What swallowed Jonah—a fish or a whale?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Have you ever wondered what swallowed Jonah? Was it a fish? Or, was it a whale? (In a word, “It was both!”)

As someone once said, Jonah is perhaps the most ridiculed Bible book. The critic argues that the Bible cannot be the “perfect” Word of God because it does not differentiate between a “whale” (a warm-blooded marine mammal) and a “fish” (a non-mammal that is usually cold-blooded). We can just hear their whine, “Contradiction!” They are especially critical of Jesus saying that “fish” (as named in Jonah) was a “whale” (Matthew 12:40). Everybody has a good laugh. (We can laugh, too, actually. The Bible knows more about the English language than they do!)

If you look in an English dictionary, you will notice that the word “fish” has for one of its definitions: “(loosely) any of various other aquatic animals.” To wit, “fish” is a general term for any type of animal that lives in the water. It is a less precise term, granted, and awkward when compared to the scientific classification system of naming life forms, but “fish” can include any and all types of marine animals. In fact, a whale is defined as a “marine mammal” and… horrors!!!… the dictionary says a whale has a “fishlike body.” It just gives us chills, friends. Whales and fish, while quite different, have similarities. Even lexicographers admit it.

We will now introduce a side-note to further prove the ridiculousness of the Bible critics. Before we throw a tantrum when the Bible uses “great fish” and “whale” interchangeably, we need to consider something very important. We English speakers are less precise when we speak our language on a daily basis. Consider the word “car.” Did you know that the word “car” can be used for more than as an opposite of the word “truck?” The word “car” simply means “automobile.” “Car” is a general term. And it does not necessarily have to roll on a normal roadway. Think of a streetcar or a railroad car. Even the part of the elevator that you ride in is known as a “car.” In British English, “car” can apply to “a farm cart or wagon.” The literary sense is “chariot.” And see, who gets angry with us when we are talking in terms of something other than a “car” opposite a truck? We can be saying “car” while really meaning a railroad boxcar, a chariot, a cart, an elevator, and so on. (We will come back to discussing “less precise English” later.)

See, the scoffers are not interested in reasoning and thoughtful discussion. No, they are just determined to rid themselves of the Bible. If they can find fault with it, they can dismiss it and ignore its claims against them. They want to discredit its testimony in whatever ways are convenient. They do not want to face accountability. If the Bible is wrong about “great fish” and “whale,” they assume it is wrong when it speaks against them and their sin. Anything to soften the Bible appeals to them. That is sin nature at its very best, friends!

Jonah 1:17 says, “Now 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.” When commenting on this, Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The adjective “great” in “great fish” means it was a huge organism, a special creature that the LORD “had prepared.” Where it came from, if it was the only one of its kind, we do not know those details, and it really does not matter. What matters is that it existed especially for Jonah’s reformation. The term “whale” (Jesus’ word) highlighted the size of the creature while “fish” (Jonah’s word) emphasized its aquatic (underwater) habitat. So, what swallowed Jonah? A “fish?” Yes, it was an aquatic creature. A “whale?” Yes, it was a huge aquatic animal, as a large as a whale. Whether it was a “whale” as we know a “whale” makes no difference.

One final note worth mentioning. If we want to start nitpicking at the Bible for equating the terms “fish” and “whale,” then we must start correcting educated people when they refer to an animal known as a “whale shark.” Sharks are considered fish, but the name “whale shark” is a misnomer. It is certainly no whale—the name “whale shark” means this shark can grow to be the size of a whale. See, while not scientific, “whale” can be used in a non-whale’s name to describe the animal’s size. If scientific papers use “whale shark” without being ridiculed, the Bible should be permitted to say both a “fish” and a “whale” swallowed Jonah. If the Bible is disallowed from doing so, then we must disallow the other “nonscientific,” general names people use all the time in the English language. We could start complaining about the names “shellfish,” “crawfish,” and “jellyfish”—they are not fish!!!

Also see:
» Was Jonah alive or dead in the whale? (COMING SOON!)
» What was the Star of Bethlehem?
» Why does the Bible say Jesus was hanged on a “tree?”