Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale?

Question
Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale? Come on, get real.This couldn't really happen! It's impossible.
Answer
Well, yes, I’d say Jonah really was swallowed by a great fish, probably a sperm whale or a white shark. But first let’s look into the context of the Jonah account and why Jesus would refer to the “sign of Jonah” (Matt 12:40-41).

The great city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:2; 3:3), rediscovered in the mid 1800s, is believed to have been the largest city in the world before its demise. [1] It was discovered beneath a pair of “tells” in modern-day Iraq. A tell is a hill, mound, or small elevation. In Middle Eastern archaeology, a tell is a raised mound marking the site of an ancient city. Today these two mounds in Iraq are known as Kuyunjik and Nabi Yunus. Nabi Yunus is Arabic for "the Prophet Jonah."

In the book of Jonah we're told he had gone down away from God's call. He went down to Joppa (Jonah 1:3) and down into a ship (Jonah 1:3, 5). Then he finally went down into the sea (Jonah 1:15), where he then went down into the belly of a great fish for three days (Jonah 1:17). Rebellion against God echoes one familiar theme — going down.

In response to Jonah's rebellion, God sent a great storm (Jonah 1:4, 11, 12) and then sent a great fish (Jonah 1:17). Surely the creator of a great sea (Gen. 1:21; Psa. 104:25; 148:7) and the entire universe (Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; Heb. 11:3) was capable of creating a great fish to place in it as well.

Importantly, later in the New Testament, Jesus drew a connection between himself and the sign of the prophet Jonah (Jonah 1:17; Matt 16:4; Luke 11:29-30, 32): In Matthew 12:40-41 we read:

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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

So, because Jesus can't lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18) we must believe Nineveh and Jonah existed and Jonah was swallowed by a great fish for three days (cg. 1 Cor. 15:1-4). And indeed, we do see that someone, the One who was greater than Jonah, whose body spent three days in a grave, who was resurrected, and who brought all his people "so a great salvation" (Heb. 2:3). His name is Jesus Christ.

Now, besides what we have in the Bible, general revelation itself gives evidence about some events concerning individuals being swallowed by whales. Here, I’ve included some articles regarding this:

Many people feel that the account given in the Bible of Jonah is legendary, since even if there were a fish big enough to swallow a man, certainly no man would be able to survive three days in its digestive tract and then escape to the outside world. . . . There are, however, several documented accounts of people who have been swallowed by whales and large fish, and have lived to tell about it, even after several days. One species of fish, the "Sea Dog" (Carcharodon carcharias), is found in all warm seas, and can reach a length of 40 feet. In the year 1758, a sailor fell overboard from a boat in the Mediterranean and was swallowed by a sea dog. The captain of the vessel ordered a cannon on the deck to be fired at the fish, which vomited up the sailor alive and unharmed after it was struck. [2]

Sperm whales can swallow lumps of food eight feet in diameter. Entire skeletons of sharks up to sixteen feet in length have been found in them. In February of 1891, James Bartley, a sailor aboard the whaling ship "Star of the East," was swallowed by a whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. He was within the whale for more than forty-eight hours, and after he was found inside the whale, which had been harpooned and brought aboard the whaling ship, it took him two weeks to recover from the ordeal. Sir Francis Fox wrote as follows about this:

Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not from lack of air. He remembers the sensation of being thrown out of the boat into the sea. . . . He was then encompassed by a great darkness and he felt he was slipping along a smooth passage of some sort that seemed to move and carry him forward. The sensation lasted but a short time and then he realized he had more room. He felt about him and his hands came in contact with a yielding slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. It finally dawned upon him that he had been swallowed by the whale . . . he could easily breathe; but the heat was terrible. It was not of a scorching, stifling nature, but it seemed to open the pores of his skin and draw out his vitality. . . His skin where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juice . . . face, neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness and took on the appearance of parchment . . . (and) never recovered its natural appearance . . . (though otherwise) his health did not seem affected by his terrible experience. [3]

Another individual, Marshall Jenkins, was swallowed by a Sperm Whale in the South Seas. The Boston Post Boy, October 14, 1771, reported that an Edgartown (U.S.A.) whaling vessel struck a whale, and that after the whale had bitten one of the boats in two, it took Jenkins in its mouth and went under the water with him. After returning to the surface, the whale vomited him on to the wreckage of the broken boat, "much bruised but not seriously injured." [4]

There are numerous other historical evidences such as palaces and temples dedicated for the worship of Dagon located in Nineveh and throughout the surrounding region. Dagon was a fish-god, represented by a man wearing a fish, or a person who was part man and part fish. He is mentioned in the Bible in relation to the Philistines (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Sam. 5:1-7; 1 Chron. 10:8-12). Speaking of secondary causes that may be used by God to bring one to repentance, H. Clay Trumbull states:

What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very centre of worship. [5]

One might recall that God not only appointed a great storm and great fish to swallow Jonah, but also a gourd plant to provide him with shade (Jonah 4:6), then a worm to attack and wither the shady plant (Jonah 4:7), and then a scorching wind to discomfort him (Jonah 4:8). Jonah is a great book observing God’s great creative sovereignty at work to bring about the great salvation of the great city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5, 6, 10).

The Word of God properly and correctly records (Psa. 19:7; cf. 2 Sam. 22:31; Psa. 12:6; 18:30; Prov. 30:5;) that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish (Jonah 1:17). And truly God and his recorded word are trustworthy.

Related Topics

Benefits of General Revelation

Footnotes:

[1] Tertius Chandler, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census, St. David's University Press, (1987).

[2] Ambrose John Wilson, "The Sign of the Prophet Jonah and Its Modern Confirmations," The Princeton Theological Review 25 (1927): p. 638. footnote 20.

[3] Ibid., p. 636.

[4] Ibid., pp. 636-637.

[5] Henry Clay Trumbull, "Jonah in Nineveh." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 2, No.1, (1892), p. 56.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).