Is the story of ‘Jonah and the whale’ true history as Bible-believers claim, allegory as liberals allege, or nonsense as sceptics sneer?
The Bible treats the story as true history. The book of Jonah is written as though it is real history. Jonah was a real prophet and is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Jesus Himself believed the story of Jonah; He not only asserted that the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, but He also compared His own future death and resurrection to Jonah’s experience (Matthew 12:39–41; Luke 11:29–30). Henry Morris writes, ‘One cannot deny the factuality of Jonah’s experience, therefore, without charging the Lord Jesus Christ with either deception or ignorance, either of which is equivalent to denying His deity.’1
In the book of Jonah the Hebrew word for the sea creature is דג dag, meaning ‘fish’. In the New Testament, the Greek word used by Matthew was κήτος kētos, meaning ‘sea monster’, and is so rendered in the Revised Version margin. The King James Version translators translated this term as ‘whale’, possibly because it was the largest sea creature of which they knew. What the text says is that ‘God had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah’ (Jonah 1:17). The words imply either a special act of creation, or of modification of an existing sea creature to accommodate Jonah safely. Jonah prayed to God ‘out of the fish’s belly’ (Jonah 2:1). ‘Belly’ is a fairly vague term in English, let alone in ancient Hebrew, so if Jonah was swallowed by a creature such as a sperm whale, he might have been in the great laryngeal pouch; if by a shark, he may have been in the stomach of a creature specially prepared by God to protect him from the effects of its gastric juices.
There is no doubt that there are sea creatures with jaws large enough to swallow a man whole. See photograph taken at Underwater World, Mooloolaba, in Queensland, Australia. And in the movie Jaws the fishing-boat owner Quint is swallowed whole by the shark, but no one seems to have taken exception to this.
There is an oft-quoted story concerning a certain James Bartley, when he was a harpooner on the whale-ship Star of the East, in 1891, under the command of Captain Killam, near the Falkland Islands. In the course of a whale hunt, Bartley fell into the sea and disappeared. The whale was killed and the next day, when the sailors cut it open, they were amazed to find Bartley still alive in the whale’s stomach. He was revived and in time recovered from his experience. The report says, ‘During his sojourn in the whale’s stomach Bartley’s skin, where exposed to the action of the gastric juice, underwent a striking change. His face, neck, and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness, and took on the appearance of parchment. Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not from lack of air.’2
This story is said to have first appeared in October 1892, in the English newspaper Great Yarmouth Mercury. It was then reprinted in other papers, and was included by Sir Francis Fox in his book, Sixty-three Years of Engineering, Scientific and Social Work, published in 1924.
It has been counter-claimed by sceptics that in 1906 an Anglican clergyman named Canon Williams wrote to Captain Killam to verify the story, but received a letter from the captain’s wife, dated November 24, 1906, saying: ‘There is not one word of truth in the whole story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the "Star of the East". There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.’3
From the above contradictory reports it would appear that someone has been economical with the truth in regard to this matter. What is not nearly so clear is just who!
Dr Harry Rimmer, D.D., Sc.D., tells of personally meeting a sailor who fell overboard from a trawler in the English Channel and was swallowed by a gigantic Rhincodon whale shark. The entire trawler fleet set out to hunt the shark down and, 48 hours after the accident, the shark was sighted and slain with a one-pound deck gun. The carcass was too heavy for the ship’s winches to handle, so the crew towed it to shore, intending to give their friend a Christian burial. When the shark was opened, the man was found unconscious but alive. He was rushed to hospital, where he was found to be suffering from shock alone, and was later discharged. He was on exhibit in a London museum at a shilling admission, and was advertised as ‘The Jonah of the Twentieth Century’.4
The ancient Hebrews idiomatically counted a part of a day as a whole day,5 so that ‘three days and three nights’ could have been as short as 38 hours. This explains how Jesus could say that the time He would be in the tomb (from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning) was similar to the ‘three days and three nights’ of Jonah’s experience (Matthew 12:40). It is interesting to note that in Mark 8:31 Jesus is recorded as saying, ‘The Son of Man will rise again after three days’, while in Matthew 16:21 He says, ‘He will be raised again on the third day.’ Jesus thus used the two time frames interchangeably, and there is no error or contradiction concerning the time Jesus was in the tomb compared with the time Jonah was in the fish, as sceptics have claimed.6
One of the many remarkable parts of this story is why Jonah waited so long before he prayed to God out of the fish’s belly (Jonah 2:1). Perhaps he fainted and God revived him on the third day, as it was God’s intention that Jonah should prefigure Jesus’ death and resurrection.
There is no question but that the event was a miracle. In fact, the story of Jonah is an account of not one but six miraculous acts by God, some of which involved the divinely directed use of natural phenomena. These were:
‘The Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest’ (Jonah 1:4),
‘The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah’ (Jonah 1:17),
‘The Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land’ (Jonah 2:10),
‘The Lord God prepared a gourd [vine, NIV], and made it to come up over Jonah’ (Jonah 4:6),
‘God prepared a worm…and it smote the gourd [chewed the vine, NIV] that it withered’ (Jonah 4:7),
‘God prepared a vehement east wind…’ (Jonah 4:8).
These miracles are no more incredible than those recorded in the Bible concerning the Flood, the confusion of languages at Babel, the plagues on the land of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, the dividing of the Red Sea, the healings performed by Elisha, the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles Jesus performed, and the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity stands or falls by the Bible, and we should never forget or apologize for the fact that Christianity is a religion of miracle.
Why should God have gone to such extraordinary lengths, humanly speaking, with respect to Jonah? The answer has to be that good and sufficient reason is seen in the necessity of God’s getting the message of redemption to the people of Nineveh. Indeed, the whole story prefigures the lengths to which God went in order for Him to be able to redeem us, namely the sacrifice of His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, upon the Cross of Calvary and His resurrection from the dead, that we might be reconciled to God (1 Peter 1:18–19).