Jonah and the Whale: Fact or Fiction?
By Kevin Probst
I read the story of Jonah and the Whale to my five year old one night before bed. I became really animated and put a lot into it trying to bring the story to life. I thought for sure he would ask me to “read that one again.” This is the stuff of Veggie Tales. But upon finishing the story he was quiet and thoughtful. So, I asked him, “Well, Kameron, what do you think?” He replied, “You’ve got to be kidding, a whale swallows a man? Isn’t that hard to believe?” At a loss for words, I simply said, “I suppose it is.” But I left his room determined to learn more about Jonah.
There is a popular joke circulating about Jonah. A little old lady on an airplane was reading her Bible. A man sitting next to her was skeptical and gave a little chuckle and asked, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”
The little lady looked sharply at him and said, “Of course I do, it’s in the Bible.”
“Well, what about the guy who was swallowed by the whale?” he asked.
“Oh, Jonah…Yes, I believe that, it is in the Bible,” she said firmly.
“Well, how do you suppose he survived all the time inside the whale?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t really know. I guess when I get to heaven, I will ask him.” Said the lady.
“What if he isn’t in heaven?” the man asked with sarcasm.
“Then YOU can ask him,” replied the lady.
It’s easy to be skeptical about a fish eating a man. But Jonah is referred to in the writings of Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and also in the writings of Josephus, a Jewish historian. Jonah was a historical figure, not a mythical figure. The most common biblical scene carved into the catacombs under the city of Rome is the picture of Jonah and the whale. Jonah’s experience in the belly of a whale for three days and his survival and deliverance parallels the burial and resurrection of Christ. The early Christians who met secretly to worship in the catacombs where many of their friends and relatives were buried held fast to the story to reinforce their hope of a resurrection of their dead.
While researching to discover if it’s feasible that a whale might swallow a man I learned that there are two types of whales. The baleen and the non-baleen whale. The Blue whale and the Humpback whale are examples of a baleen whale. These whales drift through the water with their mouths open and they filter bits of food from the water through a sort of mop looking screen. Non-baleen whales have no such ‘scanner’. Rather, they have teeth to chew with. The Beluga and Orca are non-baleen whales. It is not feasible that any of these whales could swallow a human being.
But there is one non-baleen whale that is large enough to swallow a man. A Sperm whale can reach 60 feet in length. Sir Francis Fox was a manager of a whaling station and after his retirement he wrote a book entitled, Sixty-three Years of Engineering. He insists that a Sperm whale can “swallow lumps of food eight feet in diameter, and that in one of these whales they actually found the skeleton of a shark sixteen feet in length.”
Although the Sperm Whale is only found in the Pacific area, in 1928 one was discovered beached on the shores of England. Mr. G.H. Henn was a witness to this event and he wrote about his experience. He was “one of twelve men, who went into its mouth, passed through its throat, and moved about in what was equivalent to a fair sized room. Its throat was large enough to serve as a door. Obviously it would be quite easy for a whale of this kind to swallow a man.”
But was the fish in the Jonah story a whale? Only the King James Version makes the claim. In most other translations the ‘whale’ is referred to as a “great fish”, a gad gadol, or a great “sea monster”. Why would it not be possible for God to create a special ‘once only’ creature and assign that creature with a special mission to search out a man in the Mediterranean Sea and swallow him? Maybe the creature that swallowed Jonah was roaming the currents 3,000 years ago but is now extinct?
Maybe those who have trouble believing have a preexisting supposition. They simply cannot believe that miracles are possible. They have no belief in anything supernatural or anything that cannot be explained by natural laws. Surely, this event recorded in the book of Jonah must be categorized a miracle. Those same skeptics also refuse to believe that a virgin gave birth to the Messiah, or that Sarah gave birth at age ninety, or that Christ was actually resurrected from the dead. If you can’t bring yourself to believe in miracles, in the ability of God to demonstrate himself in the supernatural then one might as well scrap the entire Bible. The real question may not be, “Was Jonah swallowed by a whale?” Perhaps the real question should be, “Does God exist?”
No one can prove that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Supernatural events don’t lend themselves to rational explanation. Perhaps the real clincher for most believers is the verse in Matthew 19:26 “With God all things are possible.”
Jesus said in Matthew 19:26 “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” If Jesus believed it I have no problem believing it
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.