Jonah—A Fish Story?
THE Bible says that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and survived for parts of three days inside that creature. Critics of the Bible have always pointed to this account as evidence that the Bible contains myths and allegories.
Must a person be naive or foolish in order to believe in the Bible account of Jonah? Three teenage students are discussing the matter. Why don’t we join them?*
Nancy: We studied about whales today in science class and Mr. Dean really blasted the Bible. He said that the tale about Jonah and the whale is the biggest fish story ever told.
Ron: Did he say why he feels that way?
Nancy: He said that whales don’t eat people; they eat plankton, which is microscopic. So most whales don’t have throats big enough to swallow a person. Now I don’t know what to think.
Brad: So what? I believe the Bible, but I don’t believe the story about Jonah. My minister says it’s just an allegory anyway.
Nancy: Well, it bothers me. My preacher says we have to believe every word in the Bible and take it all literally or else we aren’t good fundamentalists. But Mr. Dean sure makes it hard to believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Was Jonah Swallowed by a Whale?
Ron: You know, I’ve read that there is one type of whale that could have swallowed Jonah—the sperm whale. It is said to be the only whale with a gullet large enough to swallow a man.1
Nancy: I didn’t know that.
Ron: Sperm whales eat more than plankton. In fact, they seem to prefer cuttlefish and squid.2 One sperm whale was found with a 35-foot-long* giant squid in its stomach!3
Nancy: But Mr. Dean said that even if a whale could have swallowed Jonah, there are no whales in the Mediterranean Sea, and that is where Jonah was swallowed.
Ron: It’s true that whales are rare in the Mediterranean, but whale skeletons have been found there.4 Of course, the sperm whale is not the only candidate. Here, let me show you in the Bible.
Brad: Always prepared, eh, Ron?
Ron: I try to be. Now it says here at Jonah 1:17: “Jehovah appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.”
Brad: So, what’s the difference?
Ron: A fish could be any large sea creature, like a shark.
Could It Have Been a Shark?
Nancy: Are there sharks large enough to swallow a person whole?
Ron The great white shark is plenty large enough. In some cases it grows to be 40 feet long.5 Unlike the sperm whale, which is not usually aggressive, the great white shark is known for its ferocity and tendency to eat anything in its way.6
Brad: For instance?
Ron: The Australian Zoological Handbook says the great white shark “could easily swallow a man whole.”7 The Natural History of Sharks reports that a 15-foot-long white shark taken in 1939 contained two whole six-foot-long sharks in its stomach—each about the size of a man!8
Brad: But is the white shark found in the Mediterranean?
Ron: Authorities agree that it is found in all the seas of the world, including the Mediterranean.9 Several experts report that it is known to follow sailing ships for days on end, eating whatever is thrown overboard.10 Do you remember what happened to Jonah’s ship before the seamen were persuaded to throw him overboard?
Nancy: They tried to lighten the ship, didn’t they?
Ron: Yes. See here: “There came to be a great tempest on the sea . . . And they kept hurling out the articles that were in the ship to the sea, in order to lighten it.”—Jonah 1:4, 5.
Nancy: Do you think that could have attracted the attention of some sharks? And that then one of them could have swallowed Jonah?
Ron: Well, it’s possible. It would have been a natural sequence of events.
Nancy: So Jonah was swallowed by a great white shark!
Ron: Jonah was possibly swallowed by a great white shark. The sperm whale is also a possibility, although the shark seems more likely. It is even possible that God used some huge sea creature that has never been found by science. As for the shark, however, you would find it interesting to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York city, where you could see for yourself the reconstructed jaws of an enormous shark called Carcharodon megalodon. Scientists have decided that the reconstructed jaws are too big. But even when they have been scaled down, it will be clear that this monster could have swallowed Jonah. It was at least 43 feet long!11
Brad: If that shark was so big, why aren’t there bones left instead of just teeth?
Nancy: Because sharks don’t have bones. We learned that in science class. Their skeletons are made of cartilage.
Ron: That’s right, Nancy. All that scientists really have to go on are the teeth. Although most of these giant sharks’ teeth are fossilized, Theo Brown points out in his book Sharks—The Silent Savages that enormous teeth that are not fossilized have been found in the Pacific Ocean.12
Brad: You mean those supersharks could have been alive in recent times?
Ron: It’s possible that they are around today. There have been several unconfirmed sightings of such creatures in this century.13
Brad: Were they sighted in the Mediterranean?
Ron: No, but large numbers of fossilized shark teeth have been found near Malta in the Mediterranean, which would have been right on Jonah’s route from Joppa to Tarshish, assuming that Tarshish means Spain.14 So some sort of gigantic shark definitely lived in the Mediterranean in the distant past, and possibly in the recent past as well.
How Could Jonah Have Survived?
Brad: But even if a shark could have swallowed Jonah, isn’t it absurd to imagine his surviving inside the shark for days?
Nancy: Yes. Mr. Dean made that point too.
Ron: Certainly Jonah needed a miracle to survive inside the fish that swallowed him. While it is true that there are some accounts of sailors being swallowed alive by whales and surviving the experience,15 many people doubt these accounts and the stories cannot now be verified. The arrival of the fish was a miracle, too, as was the fact that it took Jonah safely to land. But why is it so hard to believe that Jehovah God could have preserved Jonah miraculously in the belly of the fish? Brad, don’t you believe in the resurrection of Jesus? That required miraculous help from Jehovah God.
