The story about Jonah and the whale is popular. But are we telling it correctly?
I had a professor in college who made fun of Christians for believing that Jonah was in the belly of a whale for three days and nights. He once said something like Christians can be so exclusive and so prideful for thinking that other religions believe in absurd things. “But you Christians believe that Jonah was in the belly of a whale for three days and nights,” he said to the class. I’m surprised he even brought this up considering the class had nothing to do with religion. His point was clear: to believe Jonah was in the belly of a whale was ludicrous.
For years, many of us in the church have taught Sunday school kids that the prophet Jonah of the Old Testament was stuck inside the belly of a whale for three days and nights. If you do a Google search for “Jonah,” pictures of whales appear immediately. So it seems this is an assumption that both Christians and non-Christians believe.
But was Jonah ever inside a whale?
Jonah and The Whale
Recently, I’ve been translating the book of Jonah from Hebrew to English (no easy task). I came across the first verse that mentions something about a sea creature and Jonah:
“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 1:17)
No specific reference to a “whale.”
Instead, we get “great fish” and “fish.”
In fact, every single instance in which a sea creature is named in the book of Jonah, “whale” never appears.
It’s always “fish.”
“Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1).
“And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).
After looking it up in a Biblical Hebrew Lexicon, I found that the word used in the original language to describe this fish is “fish” or “fish of the sea.”
I didn’t find any specific reference to anything else.
So where did “whale” come from?
What Does Jesus Say?
Jesus speaks about Noah on one occasion when speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees:
“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” (Matthew 12:40).
Jesus uses the word “great fish.” And after looking up that word in a Greek Lexicon, the word “whale” never appeared.
So was Jonah inside of a whale or not? Maybe. But we can’t say for sure because the Bible doesn’t say so. While it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the “fish” that is described in both Old and New Testaments can mean “whale,” we don’t know for absolute certainty because it is never explicitly mentioned.
Therefore, when teaching or speaking about Jonah and the whale, it is best just to use “fish” or “great fish” and just move on.
As others have said before, God’s Word tells us everything that we need to know, but not everything that we want to know. Remember: the Bible is not a scientific textbook; it’s a story. The book of Jonah is a narrative. And like most narratives, all of the details of this story are not precisely described.
But if we believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, if we believe that God was sovereign over every single word found in Jonah, then we’ll be content with just saying that he was in the belly of a great fish. A whale may be a safe assumption, but that’s speculation. It is usually best to avoid speculation when it comes to God’s Word.
A Video on the Book of Jonah
If you’d like to learn more about the book of Jonah, watch this brief video on this amazing book in the Bible. The video is created by The Bible Project. Here is the blurb about the video on YouTube: “Watch our Read Scripture video on the book of Jonah, which breaks down the literary design of the book and its flow of thought. The book of Jonah is a subversive story about a rebellious prophet who despises his God for loving his enemies.”
Watch it here: