The book of Jonah recounts the story of a disobedient prophet who, upon being swallowed by a whale (or a “great fish”) and vomited upon the shore, reluctantly led the reprobate city of Nineveh to repentance. The Bible’s plain teaching is that, yes, Jonah was truly swallowed by a whale (or a great fish).
The biblical account of Jonah is often criticized by skeptics because of its miraculous content. These miracles include the following events:
• A storm is summoned and dissipated by God (1:4–16).
• A massive fish swallows the prophet after he is thrown into the sea by his ship’s crew (1:17).
• Jonah survives in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights—or he dies and is resurrected, depending on how you interpret the text (1:17).
• The fish vomits Jonah upon the shore at God’s command (2:10).
• A gourd is appointed by God to grow rapidly in order to provide Jonah with shade (4:6).
• A worm is appointed by God to attack and wither the gourd (4:7).
• A scorching wind is summoned by God to discomfort Jonah (4:8).
God’s use of a whale or great fish as Jonah’s mode of transportation was sure to capture Nineveh’s attention, given the prominence of Dagon worship in that particular area of the ancient world. Dagon was a fish-god who enjoyed popularity among the pantheons of Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean coast. He is mentioned several times in the Bible in relation to the Philistines (Judges 16:23–24; 1 Samuel 5:1–7; 1 Chronicles 10:8–12). Images of Dagon have been found in palaces and temples in Nineveh and throughout the region. In some cases he was represented as a man wearing a fish. In others he was part man, part fish—a merman, of sorts.
Orientalist Henry Clay Trumbull observes: “What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very centre of worship” (“Jonah in Nineveh,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 2, No.1, 1892, p. 56).
Some scholars have speculated that Jonah’s appearance, bleached white from the action of the fish’s digestive acids, would have been of great help to his cause. It could be that the Ninevites would have been greeted by a man whose skin, hair, and clothes were bleached ghostly white—a man accompanied by a crowd of frenetic followers, many who had witnessed him being vomited upon the shore by a great fish. Given the piscine nature of Jonah’s arrival, Nineveh’s repentance follows from a logical progression.
Apart from the Bible, there is no conclusive historical proof that Jonah was ever swallowed by a fish and lived to tell about it; however, there is some provocative corroboratory evidence. In the third century BC, a Babylonian priest/historian named Berosus wrote of a mythical creature named Oannes who, according to Berosus, emerged from the sea to give divine wisdom to men. Scholars generally identify this mysterious fish-man as an avatar of the Babylonian water-god Ea (also known as Enki). The curious thing about Berosus’ account is the name he used: Oannes.
Berosus wrote in Greek during the Hellenistic Period. Oannes is just a single letter removed from the Greek name Ioannes, which happens to be used in the Greek New Testament for Jonah. As for the I being dropped from Ioannes, Professor Trumbull writes, “In the Assyrian inscriptions the J of foreign words becomes I, or disappears altogether; hence Joannes, as the Greek representative of Jona, would appear in Assyrian either as Ioannes or as Oannes” (ibid., p. 58).
Nineveh was an Assyrian city. What this essentially means is that Berosus wrote of a fish-man named Jonah who emerged from the sea to give divine wisdom to man—a remarkable corroboration of the Hebrew account.
Berosus claimed to have relied upon official Babylonian sources for his information. Nineveh was conquered by the Babylonians under King Nabopolassar in 612 BC, more than 300 years before Berosus. It is quite conceivable that record of Jonah’s success in Nineveh was preserved in the writings available to Berosus. If so, it appears that Jonah was deified and mythologized over a period of three centuries, first by the Assyrians, who no doubt associated him with their fish-god, Dagon, and then by the Babylonians, who appear to have hybridized him with their own water-god, Ea.
Jonah was not an imaginary figure invented to play the part of a disobedient prophet, swallowed by a fish. He was part of Israel’s prophetic history. Jonah appears in the chronicles of Israel as the prophet who predicted Jeroboam II’s military successes against Syria (2 Kings 14:25). He is said to be the son of Amittai (cf. Jonah 1:1) from the town of Gath-hepher in lower Galilee. Flavius Josephus reiterates these details in his Antiquities of the Jews (chapter 10, paragraph 2).
The city of Nineveh was rediscovered after more than 2,500 years of obscurity. It is now believed to have been the largest city in the world at the time of its demise (see Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census). According to Sir Austen Henry Layard, who chronicled the rediscovery of Nineveh, the circumference of Greater Nineveh was “exactly three days’ journey,” as recorded in Jonah 3:3 (A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, New York: J. C. Derby, 1854, p. 314). Prior to its rediscovery, skeptics scoffed at the possibility that so large a city could have existed in the ancient world. In fact, some skeptics denied the existence of Nineveh altogether. Its rediscovery in the mid-1800s proved to be a remarkable vindication for the Bible, which mentions Nineveh by name eighteen times and dedicates two entire books (Jonah and Nahum) to its fate.
It is interesting to note where the lost city of Nineveh was rediscovered. It was found buried beneath a pair of tells in the vicinity of Mosul in modern-day Iraq. These mounds are known by their local names, Kuyunjik and Nabi Yunus. Nabi Yunus happens to be Arabic for “the prophet Jonah.”
As for the whale or great fish that swallowed Jonah, the Bible doesn’t specify what sort of marine animal it was. The Hebrew phrase used in the Old Testament, gadowl dag, literally means “great fish.” The Greek used in the New Testament is këtos, which simply means “sea creature.” There are at least two species of Mediterranean marine life that are able to swallow a man whole. These are the cachalot (also known as the sperm whale) and the white shark. Both creatures are known to prowl the Mediterranean and have been known to sailors since antiquity. Aristotle described both species in his fourth-century-BC Historia Animalium.
Skeptics scoff at the miracles described in the book of Jonah as if there were no mechanism by which such events could occur. That is their bias. We are inclined, however, to believe that there is One who is capable of manipulating natural phenomena in such supernatural ways. We believe that He is the Creator of the natural realm and is not, therefore, circumscribed by it. We believe God sent Jonah to Nineveh to bring about their repentance and that, in the process, Jonah was swallowed by a whale or great fish.
Jesus spoke of Jonah’s ordeal as a real historical event. He used it as a typological metaphor for His own crucifixion and resurrection: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:40–41.
The evidence is such that any Christian should have confidence to believe that Jonah was truly swallowed by a whale, and any skeptic should think twice before dismissing the story of Jonah as a fairy tale.