Brad: That’s different.
Ron: Is it? Jesus apparently didn’t think so. Look at what he said here in Matthew 12:40.
Brad: “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”
Ron: What happened to Jesus was certainly factual, wasn’t it? Is it likely that Jesus would have used Jonah’s account to illustrate his own death and resurrection if Jonah’s story were not true?
Brad: Well . . . I don’t know.
Ron: Look how Jesus continued in the same vein. “Men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; because they repented at what Jonah preached, but, look! something more than Jonah is here.” (Matt. 12:41) Archaeologists have proved that Nineveh really existed. Why should Jonah be a fictional character? Why would Jesus claim to be “more than” somebody who never even existed?
Brad: I guess you have a point. If Jesus had been comparing himself to a person who never existed, people might have thought that Jesus was just telling a tall tale.
Ron: Exactly. Now look at Mt 12 verse 42.
Brad: “The queen of the south will be raised up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but, look! something more than Solomon is here.”
Ron: Do you believe Solomon was real?
Brad: I get the point. If everybody else was real, why not Jonah?
Ron: So even though Jonah’s experience was a miracle, it was historical, not fictional.
Nancy: But why did God have a fish swallow Jonah? Why didn’t he just send Jonah a log to float on?
Why Use a Fish?
Ron: Because Jehovah was using Jonah’s experience to make a point, to illustrate how He would miraculously save His Son from the grave.
Brad: Isn’t that a little farfetched?
Ron: Why should it be? Jesus himself said that Jonah’s experience inside the huge fish foreshadowed his own experience “in the heart of the earth.” Notice what Jonah said while inside the fish. Here, in Jonah 2:2.
Brad: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice.”
Ron: Sheol is the Hebrew word for grave, not fish. Jonah was inside a fish, but Jesus was literally in Sheol, or the grave. So Jesus could refer to Jonah’s experience as a “sign” of what would happen to him. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus said, “A wicked and adulterous generation keeps on seeking for a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.”
Nancy: So there was a reason for Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish!
Ron: A very good reason.
Brad: I never knew you could get all that out of the Bible.
Ron: Many, many times the Bible emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. It should not be surprising that God would use certain events to illustrate important facets of Jesus’ death. Something similar happened when Abraham attempted to offer up his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Nancy: You mean, what Abraham did was like what God did when he offered up His Son, Jesus?
Ron: That’s right.
Brad: How do you know so much about this, Ron?
Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe the Bible
Ron: Well, I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we believe that the account of Jonah and the great fish is true. So when the subject came up in my science class last year, I was able to do some research on it and present a report to the class.
Nancy: Does that mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists, like our church?
Brad: Of course they are.
Ron: No. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not fundamentalists. We believe that the entire Bible is inspired of God and true, but we do not believe that all of it must be taken literally. The book of Revelation, for example, is obviously written in symbols. In fact, the Re 1 first verse of the book says so.
Brad: So why not just say that Jonah is symbolic too?
Ron: Because the Bible gives no reason to do so. The account is presented as history, not symbolism. Jesus obviously felt that Jonah’s story was factual. Also, Jehovah God had a good reason to perform the miracle that Jonah writes about.
Nancy: I never realized that. It helps a person to appreciate how important Jesus’ death and resurrection were to God.
Brad: I kind of like your approach, Ron.
Nancy: I like being able to believe the Bible because it makes sense, not just because somebody says you have to.
Ron: You know, at our Kingdom Hall we’re having a talk called “The Flood of Noah’s Day Has Meaning for Us.”
Brad: Now that’s something else I have questions about.
Nancy: I’d like to hear that talk.
Ron: You’re welcome to come.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible and they are convinced that it is of real value for our day. If you have questions about the Bible, why not contact them? They will be happy to help you.
1 Mammals of the World (third edition), Vol. II, 1975, page 1098.
3 Whales, E. J. Slipjer, University of Amsterdam, pages 276, 277.
4 Aid to Bible Understanding, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, New York, 1971, page 1057.
5 The Fishes of South Australia, Edgar R. White, South Australian Museum, page 40.
6 Sharks and Survival, Perry Gilbert, Cornell University, page 13.
7 Australian Zoological Handbook, The Fishes of Australia, Gilbert Percy Whitley, Australian Museum, Part I—The Sharks, page 125.
8 The Natural History of Sharks, Richard M. Backus and Thomas H. Lineaweaver III, Andre Deutsch Ltd., London, 1970, page 111.
9 Ibid., page 113.
10 Sharks—The Silent Savages, Theo Brown, Little, Brown & Co., Boston & Toronto, 1973, page 40; Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, J. L. B. Smith, Rhodes University, page 49; Australian Zoological Handbook, page 106.
11 Natural History, November 1980, pages 112, 113.
12 Sharks—The Silent Savages, page 79, Australian Zoological Handbook, page 125.
13 Sharks—The Silent Savages, pages 79-81.
14 Australian Zoological Handbook, page 126 (footnote).
15 The Year of the Whale, Victor B. Scheffer, pages 84-86.
Although this conversation has been dramatized, the arguments and facts discussed are real.
1 foot = .3 meter.
[Pictures on page 17]
Sperm whale, with gullet large enough to swallow a man
Great white shark—could easily have swallowed a human
[Pictures on page 19]
Jonah is linked with historical persons and places