ad Dei GloriamMinistries

Home > Bible Commentary > OT Prophets > Jonah and the Big Fish - Part 2

Jonah and the Big Fish - Part 2 Additional Questions and Answers

Published: January 2023

Table of Contents


This article is a further elaboration on the historical and theological questions often raised by the Old Testament book of Jonah.  In our first article, Jonah and the Big Fish, we primarily examined the event of Jonah and the great fish with respect to the miraculous, historical and other aspects.

In this follow-up article, we’ll examine additional aspects of the events as well as other questions and difficulties that typically arise from reading the book.  Is it scientifically possible for a fish to swallow a man whole?  What kind of fish would be capable of swallowing a man?  How could Jonah survive, or did he actually die in the fish?  Why were the people of Nineveh so quick to believe his message?  In addition, we’ll discuss the “Sign of Jonah” that has a remarkable tie-in with the death and resurrection of the Christ.

Both articles are spinoffs of our Introduction to the Book of Jonah in our Books of the Bible section.

Before we get to our first question, we suggest that all who have not read our previous article to at least review the chapters on miracles and science, and how our worldview affect our interpretations of the biblical events.  As we noted, those with a biblical worldview will have no difficulties accepting the Bible accounts as historical facts, while those with a materialistic / naturalistic worldview must necessarily reject the biblical accounts, at least if they are consistent in their interpretations.  For those on the fence, you might like to check out our articles on Approaching Bible Study and our Overview of Bible Apologetics.

[TOC]   [Top of Page]

Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Whale?

In our previous article, we noted that, although many folks believe the fish that swallowed Jonah to be a whale, the bible merely refers to the creature as a “great fish” (Hebrew gadowl dag) prepared by God (Jonah 1:17).  Bible interpreters have variously held that “prepared by God” could mean either the calling of a existing large fish (miracle of providential timing), or by means of special creation.  Incidentally, the Greek word from Matthew 12:40, ketous, is consistent with the Jonah account, simply meaning “great sea creature”.

It’s obvious that the one True God who created all that exists would have no trouble at all creating a great fish specifically for His purpose concerning Jonah.  We could ask however, if he decided to use an existing great fish, what type of fish would be capable of swallowing a man whole?

The most common proposals are a sperm whale or white shark, both known to have occupied the Mediterranean area since antiquity.  Whole animals as large as or larger than a full grown man have been found in the stomachs of both species.  This is also the opinion of two Sea World scientists, according to a story published in the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage and re-printed on the Jewish Sightseeing website.

We’ve also heard of a number of stories over the past few centuries, such as two recent ones from the Deccan Chronicle and from the Jerusalem Post for example.  In addition, we’ve also read or watched many “strange but true” stories in our lifetime.  Perhaps the best evidence for the historical account is that Jesus Christ Himself proclaimed it to be true (Mt 12:40-41).

[TOC]   [Top of Page]

Was the Great Fish a Natural or Special Creation?

We begin our examination with the text in Jonah 1:17.  The NIV version reads “…the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah”, while the ESV translates the phrase as “…the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah”.  The Hebrew verb translated as “provided” and “appointed” is waymen.  The most popular translation is “provided” ( NIV, KJV, NKJV, and many other modern English, versions, along with most of the early sixteenth century versions such as the Geneva Bible.  In addition to the ESV, the word is also translated as “appointed” in the NASB, CSB, and others.

The word verb waymen is used on three other occasions within the Book of Jonah (Jonah 4:6-8), with regard to a plant, a worm, and a scorching east wind.  In each case, the various English versions are consistent in translating the verb as “prepared” or “appointed”.  The only other occasion in which waymen is used is in relation to the ration “appointed”, “assigned” or “allotted” to Daniel and his friends by the king (Dan 1:5).

In our opinion, the common meaning of the text appears to lean toward an interpretation of God utilizing a natural great fish to swallow Jonah, but at the same time, we certainly can’t completely rule out a special creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing).  Either one would still be considered a miracle, the first being a providential miracle of timing within His natural laws, and the second being His sovereign work outside of His natural laws.

[TOC]   [Top of Page]

The Sign of Jonah – Did Jonah Die and Was He Resurrected in the Great Fish?

In this chapter, we’ll consider the debated subject of what exactly happened to Jonah during the time he was inside the great fish.  Did he actually survive for three days and nights, or did he die and was resurrected by God?

The traditional view is that Jonah survived while in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, until he called out to the Lord in prayer.  God then spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out alive on dry land (Jonah 2).  Those who believe that Jonah died sometimes point to the beginning of Jonah’s prayer, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2).  The Hebrew word Sheol is typically translated as hell, the grave, or the pit, so it could be taken that Jonah actually died.  On the other hand, the phrase is also often used allegorically to portray a state of deep distress.  The most common examples are the various uses by David throughout the Psalms.

