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God’s Word for You

Jonah 1:17 (Part 2) Jonah and the Whale

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, September 8, 2018

17 But the LORD provided a huge whale to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights.

Previously we asked: What kind of fish or whale might this have been? I think it’s most likely that it was a whale. I am aware that this is in direct contradiction of Keil and Delitzsch who say, “The great fish… which is not more precisely defined, was not a whale, because this is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, and has too small a throat to swallow a man” (Minor Prophets p. 398).

I have heard some well-meaning Christians who also denied that this fish could have been a whale, sometimes with a lot of emotion, because they adamantly believe that “fish” as in the King James Version, the NIV, and others, does not allow that this creature could have been a whale since a whale is a mammal and not a fish. The problem with this argument is that there is never any distinction in the Bible between seagoing mammals and fish. That just isn’t the way Moses talked about sea creatures.

The Hebrew term is dag “swimming creature,” and it is modified by the adjective gadol, “great, large, huge.” This is often translated “huge fish,” but “fish” is a word in modern English that means something more specific than Moses or Jonah meant in Hebrew. When Moses lists the kinds of animals in the creation account, he presents five categories:

1, “living creatures” in the water (Genesis 1:20a), also called the “swarming” things (Genesis 1:20) and “the great creatures of the sea” (tannim gadolim Genesis 1:21)
2, “flying creatures” in the sky (Genesis 1:20b)
3, “livestock” (Genesis 1:24-25, 3:14)
4, “wild animals” (Genesis 1:24, 3:1, 3:14)
5, “creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:24-26, 3:14)

For Jonah’s account, only the first group is significant. Biblical Hebrew does not differentiate much in its descriptions of sea creatures. For the most part, if it swims, it’s a “fish.” Also, remember that Jonah’s phrase, “huge swimmer” (dag gadol), is given from the point of view of a man who tried to identify a fish that swallowed him, not a fish he tried to swallow. Does a fish know whether it’s been eaten by a bear, a wolf, or a wildcat?

Jesus calls the creature a ketos (κήτος), a Greek word meaning “sea monster, whale.” This is the same word used in the Greek translation of Jonah (the Septuagint) and in 3 Maccabees 6:8, “Jonah withered in the belly of the huge whale of the deep sea.”

There are five possible ways to understand this creature:

I, A whale or another large cetacean.
II, A very large fish such as a shark.
III, A large sea creature now extinct.
IV, A unique sea creature spawned by God for this moment alone, and which no longer exists today.
V, Something else we can’t identify.

Few sea creatures existed in Jonah’s time that have since gone extinct that would not fall into the first two categories, so we can dismiss category III. Although it’s an argument from silence, the Lord does not use unique creatures or plants in any of his miracles at other times. He uses ordinary animals in his miracles like the ram caught in the thicket (Genesis 22:13), the quail caught by the Israelites (Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:31; Psalm 105:40); and the many fish caught by Jesus’ disciples including the one with a coin in its mouth (Matthew 17:27; John 21:6). And there are plenty more examples like these: Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:28), the scapegoats which bore away Israel’s guilt and did not carry it back again (Leviticus 16:10), the ravens that fed Elijah (1 Kings 17:6), the bears that disciplined the disrespectful students from the school of the prophets (2 Kings 2:24), and the lions who did not attack Daniel (Daniel 6:22). None of these was an extraordinary creature, but all of them were ordinary beasts used by God in extraordinary ways. It seems likely that this was the case with the creature that swallowed Jonah as well. This means that we can probably dismiss the fourth category (a unique creature) and the fifth (an unidentifiable creature).

Almost none of the nearly fifty species of shark common to the Mediterranean could or would swallow a man without killing him, but just as God sent an angel to close the mouths of the lions (Daniel 6:22) he could have preserved the prophet from the teeth of a shark or a sperm whale. Keil and Delitzsch are of the opinion that a sea-dog (shark) such as canis carcharias (the sand tiger shark) or squalus carcharias (great white shark). Carl Linnaeus specifically mentioned, “Jonam Prophetamí”  who “himself spent three days in one’s belly” when describing the group that includes sharks, sturgeons, and lampreys (Systema Naturae, 1758).

What about a whale? Today there are about least ten species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) commonly seen in the Mediterranean. Some of these are dolphins: The striped dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, short beaked common dolphin, and Risso’s dolphin. Two are small whales: The long finned pilot whale and Cuvier’s beaked whale. Although killer whales are seen in the Strait of Gibraltar, they never venture further in (basking sharks have been seen off the coast of Spain but prefer colder water). Besides these, two species have left the evidence of their remains from Jonah’s time (the right whale and the gray whale) but there have been no reports of those two whales in modern times. Besides these, two other large whales are commonly seen in the Mediterranean: The sperm whale and the fin whale. The fin whale is the second-largest whale that exists (after the blue), and since it lacks teeth but swallows fish it is a likely candidate for Jonah’s whale.

To summarize: There are several species of sea creatures, both whales and sharks, that frequent the Mediterranean Sea. The Lord could have worked through any of them to accomplish what Jonah describes in his book and to which the Lord Jesus himself attests. While we cannot say that it was certainly one or the other, we should also be careful not to say that it couldn’t be one or the other.

The point of all this is that we believe Scripture when it assures us that it is truthful and that it contains no errors. Also, in a historical account like that of Jonah, we don’t want to make an allegory of the details and dismiss the evidence of the Bible that Jonah was a real prophet (2 Kings 14:25) who was involved with these remarkable miracles. We must remember that Jesus Christ himself held out the two most debated details of Jonah’s story and held them out as facts: the time he spent within the whale’s belly (Matthew 12:40) and the conversion of the whole city of Nineveh with his preaching (Luke 11:29-30, 32).

The Lord rescued Jonah using this creature from the deep. What can we do but praise him for this? Through the most unlikely means, he works his salvation. What he did for Jonah’s flesh with a whale, with a shark, or with some other beast, he did for your body and soul through a cruel instrument of torture. Jonah suffered humidity, but Christ suffered humility and parching thirst (“I am thirsty,” John 19:28). Jonah suffered passage through the acids of the creature’s gullet or stomach, never abandoned by God. Christ suffered passage through hell itself, completely abandoned by the Father (Matthew 27:46). Jonah was vomited from the creature and arrived on dry land to continue his assignment from God (Jonah 2:10). Christ broke free from the bowels of the earth and his own grave to live eternally, having perfectly completed his assignment from God. Jonah’s ordeal points to Christ. Christ’s ordeal points the way to eternal life for all who believe.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.