We're all familiar with the story of Jonah - mainly the part where he gets thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish, sea monster or a whale.
Most biblical scholars held belief that the story was just simply a myth, the stuff of legend. The reason being that the story lacks detail. There are no dates and not even the name of the king.
The structure of the story has been called into question in that it's contrary to the usual type of prophetic writings.
In a nut shell it's a bit of a upside down 'topsy turvy' story where the 'villain' is the prophet and God is having to contend with His rebellious employee! Another reason why the story has been questioned is the prayer that Jonah prayed when he was in the belly of the 'fish' in that it looks to have been a later addition to the text. So, where do go from here?
Let's talk at what we know. There was definitely a large city called Nineveh in Assyria that was surrounded by a wall and was approximately 60km wide. We know that Nineveh got its name from the 'fish god' the Ninevites worshiped called 'Nina'. And finally, we know that there was a Prophet called Jonah who was ministering around about 760 BC because he is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament part of the Bible such as in 2 Kings 14. 25 (which was during the reign of King Jeroboam II around 786-746 BC) and more importantly, Jesus himself mentions Jonah.
As the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh's inhabitants (and the Assyrians in general), were well known throughout the ancient world for their brutality, violence and aggression towards neighbouring countries. Every Israelite both young and old knew that the Assyrians and especially the Ninevites were depraved - and by what we know of Jonah's reactions, whether the story is true or not, he definitely knew!
To get the full understanding of the story of Jonah, the story needs to be read as a whole (a bit like reading one of the Apostle Paul's letters). The reason being is that the conversation between God and Jonah at the end of the story gives an indication as to what was discussed at the beginning. As such, we can see that Jonah was a person who clearly had a close relationship with God. As a prophet, God would speak to him in order to use Jonah to help God's people and to speak through him. Jonah lived and ministered during a time of relative peace and prosperity for the nation of Israel. Though historically, they had suffered again and again brutal attacks from Assyria.
When God told Jonah to go northeast to Nineveh and preach a prophetic message that if they didn't repent, Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days time, Jonah turned and headed southwest to Joppa to catch a boat to Tarshish! Not quite the reaction God was wanting!! Given the history, it's understandable though.
Jonah's experience in the belly of the 'fish' has often been associated with Jesus' death & resurrection. This is because of Jesus' statement to the Jewish leaders, Pharisees etc who were demanding a 'sign' i.e. "I will give you one last sign, the sign of Jonah.". Having studied this story I don't share that limited belief. Purely and simply because, as amazing as it was, Jesus wasn't the only person to have been raised from the dead and Lazarus was raise from the dead after four days! As such, it wouldn't have made much of an impact and so there had to be more to what Jesus had been saying.
With this in mind, there's strong evidence to suggest that the dramatic repentance of the people of Nineveh (including the King) in Jonah 3:1-10 might have been a convergence of events which were read as a sign of God's wrath coming against the nation, all of which were galvanized by a total solar eclipse on June 15th, 763 BC - which was pretty much when most experts say that Jonah would have been ministering as a Prophet.
Professor Donald Wiseman, former curator at the British Museum and editor of 'Chronicles of Chaldean Kings and The Alalakh Tablets', is regarded to have been one of the world's most renowned experts in Assyriology. According to Wiseman, Assyria was weak and in chaos in the decade around 760 BC. They had suffered a massive earthquake which to them would have been a sign of God's wrath; there was a famine from 765-758 BC; Assyria was losing battles and losing territory to its enemies; and there was rioting within Nineveh. As such, the timing was therefore perfect for a prophet from a nation they had persecuted to arrive on the scene and command a response!
According to Wiseman, Assyrian writings indicated that there was indeed a solar eclipse and that they understood it as an apocalyptic omen that meant that, and I quote, "The king will be deposed and killed. a worthless fellow will seize the throne. rain from heaven will flood the land. and the city walls will be destroyed.” According to Wiseman, the Assyrians held a solemn fast and the king handed over his throne to a substitute until the danger passed. The Assyrians reportedly cried out, “Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and “Nineveh shall be made to repent!”.
Wiseman held the belief that the total solar eclipse and the preceding signs are the only logical explanation as to the dramatic reaction to Jonah’s preaching given Jonah's negative disposition. (http://www.tyndalehouse.com/TynBul/Library/TynBull_1979_30_02_Wiseman_JonahsNineveh.pdf).
God has an amazing way of orchestrating supernatural events to coincide with the natural. God pursued Jonah in such a way as to make certain that Jonah understood who he was serving and to make certain that Jonah preached at exactly the right time, for the people of Nineveh to listen to him.
We're in no position to prove or disprove the story of Jonah, his survival inside the fish, or the repentance of Nineveh. Nor can we prove the hypothesis that Jonah was there for the 763 BCE eclipse and that the eclipse helped produce the results recorded in the Biblical account - but the evidence is very compelling.