Jonah and the Whale

Ben Shattuck examines a history of the discussion and speculation and fictions about whales swallowing humans…

An idea’s been floating around for some time that whales more than chewed people — that they swallowed them, and people might have survived in the stomach. Jonah’s story came first, and then there were rumors from the 19th century Yankee Whale Fishery — whaling ships leaving New York and New England ports for years on the open ocean. I’d like to believe in swallowings, but it’s tough. There is no air in the stomach, for one. There are acids. And if we are talking about sperm whales, which we are most of the time, there is the deadly passage through the 30-foot jaws lined with 8-inch teeth.

Still, you’d like to think it’s possible. You want to believe in an animal that can fit you inside them — that you might be consumed not piece-by-piece, mouthful-by-mouthful as sharks and bears would eat you, but wholly; to be encased as your full self, womb-like. You want to believe in big animals like you did when you were a kid. You want to be powerless as you are leaning into hurricane winds or with your eyes closed or looking into the ocean….

Sperm whales would rather eat squid, which require little chewing, and not the hairy, bony things we are. That’s not to say sperm whales haven’t swallowed more than squid. In the 1960s, biologist Malcolm Clarke and his colleagues examined the remains from 2,403 stomachs of sperm whales caught by whalers off the South American coast. Aside from the hundreds of squid remains, he found seabirds, lobsters, seals, driftwood, coconuts, stones, rays, swordfish and sharks. While finding a tiny coconut in a whale’s stomach is enchanting, there’s nothing so striking as the image of a sperm whale eating a shark. It disturbs me the way turducken does, like as a close cousin to cannibalism. More terrifying, with sharks in the diet, Americans who might have been swallowed by sperm whales would have had another thing to worry about: sharing the stomach of your predator with yet another predator. To be eaten after being eaten. To be the –en of the turducken….

If, I’ll pretend for a moment, you were swallowed, it would happen like this: You would first be chewed.  Sperm whales’ teeth are 8 inches long – longer than most blades in your knife drawer. Then you would be gulped to the fauces, the back of the mouth, and forced down. Here is where Bartley apparently touched the quivering sides of the throat. You would also touch the throat, perhaps claw at the sides of the throat like you would sliding down an icy slope. There would be no air, and you’d suffocate in acid and water, but, we’re saying, you somehow survive. Imagine a black and mucous-smothered tube sock slipping over you.

You would then enter the first stomach, coined by 19thcentury naturalist Thomas Beale as the holding bag. It’s lined with thick, soft and white cuticle. At 7 feet long by 3 feet wide and shaped like a big egg, the first stomach would easily fit you. If you were kept in the holding bag for over 24 hours, you would likely be joined by squid, but a coconut or shark might come, too. Most squid that sperm whales swallow are bioluminescent — the neon flying squid is a favorite. So in no time at all you’d be bathing in a pool of phosphorescence, a slew of green-yellow light winking around you like you were standing in a field in Maine come July when all the fireflies are sparking up. The rest would be black, very black.

As the stomach acids broke you down, you would continue through three smaller stomachs — a chain of membranous, acid-filled cavities. The second stomach is Sshaped, and the third is more like the first, only smaller. Then, liquidated, you would ooze into the intestine, and eventually leave the whale as excrement, floating out of the anus and into the cold deep ocean, dissolving still further until you had become so small as debris that you were indistinguishable from the ocean itself. You would lap against whaling ships looking for whales.

The only part of you that might not be digested would be your bones. Squid beaks, equally, aren’t digested — they pass through the sperm whale’s intestines wholly. Along the way, the beaks scrape the intestinal lining, creating scar tissue, which is then passed in its new form, ambergris — the intoxicating, aromatic substance used in the most potent perfumes that was worth, in 1869, $97.50 per pound.  That’s $1,600 per pound today. The Egyptians burned it as incense. Your sharp fingerbones or splintery skull would rub on the whale’s intestinal lining, and your remains would scrape up the most beautiful smell on earth.



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  • AHH

    Better written IMO than this Salon article is one from 20 years ago by Ted Davis of Messiah College, who looked into the roots of these apocryphal reports of whales swallowing humans (some of which have shown up in apologetics material and even a few commentaries):

  • Putting aside whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale & survived to tell it, I think it somewhat humorous that we look to science to see if it is possible, but simultaneously believe that God could stop the sun in the sky or instantly heal a leper or raise the dead. Surely the physical impossibility of surviving in a whale would be no barrier for God.

    Again, this is putting aside the question of whether Jonah was, indeed, swallowed or not. Just a thought that occurred to me.

  • Rick

    I have to agree with Jamie.

    What is the basis in determining which stories seem miraculous, and which seem illogical?

  • Jon G

    yeah, but that’s in a whale! What about in a fish? 🙂

  • Going to join the growing chorus, “nothing is impossible with God”. While I can’t speculate on how or even in what kind of ocean dwelling creature Jonah was consumed, the text clearly says he was. So either the account is a poetic story with no historic value or is a narrative about Jonah.

    If it is a narrative with some historic value then:

    Jonah wasn’t consumed by a fish but did manage to survive in the ocean for 3 days and swim back to land?

    Or maybe he did not really flee to Tarshish on a boat and get thrown overboard either?

    But if these did not happen then why stop there. Did Jonah even go to Nineveh and spark a revival?

    And if everything else in the account is true except the fish part then why add it?


  • Turducken!

    (This comment made longer for postability)

  • There are (at least) two types of miracles. One is of timing, where God uses some force of nature at a particular time (but, other than timing, would be a totally normal occurrence). Another is where God intervenes with the natural world in some way which without such intervention would be impossible.

    For example, if a ball happens to be in the air without something suspending it, it will fall to the ground. This will just happen naturally. If I drop a ball at a precisely the right time and location, it might squash an ant that otherwise would have been just fine. If a ball is falling through the air, and I reach out and grab it, it won’t, now, hit the ground the way it naturally would have.

    In other words…. interesting article on whale biology, but otherwise, irrelevant to the subject matter (Job).

  • I always find it interesting that in the story, it leads you to believe that the fish spewed Jonah up on the beach near Nineveh. It doesn’t explicitly say so, but it also doesn’t elaborate on how far the journey was from the coast to Nineveh inland.

  • Dan

    MikeB @5, you have it right. It seems there are a number of things God is described as doing in the book. Which ones are we willing to identify that God didn’t do? With the exception of being swallowed by a sea creature, it seems all of the various activities of God in Jonah are described elsewhere in the Bible.

    However, if our worldview is such that God is more like a absentee gardener or a ‘universe-winder-upper’ but not really involved here (except for Jesus and the resurrection) then there should be no problem deleting fantastic events.

  • Cal


    Maybe the author was writing, like many ancients, of “the city”. Judea is referred to as Jerusalem, Northern Kingdom as Samaria. Assyria could be called Nineveh?

  • Robert A

    Pretty great that in another couple of months this blog and it’s many contributors will be able to reasonably say nothing in the Bible actually happened nor did any of these people listed ever live.

    Fascinating to watch what were tantalizing provocations several years ago against the untethered fundamentalism rampantly exploited by the popular media soon give sway to positions that so many of the foundational issues in the Bible aren’t actually credible.

    Revisiting Tübigen is just around the corner!

  • jason

    I don’t think we need a scientist to tell us that Jonah is fiction. The text is sufficient. That said, his rather colorful description of the internal processes certainly gives new meaning to “the fish spewed Jonah out …”

  • Mike

    Beautiful story — please, not a “narrative of what happened” — that calls for God’s people to open their eyes to the whole world. It speaks truth that resonates even all these centuries later. The story is poignant, playful (penitent cows?), and hyperbolic.

    Being a story doesn’t detract at all from its insight. And yes, references to the story in the NT are still valid even though it wasn’t “historical” (a nice Western fascination).

    “What is the basis for determining” someone always wants to know. Give us a science. An infallible hermeneutic.

    Alas, we don’t have such. We have author, text, reader, and interpretive community. And God’s truth speaks powerfully!

  • Obviously, the Book of Jonah talks about a “great fish,” not a whale. Kids in Sunday School in most evangelical churches can eagerly point that out.

    Certainly it would not be impossible for God to have a human swallowed by a large fish and survive. Questions of feasibility depend on a purely materialistic way of thinking.

    That said, the Jonah seems to be more of an allegory, describing how Israel as a whole fled from its duty to the nations.

    Then again, perhaps it’s a story of concrete events.

    I’ll sleep soundly tonight either way.

  • A Medrano

    So Jonah was pooped out?

  • Dan

    Robert A @11, how dare you?! You’re going to get deleted if you talk like that.

    Mike @13, ‘penitent cows?’ Could you explain this? It seems the text is saying the humans didn’t feed or water their animals and put sackcloth on them. Does your version have a different reading or are you going from your Sunday School class as a youngster?

  • Jason

    I’m of a mind to say the Jonah was resurrected. Jesus may be alluding to this.

  • Susan N.

    #6 — I’ve got tears running down my cheeks, I’m laughing so hard!!!

    Good one 😉

  • tim e

    i recall seeing that movie pinnochio and i think gepeto, the boat and pinnochio all fit inside the whale and there was air there too..just saying

  • DLS

    i need the list of supernatural events from the Bible I can believe and the ones I’ll get labeled as a science-hater if I believe. Someone needs to make the definitive list.

  • scotmcknight

    I have to say, long after the heat of the reading of this post is dissipated, that I still find so many wanting to talk about Jonah’s fish and not enough about the impact of this prophetic book:

    There’s nothing like this in the whole Bible except perhaps the sad sad tale of poor Elijah feeling sorry for himself.
    Or perhaps even some of Jeremiah’s self-pitying.
    Or David’s complaints about how awful it is being king of these rascals.

    So, well, maybe more than we might think.

    The impact of this book is a satire, potent and pitiful, on Jonah. Called by God – he runs; repentance called — not for him; amazing repentance — sad yet more.

    Jonah is satire on the ethnocentrism of the prophets. Jonah takes the heat for it. This is what happens, literarily speaking, when you don’t realize the Abrahamic promise.

  • DanO

    Scot @21, as one who has not studied Jonah as much as you have, can you point one to a good commentary?

    Also, while your interpretation of the book is interesting and, for all I know the right one, do you know of any over the history of the church who have interpreted the book as you do? I am not trying to be contentious but am asking in good faith.

  • Totally agree with your comment Scot. The more important question is the theological message the book is trying to get across. Anyone know what a narrative/theological interpretation makes of Jonah’s swim? Could it be, narratively speaking, about death?

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, contentious or not, a good question. I didn’t think of this on my own but picked it up and have made it my own. I believe I first picked it up in an OT Introduction, maybe that of Harrison but perhaps more likely in Walton or Hill’s introduction.

  • Jeremy

    Yep, it’s impossible to be swallowed by a whale. But then again so is a man rising from the dead and axheads floating and miraculous events happenings daily in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, I find it much more plausible that Jonah was swallowed than Jesus was resurrected.

  • DRT

    The first, or at least first documented, tall fish tale of the one that got away.

    DLS and others. The way you tell tall tales in the OT bible is to imagine your grandpa telling you it happened to him and then make your judgement

  • Mark E. Smith

    Can’t people just believe it happened once and then forget about it?

  • Paul D.

    People who try shoehorning Jonah into some preconceived notion that it ought to be historical have clearly never even read the thing and have no concept of literary genre or satire.

  • RJS


    Interesting point. Arguing about the fish we miss the point of the book.

    Job is not quite so spectacular, but I think this is another book where we miss the point by trying to make the book something other than what it is.

  • AHH

    RJS @29 said
    Job is not quite so spectacular, but I think this is another book where we miss the point by trying to make the book something other than what it is.

    And of course one could make that same comment about missing the point concerning trying to read Gen. 1-3 (for example) as something other than what it is (say, trying to read it as science or anthropology by modern standards).

    Of course the cynic in me would say that for some people, a cherished conception of inerrancy must be THE point that must always be central, never mind what God may have been trying to communicate …

  • Ted

    Jonah: Tale of a Whale or Whale of a Tale? That is the question!

  • Cal

    Just because Jonah’s tale drips with a moral lesson for the ethnocentricity of Israel, does it is a mere tale and not history (with emphasis here and there for literary point)?

