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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: Was Jonah Swallowed by a Whale?

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Don Stewart
There have been a number of accounts in Scripture that have caused problems for scientists and non-scientists alike. One of the more prominent accounts is the story of Jonah and the whale:

Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17).

Are we to understand this literally? Was Jonah actually swallowed by a large fish?

Not Necessarily A Whale

To begin with we must note that the Hebrew word does not necessarily correspond to our modern designation whale. It simply means a large sea creature and could refer to anything found in the sea. Old Testament authority Gleason Archer writes:

Incidentally, it should be observed that the Hebrew text of Jonah 2:1 actually reads dag gadol, or "great fish" rather than a technical term for "whale." But since Hebrew possessed no special word for "whale," and since no true fish - as opposed to a marine mammal - ague to be serviceable here, since it could also mean shark, sea serpent, or even dragon (Gleason Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised edition, Chicago: Moody Press, 1974, p. 314).

Did then a large sea creature literally swallow Jonah?

History Or Fiction?

Many people view the Book of Jonah as unhistorical and unscientific:

Many Jews and Christians, in spite of the difficulties, have accepted the story as history. In the pre-scientific era this literal interpretation was acceptable (Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Jonah, Harpers Bible Dictionary, New York: Harper and Row, 1952, p. 345).

The Book of Jonah treats the account as history, not allegory. Furthermore, there is every good reason to accept this as a historical record. This can be seen by observing the following:

1. Jonah was a historical character.

2. The book was written as historical narrative.

3. The traditional view of Jews and Christians is that the book is historical.

4. Jesus testified to the books historicity.

Jonah Existed

We know from another biblical reference that there was a prophet to Israel named Jonah:

He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:25).

Historical Narrative

The Book of Jonah is written as a historical narrative. There is no indication within the account that it is to be treated otherwise. Until recently, neither Christians or Jews questioned the historicity of the Book of Jonah. It has been accepted as an account of what actually occurred during the life of the prophet Jonah.

Jesus and Jonah

The historicity of the account of Jonah is confirmed by Jesus Christ. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day that the sign of Jonah was going to be the sign of his resurrection:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:39,40).

Jesus accepted, at face value, the account of Jonah surviving after being swallowed by the sea creature. In His mind the event did literally occur. He also believed the repentance of the people of Nineveh as something that occurred. If Jesus is the One whom He claimed to be, God in human flesh, then His Word settles the matter.

In addition, Jesus puts the historicity of the account of Jonah and the fish on the same level as His resurrection. The analogy is clear. As Jonah was so Jesus will be. The Bible teaches that Jesus was literally dead and then resurrected from the dead. The resurrection of Christ is treated as a historical fact as is the account of Jonah.
All things point to the event as having literally occurred.

Not Impossible

The next point that needs to be made is that there are creatures living in the sea which are capable of swallowing a human being whole. Sperm whales have been known to swallow unusually large objects, including a fifteen-foot long shark! (for documentation see Frank T. Bullen, Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, London: Smith, 1898).

The whale shark, as well as the blue whale, also has the capacity of swallowing a man whole. Sperm whales and whale sharks are not unknown in that part of the world.

Furthermore, Jonah-like incidents have been known to occur. There have been at least two documented reports where men have been swallowed by large sea creatures and have lived through the experience.

One man, Marshall Jenkins, was swallowed alive by a sperm whale in 1771 and survived. Another incident concerns James Bartley. In 1891, Bartley was swallowed by a sperm whale that his whaling crew had harpooned. The whale slipped away, was found and killed a day or so later. Bartley was found alive, but unconscious, in the stomach of the whale. He was revived and in a few weeks regained his health (for documentation see Ambrose James Wilson, Princeton Theological Revue, October, 1928).

Thus, the account of Jonah cannot be rejected on the basis that:

(1) No such sea creature exists that could swallow a man whole.
(2) The incident is outside the realm of human experience.

However, beyond the fact that a natural explanation could explain the episode is that the Bible says God prepared a fish to swallow Jonah. This could mean a special fish made for this very occasion or it could mean that God directed one of the large sea creatures to swallow the wayward prophet. Whatever the case, the supernatural hand of God was involved.


There is every good reason to accept the account of Jonah in a literal manner. The fish involved could have been specially prepared by God or it could have been one of the sea creatures known to be able to swallow a human. Whatever the explanation, the account given in Scripture is miraculous.
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