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Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Could Have Swallowed Jonah and How Could Jonah Have Survived?

Bible critics, when considering the account of Jonah mention that there is only one type of whale that could have swallowed Jonah—the sperm whale. And even if a whale could have swallowed Jonah, there are no whales in the Mediterranean Sea which is where Jonah was swallowed.

While it is true that whales are rare in the Mediterranean, whale skeletons have been found there. Of course, the sperm whale is not the only candidate.

At Jonah 1:17, it says: “And Jehovah prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” ASV

A fish could be any large sea creature, like a shark. The great white shark is plenty large enough to swallow a person whole. In some cases it grows to be 40 feet long.1 Unlike the sperm whale, which is not usually aggressive, the great white shark is known for its ferocity and tendency to eat anything in its way.2 For instance, the Australian Zoological Handbook says the great white shark “could easily swallow a man whole.”3 The Natural History of Sharks reports that a 15-foot-long white shark taken in 1939 contained two whole six-foot-long sharks in its stomach—each about the size of a man.4

Not only that, but authorities agree that the great white shark is found in all the seas of the world, including the Mediterranean.5 Several experts report that it is known to follow sailing ships for days on end, eating whatever is thrown overboard.6 This fact actually parallels with what the Bible said happened to Jonah’s ship before the seamen were persuaded to throw him overboard.

The account at Jonah 1:4, 5 mentions that they tried to lighten the ship: “There came to be a great tempest on the sea . . . And they kept hurling out the articles that were in the ship to the sea, in order to lighten it.”

So considering the natural sequence of events as told in the account, the possibility exists that the lightening of the ship could have attracted the attention of some sharks and then one of them could have swallowed Jonah.

Though it is possible that the "great fish" was a sperm whale, the great white shark seems more likely. It is even possible that God used some huge sea creature that has never been found by science. As for the shark, however, many may find it interesting to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York city, where people can see for themselves the reconstructed jaws of an enormous shark called Carcharodon megalodon. Scientists have decided that the reconstructed jaws are too big. But even when they have been scaled down, it will be clear that this monster could have swallowed Jonah. It was at least 43 feet long.7

How Could Jonah Have Survived?

"But," some may ask, "even if a shark could have swallowed Jonah, isn’t it absurd to imagine his surviving inside the shark for days?"

Certainly Jonah needed a miracle to survive inside the fish that swallowed him. While it is true that there are some accounts of sailors being swallowed alive by whales and surviving the experience,8 many people doubt these accounts and the stories cannot now be verified. The arrival of the fish was a miracle, too, as was the fact that it took Jonah safely to land. But why is it so hard to believe that God could have preserved Jonah miraculously in the belly of the fish? For instance, many Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that required miraculous help from God.

Notice what Jesus said at Matthew 12:40,

“For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”

Is it likely that Jesus would have used Jonah’s account to illustrate his own death and resurrection if Jonah’s story were not true?

Also notice how Jesus continued in the same vein:

“Men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; because they repented at what Jonah preached, but, look! something more than Jonah is here.” (Matt. 12:41) Archaeologists have proved that Nineveh really existed. Why should Jonah be a fictional character? Why would Jesus claim to be “more than” somebody who never even existed?

Jesus continues with verse 42:

“The queen of the south will be raised up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but, look! something more than Solomon is here.”

Solomon was real. If everybody else was real, why not Jonah? So even though Jonah’s experience was a miracle, it was historical, not fictional.

Why Use a Fish?

But why did God have a fish swallow Jonah?

Because God was using Jonah’s experience to make a point, to illustrate how He would miraculously save His Son from the grave. Jesus himself said that Jonah’s experience inside the huge fish foreshadowed his own experience “in the heart of the earth.” Notice what Jonah said while inside the fish at Jonah 2:2,

“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice.”

Sheol is the Hebrew word for grave, not fish. Jonah was inside a fish, but Jesus was literally in Sheol, or the grave. So Jesus could refer to Jonah’s experience as a “sign” of what would happen to him. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus said, “A wicked and adulterous generation keeps on seeking for a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” So there was a reason for Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish.

Many times the Bible emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. It should not be surprising that God would use certain events to illustrate important facets of Jesus’ death.

The Bible gives us no reason to believe that the account of Jonah is symbolic. The account is presented as history, not symbolism. Jesus obviously felt that Jonah’s story was factual. Also, God had a good reason to perform the miracle that Jonah writes about. It helps a person to appreciate how important Jesus’ death and resurrection were to God. (See the 4/8/81 Awake!)

Related Articles:

Jonah - Links to Information (INDEX; Watchtower Online Library)

JONAH (Book) (INDEX; Watchtower Online Library)

Jonah (Insight-2 pp. 98-99; Watchtower Online Library)

Did God change his mind about destroying Nineveh or simply extend the time until he would destroy it? (Jehovah's Witnesses Questions and Answers)

Why would God pronounce impending destruction on Nineveh if He could fortell through the hearts of the people that He wouldn't need to destroy them until much later? (Jehovah's Witnesses Questions and Answers)



1 The Fishes of South Australia, Edgar R. White, South Australian Museum, page 40.

2 Sharks and Survival, Perry Gilbert, Cornell University, page 13.

3 Australian Zoological Handbook, The Fishes of Australia, Gilbert Percy Whitley, Australian Museum, Part I—The Sharks, page 125.

4 The Natural History of Sharks, Richard M. Backus and Thomas H. Lineaweaver III, Andre Deutsch Ltd., London, 1970, page 111.

5 Ibid., page 113.

6 Sharks—The Silent Savages, Theo Brown, Little, Brown & Co., Boston & Toronto, 1973, page 40; Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, J. L. B. Smith, Rhodes University, page 49; Australian Zoological Handbook, page 106.

7 Natural History, November 1980, pages 112, 113.

8 The Year of the Whale, Victor B. Scheffer, pages 84-86.

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