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Difficulties in the Bible: 17. Jonah and the Whale

By Reuben Archer Torrey

      The story of Jonah and "the whale" has for many years been a butt of ridicule with unbelievers, and the cause of not a little perplexity with those who are "unlearned and unstable." The story is quite generally discredited by the destructive critics as being unhistorical. They attempt to explain it as allegory or parable. Those who desire to discredit the full inspiration and absolute veracity of the Bible have again and again assured us with a great show of scientific knowledge that such is the structure of a whale's mouth and the configuration of his throat that it would be impossible for a fullgrown man either to pass through the sieve in its mouth or the narrow orifice of its throat, to say nothing of his coming out again alive and whole.

      What shall we say to all this?

      First of all, let us notice the fact that the Bible nowhere says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. In Jonah 1:17 we are told that Jehovah "prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." There is no mention here whatever of this great fish being a whale, with its peculiarly constructed mouth and throat. It may have been either a fish altogether prepared for the occasion, or a fish already existing providentially sent around for the purpose God had in view. It is true that in Jesus' reference to this historical event in Matthew 12:40 in the Authorized and the Revised versions He said that Jonah was three days and three nights in "the whale's belly"; but we read in the margin of the Revised Version that the Greek of the word rendered "whale" is "sea monster." One cannot help wondering why the translators should continue to put "whale" in the text if the Greek word means "sea monster," and it certainly does. In the Septuagint translation of the book of Jonah, "a great fish" is rendered by a Greek adjective meaning "great" and by the same word that is used in Matthew 12:40 and translated "whale." The word whale was in the mind of the translators and not in the word spoken by Jesus, so in neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament account is it said that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a great fish or sea monster. These scholarly critics have spent much labor in proving the absurdity of something God did not say.

      We are not told what the great fish was, but it is a well-known fact that there exist or have existed until recent times in the Mediterranean Sea, where the recorded event seems to have taken place, sea monsters--that is, dog sharks--large enough to swallow a man or horse whole. In fact, it is recorded that a man fell overboard in the Mediterranean and was swallowed by one of these sea monsters, the monster was killed and the man rescued alive. A whole horse was taken out of the belly of another.

      Furthermore, even if the Bible had said that the great fish was a whale, there would be no such difficulty with the narrative as has been supposed by unbelievers and the uninformed. While it is true that there are some kinds of whales whose mouth and throat are of such a formation that it would be impossible for a full-grown man to pass through, it is not true of all kinds of whales.

      The well-known author, Frank Bullen, in his book The Cruise of the Cachalot says that "a shark fifteen feet in length has been found in the stomach of a cachalot." He tells further that "when dying, the sperm whale always ejects the contents of its stomach." He tells of one whale that was caught and killed, "the ejected food from whose stomach was in masses of enormous size, some of them being estimated to be the size of our hatch-house, viz., 8 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet." Of course such a whale would have no difficulty in swallowing a man, so the whole objection to the Bible narrative from the standpoint that a whale could not swallow a man is not founded upon superior knowledge, but upon ignorance.

      Someone may say that the action of the gastric juices would kill a man within a whale or other sea monster.

      But this leaves God out of the transaction, whereas in the Bible story God is very prominent in the whole transaction. The God who made both the monster and the man and the gastric juices could quite easily control the gastric juices and preserve the man alive. We are not trying to infer that the transaction was not miraculous in any event, but those who really believe in God and have had any large experience with God have no trouble with the miraculous.

      It ought to be added, moreover, that the Bible does not tell us that Jonah remained alive during the period that he was in the belly of the great fish. There are things in the narrative as recorded in the book of Jonah that make it appear as if he did not remain alive (Jonah 2:2, 5-6, RV; see margin). There seems to be a strong probability that Jonah actually did die and was raised from the dead. If he actually did die, this only adds one more to the resurrections recorded in the Bible and makes Jonah a still more remarkable type of Christ. To those who believe in God, there is no difficulty in believing in the resurrection if sufficiently well attested. "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?" There are numerous instances on record, at least of resuscitation of men and women who to all appearances had been dead for some days. The historicity of this event is endorsed by Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 12:40). To think of it as being merely allegory or parable is to discredit the words of Jesus.

      So, on careful examination of what the Scripture says, and of the facts of history, all the difficulties supposed to exist in the story of Jonah and the whale are found to disappear.

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See Also:
   Difficulties in the Bible Introduction
   Difficulties in the Bible: 1. A General Statement of the Case
   Difficulties in the Bible: 2. Classes of Difficulties
   Difficulties in the Bible: 3. How Shall We Deal with the Difficulties of the Bible?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 4. Genesis One-Historical and Scientific?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 5. The Antiquity of Man According to the Bible and According to Science
   Difficulties in the Bible: 6. Where Did Cain Get His Wife?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 7. Jehovah's Command to Abraham to Offer Up Isaac as a Burnt Offering
   Difficulties in the Bible: 8. God Hardening Pharaoh's Heart
   Difficulties in the Bible: 9. The Slaughter of the Canaanites by God's Command
   Difficulties in the Bible: 10. Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still
   Difficulties in the Bible: 11. Deborah's Praise of Jael, the "Murderess"
   Difficulties in the Bible: 12. The Sacrifice of Jephtha's Daughter
   Difficulties in the Bible: 13. "Impure" Bible Stories
   Difficulties in the Bible: 14. David's Sin
   Difficulties in the Bible: 15. The Imprecatory Psalms
   Difficulties in the Bible: 16. Does the God of Truth and Love Send Lying Spirits and Evil Spirits to Men?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 17. Jonah and the Whale
   Difficulties in the Bible: 18. Some Important "Contradictions" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 19. "Mistakes" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 20. The Two Genealogies of Jesus, the Christ
   Difficulties in the Bible: 21. Was Jesus Really Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 22. How Could Jesus Commend the Action of the Unrighteous Steward?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 23. Were Jesus and Paul Mistaken as to the Time of Our Lord's Return?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 24. Did Jesus Go into the Abode of the Dead and Preach to the Spirits in Prison? Is There Another Probation After Death?


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