The book of Jonah in the Bible contains a well known story that has often been dismissed as a myth. Many things in the Old Testament have been dismissed as myths but I believe the Old Testament is an actual history of real people and real events. It is amazing how often the question comes up on the internet, “Can a whale swallow a man?” Both believers and unbelievers have often asked this question or some question related. Believers often wonder what kind of sea creature it was that swallowed Jonah. Unbelievers will often say it is impossible for a man to survive being swallowed by a large fish or whale.
Usually neither the believers nor the unbelievers have many facts to go on to answer the question. I have not addressed the question before, so here is my take on it.
First of all, I’ve always found that assuming the Biblical account to be a myth never helps really understand it. Ideas that are put forward to explain away miracles in the Bible often have more problems than believing the miracle. So, I think we should take the story of Jonah as a real event, but we should get what facts we can to help understand it. Modern scientific knowledge cannot disprove miracles in the Bible. But modern knowledge can sometimes shed light on how to understand details of the Biblical account. On the other hand, we should not “demand” a scientific explanation for everything in the Bible before we believe it. This is reasonable because there are plenty of confirmations of the truth of the Bible from verifiable facts, including from the book of Jonah. The Bible has authority as God’s word and we should believe it. Even if someone doesn’t believe the Bible, the proper way to evaluate it is really to assume it’s true, then explore the facts and the details of what it says and see how plausible it is. But if you reject the concept of God doing miracles the Bible will not make sense. It is a starting assumption that the God of the Bible can do miracles. In addition, there is no way to escape Jesus’ implying the story of Jonah was a real historical event. (See for instance Matthew 12:39-41.) Jesus spoke on multiple occasions about the “sign of Jonah” referring to Jonah being inside a fish for three days and he made it an analogy of his own death and resurrection. He also said that Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching. So Jesus implied the story of the people of Nineveh repenting and believing was historical in connection to Jonah. If Jesus believed it, so should we.
Second, the point of the story of Jonah I think is more about the lengths God will go to to reach people. Another major point is there can be serious consequences for believers who will not obey God when they are called to a ministry, especially as a prophet like Jonah. The story of Jonah is often brought up as a kind of evangelistic warning for nonbelievers to not run from God. But that may be a misapplication of the story. The unbelievers in the story were the ones who benefited by learning who the true God was, they were not what you could call the “guilty party” in the story. The account of Jonah focuses not on the sin of the people of Nineveh but on their ignorance. God was giving them a chance to repent and change. (Note that the Biblical book of Nahum, written more than 100 years after the book of Jonah, certainly does focus on the sin of the city of Nineveh. Nineveh eventually came be known for some terrible atrocities and is called the “bloody city” in Nahum 3:1.) Though God was showing compassion to Nineveh, Jonah had a kind of hatred of them as Assyrians. Jonah’s attitude was wrong and thus he resisted going to Nineveh to speak to these people. So what happened to Jonah was God’s way of giving Jonah a painful attitude adjustment. So when God’s prophet would not obey God’s call, God called a fish to deal with the prophet.
Jonah is also mentioned in II Kings 14. From this we know he was in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and his ministry and the writing of the book were probably sometime between 770 B.C. and 750 B.C. This would have been before the city of Nineveh was at its peak in size and influence, and before Assyria had reached its peak in terms of the territory it controlled. Thus the Northern Kingdom of Israel had not been conquered by Assyria yet.
Now about the issue of a man, like Jonah, being swallowed by a sea creature. I will not dig into the word study of the terms used in scripture but the Bible does not use terms specific enough to identify what the sea creature was. (For an article on the Biblical words used, I’d recommend this article by Apologetics Press.) Today marine biologists have much more specific definitions of animals than the terms used in the Bible. Whether a Bible translation uses “great fish” or “whale” or “sea monster,” all of these are fair translations because we can’t be sure exactly what it was. Many people merely assume it was a whale, but the Bible is not that specific. Recent translations do not usually say “whale.” So, what do the actual facts about whales, marine reptiles, and large fish (and the Mediterranean Sea) tell us?
A number of different sea creatures have been proposed to be the possible one to have swallowed Jonah. Knowing what creature it was is not necessary to the Biblical account but it just seems like an irresistible question. First of all, whatever creature it was, it must have been able to swallow Jonah whole and then vomit him up later. The Biblical account doesn’t mention Jonah having any injuries from the experience. Perhaps there could have been minor injuries it doesn’t mention but Jonah survived the experience. This would require something quite large. Some extinct marine reptiles would have been large enough, but I will leave them out of consideration because as far as we know they would have been extinct at the time. But this is not certain really. We cannot identify the creature with certainty; we can only proceed on the basis of what we do know. So some of the proposed creatures to be considered are the following:
- A Sperm Whale
- A Killer Whale
- A Whale Shark
- A Basking Shark
- A Great White Shark
I will deal with the Sperm Whale first. There is a story reportedly from 1891 in which a Whaling Ship called the Star of the East found a man inside a Sperm Whale that they caught. The man’s name was James Bartley and he is said to have survived when they cut him out. This story has a number of specific details that make it sound like a real account but I would not trust it. There is a “James Bartley” page on Wikipedia that says historians have tried to verify the account. Historians found something from a woman of the time who was said to be the wife of the captain of the Star of the East. The woman said there was no truth to the story. Also the Star of the East was not actually a whaling ship apparently. Sperm Whales can be large enough that a large one might be able to swallow a man but many of them couldn’t do it I suspect because their esophagus or gullet may not be big enough for them to swallow a man whole. Also, whales are not usually found in the Mediterranean Sea, where Jonah would have been. So I would not rule out a Sperm Whale completely but it seems like an unlikely candidate to me.
