- What was Jonah Swallowed By?
- Identifying the Creature
- Lessons and Meaning
- Prophetic Meaning
- Spiritual Meaning
- Literal Meaning
- References and Footnotes
- Other Pages to View
Jonah is one of the more popular Bible stories, which ironically means there’s likely a lot more that we don’t understand about it. In my experience, we gloss over details when we think we know the story. For that reason, I want to take my time and really focus in on the details.
What was Jonah Swallowed By?
Some people say he was swallowed by a fish, others say a whale—all translations say fish or great fish. The Hebrew word is דָּג, which means fish. The idea that Jonah was swallowed by a whale likely comes from the KJV rendering In the new testament reference of Matthew 12:40. The Greek word translated whale is κῆτος which could mean whale, sea creature, or big fish.
When I was in college I remember people bringing up this passage as “proof” the Bible contradicts itself. Someone would point to Jonah 1:17 and then to Matthew 12:40 and boast that a whale is not a fish. As mentioned above, the originally Greek could also be translated big fish so whale may not be the correct translation. However, even if whale is the correct translation, there isn’t a problem here. This is an example of cultural and linguistic change not inaccuracy. Let’s look at some examples:
- When I was a child, Pluto was considered the ninth planet; now Pluto is not a planet. Pluto being a planet or not is solely based on man’s definition of a planet. A book describing Pluto as a planet in the 1990s is using the language and perspective of the time period and is still factually correct. A book from the 1990s that says Pluto doesn’t exist would be factually wrong.
- Around the world a bathroom can be referred to by many different names. Some areas prefer WC (waste closet); other prefer restroom. Some say facility, others may say toilet. I’ve also heard people reference a ladies’/men’s room, little girls’/boys’ room. Saying one or the other isn’t more accurate or less accurate; it’s simply culture.
When it comes to defining animals, modern scientists have come up with a classification system they have agreed upon. Classification systems allow us to group like things based on some definition. Our modern way of classifying animals does not match that of the Bible but is not necessarily in opposition either. In Genesis 1 (and any references to Genesis 1 throughout the Bible), you will see that animals were divided into 3 main categories: the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the creatures on land. In this system, animals are grouped by whether they live in the sky, sea, or on land, which is still a perfectly valid classification system. Since a whale lives in the sea, it was referred to as a fish or sea creature during Biblical times.
Today, we separate whales from fish because or classification systems are more nuanced. We have more than three ways to classify animals and have added other stipulations to our definitions. In today’s scientific community, a fish is not just a sea creature but a “cold-blooded animal that lives in water, breathes with gills, and usually has fins and scales,” though many dictionaries define fish as an animal with fins that lives under water. Although whales live under water and have digit-less flippers and tails like fish, they need air to breath (don’t have gills) and give birth to live babies as mammals do; this is why modern people do not refer to them as fish. However, we would still agree that a whale is a sea creature.
The passage would be problematic if Jonah 1 claimed Jonah was swallowed by a fish and Matthew claimed Jonah was eaten by a lion.
Identifying the Creature
Interestingly, however, the Bible doesn’t actually say that the creature is a whale. As mentioned, the word translated whale could also mean great fish (the same phrase used in the Old Testament). Using our common sense, we know the animal had to be big enough to swallow Jonah whole and have Jonah sitting in its stomach. That rules out quite a few animals. Whales fit this description, usually intaking large amounts of water filled with tiny krill when they eat. Armstrong Bible Institute makes a great case for the creature to be a sperm whale. However, the creature that ate Jonah doesn’t have to be a whale—it could have been sea creature that has gone extinct or is undiscovered by the modern world (like Leviathan).
Lessons and Meaning
Jonah is popular in youth classes because it reads like a children’s book or cartoon. The idea of a man being swallowed whole by a sea creature is fanciful and plays in to child-like wonder. I don’t hear it as much as an adult because adults are more likely to question if a man can be swallowed whole and survive. Nonetheless, the story is included in scripture for a reason and I would wager that reason is more than entertainment or simple historical record.
My favorite thing about the Bible is that most passages have literal, spiritual, and prophetic implication. Each teaches us something different. Let’s look at these for Jonah 1.
