What was the fish that swallowed Jonah?
The Bible book of Jonah has often been called “the story of Jonah and the whale” and gives the account of Jonah, a prophet of God, who disobeyed God’s command to preach to the people of Nineveh. But extraordinary aspects of the story have led some to question whether it is a historical account, or simply a parable. At the heart of this controversy is the seemingly impossible report of Jonah being swallowed by a “great fish” and living inside it for three days, only to be spewed out unto the shore alive. Is this a fish or a whale? Can a man live inside either for three days and nights?
But was it a whale or a fish? Well, Jonah 1:17 says “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.” (NAS). It is clearly interpreted as “a great fish”, but the Hebrew taxonomy may allow this to be considered a swimming mammal such as a whale.1 In Matthew 12:40 Jesus himself references Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish. The Greek word used to quote Jesus is ketos and it means a type of sea monster – possibly shark or whale.2
It is our human nature to gather information, process it, and rationalize the elements and outcomes of it. Therefore, we have an almost insatiable need to prove whether or not a man could live inside a fish for three days to give validity to the story of Jonah. To satisfy that intellectual need, I submit to you the accounts presented in the Princeton Theological Review, v25, 1927 which references two separate accounts of whalers being swallowed by whales. One of the whalers survived 15 hours inside the stomach of a sperm whale.
So, what do I think? Frankly, it could be an animal now extinct or one existing in present day. However, I think it was a marine animal that has never been seen and will never be seen. God “appointed” the great fish to be constituted; to be used of God.3 He also “appointed” a wind, a plant and a worm in the same story. We do not need to know what kind of plant could have grown so fast, nor what kind of worm ate the plant. There is no need to give validity to whether or not the event could have happened, because as Jesus says in Matthew 19:26 “… but with God all things are possible.” Since our Sovereign God can create the heavens and the earth, life, and all we know to be, certainly He can appoint a fish to swallow a prophet and keep him alive for three days. The bigger picture of this beautiful story of repentance and loving kindness is diminished when we let in questions of validation by our modern day quest for explanation. I urge you to re-read the book of Jonah, and to embrace the extraordinary miracles in it. Then, open your mind and heart to seek the message contained within.
1Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 1834, #2). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
2Easton, M. (1996, c1897). Easton’s Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
3Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. (2003). Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (486). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.