Next I will consider Whale Sharks and Basking Sharks. These are very large sharks but they are more like many whales that filter through large amounts of water for small things like plankton and small fish. They could never swallow a man whole. Their mouths are very wide and they could get a man in their mouth, but their “throats” are small. There is one video of a whale shark closing it’s mouth on a diver, that I found on YouTube. But if a whale shark got a man in it’s mouth it would let the man out because they couldn’t do anything to the man.
Killer Whales could be a possibility because they have been known to swallow some very large animals. There have been cases where a Killer Whale was known to have swallowed a Moose as it swam between islands! But in the wild, Killer Whales never try to eat humans. There are a few cases where they seem to have bitten down on a man by mistake. But they never try to eat a human. However, in captivity, Killer Whales can be dangerous to their trainers and there are a few cases where a Killer Whale trainer has drowned due to the Killer Whale pulling them under the water. I think a Killer Whale could be a possibility because they are known to swallow their food whole. Whales have three stomachs, the first of which is meant to break up the food mechanically. Whales actually swallow rocks to keep in their first stomach to help break up their food. I was surprised to find that the Mediterranean Sea is considered a possible location for Killer Whales.
Then there is the Great White Shark. Great White Sharks have been commonly seen in the Mediterranean Sea, they sometimes follow boats to eat garbage thrown off the boat, and they do sometimes swallow their food whole. There are many cases of sharks attacking humans but Great White Sharks do not always bite or chew up their food. Great White Sharks can certainly be large enough to swallow a man whole so I think the Great White Shark is the best candidate for a creature that could have swallowed Jonah. In fact there is another little known fact about sharks that could be relevant to Jonah. They can do what’s called everting their stomach. This is basically turning their stomach inside out so as to ‘vomit’ out things they cannot digest. Then they pull their stomach back in! Just what Jonah needed, in God’s timing. So I would put the Great White Shark as the best candidate, the Killer Whale as second best, and the Sperm Whale as third best.
There are however multiple miracles implied in the Biblical account of Jonah surviving his experience. First, God communicated with the creature and sent it to swallow Jonah. This is the first miracle. Secondly, I do not know how to explain how a man could breathe for three days inside a fish or whale, so that may be another miracle. I think for the man to be kept whole and not chewed up or digested for three days is not necessarily a miracle but it could involve exposure to stomach acids and some nasty gases. Then another possible miracle is where it says God spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. The miracle could again be in the communicating with the fish so it did this as intended.
In considering the plausibility of the story in the book of Jonah, there are some archeological details worth noting that I think show the basic historicity of the account. So if you set aside the issue of Jonah being swallowed and consider the rest of the story, it seems to be historically accurate. First of all, Nineveh is described in Jonah 3 as a very great city and in Jonah 4 it states that there were 120,000 people there. This is a large city and yet this is probably before Nineveh became the capital of Assyria. Jonah 3:3 says it was a three day journey for Jonah to walk through the city. This is indeed a large city by ancient standards and is consistent with what is known about the history of the city.
Also the people of Nineveh would probably have been afraid to offend Jonah or harm him because of their beliefs. Assyrians believed in multiple gods, one of which was named Ea. Ea was considered the god of waters and of sorcery. When Jonah came up out of the sea, having been inside a fish or whale, the Ninevites would have taken that as an omen or they may have thought of him as a messenger of Ea. We don’t know everything Jonah said to the Ninevites but Jonah’s experience would have gotten the attention of the people of Nineveh. I think the people of Nineveh must have turned away from their false gods. They must have come to understand Jonah was speaking for the true God. So God decided not to send the destruction on the city. Because they responded to God with humility and repentance, they were spared. But unfortunately, later, by the time of the prophet Nahum, the sin of the city had become much worse and they did not respond to God’s warning then. Thus the city was eventually destroyed. From history and archeology we know the city of Nineveh became the capital of Assyria and became rich and powerful from trade. But it was eventually conquered by the Babylonians in 612 B.C.
In the end the story of Jonah and Nineveh ends with a happy ending! Jonah obeyed the Lord and preached to the city, and the city believed and repented! Also, some sailors on the boat Jonah took got a pretty good lesson about who the real God was also. Is the lesson from the story of Jonah more about believing God can do miracles, or about unbelievers coming to faith, or about believers not giving up on unbelievers? Perhaps all the above.