This painting by Jan Bruegel the Elder depicts Jonah and a big fish.

This painting by Jan Bruegel the Elder depicts Jonah and a big fish.

A museum worker vacuums the 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This is one of the largest types of whales, but it mostly eats tiny krill. (AP/Richard Drew)

A museum worker vacuums the 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This is one of the largest types of whales, but it mostly eats tiny krill. (AP/Richard Drew)

A photographer takes pictures of a tube of krill, the primary food source of blue whales along the California coast. (AP/Chris Carlson)

A photographer takes pictures of a tube of krill, the primary food source of blue whales along the California coast. (AP/Chris Carlson)

The black swallower can gulp down fish bigger than itself. (Oceanic Ichthyology by G. Brown Goode and Tarleton H. Bean, 1896)

The black swallower can gulp down fish bigger than itself. (Oceanic Ichthyology by G. Brown Goode and Tarleton H. Bean, 1896)

Inquisitive kids get a visual Bible lesson at Storyland in Neptune, New Jersey, on July 1, 1955. But it turns out the creature that swallowed Jonah probably wasn’t a whale. (AP/Bob Wands)

Inquisitive kids get a visual Bible lesson at Storyland in Neptune, New Jersey, on July 1, 1955. But it turns out the creature that swallowed Jonah probably wasn’t a whale. (AP/Bob Wands)

Jonah and the …?

Posted: May 1, 2021

Did Jonah end up in the belly of a whale? Or was it a big fish? Look closely at the Bible’s text for clues. Jonah 1:17 says, “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” The word is translated “fish,” not “whale.”

But modern retellings often change the term. Some say that’s due to science. Maybe people didn’t know the difference between fish and cetaceans back then, they say. Maybe the word used could apply to all big, swimming, finny creatures in the sea. Maybe . . .

 We do know that the creature swallowed Jonah whole. That means that it had to have been huge! Maybe that’s why so many Bible story illustrators draw pictures of a whale for the Jonah story. We aren’t used to thinking of fish being quite THAT big!

But let’s look closer. Could it have been a whale?

Even though they are enormous, whales mostly scoop up krill as they swim and feed. Krill are tiny, shrimp-like animals. Sometimes whales also eat herring, squid, and anchovies. If a whale decides to gulp something that is too big to be swallowed whole, it will first shake the prey apart into smaller pieces. That didn’t happen to Jonah! That’s more evidence that Jonah really was slurped up by a fish—not a whale.

Sharks are fish, and some can grow really, really big! Unlike whales, sharks can swallow seals or big chunks of meat whole. God also created other fish with large throats and stomachs. The fish called the “black swallower” is one of those. There are no known supersized varieties of the black swallower—the average is only about 10 inches long. But it can swallow other fish much bigger than itself! Perhaps Jonah’s fish was a different variety with a similar ability.

The Bible says that the fish swallowed Jonah in the Mediterranean Sea. Several whales, large fish, great white sharks, and dolphins call the Mediterranean home.

What we know about whales and fish helps us to understand the story’s events. But what matters even more is that God used the marine animal to get Jonah’s attention. And it worked!

Jonah had a hard heart. He ran from God. But after the fish saved him from drowning, Jonah chose to obey. He took God’s message to Nineveh. Jonah 3:5 says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” God uses ALL of creation (even big fish) to accomplish His purpose.