One of the best known of all Bible stories is that of Jonah’s sojourn inside a large fish, commonly presumed to be a whale (Jonah 1:17). The tale has captured the imagination of children and adults alike for centuries. The reluctant prophet ignores God’s call to Nineveh and sets sail in the opposite direction for Tarshish (Jonah 1:2-3). When the vessel carrying Jonah encounters a devastating storm, it is determined that Jonah’s disobedience is the cause and he is thrown overboard, presumably left for dead (Jonah 1:4-16).
God has other plans for Jonah. In the last verse of the book’s first chapter the notorious fish engulfs the would be prophet (Jonah 1:17).
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NASB)Harold Shank (b. 1950) summarizes:
Jonah’s means of transport changes from a ship to a fish. One protected him from the storm and the other from the sea. One led him away from God, and the other brought him back to God. Inside the fish Jonah has a change of heart. (Shank, Minor Prophets, Volume 1: Hosea-Micah (The College Press NIV Commentary), 345)
The Hebrew text has slightly different chapter divisions than do English translations. John D.W. Watts (b. 1921) affirms:
This verse is at the beginning of chapter 2 in the Hebrew Bible. That chapter division recognizes that it belongs more to what follows than to what has passed. (Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the Old Testament), 82)The large fish is the best known and most debated facet of the book that bears the prophet’s name. The creature is described alternatively as a “great fish” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, RSV), “huge fish” (HCSB, MSG, NIV), “big fish” (CEV) and “large fish” (NRSV). The common denominator is “fish”. Though not an impossibility, the text makes no reference to a whale. This common identification likely stems from the King James Version’s translation of Matthew 12:40.
The Hebrew word “fish” (dâg) is as broad as its English counterpart and can reference any aquatic creature (e.g., Genesis 9:2; Numbers 11:22; I Kings 4:33; Psalms 8:8).
James Limburg (b. 1935) elucidates:
What sort of “big fish” did the author have in mind here? The Greek translations have kētei megalō (kētous in Matthew 12:40) which may be translated “great sea monster,” while the Vulgate piscern grandem, “big fish.” The Hebrew “big fish” (the seventh of fourteen occurrences of gādôl, “big,” in the story) does not denote a specific species but leaves room for the imagination of the hearer or reader. (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 61)
Jack M. Sasson (b. 1941) expounds:
Some of the versions try to be more precise on the identity of this “large fish.” The LXX uses to to kētos, and it is recalled as such in Matthew 12:40, in Josephus [37-100], and in the Arabic version’s hût. In Greek literature, however, the kētos is an aquatic animal that, as we follow its attestations chronologically, exhibits a progressively larger size, changing from Homer [800-701 BCE]’s “seal” to Pliny [23-79]’s “whale.” It is a fact, moreover, that Scripture has preserved no specific names for the many types of salt- or sweet-water fish known to the eastern Mediterranean. This does not mean, of course, that the ancient Hebrews were not able to distinguish among the area’s wide varieties of fish; it simply suggests that no biblical context seems to require a specific vocabulary for fish. This observation holds true even in the listing of animals deemed suitable for sacrifice or consumption; Scripture merely distinguishes between fish with scales and gills (acceptable) or those without (unacceptable), making no judgment on any aquatic animal with no vertebrae (Leviticus 11:9; Deuteronomy 14:9). (Sasson, Jonah (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 149)The text is concerned with the creature’s size, not species. Sasson continues:
The text merely states that the fish was “large”...The adjective gādôl permits a play on the consonants it shares with dāg...but it also maintains an interest in aggrandizing objects (Nineveh and its evil, the wind, the storm, the sailors’ fear). For those who read Jonah on its most realistic level, the adjective “great” no doubt makes Jonah’s sojourn within the fish more plausible. It has to be said, however, that the miraculous in Jonah’s experience is also basic to the story...and a guppy would have perfectly suited (if not sharpened) this element. In fact, in another Jewish tale that features a “big fish” (and that, interestingly enough, has Nineveh among its settings), the size of the fish turns out not to be all that significant a feature. When a “huge fish...leaped out of the water and tried to swallow [Tobias’s] foot,’ only its internal organs proved useful: to ward off the attacks of evil demons and to cure blindness (Tobit 6:2). (Sasson, Jonah (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 149-50)There is even ambiguity regarding the fish’s gender. Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) relay:
Rashi [1040-1105] tells us that the fish is male. However, since Jonah is comfortable within, he does not think of praying while inside it, and God orders the fish to vomit him out. Subsequently, a pregnant female fish swallows Jonah. At this point, Jonah, crowded by all the fish eggs, is forced to pray. Rashi comes to this conclusion based on the word for “the fish” (hadag). In this verse, the word is masculine, so he reads it as “the male fish.” However, in the following verse, the author uses hagadah, a feminine form. Rashi thus reasons that there must be a second, female fish. (Kravitz and Olitzky, Jonah; A Modern Commentary, 23)W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. (b. 1967) investigates further:
