"Was Jonah swallowed by a whale, a big fish, or what?" The story of Jonah is one of the Bible's best known stories. The tale goes that God told Jonah to go preach to the heathens in the city of Nineveh, but Jonah took a ship heading to Spain. But God canceled Jonah's ticket and sent a storm that threatened to swamp the ship. In the end, the sailors threw Jonah overboard and he was gobbled up by some sort of giant sea creature where he lived for three days. On the third day the fish spit him up on the beach and Jonah decided going to Nineveh might not be such a bad idea after all.
This charming story has been told for generations as "Jonah and the whale." Children have been thrilled by the imagery and the moral that you just can't hide from God. But where did the whale stuff come from?
In Matthew 12.40 Jesus uses the analogy of Jonah and in the King James Version we read, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly . . . " (Matthew 12:40). Thus it seems that Jesus is the one who ascribes Jonah into the gullet of a whale. However, the KJV is one of the only translations of scripture to use the word "whale." Most other translations use sea monster or big fish. The problem is the rendering of the Greek word kytos. The word means some sort of a large sea creature and apparently, when the translators of the KJV tried to decide what word to use to convey this meaning, they thought the creature that most closely resembled a sea monster big enough to swallow a human had to be a whale. But as any third grader (and younger) can tell you, a whale isn't a fish.
So, if Jonah was swallowed by a large sea creature, clearly it must have been a fish of some sort.
But for most marine biologists, the story of Jonah getting swallowed by a fish and surviving three days in the stomach is just a bit fishy. The reality is that people just don't get swallowed whole by a fish and live to tell the tale -- even if it was a big fish. So, what about the story?
Jonah is one of the most intriguing books in the Bible. The Hebrew vocabulary and style is absolutely the simplest of any of the scriptural writings. Indeed, many scholars believe that the book may have used as a beginning reading book for Israelite children as evidenced by this simplistic style. And what better story in the Bible than Jonah and the sea monster to appeal to a child as they read their first book (even more fun than Green Eggs and Ham!)? And so, both because of the content and the style, most biblical scholars believe that the story of Jonah is just that -- a story with a timeless message that appeals to children and to adults as well.
Some have argued that because Jesus mentions the story in his discourse in Matthew 12 the book must be the account of a historical event. However, Jesus was given to metaphor and allegory in many of his teachings, and it is likely he refers to Jonah much as we might refer to the story of Robin Hood. In any event, the fact that Jesus uses Jonah as an example at least shows the universality of the story -- Jesus expected his audience to know what he was talking about.
So, was Jonah swallowed by a whale, a big fish, or what? Clearly the author wrote that he had been swallowed by a giant fish or a sea monster. But the question remains, does the story have historical significance? Significance? Yes. Even if the story is a myth the book gives us insights into the culture of the ancient ones. And if it's not a myth, it gives our biologists something to ponder.