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Jonah and the great fish … did that really happen?

The book of Jonah is often ridiculed by sceptics. They claim that no fish could swallow a man, and, even if it did, the man would not be able to survive 3 days and 3 nights in its belly.

Some well meaning believers end up compromising and claiming that the book of Jonah is a fictional story or parable in response to these attacks.

To answer this charge we need to look at two things:

  1. Is the story of Jonah history or allegory? If the story is allegory then the story does not need to be physically possible.
  2. If the story is actual history, is it physically impossible as the critics claim?

To answer the first question, we need to look at what Scripture says.

The first observation from the book of Jonah is that there is no hint of allegory in book itself. It reads like a straight forward account of the prophet’s experience.

Second, we learn in 2 Kings 14:25 that Jonah was a real prophet.

Third, and probably most important, Jesus refers to events recorded in the book of Jonah as fact (Matthew 12:39-41). Beyond simply referring to those events, he compares Jonah’s stay in the belly of the fish to his own coming death and resurrection. He said:

For just 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 12:40 ESV)

For these reasons, we can see that Scripture treats the events in this book as actual history.

This brings us to the next question, is this account as recorded in Scripture impossible?

First though, we need to acknowledge the existence of miracles and that this does count as a miracle. In reading the book of Jonah we see both that God prepared this great fish in advance (Jonah 1:17) and that Jonah was vomited out on to dry land at God’s command (Jonah 2:10).

In some cases, like this one, we may be able to show that a miraculous event is physically possible, but not always (for example Jesus walking on water). We must remember that Scripture is our authority, not human reason or scientific understanding.

As mentioned above, one attack is that no fish could swallow a man whole.

This is easily shown as false, the whale shark is one species that would be more than capable of the task. Whale sharks are reported to reach lengths in excess of 46 feet weighing more that 15 tons. Interestingly, such a fish would do little damage to a human – they are filter feeders with tiny teeth that are of little use. Other species that would be large enough include the sperm whale and the white shark.

Finally we can to look at the claim that a man could never survive such a stay.

First to address the length of stay, the term “3 days and 3 nights” is a Hebrew idiom simply meaning 3 days; it minimally means that 2 full days and a portion of a third day had passed.

Second, as to the survivability, there are two aspects to look at:

  1. Plausible natural explanations
  2. Anecdotal evidence of similar events

Addressing the plausibility, within a whale’s stomach there is always some air and digestion does not begin while the animal it has swallowed is still alive. Alternatively, if it were a whale, Jonah could have been in the beast’s great laryngeal pouch (air sac).

As far as anecdotal evidence, there have been stories which seem strikingly similar to the Jonah story. One oft-quoted story is that of one James Bartley who was a harpooner on the whale-ship “Star of the East” in 1891. It is said that Bartley disappeared into the sea during a hunt only to be retrieved alive from the whale’s stomach when it was finally caught the following day.

This story is said to have first been reported in October of 1892 in the English newspaper “Great Yarmouth Mercury” and was 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.

In his 1952 book “The Harmony of Science and Scripture”, Dr. Harry Rimmer tells of a personal meeting with a sailor who fell overboard in the English Channel and was swallowed by a whale shark. The shark was finally caught 48 hours later and was towed to shore because it was too large for the ships winches. The crew cut open the fish with the intention of retrieving his body for burial, but found him alive but unconscious. He was taken to the hospital, treated for shock, and released.

While, to my knowledge, neither of these stories have the documentation backing them up to use them as absolute proofs, they do seem to lend additional credibility to the Jonah account.

In conclusion, Scripture attests to the historicity of the account of Jonah and the great fish and there is nothing inherently impossible about the account itself.

  • Anonymous

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