The 2001 Commentaries

Was Jonah swallowed by a ‘Whale’ or a ‘Large Fish?’

info This commentary was written by a volunteer for our Bible translation project. It’s not an official view of our project; we are not a religious denomination and we do not establish doctrine. These commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other.

Bible scholars have labored over the answer to the question of just what type of animal it was that swallowed Jonah. While it would seem logical that Jonah could have survived inside an air-breathing whale, many say that the word used in this account refers to a cold-blooded fish. So, some have concluded that he was in the belly of a large shark or a jewfish – which could be true.

However, the word that the Greek Septuagint uses for this animal is ketos (pronounced keh-tose), which simply means a creature that lives in the water.

The problem with modern people is that we view all things by how we were taught in school – with modern scientific classification. Today we classify whales and dolphins as mammals, and not fish.

Thus the dilemma.

However, in ancient languages, animal types weren’t classified the same way as they are today. Although modern biologists have adopted some ancient words to categorize them, almost all animals were grouped into five divisions back then. They were:

1. Clean animals

2. Wild animals (game)

3. Flying creatures

4. Creeping or crawling creatures

5. Creatures that live in water

Do you see how there was no word for mammal in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek? Therefore, the argument over whether the Bible says that a whale or a shark swallowed Jonah, is based on an ignorance of history.

We don’t know whether whales live in the Mediterranean Sea back then, or if it’s even possible for one to have swallowed a man. Yet after he was swallowed, Jonah mentions being in a place where he was surrounded by water, and that the water was sloshing. This doesn’t appear to describe the conditions inside the belly of a fish or a shark, although God certainly could have miraculously provided such a place. So the answer is, we don’t know.

Is the story of Jonah fact or fiction?

It appears to be fact, since Jesus is recorded as saying at Matthew 12:39, 40:

‘A wicked and adulterous generation [is always] looking for signs.
However, they won’t receive one other than the sign of Jonah the Prophet.
For as Jonah was in the sea creature’s belly for three days and three nights;
The Son of Man will be in the heart of the ground for three days and three nights.’

Therefore, the question should be: do we really believe in Jesus?


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