” of the Bible, the people of Nineveh are committing some serious crimes against one another.
  2. According to the story, everyone in the city knew their city was evil, and knew it was wrong. Their collective response was to turn away from their violent, wicked ways.

The people of Nineveh repent and God upholds His promise. He does not overthrow the city.

In most modern movies, that would be the resolution. In a Hollywood blockbuster, this story would be about Jonah’s fear. He would need to overcome his fear in order to do the right thing. But in the end, he would pursue the quest God gave him and head to the corrupt city of Nineveh. There, he would find the courage to tell them to repent, and then — after a few chase scenes — he would face off against the evil king, overcome the king, and the story would end with everyone repenting and living happily ever after.

And if the actual story of Jonah — the one we find in the Bible — ended here, it could be about Jonah overcoming his fear and choosing to be selfless. Maybe Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was scared. But God proved to Jonah through the encounter with the sea monster that He would protect him.

If the story ended here, then the popular narrative about God sustaining Jonah while he was in the “whale” might be justified. We’d have to assume some things we’re not told, but we could get there.

But here’s the thing: The story of Jonah is not over. And Jonah’s problem is not that he is afraid. The story of Jonah is about to go to a far darker place. This resembles an independent film way more than it does a summer blockbuster.

Let’s recap:

  • God has a quest for Jonah.
  • Jonah doesn’t want to complete it. He flees from God, but we don’t know why.
  • After God redirects Jonah by sending a storm and sea monster to teach him a lesson, Jonah changes his mind and obeys God.
  • Jonah goes to Nineveh, declares they need to repent from their evil ways, and then everyone is happy!

Well, wait… That’s not quite right. Not everyone is happy. Because after the people of Nineveh repent and declare they’re going to change, Jonah… is enraged! Didn’t expect that, did you? What’s going on here?

This story isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. Jonah didn’t overcome his own fear. He wasn’t afraid to preach to Nineveh. He just didn’t want Nineveh to receive mercy.

Let’s look at Jonah’s final prayer to God to examine some key details we need to fully understand this story:

  1. In his prayer, Jonah says that he told God why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh, a detail the storyteller chose not to reveal until now. This means God has always known why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah predicted the outcome of completing the quest before he ever embarked on it. He says, “…I know you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm…” In other words, Jonah suspected God would show mercy to the people of Nineveh, which means he also likely knew Nineveh would repent.
  3. Jonah is so pissed off about the people of Nineveh receiving mercy that he prays, “…Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Why didn’t Jonah go to Nineveh the first time? Why did he flee? Because he wanted God to overthrow Nineveh! He wanted Nineveh to be punished for their evil! He saw how disobedient the Ninevites were, how evil and violent they were, and he wanted them to pay for it — most likely with their lives, though I’m somewhat inferring that.

This story isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. Jonah didn’t overcome his own fear. He wasn’t afraid to preach to Nineveh. He just didn’t want Nineveh to receive mercy. He wanted to see them punished.

Here it’s important to note that Jonah isn’t wrong in wanting to see Nineveh’s evil dealt with. Nineveh was evil. God agreed. God was going to have Nineveh overthrown for how evil they were. Even the Ninevites themselves thought their own behaviors were evil. But what happens next showcases why the story of Jonah is so important — something probably all of us can recognize as a shared human experience.

Jonah is outraged that God has shown Nineveh mercy. He’s so outraged that he doesn’t want to live to see these people get off scot free, so to speak. Overreaction? Maybe. But have you ever been so angry about an unresolved injustice in your family or community that you could barely stand it? If not, perhaps you can at least imagine the feeling. It’s certainly not a healthy place to be.

But thankfully, God doesn’t leave Jonah in that state (although He’s not going to be easy on him). He asks Jonah a simple question:

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

This question should cut us all to the core. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first God (and therefore the storyteller) is going to illustrate His point one more time in the story through another metaphor.

Jonah leaves Nineveh and goes to a place where he can still see the city. Why would he do that? Personally, I think Jonah wants to see if his outrage might persuade God to change His mind, and if so, he can gleefully watch the city burn. It feels like Jonah still believes his way of thinking is superior to God’s, and he’s trying to convince God to change His mind.

God prepares a plant to grow up — obviously very quickly — to provide some shade for Jonah because he is completely miserable in the heat. And Jonah is grateful for the shade. He goes to sleep, and then as the morning dawns, God sends a worm to eat the plant, leaving Jonah totally exposed to the sun again. The heat beats down on Jonah, a strong wind comes up alongside the heat, and pretty soon Jonah’s miserable yet again, and says to God, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God responds, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

And Jonah retorts, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”

“You have had pity on the plant,” God says, “for which you have not labored, nor made grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot discern their right hand from their left?”

Roll credits. The end. That’s how the story of Jonah ends. Nineveh is saved while Jonah is still outraged at God and at the Ninevite people. Not some pithy happy ending, but rather God questioning Jonah’s heart. Feeling a bit puzzled? Understandable.

Let’s break it all down to showcase how this ending is actually quite complete and how powerful the story of Jonah truly is in explaining the human condition.


So what is the story of Jonah all about? It’s definitely not about him getting swallowed by a “whale,” right? The meaning of the story of Jonah revolves around God’s simple but powerful question, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah wanted violence. Jonah wanted to withhold mercy. What did God want? Restored relationship.