The better argument for Jonah’s death and resurrection action comes from the words of Jesus itself, in what is commonly called “the Sign of Jonah”.  During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jewish religious leaders were often attempting to test and trap Him, to prove Him as a fraud, even though He often did signs and wonders and offered many proofs that He was who He said He was. We find one occasion in Matthew 12:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  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.  The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Mt 12:38-42, ESV).

Some interpreters see a direct conformity between the details of the two accounts, believing that since the death and resurrection of Jesus was a literal event, the details in the Jonah account must also confirm to the same literary genre.  Jesus however, was not likely making a perfect comparison, but emphasizing his own sign, that of His coming death and resurrection, and was using Jonah’s experience as a type, or foreshadowing, of this approaching event.  Jonah’s time in the whale illustrates Jesus’ death and time in the grave, while his return from the whale at Nineveh depicts Jesus’ return from the grave (resurrection).

Assuming the most likely scenario that Jonah survived within the whale, we could also ask, did he survive for three days and nights naturally, or did God supernaturally keep him alive?  The scriptures don’t give us a definitive answer, so we once again must speculate.  We can definitely say that he at least lived for a while, since Jonah chapter two records him crying out in prayer.  After recording the prayer, we then read, And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).  This might give us the impression that he was expelled from the fish immediately after his prayer of repentance, but we can’t be absolutely sure.  We also know that whales are mammals that regularly surface for air, but can also stay submerged for an hour or longer.  Thus, it seems theoretically possible for a person to receive enough air to survive.

Another significant factor is having a proper understanding of the phrase “three days and three nights”.  In our modern western culture, we understand this to mean a literal 72-hour period of time (three 24-hour time periods).  However, the phrase had a different interpretation by the Hebrew (Jewish) people during these eras.  First, we note that the Hebrew day actually started (and stills does in the modern day) at dusk on the day before.  Thus the Sabbath (Saturday) begins at dusk on Friday and ends at dusk on Saturday.  In biblical times, the Hebrews often interpreted “three days and three nights” to mean a time period encompassing any portion of a three day/night period.

The best illustration of this is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus very likely died on a mid-Friday afternoon (Mk 15:42-45, Mt 27:46) and was removed from the cross before dusk due to the teaching of Deuteronomy 21:22-23.  His physical deceased body lay in the grave on Saturday (day 2) and was resurrected early morning on the third day (Sunday) according to John 20:1.  So, according to this timeline, Jesus could have been in the grave for about 40 hours (3PM Friday until 7AM on Sunday).

To throw in an important side-note, the fact that Jesus arose on Sunday had such a profound effect on His Jewish followers.  Prior to this most important event, the primary day of worship was the Sabbath.  It would have been a serious offence to place another day ahead of the Sabbath in importance.  Yet afterward, they changed the primary day of worship from the Sabbath to the First day of the week (Ac 20:7, 1Co16:2), which remains the Christian day of worship today.

Returning to the Jonah account, applying the Hebrew interpretation of the “three days and three nights” could yield a similarly shorter time frame that Jonah was in the fish. So, it appears possible that Jonah could have survived this part of the ordeal.  Yet, whether he did so without divine intervention can’t be known for sure.

[TOC]   [Top of Page]

Why Were the People of Nineveh so Quick to Believe his Message?

We’ll now address a question that used to puzzle me in my youth before I started digging into it.  In chapter three of the book of Jonah, we see the Ninevites immediately repenting at the preaching of Jonah:

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I give you.”  This time Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, in accordance with the word of the LORD.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, requiring a three-day journey.  On the first day of his journey, Jonah set out into the city and proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!”  And the Ninevites believed God.  They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least.

When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let no man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything at all.  They must not eat or drink.  Furthermore, let both man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and have everyone call out earnestly to God.  Let each one turn from his evil ways and from the violence in his hands.  Who knows?  God may turn and relent; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we will not perish.”

When God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—He relented from the disaster He had threatened to bring upon them.  (Jonah 3)

Being a natural skeptic, I used to wonder, “Why would an entire nation, including the king, suddenly accept such a simple message from a foreign stranger?”  In addition, he apparently kept repeating the same message without elaboration or proof (although there could have been additional dialog between Jonah and the Ninevites that was not recorded).  Why wasn’t he greeted by indifference, or even mockery, like someone walking around today with a “The End is Near” sign?  How could one man (a total stranger and foreigner) capture the attention of such a great city, probably the largest city on earth at the time?

