A little girl got saved during the local church’s summer Bible School. Sadly, 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 would use the city sidewalk to walk herself the short distance from her house to the church. As she walked, she always carried the Bible that her Sunday School bought her when she began attending class.
Well, it just so happened that the little girl’s route to church took her directly past the home of an atheist professor who taught at a university. Once he noticed that the girl walked past his house every Sunday morning, he began to feel increasingly sorry for her. In his way of thinking, she had bought into what he called the “nonsense” of the Bible and Christianity. Finally, his interest in the girl became so great that one Sunday morning he went out to meet her and enlighten her. He politely stopped her in front of his house and struck up a conversation.
The professor said, “Little girl, you don’t really believe that book you are carrying, do you?” Surprised by what she considered to be a strange question, she replied, “Yes, I do.” Already knowing where he was taking the conversation, the professor asked, “So, have you read the story of how Jonah got swallowed by a whale and stayed in there three days and three nights before coming out alive?” Excitedly, the girl answered, “Oh yes, we studied that story in my Sunday School class a few weeks ago.”
Continuing to probe, the professor said, “But how could Jonah do that?” The little girl was stumped as she tried to scientifically reason out an explanation, but in the end she gave up trying and gave the simple answer, “I don’t know, but when I get to heaven I’ll ask him.” Now the professor felt confident that he had her childlike faith on the run, and so he said, “And what if Jonah isn’t in heaven?” To that, the little girl immediately replied back, “Oh, well, then you can ask him.”
In my study, I have several excellent commentaries on the book of Jonah, commentaries written by men who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. 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.
In regards to the naturalistic level, the Hebrew term that is used to describe the monster that got Jonah is gadol dag, a term that can generically refer to any kind of large sea creature. For example, the sulfur-bottom whale (which is commonly referred to as “the blue 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 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 famous story, a sailor named James Bartley was lost at sea in February of 1891 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 to be worked up and have its blubber removed. The following day the stomach was hoisted on deck, and 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. Admittedly, however, this story has been diligently researched in recent years, found lacking in its historical details, and now gets classified as a piece of fiction that got passed off and passed along as fact for the better part of a century.
Nevertheless, the creature that got Jonah didn’t have to be a whale at all, and there is another well-known story (this one vetted and verified) that tells of a sailor who got swallowed whole by a whale shark and remained alive inside the creature for two days before being rescued. The account comes from the early 1920s as the Literary Digest ran the story 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, and 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, actually met the man. Rimmer described the man’s physical appearance as being odd in that he was devoid of hair and had patches of skin that were marked by a yellowish-brown color.
In more recent times, June of 2021 to be precise, a commercial lobsterman named Michael Packard was in his scuba gear diving for lobster off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, when he felt a huge bump and everything suddenly went dark. At first, he thought he had been attacked by a large great white shark, but then he realized that he hadn’t been bitten and the creature didn’t actually have any teeth. Being an experienced seaman, he thought, “I’m in a whale’s mouth and he’s trying to swallow me.” But then Packard saw light and felt the whale, which turned out to be a humpback whale, shake its head and blow him out of its mouth. After being shot into the air, the unharmed lobsterman landed safely in the water and was hauled back into his boat by his crew, who had been anxiously scanning the waves for him.
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 side, and neither are these historical accounts of “Jonahs” from modern times. Then, of course, there is the one piece of evidence that should settle all doubt about the matter. You ask, “And what is that piece of evidence?” It’s the fact that Jesus Himself not only taught that the story of Jonah was literally true but even used it as an illustration of His resurrection. Therefore, I offer Christ’s own words as the close to this post. Never forget that He said:
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, 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.)