    Hosea received a word from the Lord to marry a prostitute to show YHWH’s kindness to His adulterous and idolatrous people who, despite being a harlot, were still loved.

    Also, I think a point is worrying about mechanics. Just because Jonah was ‘swallowed’ by a big fish, we don’t have any idea what this means. He could’ve been hanging out in the mouth of the creature for dear life! It doesn’t sound like a comfortable limo to his appointed mission!

  • JohnM

    AHH #30 – “..what God may have been trying to communicate…”?? Well, I’m sure those inerrantists will be gratified to learn you at least agree it was after all GOD who was trying to communicate something. 🙂

  • Beth Freidline

    Why did Nineveh repent? Maybe Jonah totally scared them because (little?) Jonah looked and smelled like he had been inside of and vomited up by a huge fish– provided by God. And maybe he needed the shade of the miraculous plant God provided to protect his sensitive, damaged skin. So maybe God spoke to Nineveh via the fish, and (finally)to Jonah via the plant.

  • @ Scot #21 –

    Umm… then why did you post this post in the first place?
    Where you just baiting people (pun intended)?

  • Jerry Bennetch

    @#32 – What must be done with our contemporary perspectives?

    We know Hosea wasn’t perfect. Even though he was a prophet, he was also just a guy like any other guy who might have had a moment in his life recorded when he justified his personal interests with a theological lesson. But then again, this one perspective (among many) might be an old perspective, too.

    I find this whole topic very interesting. Because, really, how would anyone know how much supernaturalism and/or how much naturalism should be read into this ancient text?

  • What if one wasn’t swallowed but aspirated? Knowing almost literally nothing about the insides of a whale (or fish), it seems that breathing mammals would have lungs. Maybe Jonah was inhaled and coughed up.

    It would seem to remove the acids bit at least and provide oxygen for the person.

    The text does say “swallow,” “belly” and “spew” (NRSV) but c’mon, a fish/whale mouth and darkness look the same, belly or lungs!

    ~~~~~~~ 5 mins later~~~~~~~

    OK… did some investigation. Turns out (I totally didn’t think of this) but whales don’t have tracheas in their mouths. The Blowhole is the only way to the lungs. Dang it! It was a flawless idea.

    There is work to be done here. The whole of the bible is completely dependent on this story being literally true.

  • phil_style

    @James, #37 “The whole of the bible is completely dependent on this story being literally true”

    he he.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, R.K. Harrison (IOT) presents three views of Jonah: 1) traditional/historical, 2) allegorical, and 3) parabolic. He admits that each view has its limitations. In conclusion Harrison writes that it’s a toss up between 1) and 3), though in his discussion he seems personally to lean toward 1).

  • Scot@21

    agree that we could discuss the theological message or application of Jonah but gotta agree w/ Steve in #35, this post seems to have been posted not to debate these things but to discuss whether Jonah could have been swallowed by a fish/whale.


  • Karl

    This thread needs a C.S. Lewis quote:

    Dear Mr. Carnell:

    I am myself a little uneasy about the question you raise: there seems to be an almost equal objection to the position taken up in my footnote and to its alternative of attributing the same kind and degree of historicity to all books of the Bible. You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

    In what sense does the Bible “present” the Jonah story “as historical”? Of course it doesn’t say, “This is fiction,” but then neither does our Lord say that the Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason). How does a denial, a doubt, of their historicity lead logically to a similar denial of New Testament miracles? Supposing (as I think is the case), that sound critical reading revealed different kinds of narrative in the Bible, surely it would be illogical to suppose that these different kinds should all be read in the same way?

    This is not a “rationalistic approach” to miracles. Where I doubt the historicity of an Old Testament narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible. Nor does it deny a unique sort of inspiration: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle. I wish I could direct you to a good book on the subject, but I don’t know one.

    With all good wishes, yours sincerely,

    C. S. Lewis

  • scotmcknight

    Ah, well, I posted this because not that long ago I had another post along this line. Saw the story at Slate and clipped it for you, the readers of this blog. Yes, the story is about feasibility of humans surviving in whales/big fishes. But then I entered the story to comment on how so many are reading the book of Jonah and I thought the satire approach might make a contribution to that part of this thread.

