Jonah 1:15, 17 (RSV) So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. . . . And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah 2:1-3, 5-7, 10 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. . . . The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple.” . . . And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
The usual discussion about this incident is whether it is possible for a whale to swallow a man in the first place. And those trained in biology and zoology inform us that whales actually have very small throats, because most of them are vegetarians and eat tiny organisms in the sea. The staple of the diet, for example, of blue whales — the largest animal to ever live on the earth — is (ironically) krill: tiny animals similar to miniature shrimp. But there is a big exception to the rule. Sperm whales are carnivorous, and eat squid, sharks, shrimp, and other fish. They have up to 60 teeth: all on their bottom jaw, and these teeth can grow up to eight inches and weigh two pounds.
Because of this sort of diet of large animals, their throat is much larger than other whales: about two feet across: large enough to swallow a man (the average shoulder width of a grown man being only 16-18 inches). Giant squids, one of the sperm whale’s favorite foods, can grow 33-40 feet long, and have a width of 3-5 feet. But sperm whales manage to swallow them, so their throats must be capable of expansion, to accommodate the slippery delicacy, because we know that they are capable of swallowing giant squids whole. And the male sperm whale is 52-60 feet.
Jonah took a ship from Joppa on the coast of Israel (Jonah 1:3), trying to get away from God; heading for Tarshish (which I have argued is in Spain). This was the Mediterranean Sea. Were there sperm whales in that body of water during Old Testament times? Not only were they present in ancient days (“observed in the classical era”), but they are still present now: with estimates of as many as 2,500, according to an article in Scientific Reports (February 7, 2022). I therefore submit that the “great fish” (“phenomenological” biblical language of appearances) that “swallow[ed] up Jonah” was a sperm whale.
Now what remains to be determined is:
1) whether Jonah drowned before he was swallowed up,
2) whether he was swallowed alive,
3) whether he could survive in the whale’s belly for over two days,
4) whether God kept him alive through miraculous means,
5) whether he died while in the whale’s belly and was then resurrected while still in the belly, or
6) whether he died in the whale’s belly or drowned before he got there, and was resurrected after the whale spit him out.
The usual (probably “standard”) opinion is a combination of #2 and #4. I shall contend for #1 along with the second half of #5. And I will do so based on exegesis and a closer analogy to Jesus’ reference back to “the sign of Jonah” as a graphic analogy to His own resurrection. I actually held the “standard” view on this subject until I wrote my presently expressed opinion, after analyzing the question anew (and it is a fascinating topic indeed).
I think we can immediately rule out natural survival in a whale’s belly for 2-3 days (#3) because science tells us that there simply isn’t enough oxygen (if there is any at all). So if we are to believe the biblical account at all, and believe in its inspiration from an omniscient God (as I do, and as all Christians consistently should), we have no choice but to adopt some form of miraculous preservation or resurrection.
First is the question of whether Jonah drowned, and later described his own drowning. I think the text offers many clues that he did indeed drown. The interpretation is actually a rather “easy-fitting” one, once provisionally adopted:
the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. . . . The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; . . . [I was] at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. . . . my soul fainted within me . . .
That appears to me to be eight different descriptions of the process of drowning. Jonah lived the tale because he was brought back to life by God, and hence could incorporate his thoughts about the utter horror of drowning within his prayer to God (later preserved in Holy Scripture). What more could be said? One might argue, I suppose, that he was describing the process of the initial conscious phase of drowning but didn’t actually succumb.
But two aspects of the above text seem to work directly against that. He refers to a “land” (Sheol: the netherworld) “whose bars closed upon me for ever.” He had died, and at the time had no idea that God would bring him back to an earthly existence (particularly for the purpose of preaching to the Ninevites so that they could repent). Secondly, he refers to being brought back (“thou didst bring up my life”) from “the Pit”: a common name for Sheol (see about 43 examples in the Old Testament).
So the text truly seems to be saying that Jonah drowned. He was then swallowed by the sperm whale. Presumably the whale started digesting him, but God was to raise him, anyway, so that would be neither here nor there. We don’t have to explain how he could live inside a whale for that long. God then raised him while in the whale’s belly, and he prays the prayer that we have, describing his death by drowning, descent to Sheol, and being brought back by God’s mercy and lovingkindness. Once having been brought back, the whale would have to spit him out very soon, due to the lack of oxygen, and the text seems to me perfectly compatible with that scenario, too.
Now what is even more interesting, is the very close, if not exact analogy to Jesus’ references to the incident in relation to His own resurrection:
Matthew 12:39-40 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (cf. Luke 11:29-32)
If we follow my proposed interpretation, the analogy (apart from Jonah’s disobedience) is virtually exact:
1a) Jonah died, delivered up and forsaken, “into the heart of the seas.”
1b) Jesus died, delivered up and forsaken, on the cross.
2a) Jonah, after drowning and going to Sheol, was “swallowed up” by the whale, as an analogy to Sheol (“the belly of Sheol”) for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). The Old Testament refers to being “swallowed up” as a metaphor for divine wrath and death, several times (e.g., “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up”: three times: Num. 16:32; 26:10; Deut. 11:6). Numbers 16:30 even states: “the ground opens its mouth, and swallows them up, . . . and they go down alive into Sheol.” Proverbs 1:12 states similarly: “like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.”
2b) Jesus was buried three days and three nights “in the heart of the earth”.
3a) Jonah was raised by the Father while his body was still in the belly of the whale (“he answered me; . . . thou didst hear my voice. . . . thou didst bring up my life from the Pit”).
3b) Jesus was raised by the Father while His body was still in His tomb (Acts 5:30; Gal. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:10; cf. Acts 1:27: “For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption.”).
4a) Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale, raised again after drowning and having visited Sheol, and preaches repentance and salvation to the Ninevites (Jonah 3:1-4), who do indeed repent (Jonah 3:5-10).
4b) Jesus emerges from the tomb, resurrected after having been crucified, and having visited Sheol, and commissions His disciples to preach the gospel of repentance and salvation (which they successfully do, with 3,000 converts on the Day of Pentecost alone: Acts 2:41).
Being resurrected after dying and being buried is the heart of the entire analogy. If Jonah hadn’t actually died in the sea, I submit that “the sign of Lazarus” would be closer to Jesus’ resurrection than the sign of Jonah, and would have been, in my humble opinion, the analogy that Jesus would have highlighted. The emphasis in a “non-dead Jonah scenario” shifts to the mere length of time, rather than the thing itself (resurrection). This and the other factors noted above have caused me to change my mind on Jonah and the whale. I love when that happens!
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Photo credit: Jonah and the Whale (1621), by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Summary: Jonah & the whale is the story every atheist loves to mock, in an effort to discredit the Bible. But is it wholly implausible? No. Sperm whales can swallow a man.