The feminine form of fish, הדגה, has elicited considerable discussion, particularly given that the masculine form appears in Jonah 2:1 and Jonah 2:11. Although there are several Hebrew words that may be either masculine or feminine דג is not one of them. Wilhelm Gesenius [1786-1842] suggests that Jonah 2:2 is example of a nomen unitatis, or a singulative, in which one gender expresses the collective unit, while the other appears to indicate a single component within the unit...Although such a phenomenon appears in Jonah 1:3 with the use of אניה...it does not explain the irregularity in Jonah 2:2. Jack M. Sasson [b. 1941 suggests an alternative explanation. Sasson notes that in the Hebrew the singular form of a word can be used instead of its plural form, providing that the number (singular vs. plural) is not the main point of the text...A similar phenomenon occurs with masculine words supplanting feminine words. (Tucker, Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, 49)The great fish may hold meaning to the sailors who throw Jonah overboard (Jonah 1:15-16). John H. Walton (b. 1952) speculates:
In Canaanite beliefs there were various sea monsters who were associates of the sea god, Yamm, and sometimes even identified with him. If the sailors saw the fish, it is possible that they would have viewed it as a personification of the sea god. (Walton, The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 109)For Jonah, the fish may be the embodiment of his worst fears. Phillip Cary (b. 1958) internalizes:
The great fish is a cosmic version of an ancient nightmare, the great monster of the deep that represents chaos and destruction, the flooding and undoing of the world. I saw the origins of this nightmare once when I stood with a small child at the seashore and watched the waves roll in, and he was frightened because he did not see what could keep them from rolling on and on and swallowing him up. For all who can feel the roots of that child’s fear, the LORD God brings assurance and order to the world, saying to the sea: “Thus far you may come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11). The same setting of the boundaries to the sea is pictured on the third day of creation, when God separates land from water, making a place where human beings can dwell. After this, the first of the creatures that God makes to live and move under heaven are “the great sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). This is a reversal of the view of ancient Near Eastern mythology, which bases the ordering of the world on a primal battle between a god like Baal and the monsters of the watery chaos. God does not first slay the monster of the deep and then order the inhabited world, but first orders the world in peace, then creates great and marvelous things even in the deep. (Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 79)The text moves from tragedy to comedy as the nightmarish creature proves to be Jonah’s salvation. The great fish will serve as Jonah’s home for three days and nights (Jonah 1:17).
Marvin Alan Sweeney (b. 1953) investigates:
The notice that Jonah was in the “belly” (literally, “intestines”) of the fish for three days and three nights has prompted some discussion. It has been taken as a typical reference to a long period of time (cf. I Samuel 30:11-15), simply as an expression of the Hebrew fondness for the number three, or a mythological reference to the time it takes to descend to the netherworld. The span of time corresponds roughly to the “three days” it takes to walk across the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3), which would support the notion that it expresses a long period of time. It should be noted that a three-day journey expresses the length of time it takes to travel to YHWH’s presence for worship in the Exodus tradition (cf. Exodus 3:18, 5:3, 8, 23, 15:22). Insofar as Jonah expresses a desire to return to the presence of YHWH in the Temple, the reference to three days and nights in the belly of the fish also conveys the sense of separation from YHWH. (Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets; Volume 1 (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 316-17)Frank S. Page (b. 1952) wonders:
Why did God use this specific means of returning Jonah to his appropriate place of service? For some the purpose of the fish was solely allegorical. A.J. Glaze, Jr. states: “The literary apparatus rich in metaphors and poetic imagery indicates the broader purpose of the author, and the allusions are evident to the intended audience. The relationship to one of Jeremiah’s prophecies was clear: Israel, swallowed by Babylon, would be delivered.” In other words, the story had to present elements commensurate with the intended teaching lesson...More fitting of the context is the view that the fish provided time for instruction from the Lord. R.T. Kendall [b. 1935] says it well: “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.” (Billy K. Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (The New American Commentary), 240-41)The incredible aspects of the text have led many to believe that Jonah is an allegory at best or at worst, a fish story. This mode of thought has led to much inquiry as to the species that could sustain a human being for three days. There is an off cited urban legend of a James Bartley surviving fifteen hours inside of a whale off of the Falklands Islands in 1891. The vessel most commonly cited in connection to the incident, The Star of the East, did exist but was not a whaling ship. No ship’s log or testimony exists from the era.
