Jonah and the Fish

Jonah's Whale?

Hi …, 

…I told you I’d give you my answer to the “Jonah and with whale” question you fielded .… The account is found in the book of Jonah 1:12 - 2:10. Jesus also refers to the same event as recorded in Matthew 12:38-41. Some thoughts:

1. God “appointed” the fish. The term (מָנָה.) means that God commissioned the fish to do his bidding. The fish is on special assignment from God. The word never means to create or prepare. Therefore, God probably did not make a special fish for this task.

2. The identity of the fish is unknown. The passage doesn’t bother to tell us detail; it is apparently not important. We know it was large. The term “fish” (דָּג) refers to all aquatic creatures throughout the OT (used 19x). It could refer to any kind of "fish”. Thus, the NT in Matt 12:40 uses a general term as well (κῆτος,).  There have been all kinds of speculations, but no one knows. Does it really make a difference if we can identify the fish? There have been reports of historical instances of men being swallowed by a shark or whale and surviving. (see  Keil p 398 and Bruckner p 57 and others). However, it is questionable if these can be substantiated.  What should we make of these accounts? Does it make any difference? If there are other provable instances of men being swallowed by a fish and surviving, then this is not a miracle per se – rather the “miracle” is the timing and related detaills. Either way it does not matter. To focus on the “fish” is to miss the point of God’s incredible pardon for Jonah, His deliverance of Jonah, and God’s resolute execution of his will.

3. The importance of the fish is oversold. I think we make a mistake if we make acceptance of Jonah’s experience a litmus test for faith or for belief in the miraculous. Some conservative Bible scholars do believe the entire book of Jonah is not history – rather a proverb-like story for our edification. I strongly disagree; however, the historicity of Jonah is not on par with the virgin birth of Christ.  So, the first question asked about Jonah – “Could he really have been swallowed by a whale” - is really not the critical question. In fact, it clouds the bigger issue of God’s mercy and sovereignty; of God radically pursuing a cruel city.  What happens after Jonah got spit up by the fish is far more significant than what happened in the fish! In the same way that what Jesus did while in the grave is not nearly as significant as the empty grave!

4.The miracle may have been a three part deal.  First, Jonah is rescued from death by being swallowed by the fish; second, Jonah surviving in the fish; and third, Jonah being vomited onto dry land. But I tend to think that the miracle per se is not that Jonah was swallowed by a fish or that the fish spit him out, but that he was consciously alive for 3 days and 3 nights in the fish. I believe this was an actual event, not a myth. Critics concoct absurd explanations that require as much faith as accepting the miracle does -  Jonah landed on top of a fish; Jonah landed on top of a dead whale; a ship named “Fish” picked him up; or the fish existed from the beginning of sea life and thus was very very large.

Of course, my perspective is predicated on my view that the Bible is a unique book. It is a word from God and as such it is the criteria for truth. I accept it as true. That is my starting point or presupposition.  If the Jonah event was not recorded in Scripture, I would be among those who think it pretty ridiculous… A key question is on what are you building your worldview? What is your criteria for truth?  Or perhaps, you believe that there is no ultimate truth?  I’d love to know your thoughts on these matters. Of course, I hope you know that my great desire is that you would come to see the fish as a picture of how far God will go to save people like the Ninevites and Jonah.  As one author said, “The big fish makes a specific point of God’s extravagant, unrelenting, pursuing, and saving love.”

…With admiration,