If you’re like me, you grew up in the church hearing all the Bible stories (maybe even on flannelgraph!). As a kid, I always heard it as Jonah being swallowed up by a whale, and as I got older I realized that the “whale” part comes from the King James version of Jesus’ reference of the story in Matthew.
The NIV and the ESV go with the better translation of great/huge fish, but even that is rather hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, how can a fish swallow someone whole? Harder still, how can that person survive in the fish for 3 days, and then get vomited out onto the land? The easiest solution might be to allegorize it somehow, but that’s impossible in this scenario, both because the context doesn’t really allow it, and also because Jesus takes it as literal history when he references it in Matthew 12:40. If the story of Jonah is an allegory, or is purely spiritual, then so is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our hope is in vain. So it’s more important than a silly story about a guy and a fish.
Interestingly, the events we mentioned are not the greatest miracles in the life of Jonah. Eventually, Jonah does go to Nineveh, and the entire evil city repents and turns to God! This is the greater miracle, at least in terms of area of effect. However, nobody questions this part. A city of more than 120,000, a city that took 3 days to travel across. A city known for its evil receives the word of one guy and repents. This is an astounding miracle, and yet it doesn’t get attention. It makes me wonder why. Perhaps it’s a tacit admission to the power of God to save people spiritually without admitting that He can save them physically? Or perhaps the story of the fish is so repulsive to people that they can’t get by it to the rest of the story. So let’s remove that obstacle, shall we?
We’ve talked about worldview and presuppositions before, and that comes into this discussion as well. Do they believe that miracles are impossible in principle? If so, then you will have to deal with that first. Providing evidence for how it was not an impossible event will do little if they are unwilling to consider the event in the first place. That said, I think it’s surprisingly easy to demonstrate that the event was at least possible.
It is important to note that Jonah 1:17 says that God “appointed” the great fish to swallow Jonah. Some translations say “prepared”, but the point is the same. God was in control of the situation, which includes what the fish did and where it went.
That said, was it physically possible for a fish to be big enough to swallow a human? Easily. There are several fish and whales that have mouths/stomachs big enough to be able to accommodate a human body even today, and it’s possible that there were even bigger species alive back then that have since gone extinct. Take the Megalodon, for example. From the fossil record, people have been able to estimate the size of the Magalodon, and here’s a handy size-comparison chart.
To go with that, here is a unnerving reconstruction of the size of its mouth, with a person for comparison.
As you can see, it would’ve been downright roomy on the inside of such a huge creature. Even the modern whale sharks can have mouths as wide as 5 feet. So it would’ve been easy enough for the fish, but what about the man?
We know people are able to survive without food and water well enough for 3 days/nights, but what about oxygen? It seems to me that there would’ve been several ways in which oxygen could’ve been supplied to Jonah. We’ve already pointed out that God appointed the fish for this task, so it could’ve been large enough to contain that much of an oxygen supply, or more simply, God could’ve had it swimming near the surface, and taking in oxygen regularly.
So, is it at least possible that the story happened? Yes. Lest we forget, this is God that we’re talking about. The entire book drips with the miraculous, and this sort of thing is exactly the type of thing that only God can accomplish. He did so, and the historic events have theological implications for us that Jesus makes explicit in Matthew 12:38-42. Someone greater than Jonah and Solomon is here.
Bonus: In this article , Wayne Jackson heads off a few smaller objections to the historicity of the book of Jonah.