Remarkably, Jonah emerges unscathed and resumes his mission (Jonah 2:10). Regardless of the species or size of the creature, divine intervention would be needed to endure gastric juices, the intestinal tract, etc. In short, Jonah experiences a miracle.
How would knowing the species of fish affect your interpretation of Jonah? Do you read Jonah literally or allegorically? Why? Would an allegorical reading diminish the text in any way? What are other incidences of God transforming tragedy into a comedy?
William P. Brown (b. 1958) asserts:
Whether a large fish—a whale is most likely what the author had in mind despite modern scientific distinction between marine mammals and fish—can actually swallow and sustain a person for three days is not an issue the author sets out to prove. Indeed, the incident itself is reported matter-of-factly. (Brown, Obadiah through Malachi (Westminster Bible Companion), 23)Excessive interest in the sea creature developed as science became more prevalent in the nineteenth century. James Bruckner (b. 1957) traces:
Popularized by Rev. Edward B. Pusey [1800-1882]’s 1860 commentary, this relatively recent tradition focuses on the size and species of the fish/whale, the size of the fish’s larynx and stomach, the availability of breathable air, and so on. In this view Jonah is a litmus test of one’s belief in science as a means of proving the veracity of the Bible. This approach limits the message of Jonah to two verses [Jonah 1:17, 2:10] and a specific nineteenth-century view of reality...Preoccupation with the big fish...has had both a positive and negative effect on the interpretation of Jonah in communities of faith. Positively, the great fish has kindled imagination and interest in Jonah as a book. Negatively, however, the great fish has so dominated this interpretation that the discussion of the book has been limited to this question: “Was Jonah really swallowed bu the whale?” This question has served as a distraction from God’s Word. (Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (The NIV Application Commentary), 21)Thomas John Carlisle (1913-1992) fell into the trap of focusing on the fish. He confesses, “I was so obsessed with what was going on inside the whale that I missed seeing the drama inside Jonah (Carlisle, You! Jonah!, 21).”
Chasing the “whale” defeats the purpose of the text. T. Desmond Alexander (b. 1955) reminds:
The story of Jonah being swallowed by a ‘whale’ has undoubtedly fascinated generations of children. Recounted by narrators eager to capture youthful imaginations, it provides all the elements necessary for a truly gripping story. Unfortunately, however, childhood memories can colour call too easily our perception of the book. The original narrative says practically nothing about the great fish; its existence is noted in only three verses [Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10]. (David W. Baker [b. 1950], Alexander & Bruce Waltke [b. 1930], Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 47)Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) concurs:
Certainly it is futile to argue over whether such a thing would be possible. The author is telling us a story in order to say some very important things about God, and all arguments over the fish tend to divert our attention from the main points being made. The important fact is that Jonah, despite his disobedience, inability to pray and acceptance of his just sentence of death, has been saved from a watery grave by the totally undeserved grace of God. (Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I (New International Biblical Commentary), 268)Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) refocuses:
The subject of the first sentence is not the great fish, but the Lord. The point the author wants to make is that God provided a way of delivering Jonah. The salient thing is God’s intervention to save Jonah and reconscript him with the original call to go to Nineveh. This point is often lost in the volumes of scholarship on the Book of Jonah. (Ogilvie, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Communicator’s Commentary: Mastering the Old Testament), 410)The verb connected with God in this verse is mânâh, translated variously as “appointed” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, RSV), “prepared” (ASV, KJV, NKJV), “provided” (NIV, NRSV), “arranged” (NLT), “assigned” (MSG) and “sent” (CEV).
