Jonah and the Whale

Question: Do you believe that Jonah was really swallowed by a whale? Isn’t this just a story, and evidence that the Bible is a book of fairy tales?

My Answer: One of the most criticized portions of Scripture is the story of Jonah and his experience in being swallowed alive by a great sea creature. Some modern commentators and theologians avoid the issue by declaring that this story is only a myth, a parable of sorts. It has great merit as a teaching instrument, but it is not to be understood as history. What are we to think? Should we accept this story as being literally true? Or should we view it as a moral parable?

The Biblical View

The Bible presents the story of Jonah as actually true. There is nothing in the book to indicate a mythical interpretation. The story mentions real places, such as Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish. Its portrayal of Jonah and his actions is realistic and presented as history.

Other Scripture bears out the historical reality of the account. Jonah is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament as a historical figure (see 2 Kings 14:25). Of great significance is that the fact that Jesus refers to Jonah as a real person, and the events of his life as actual occurrences. To question the historical reality of Jonah is to call into question the integrity of our Lord Himself!

What About The Whale?

The Hebrew word that is translated “whale” in the King James Version literally means “large fish.” Ancient people did not use the same classification system as we do. To them any creature with fins that lived under water was a fish. To say that whales are fish was common until recent times. (Indeed, in the novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville goes to great pains to prove that he believes whales should be classified as fish.) As a result of this fact, we cannot be sure what this “great fish” actually was. It may have been a whale, a large shark, or even some other creature.

Are there such “fish” capable of swallowing a man? Indeed, there are. The whale shark, the great white shark and sperm whales all have mouths large enough to swallow a man. In fact, in 1933 a whale was captured off the coast of Cape Cod that was 100 feet in length. The mouth of this whale was nearly 12 feet wide. (1) There are recorded cases of mammals larger than a man being swallowed by such great fish. (2) Dr. A. C. Dixon states that there are several instances of great white sharks swallowing large animals, including a whole horse, a reindeer, and a sea cow the size of an ox. (3) Harry Rimmer records that he personally witnessed the remains of a man being exhumed from a dead whale shark. (4) The dead man had been in the shark’s belly for 30 days, leaving only bones. But the bones were whole and complete.

It should also be remembered that whales breath air. To do this under water, they have a large air reservoir in their heads. This is actually an enlargement of the nasal sinus. In a very large whale, this compartment can be as large as 14 feet long, seven feet high, and seven feet wide. It is said that if a whale swallows anything too big to swallow, it will thrust it up into this air cavity. It will then swim to shallow water and eject the object. (5)

Inside The Fish

Granted that there are sea creatures large enough to swallow a man, the question must be asked: How could Jonah have survived for three days in the stomach of this great fish?

There are reasonable answers to this question also. First of all, it worth noting that the great white shark will often store food in its stomach for days without digesting it. (6) Secondly, animals can survive such an ordeal. There was a newspaper article in the Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer that reported that a Dr. Ransome Harvey had found a small dog in the head of a whale six days after it had fallen from a ship. The dog was still alive. (7)

Thirdly, there have been several accounts of men who have been swallowed by “great fish” and survived. For example, there is the account of a man named James Bartley who survived a day and a half in the stomach of a whale. There are also other similar records of men living through such an experience. (8)

So it appears that there is reason to accept the fact that Jonah could have survived such an ordeal. But in considering this, it is also important to remember that the Bible says God “prepared” this fish to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:17). We cannot rule out the possibility that God provided a “fish” that supernaturally outfitted to keep Jonah alive.

Another Explanation

If you have a hard time accepting that a man could live inside the stomach of a fish or whale, there is another reasonable explanation that could explain the story of Jonah. It could be that Jonah did not survive this ordeal. He did indeed die.

There are two facts that lend credence to this possibility. First, Jonah spoke as though he had died (see Jonah 2:2, 6). This could be figurative language, or it could mean that Jonah actually did die and that the Lord resuscitated him to enable him to fulfill his mission. The second fact is that Jesus uses the story of Jonah to illustrate His own death and resurrection (see Matthew 12:40-41). He states that just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale, so He, the Son of Man, would be three days in the heart of the earth. What condition was Jesus in when He was in the heart of the earth? He was dead. So too, perhaps, was Jonah.

Footnotes

1. James I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney and William White, eds. The Bible Almanac. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980, p. 237.
2. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart. Answers to Tough Questions. San Bernardino: Here’s Life, 1980, p. 97.
3. Harry Rimmer. Harmony of Science and Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 183-184.
4. Rimmer, p. 185-186.
5. Rimmer, p. 183.
6. Webb Garrison. Strange Facts About the Bible. New York: Pillar Books, 1968, pp. 115-116.
7. Packer, et al., p. 237. Also, Rimmer, p. 183.
8. McDowell and Stewart, p. 97.

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