Editor’s Note: In this article I introduce two scriptures (Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40) to answer “apparent incongruities” (seemingly impossible scenarios) and to apply apologetics (a reasoned defense of the faith) in affirming the trustworthiness of the Bible.
The “apparent incongruity” is the account of a reluctant prophet named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish and yet remained alive in its belly for three days.
The Book of Jonah has been described as a parable, an allegory, and a satire. However, this is an extremely faithless approach to the scriptures. A large proportion of all modern criticism of the Bible comes from the assumption that miracles do not occur. Skeptical theologians explain every miracle in Scripture away by either tacit rejection or naturalistic explanation. This leads to such ludicrous, varied, and contradictory explanations that the biblical scholar finds ever further justification in the miraculous over the ridiculous!
There are plausible explanations for questions, but we must look at this event with knowledge of God’s miraculous power. Could He have prepared a great fish to be in the vicinity of the floundering ship, to swallow Jonah in the raging sea, then in the time appointed transport him to shore and vomit him up? Absolutely! As the all-powerful Creator God, He is in no way limited by what He created.
But now what about the type of creature used to swallow Jonah? The original Hebrew wording of Jonah 1:17 is accurately translated in the King James Version as “a great fish.” The Old Testament translation produced by the Jewish Publication Society also refers to this creature as “a great fish.”
We read that “The LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17, King James Version).
Some controversy arises over the King James translation of Matthew 12:40. This verse says
“He (Jesus Christ) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, just as Jonah was “three days and three nights in the whale’s belly.” (Matthew 12:40.)
But the fact that Jonah was in the WHALE’S belly was only an assumption on the part of the translators. The New King James Version correctly renders this phrase as “in the belly of the GREAT FISH.”
A whale is not a fish
Since a whale is a mammal rather than a fish, does this point to a contradiction between Jonah 1:17 and Matt. 12:40? No, and here’s why.
Realize that the Old Testament is written in Hebrew except for small portion in Aramaic (book of Daniel). The New Testament is written in Greek, not English. Neither the KJV or any other translation determines the meaning in English above the original language. Both “whale” and “great fish” are English translations of the original words.
Strong’s Dictionary says the Greek word translated “whale” is ketos (pronounced kay-tos), and means “a huge fish (as gaping for prey).”
“Smith’s Bible Dictionary” makes the following comments about the word WHALE: “Probably the fish which swallowed Jonah was some large kind of shark, or fish especially provided.”
“There are at least two species of Mediterranean marine life that are known to be able to swallow a man whole. These are the cachalot and the white shark. Both creatures are known to prowl the Mediterranean and have been known to Mediterranean sailors since antiquity. Aristotle described both species in his 4th Century B.C.” Historia Animalium (gotquestions.org).
The Easton Bible Dictionary says the “white shark is sometimes found 30 feet in length.” [Robinson, Lexicon (from Barnes' Notes)] states: ”This event took place in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish, when he was fleeing FROM Nineveh. It is said that the “whale” seldom passes into that sea, and that its throat is too small to admit a man. It is probable, therefore, that a fish of the “shark kind” is intended. Sharks have been known often to swallow a man entire. The fish in the book of Jonah is described merely as a “great fish,” without specifying the kind . – Letusreason.org
The evidence supports the conclusion — that it was some kind of large fish, and not a whale, which swallowed Jonah. In any case, the Bible says God God specifically “prepared” (mahnah—appointed, constituted, made ready) a great fish (Gesenius, 1847, p. 486). So another argument is that Jonah being swallowed was a divine miracle and thus the type of creature God used could have been whatever sea life was available or He created a special (massive) creature to serve his purpose of causing Jonah to repent and to carry out His command of preaching.
“The same term (“prepared”) is employed to refer to additional direct manipulations initiated by God. He prepared a plant (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a vehement wind (4:8) [Wigram, 1890, p. 733]. George Cansdale was correct in concluding: “[T]here is no point in speculating about the full physical explanation of an incident that primarily is metaphysical, i.e., miraculous” (1975, 5:925, emp. added). McClintock and Strong agree: “[T]he transaction is plainly miraculous, and no longer within the sphere of zoological discussion” (1881, 10:972). Jonah’s survival after being inside a sea creature is no more remarkable than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surviving the “burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:27).” (apologeticspress.org)
A similar instance can also be found in Book of Numbers, chapter 22, versus 28 through 30 where God gives Balaam’s donkey the power of human speech in order to have a conversation with Balaam.