The answer lies in the mode of transportation chosen by God to deposit Jonah onto the shore at Nineveh.  That is, the great fish.  There are two ways that the role of the great fish would have contributed to getting the Ninevites immediate attention.  The first is a medical/scientific event.  Many medical professionals and scientists have speculated that a human exposed to the digestive acids of a fish would likely take on very pale appearance, perhaps even ghostly white.  Some even believe this would extend to their hair and clothes.  Indeed, more than one witness in the aforementioned news accounts of a man being swallowed by a large fish have testified that the victim took on a ghostly white appearance with yellowish spots.  As this was the likely case with Jonah, he certainly would have gotten the attention of his audience.

While Jonah’s physical appearance was probably a contributing factor, it would most likely be dwarfed in comparison with the religious aspect involved in this event.  To adequately appreciate this religious aspect, we must look at a few facts related to the city Nineveh itself.  For centuries, many Bible critics scoffed at the idea that such a large city could exist during this time period (the events of Jonah took place in the mid-700s BC).  In the mid 1800s however, Sir Austen Henry Layard, an English historian, explorer, Assyriologist (student of Ancient Mesopotamia texts and customs), and politician (among other things), led expositions that excavated ruins from Nineveh, Babylon and other archaeological sites in the area.  Among his writings, he wrote that the circumference of Greater Nineveh was exactly a three-day journey (A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, New York, JC Derby, 1854, p314), thus verifying Jonah 3:3.

Of all the important findings during the various explorations by Sir Layard, perhaps the most important finding related to our topic was the discovery of the many temples dedicated to the worship of the false god Dagon.  In addition many images were also found in palaces and other public buildings verifying the popularity of this supposed deity.  We encounter Dagon in the bible as the false god of the Philistines (1Chr 10:8-10).  The true God of Israel (Yahweh) previously established His superiority over the helpless Dagon (1Sam 5).  In addition, God had also allowed the Israelite judge Samson to kill thousands of Philistines when they attempted to sacrifice him to Dagon (Jdg 16:23-31).  Thanks to Sir Layard’s discoveries, we now know that the worship of Dagon was the primary and dominating religion amongst the Ninevites and the rest of the Assyrians (and also for the Babylonians with whom we’re not concerned with for the purposes of this article).

So, how does this relate to our narrative involving Jonah?  Dagon was a fish-god.  He was typically represented as part man, part fish (perhaps similar to a merman), or a man wearing a fish.  Thus, God may have chosen the giant fish to deliver Jonah to the Ninevites because this would certainly have gotten the undivided attention of any persons witnessing Jonah being spit out of the fish’s mouth.  Their initial reaction would be that Jonah was transported and sent by the gods.

This might bring up the question of, “Did the Ninevites repent to the false fish god?”  Although this might have been the initial reaction of some, we know that the God of Israel (the true God of all) was well known among other nations in the ancient world.  We’ve already noted his familiarity among the Philistines.  Another good example can be given even before Israel became a nation (Rahab in Joshua chapter 2).  Finally, we can dismiss the question by going back to Jonah 3:5, which states that “the Ninevites believed God (Elohim).  We can also add Jesus specifically stating that the men of Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Mt 12:41), and repenting to a false deity is no repentance at all.

Another question might be, “Did every single individual Ninevite repent at the preaching of Jonah?” It’s quite possible, but I think we can say that at least the vast majority almost certainly did, particularly since the king, who in pagan nations often were considered as deity themselves, took off his royal robe and repented.

Unfortunately, later generations of Ninevites would return to their evil ways and were conquered by the Babylonians in 612 BC, about a century and a half after the preaching of Jonah.

Did Jonah Repent?

A final question that we might consider is, “Did Jonah repent at the end of the book”?  Back in chapter two, we witness at least a partial repentance, from inside the great fish.  He promises to fulfill his vow to preach to Nineveh and adds “Salvation is from the Lord!”  But when we skip to the last chapter, after Jonah fulfilled his vow to God, we find Jonah once again angry with God for sparing the Ninevites.

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?  That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4).

Jonah then expressed further anger when a plant that God had provided for shade died (Jonah 4:5-9).  The Lord’s then replies to Jonah, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

The Book of Jonah ends here, without recording Jonah’s answer.  Perhaps Jonah didn’t (or couldn’t) provide an answer to God’s question at the moment. We know that Jonah later recorded God’s word dutifully and accurately, including his own failures, in what is now the Bible book bearing his name.  This fact would tend to argue that he likely had repented by that time.

But why was there no further elaboration on the subject of Jonah’s probable repentance?  Perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom and knowledge, left this unanswered so that we the readers would supply our own answer.  What would we say or do if we were Jonah?

The main purpose of the Book of Jonah is to show God’s unconditional love for all peoples of all nations.  Shouldn’t we do the same?

[TOC]   [Top of Page]