Jonah: Fact or Fiction???

I teach a 5th grade religion class at my church and we recently got into a discussion regarding Jonah, the whale, and taking the Bible literally.

I told the kids that it was nearly impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, even though they are very large mammals, their throat was very small. And even if they did manage to swallow a human, the person could not live for several days, like the story states.

A girl in the class stated that the Bible says that Jonah WAS swallowed by a whale, so it was true. Besides, her father told her it was possible.

I tried to argue, but to no avail. Finally, the little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah”.

To which, I asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?”

The quick little girl replied, “Then YOU ask him.”

A link to the column in question.

I like that story.

I’m currently dealing with the same debates, on their much mor edepressingly closed-minded adult level. My own attitude is to entirely accept all of the scientific objections to Jonah, to the Creation, to the whole schleboogle, and then to state bluntly that “Weirder stuff than this happens EVERY DAY!”

It does. You knows it.

lwburns: If I recall the Old Testament correctly, it says Jonah was actually swallowed by a GREAT FISH. It does not say whale. Maybe God brought back a Carcharodon megalodon to take care of Jonah.

Hey, Ross . . . nothing as wierd as the creation of all existence by an all-powerful God happened today.

Nothing as wierd as someoen getting swallowed by a fish and living inside it for three days has happened today.

Not that I know of at any rate . . .


I don’t think the ancients made a distinction between whales and fish. Anyway, Asimov had some interesting stuff to say about it in his Guide to the Bible. Check it out.

The third chapter of the Book of Jonah says that Ninevah was so large that it required 3 days to walk all the way across it, which would make it dozens if not hundreds of miles wide. No ancient city was that large, and there is no evidence that Ninevah or any other Assyrian city was that big. Not only is there no evidence that ancient Ninevah was ever that big, but for it to be that large would make it as big as New York or Los Angeles, cities with populations as large as whole kingdoms back in those days, cities whose gigantic populations are fed by fleets of refrigerated train cars and trucks on modern railroads and interstate highways.

Chapter 3 also says that everyone in the city (and presumably everyone in the entire Assyrian Empire) immediately repented and began to worship the God of Israel. There is no historical record of this remarkable fact, which is at least as noteworthy as someone being swallowed by a whale (or a “great fish” or a sea monster or whatever it was). The Assyrians are pretty universally recorded as having been seriously bad dudes, who would probably have reacted to some Jewish preacher of doom and gloom with roughly the same level of warmth and receptiveness as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

Of course, in Chapter 4 we find the man who would have to be counted as one of the world’s greatest evangelists–the man who single-handedly converted the Assyrians to the worship of God, over night–is deeply upset, because now that the Assyrians have repented, God won’t kill them all. He then sits and sulks for a while; God causes a tree to grow and give him shade. Jonah appreciates the tree, and misses it when God causes it to wither. God then asks Jonah why Jonah should grieve for his shade tree, and God should not take pity upon a great city with tens of thousands of little children, not to mention many poor dumb animals?

The blatant exaggerations and sharp irony of the story have caused most commentators who are not hopelessly wed to a literalist view of every word of the Bible to conclude that the Book of Jonah was never meant to be taken as a historically accurate biography of the Prophet Jonah. Rather, it was intended as an ironically humorous parable about God’s mercy extending to everyone, even wicked Assyrians, and not just to self-righteous Israelites, and thus an Old Testament analog (along with the Book of Ruth) to the New Testament’s Parable of the Good Samaritan.

How fast are we assuming he walked? If he was doing nothing but hoofing it across the city, then yes, three days would be rather long. If he’s stopping at every street corner to tell folks about a few chapters of scripture, though, it might be entirely reasonable.

It doesn’t say it took Jonah three days, it just describes the city generally as a three-days’ walk.

The words “in breadth” in that translation are not in the original Hebrew text. The verse just says that the city was “a three days’ walk” (thanks, John W. Kennedy), which could refer to its circumference, or the aggregate length of its main streets. Besides, as Chronos noted, he might have been walking slowly in order to spread his message.


Not so; all it’s saying is that they took the Divine message seriously. See the end of this thread for my comments on this issue.


Earlier in this message, you pointed out that


…so why indeed should Jonah have believed that their repentance was sincere? (In fact, we find a later prophet, Nahum, castigating Nineveh for the same sins of robbery and bloodshed.)

