Did the Story of Jonah Really Happen?

Everyone knows the story. Well, actually most people don’t know the whole story, but everyone knows the most memorable part of the story: Jonah being swallowed up by the whale, only to be spewed out on dry land three days later. Here’s the very brief account as recorded in the Bible:

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. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10)

An obvious and immediate question arises: did this really happen? We all know that it is scientifically impossible to spend three days inside the stomach of a sea creature and live to tell about it. Yet here it is, in the pages of Scripture, expected to be taken seriously. Many who discredit the Bible point to the story of Jonah to argue that the Bible is just a book full of fanciful tales and imaginary legends that we can readily dismiss.

So, for people like me who take the Bible seriously and believe it to be true, how do we explain such an absurd phenomenon?

Christians generally hold one of four positions when it comes to the story of Jonah and the whale. I will briefly list them and mention their strengths and weaknesses.

1. The story is allegorical

The first option is that the story isn’t literal at all, but more like a fairy tale with a moral point. If someone were to read the short four chapters of Jonah it becomes apparent that the fish is a mere side point to the story. The big idea is that God is a God of forgiveness, and that his mercy extends to even those we despise. Additionally, the story reveals that often we are unwilling to extend to others the very mercy that we have received from God. In short, it is a story about God’s grace.

There are some Christians who believe that the moral of the story is what matters, not the historical truthfulness of the account. They would argue that the events never really took place but are simply a legend used as a teaching tool, somewhat similar to Jesus using parables in the New Testament.

The strength of this approach is that it immediately alleviates any need to explain the impossible. One can still gain from the Bible the teaching point while not being hung up on the fanciful notions that the story includes. In that way, the problem disappears with convenience.

Yet this view has some significant weaknesses. The first is that the story is written more like history than a fable. Legends usually use generalities in the storytelling (ie. “long ago in a land far away”). But Jonah is written in a historical setting, with the names of real, physical cities (Ninevah and Tarshish) as part of the plot. The book also mentions the name of Jonah’s father (1:1). The whole account appears to be written so that the reader believes the events are actual, historical fact.

A second weakness in this view is that it creates all kinds of problems when interpreting the rest of the Bible. If the events of Jonah aren’t real, what else in Scripture isn’t real either? Was the exodus from Egypt just an imaginary story with a moral lesson? Was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ just an allegorical teaching point? If you say that Jonah’s story isn’t real it becomes next to impossible to determine what else in Scripture isn’t literally true either. It also seems to betray a basic reading of the Bible, much of which is written as real historical events, naming real people and places and kingdoms that actually existed in the ancient world.

One final weakness with this view is that Jesus himself spoke of Jonah as if he were a real, historical figure. He makes reference to the story of Jonah—and specifically to the three days in the belly of the fish—as if he assumed it to be true (Matthew 12:39-40). So to say that the Jonah story isn’t real is to undermine what Jesus appeared to believe…dangerous ground to say the least!

As a result, I think it is fair to say that this first option is simply too problematic to be accepted.

2. It was a unique fish

A second option is to say that the particular fish that swallowed Jonah was uniquely designed by God so that a person could actually live inside of it for three days and nights. This idea comes from the statement that “God appointed a fish” to swallow Jonah. This means that a particular animal was chosen by God for the task, and it is at least theoretically possible that this creature had the proper features to sustain life in it’s own stomach.

This would mean that the swallowed person would somehow gain access to oxygen and be preserved from decaying in the fish’s stomach acids. It would be a horrible experience but potentially survivable. As far as I know, such a fish or whale does not exist in the animal kingdom. But is it possible that God somehow created and designed a specific fish for this very purpose?

This view is possible, at least in theory. God could have appointed a fish for this task and custom designed it for the needs of the job. But since Scripture gives very little indication that this was the case, other than a creative inference from the word “appointed”, this view is at best a minority perspective that most Christians don’t hold.

3. Jonah died and came back to life

A third option is that Jonah died in the whale’s stomach and was later brought back to life. This is a fairly common view among Christians and does have at least some biblical credibility to it. During Jonah’s prayer from the fish, he says “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2). The term Sheol is a Hebrew reference to the place of the dead. A modern-day synonym might be something like “the afterlife” or “the next world” or “the hereafter”. Jonah says in his prayer that this is where he called out to God. Therefore, many take this to mean that Jonah actually died in the fish (not exactly a surprising result), prayed to God from the afterlife, was then revived and spit out onto the land.

This does seem possible based on the text, and it eliminates the trouble of trying to explain how a person can live for days in the stomach of a fish. Not only does Jonah’s prayer open up this possibility, but Jesus’ interpretation of the Jonah account adds to the likelihood that Jonah had died in the fish. Jesus says “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). Since we know that Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, the fact that he would parallel his experience with Jonah’s time in the fish at least suggests that in both instances death and resurrection were the result. If Jesus really did taste death and come back to life, wouldn’t it makes sense that Jonah did also?

Perhaps. There seems to be good reason why this view is a very real possibility. But the weakness of this interpretation is that speaking of being in Sheol does not always mean literal death. For example, king David speaks about being delivered from Sheol in the Psalms on a number of occasions, even though he was not speaking of literal death (Psalm 18:5, 30:2-3). In such cases, Sheol is more of a poetic expression about the dire circumstance a person is in. David’s life was often in jeopardy from his enemies, and similarly Jonah was facing a hopeless fate in being swallowed by a fish in the open sea. It is possible that just as David was speaking metaphorically of being in mortal danger, so Jonah was referring to a near-death experience.

4. God miraculously sustained Jonah

The fourth position, and perhaps the most common among believers, is simply that God somehow kept Jonah alive in the belly of the fish. The explanation would certainly be beyond scientific understanding or human logic, but if God can create the universe with a spoken word, command the wind and waves to obey him, and raise the dead to life, can he not find a way to supernaturally keep a man alive in the middle of a fatal experience? Surely he could do so if he wanted to. It is not clear exactly how that would happen, but that God has the power to do it is of no question.

Since the story of Jonah gives no clear, definitive indication that the other three options are true, most Christians believe that Jonah really was swallowed alive and really did spend three days in the stomach of a great fish. That is the plain sense reading of the text. And as those who believe in the accuracy and truthfulness of Scripture, is easy to conceive—though hard to understand—of a scenario where God supernaturally preserves a man’s life. Nothing is impossible with God. In fact, the story of Jonah probably would not even make God’s top ten list of supernatural accomplishments recorded in the Bible.

Here’s my point. Jonah in the fish is far from evidence that the Bible is a fairytale book not to be taken seriously. The same people who espouse that idea also believe that the universe created itself out of nothing, evolved into an incredibly complicated ecosystem that can thrive and grow by random chance, that life arose from non-life, and that we are all here by accident and there is no meaning or purpose to life. Believing that is at least as “out there” as believing the story of Jonah, if not more so. The whale account doesn’t need to deter anyone from believing in the trustworthiness of Scripture at all.

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