A little girl got saved during the local church’s summer Bible School. Unfortunately, though, her parents didn’t share her newfound faith in Jesus and refused to take her to church or even buy her a Bible. So, each Sunday morning she walked herself to church, carrying the oversized family Bible under her arm.
As it so happened, her route to church took her past the home of an atheist professor who taught at a university. As he watched the precocious little girl make her way to church each Sunday, he couldn’t help but be touched by her. In his way of thinking, though, he felt sorry for her because she had bought into all the nonsense of the Bible and Christianity.
Finally his interest in the girl became too much for him to keep bottled up, and so one bright Sunday morning he went out to meet her and enlighten her. He politely stopped her and said, “Little girl, you don’t really believe that book you are carrying, do you?” She answered, “Yes, I do.” “You mean you believe that story about Jonah living in the belly of a whale?” “Yes, I do.” The professor continued, “But how could Jonah do that?” “I don’t know,” said the girl, “but when I get to heaven I’ll ask him.” To that the professor said, “Oh, but what if Jonah isn’t in heaven?” The little girl thought for a second and said, “Well then you can ask him.”
In my study I have several excellent commentaries on the book of Jonah, commentaries written by conservative Bible-teachers such as James Montgomery Boice, J. Vernon McGee, and Henry Morris. Concerning Jonah being swallowed by the “whale,” these commentators make two main points. First, it would have been simple for the God who created all of creation and performs miracles as simply as you and I breathe to have had Jonah swallowed whole and kept alive. Second, even if we take the miraculous out of play, the whole story is even possible on a naturalistic level.
The Hebrew term that is used to describe the monster is gadol dag, which can generically refer to any kind of large sea creature. For one thing, the creature in question really could have been some kind of whale. For example, the sulfur-bottom whale can reach a size of over one hundred feet and have a mouth as wide as twelve feet. This whale has multiple compartments in its stomach, any one of which could provide more than ample room for a man to live. The head of the whale can be seven feet high, seven feet wide, and fourteen feet long, and it actually serves as an air storage chamber. Also, this whale has no teeth. It feeds by swimming along with its mouth open, straining out the water, and then swallowing whatever is left.
A sperm whale is another candidate for the creature that swallowed Jonah. Its mouth can be twenty feet long, fifteen feet high, and nine feet wide. According to one well documented account, in February of 1891 a sailor named James Bartley was lost at sea during an attempt to harpoon a sperm whale in the Falkland Islands region. A short time later the whale was killed and drawn to the side of the ship. There it was worked up and its blubber removed. The following day the stomach was hoisted on deck. When the stomach was opened, Bartley was found unconscious, but alive, inside. He was revived and not long afterward resumed his duties aboard the ship.
Then again, the one that got Jonah didn’t have to be a whale at all. A whale shark, for example, could have fit the bill. In the early 1920s, the Literary Digest ran the account of an English sailor who was swallowed by a whale shark in the English Channel. Two days later the creature was spotted again and killed. When it was cut open the sailors found the man unconscious but alive. He was rushed to the hospital, only to be discharged a few hours later after being found to be physically fit. In 1926, Dr. Harry Rimmer, the President of the Research Science Bureau of Los Angeles, met the man. Rimmer described his physical appearance as odd. The man was devoid of hair and patches of his skin were covered in a yellowish-brown color.
You see, those who attempt to criticize or explain away the story of Jonah do so at their own peril. The God of the miraculous is certainly not on their debate team. Neither are the historical reports of “Jonahs” from more modern times.
And then, of course, there is the one piece of evidence that should settle all doubt about the matter for the Christian. You ask, “What is that piece of evidence?” It’s the fact that Jesus Himself made a point of putting His stamp of approval on the story of Jonah when He said:
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish (the classic King James translation goes with the translation of “whale” instead of “fish”, but “fish” is more accurate), so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40, N.K.J.V.)