Related to this: taking the Assyrians as the Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia of their days (your comparison, not mine), why shouldn’t Jonah wish that such evil was removed from the world, not covered with a veneer of insincere repentance? (The point of G-d’s reply was essentially that He is merciful and will take into account all mitigating factors before condemning an entire city to destruction.)

What would you say if I said “The Israelites could not have crossed the Sea of Reeds (often translated Red Sea) because there was no wood in the wilderness from which they could have built rafts”. Furthermore, they couldn’t have lived in the wilderness for 40 years as there would be no water for them to drink.

But here, the bible is very specific. They didn’t cross in rafts; The sea was split for them. They drank from the well of Miriam and they ate mon (mannah).

So – If you think there is no g-d, or there is but he didn’t write what we call the bible, then it really doesn’t mater whether Jonah was swallowed by a great fish.

If you think there is a g-d, and he wrote the bible, then – well – that still doesn’t answer the question of whether Jonah is literal, but you certainly can’t answer it by talking about the physiology of fish.

Look at Bilam’s donkey. I’ve never heard an interpretation that says it didn’t actualy speak to Bilam. I’m sure if we ask a few verteranarians, however, you’ll find that most donkeys are incapable of intelligent conversation.

Now – with the size of Nineveh: The size of the city does not necessarily indicate how many people are in it. You’d be suprised that the largest city in the US isn’t LA. I remember it being some low-population city in Florida, I think (can someone help here).

There are a lot of very interesting interpretations of Jonah. I’ve heard it as an allegory of the journey of the soul. I’ve heard it as a battle between g-d’s attirubtes of Justice (truth) and Mercy. Jonah is called Yonah ben Amitai which means Jonah son of Justice. He is upset that Nineveh will receive mercy even though their repentance is temporary, and embarassed that the Jews will not repent and Israel will eventually be destroyed by the Asyrians.

Anyway – My point is that you’re reading parts of the bible as if there’s no g-d.

I doubt this will get read, but I agree with MHand. The Biblical authors obviously accepted the existence of a God who could do miracles. Jonah’s adventures include other miracles - a purposeful storm at sea, a convenient fish, a fish used for transportation… Why balk at the swallowing bit? As long as you accept the existence of a God who can do miracles, it’s even ok for Jonah to swallow the whale!

Anywho, I’ve read about a New England whaler who actually was swallowed by a sperm whale, and who survived for several hours. This happened in the late 1800’s - I think his name was Bartelby or Bartles…

I’m always amazed by those who interpret the Bible by starting with the assumption that the records can’t possibly mean what they say. Once you decide to ignore the original accounts, you’re free to make up whatever story suits you - but what’s the use of that???

The name is James Bartley, and the story was debunked in the original column that prompted this thread, previously linked to by RTFirefly:

Have any real-life Jonahs been swallowed by a whale and lived?

I did read it. Thank you.

If anyone’s interested, the article by Edward Davis to which Cecil refers is available online. Highly recommended, not only for the subject matter but as a fascinating account of historical detective work.

And if I recall the New Testament correctly, it says Jonah was actually swallowed by a WHALE. (Matthew 12:40) It does not say great fish.

I’m looking at a version of the king james bible online that says “great fish.” It may or may not be a matter of translation- the same version does use the word “whale” in another place, so that would make the terms distinct.
I can’t see how survival would be possible in such a scenario in any case, so I wonder if the semantics are even relevant…

The Hebrew word used in Jonah is dagh or daghah, the ordinary word for fish; the passage literally says that Jonah was swallowed by “a great fish.”

The story of Jonah is referred to in the New Testament by Matthew, and the Greek text uses ketos. This word was used by Homer and Herodotus for any large fish, sea-monster, or even a seal; Aristotle used it to refer to a whale.

So the original texts do not specifically say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but rather a large fish, or perhaps some generic kind of sea-monster.

From here.

Fixed link: From here.

Psychonaut is referring to a bit of NT text in which the Galilean refers to Jonah spending three days in a ketos – a whale.

Some regard this as proof that the OT’s “great fish” is idiomatic Hebrew for a whale. Others regard it as proof that the Galilean’s words were translated into Greek by someone who didn’t know the story.

Me, I think it’s all rather pointless. If you believe in the great fairy what sits in the sky, there’s no point in applying plausibility tests to the miracles. Either you believe, and these things happened, or you don’t believe, and they didn’t happen.