When Jonah runs from his duty to warn the people of Ninevah, he boards a ship to Tarshish. When a storm threatens the ship, the other people on the ship find Jonah asleep and wake him to discuss the situation. The consensus of the group is that a god is angry at someone on the ship, so they cast lots to determine it is Jonah. Jonah admits his fault, identifies YHWH as the One True God. Jonah ends up being cast in to the sea to calm the storm and save the others.
In Luke 8:22-25, we see Messiah in a boat with the disciples. Although they are not fleeing from responsibility like Jonah, a storm still appears on the water. When the boat begins to take on water they search for Messiah who is asleep. Once awake, He calms the storm and chastises the disciples for their lack of faith.
In Matthew 12, Messiah tells the Pharisees that their sign will be the 3 days and 3 nights like Jonah, but there are a few parallels between Messiah’s life and Jonah’s. Bible scholars often refer to “types” when pointing out people who act as a blueprint, archetype, or signpost for someone meant to come. In a way it’s like a living breathing prophecy. David is the most popular to be called a type of Christ. Reading through Jonah, I think he might have been a prophetic demonstration of the coming Messiah as well.
The situation on the boat for Jonah differs from that of Messiah and yet they may actually tell us the same thing spiritually. In the case of the Messiah, the disciples had not done anything wrong, but were afraid to drown. Messiah not only rebukes the waves but the disciples, for their lack of faith. In contrast Jonah is actually in the wrong and actively fleeing from YHWH when the storm hits his ship. However, Jonah is the one who is asleep and unbothered by the impending doom. In this instance, it is Jonah’s admission of wrong doing and willing sacrifice that cause God to calm the storm. The moral of both is about faith and salvation, however Jonah’s story touches on a few interesting spiritual points.
While Jonah is in sin, he sleeps sound and is unconcerned with the trouble he has brought upon the other people aboard. He is unaware that his actions have brought about calamity, and even upon waking is slow to admit fault. Similarly, when we are in sin we can be blind (or asleep) to what’s happening as a result of our sin.
Once Jonah admits it is his fault, he is ready to atone for his sin. He does not stop at admission of guilt, but offers himself as a sacrifice to save the others and any cargo the ship may have been carrying. While the disciples, who had done no wrong, were fearing for their lives, Jonah volunteers himself to be thrown overboard. It is not just his volunteering that appeases God but the actual action has to be taken and he suffers for his sin even though he has repented (the same way David suffers for his sin even after repenting).
This is also a literal story about a man running from his responsibilities. When he admits his actions, the other men are quick to verbally rebuke him, but not so quick to throw him overboard. I often ask myself about the crew’s reaction to Jonah’s guilt. In truth, if I were in their shoes I probably wouldn’t have thrown him overboard either. Many of us may be willing to chastise friends for their mistakes, but I doubt we would throw them to the wolves (or the sharks in this case). When the crew realizes they cannot survive the storm on their own they decide to take Jonah up on his offer and throw him overboard, but was that the right decision?
The crew actually had a few options:
- Ignore Jonah’s fault and continue as planned (which they tried for a while to ultimate failure)
- Pray to YHWH for a solution
- Reset the course of the ship and take Jonah to Ninevah themselves
- Cast Jonah out (their ultimate solution)
We know for a fact that option 1 wasn’t the correct choice, but I often wonder what would have happened if they had been believers and stopped to consult YHWH. We know that for prophecy sake, the story had to play out the way it did, but it seems more correct to pray before sentencing a person.
In life we can be those around Jonah or Jonah himself. There is a lesson here for how we handle either situation.
References and Footnotes
- “Strongs H1709. דָּג“. Blue Letter Bible; visited June 2023
- “Strongs G2785. κῆτος“. Blue Letter Bible; visited June 2023
- “Fish”. The Britannica Dictionary; visited June 2023
- “Fish”. Collins Dictionary; visited June 2023
- “Fish”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary; visited June 2023
- Christopher Eames. “What Was the ‘Great Fish’ That Swallowed Jonah?”. Armstrong Bible Institute. February 11, 2021
Other Pages to View