The story of Jonah is a character study. It delivers a gut punch that’s meant to force us to pause and reflect on what just unfolded. We didn’t get clear heroes and villains. We got nuance. But what does it all mean? What’s the meaning of the story of Jonah?

Using Lagos Egri’s thoughts on premise from his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, I would suggest that the story of Jonah showcases that:

Self-righteous indignation ignores its own hypocrisy to produce bitterness and outrage.

In Act I, Jonah flees from God so as to avoid God’s directive. By the end of the story we know why: Jonah doesn’t want God to have mercy on Nineveh. He wants Nineveh to experience pain and suffering because of their evil deeds. Jonah actively disobeys God’s command and wishes for death and destruction on a group of fellow humans.

In Act II, Jonah changes his behavior, but not his heart. Let’s revisit that one telling line in his prayer again. In the belly of the sea monster, he prayed, “Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy.” Who was he talking about?

My suspicion is that he’s talking about the Ninevites! Jonah acknowledges that he disobeyed God by fleeing God’s presence, but he still doesn’t want God to forgive the people of Nineveh. In Jonah’s mind, the people of Nineveh have “forsaken their own mercy.” According to him, they don’t deserve God’s mercy.

In Act III, Jonah obeys God, but he remains convinced Nineveh should be overthrown. So, when Nineveh repents and God spares them, Jonah becomes outraged. And God, seeing Jonah’s outrage, asks him that simple question:

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

Does Jonah have a right to be outraged about Nineveh’s evil behavior? Yes. Even God was outraged by that. But Jonah isn’t just outraged by Nineveh’s evil. He’s outraged at God for showing them mercy after they have acknowledged their own evil and chosen to turn away from it.

Jonah wanted violence. Jonah wanted to withhold mercy. What did God want? Restored relationship.

And here’s the really important aspect of why Jonah is wrong and why God is right: Jonah isn’t worthy of God’s mercy either. Jonah disobeyed God. He never changed his heart. He wanted violence against Nineveh, even after they repented.

The problem isn’t that we desire justice, it’s that we are quick to appoint ourselves judge over who should or shouldn’t be brought to justice.

God’s question is essentially Him pointing out that Jonah’s heart was as problematic as the behavior of the Ninevites. Jonah wanted God to obliterate them, and fled from God in order that they wouldn’t have a chance to repent. By abandoning his quest, Jonah sentenced the unrepentant Ninevites to God’s Wrath.

Nineveh wasn’t worthy of God’s mercy, but Jonah isn’t worthy of God’s mercy, either. If we demand that God punishes evil, justice requires that He punish us, too. Fortunately, as the story of Jonah showcases, God wants a relationship with his creation and He wants us to refrain from evil.

The story of Jonah demonstrates that while we desire justice and mercy, when we seek true justice, we often condemn ourselves. Jonah’s outrage when God shows the people of Nineveh mercy makes him a hypocrite. And his desire for violence and lack of compassion make him bitter and angry.

The problem isn’t that we desire justice, it’s that we are quick to appoint ourselves judge over who should or shouldn’t be brought to justice. Later in the Bible, in the book of Matthew, Jesus Christ says, “Judge not, that you be not judged…And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

Thus, the premise of the story of Jonah rings true centuries later: Self-righteous indignation ignores its own hypocrisy to produce bitterness and outrage.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the Moral Majority sought justice by demanding “clean” content and condemning controversial content all while hating homosexuals. More recently, we’ve seen Cancel Culture movements that sought justice by demanding that humans “do better,” and all the while, those deeply involved in those movements were committing terrible acts of their own.

That, unfortunately, is often our own shared human experience. Whether we resemble the people Nineveh or Jonah, we’re not worthy of mercy. But, according to the story of Jonah, God allows for repentance and grants mercy, even when we don’t deserve it.

The story of Jonah is not mainly about a prophet who’s protected by God after being swallowed by a “whale.” Instead, it’s a deeply personal exploration of justice, mercy, and our own deep-seeded issues with hypocrisy, bitterness, and outrage. And for those reasons, I love the story of Jonah and consider it a masterpiece of storytelling.

But, according to the story of Jonah, God allows for repentance and grants mercy, even when we don’t deserve it.

Two final things… If you want to dig even deeper into the story of Jonah — either for self study or to study it with a writers’ group or a small group — check out my study guide!

And, don’t forget to check out my Aftershow content where I break down the similarities and differences between the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus Christ as it’s laid out in the Gospels. It’s a little bit mind-blowing, and it’s available on

Let me know your thoughts on the story of Jonah in the comments! Did I miss anything?

Thanks for reading!


Jay Sherer is the co-writer of the full cast audiobook and novel, Death of a Bounty Hunter, and the time travel serial story, Timeslingers. He also runs the How Stories Work with Jay Sherer YouTube channel, podcast, and blog where his goal is to learn to tell better stories, help audiences understand popular stories, and help other storytellers improve their own storytelling.

If you enjoyed this resource and would like others like them, please support Jay on Patreon.



How Stories Work with Jay Sherer

I love storytelling. I write novels and screenplays. My latest book, DEATH OF A BOUNTY HUNTER, is out now!