  • scotmcknight

    Lewis’ point, at #41, is worth hearing for many. One of the most well-known professors of literature “reads” Jonah as fiction because he intuits it that way. Many preceded him; many have followed him. It is precisely there – intuition — that is involved on both sides.

    So, it always leads to ask what elements of this story give us indicators that we are dealing with fiction: beside the 3 days and spit up onto the Land (sounds like exile), and distance to Nineveh, and no record of Ninevites having repented, I add to this the oddity of clothing animals with sackcloth — a bit odd — and the gourd — and the incredibly pathetic response of Jonah, a prophet after all, to success of preaching… these things have led me to think this book is a satire. Yes, it’s intuition; and so is the reading that it is historical.

    I don’t think Jesus’ use of Jonah tells us how to read the book of Jonah. I think we have to admit, at least admit, that he could simply be using a literary trope.

  • Tony Whittaker

    I ask the following because I don’t know the answers – and have not really thought about this question before:

    1) Does the fact that Jonah (and Job) although referencing real places, but not seeming to anchor into any point of the historical OT narrative, suggest an extended parable story? Have they always been accepted as literal rather than parable stories down the centuries?

    2) Would – could – a sickly whale swallow a man-sized object without all the chewing, and with, say a large airpocket in the first stomach? A whale coming to land, and vomiting, both suggest a disoriented or sickly animal.



  • P.

    As many other people on here have said, theologians do need to come to some consensus about what Biblical stories are true and what are allegories. I have no problem with Adam and Eve (yes, Eve!) being an allegory, with the number of Noah’s animals being an exaggeration, and with Job being a fable, but my real concern is that at some point, people are really going to turn on the idea of the virgin birth (which I whole-heartedly believe in, and yes, the virgin birth does matter).

    By the way, as for Jonah, count me in as one of the with-God-all-things-are-possible people.

  • Sherman Nobles

    One thing people often fail to note in this story about Jonah is that he was not alive in the belly of the big fish, but he was dead. It was from Sheol, the realm of the dead, that he repented, cried out to God and was raised from the dead.

    “From deep in (Sheol) the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” 2:2

  • Probably a failed attempt at humor looking at another event in the Bible if we used science absent the possibility of a supernatural miracle.


  • AHH

    P @45 said,
    theologians do need to come to some consensus about what Biblical stories are true and what are allegories

    First of all, Why? In cases like Jonah, or the Good Samaritan, the story teaches a lesson, and it matters not one whit for our faith and practice whether it is a historical chronicle or a parable or what. Let’s get the meaning and not sweat too much about historicity when it is not relevant. [Obviously there are things where the historicity is central, like the Resurrection]

    Second, the phrasing belies the polluting effects of modernity — giving the options as “true” and “allegory”. If God gives a message via allegory, parable, or inspired myth, it is every bit as “true” as a scientific account or literal history. An unfortunate thing I see in these discussions sometimes is that Christians buy into the Enlightenment elevation of science and literal history as the only ways of knowing that really “count”, talking about things in a way that relegate things like parable to second-class truth at best.

  • P.

    AHH – I totally agree that we should focus on the overall message and that it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not, but someone’s going to turn around and say the same thing about the virgin birth, and that does matter (at least in my humble opinion here in the pews).

    Thinking about it further, it actually does matter, to me, for some of the other stories (Joshua and the sun, etc.). So, I guess we as a faith are all over the place on this.

  • Jonathanblake

    @Sherman Nobles #46
    “It was from Sheol, the realm of the dead, that he repented, cried out to God and was raised from the dead.
    “From deep in (Sheol) the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” 2:2”

    And now we just opened up discussion about the viability of postmortem repentance while looking at whale digestion and the literary nature of Jonah

  • If God is the Creator of the universe along with all of its inhabitants, including whales; could it then be possible this particular “whale” that swallowed Jonah was specially designed by God solely for this particular purpose? Maybe the whale’s mouth opened up to a large cavernous room complete with a couch, big screen TV, and an endless supply of oxygen. And, maybe there was plenty of fried calamari to feast upon for three days.

  • Tameka Burns