Frank S. Page (b. 1952) interprets:
This gives the perception that God created a special creature for the specific purpose of rescuing Jonah and providing a place for his training in humility and submission. But an accurate translation would be “ordained” or “appointed.” The word is used four times in the Book of Jonah and always points to the Lord’s power to accomplish his will. Here it shows his sovereignty over the creatures of the sea; in Jonah 4:6 it shows his power over plants; in Jonah 4:7 it shows his power over crawling creatures; and in Jonah 4:8 it shows his power over the wind. While God may have prepared a special “fish” for Jonah, the text only indicates that God summoned the fish, common or special, to be at that place at the exact moment of need. (Billy K. Smith and Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (The New American Commentary), 239-40)Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) adds:
The wording of the first sentence is precise. Yahweh is in control; the fish simply does what it is told...The verb נהמ piel “designate; specify; appoint” does not imply that God had long in advance created a special type of fish or modified an existing one so that it could keep a person alive for seventy-two hours (cf. Robert Dick Wilson [1856-1930], Princeton Theological Review 16  645-54). The story does not specify what kind of fish it was, how Jonah could have lived inside it, or the answers to any other such queries. Yahweh can easily toss the wind around to make a storm when he wants to. Miraculously rescuing someone from drowning via a fish is no great feat, either. But it is not, also a feat to be described analytically. The numerous attempts made in the past to identify the sort of fish the could have kept Jonah alive in it are misguided. How would even Jonah himself have known? Can we assume that he caught a glimpse of it as it turned back to sea after vomiting to shore?...How could he have understood what had happened to him when he was swallowed? These questions have no answer. To ask them is to ignore the way the story is told. What sorts of fish people can live inside is not an interest of the scripture. (Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (Word Biblical Commentary), 474)The use of the word “appoint” not only underscores God’s role in the scene but, in context, downplays the fish’s. John H. Walton (b. 1952) laments:
In a way, it is a shame that this most familiar part of the book has attracted so much attention, for such attention detracts from the purpose and message of the book. The use of the verb “provided” suggests the role of the fish should be viewed no differently from that of the sprouting vine (Jonah 4:6), the action of the parasite that devours the vine (Jonah 4:7), and the east wind that torments Jonah (Jonah 4:8)—for they are all similarly “provided” by God. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Daniel-Malachi (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 474)The fish serves as a plot device. It is arguably not even most important animal in the book (Jonah 4:7). To focus on the fish and not the God who sent it is to major on the minor.
In the belly of the creature, Jonah hits rock bottom. And yet God retains the ability to rescue the prophet. This is the text’s emphasis.
Symbolically, Jonah is raised from the dead. This is how Jesus uses the story (Matthew 12:38-40). Later Christians followed suit.
Edmund Leach (1910-1989) documents:
This was a very early and very common Christian “type” for Christ’s resurrection and for the promise of future resurrection for mankind. It was frequently used as a decoration for elaborate Roman Christian sarcophagi (see Matthew 12:40). (Robert Alter [b. 1935] and Frank Kermode [1919-2010], The Literary Guide to the Bible, 597)Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) encapsulates:
The gracious gift of God is life. He does not abandon his servant to death, but snatches from its clutches the drowning man. To the thrill of the hearers the key figure is saved at the last moment from a seemingly inescapable plight. Yahweh mounts a special rescue operation: an enormous fish plays the astounding part of a submarine to pick up Jonah from the murky seaweed at the bottom of the ocean and transport him safely to the mainland. The fish stands for the amazing grace of Yahweh, which came down to where he was and lifted him to new life. (Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 213)Jonah’s descent in the great fish is a reminder that we can hit no bottom so low, not even death, from which God cannot raise us. The Christian always has hope.
Does the fish serve primarily as shelter or punishment? When else have Christians majored on the minor? When have you hit bottom? When you did, what sustained you?
“The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom. You’re never beaten until you admit it.” - General George S. Patton (1885-1945)