Could the story of Jonah have really happened?

Copyright © 2006
by Tim Roach

to Index

When it comes to the bible there is always a debate as to could sections of it have happened the way it is written?

For example let us talk about the story of Jonah and the Whale. Most of us have heard the story and there is a lot of debate as to could it have even physically happened.

Some people say that we should not try to explain the bible or try to figure out how things happen but take it purely on faith and maybe sometimes that is true. Ultimately I do agree that it is impossible to know exactly how God did anything for no matter how much knowledge we have, we can never match that of our creator. And it is definitely impossible for us to have the wisdom that our creator possesses.

However at the same time He made us curious with a desire to know how things work and how things might have been done. However it is also important to remember that just because we do not understand fully how something was done does not mean it did not happen or does not exist.

To me there is no doubt that everything that was stated as having physically happened in the bible really did take place. Though knowing exactly how many of the things happened we will probably never really know until we get to Heaven and can ask one of the Angels or Our Creator (if He is not to busy) how everything was really done.

For me however, I like to look at things and see if I can figure out the mystery. For instance with the story of Jonah can we figure out how it might have happened or even if it could have happened?

Let us start at the beginning of Jonah. Jonah 1 : 1 - 3 with the who, what & where:

Jonah Chapter 1:(1-3)
Jon 1:1 Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Jon 1:2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
Jon 1:3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

Did the people and locations exist?

map.jpg - 27327 Bytes

Lived probably somewhere between 800BC - 750BC.
He was a prophet of Israel reasonably well known throughout the area.

Nineveh (nin'e'-ve):
Capitol of the capital of the ancient kingdom and empire of Assyria (a-s'r'e-ah).
First mentioned in Gen: 10:11-12
Assyria was an aggressive and large country.
During the time of Jonah they had become very aggressive with expanding their territory.

Tar shish (tar-shish):
One of the western most seaport cities of that day. Most likely located near modern day Gibraltar. I say most likely because, while there are several references to the city being located in southern Spain and some ruins of old cities in the area. The 'scholars' are still debating which location it actually was. To the best of my knowledge, no definitive proof indicating which is the correct location has been found (at this time).
In those days it was just about as far from Israel a one could get by boat.

Joppa is one of the oldest towns/cities in Asia. It was and still is a primary seaport of the area.

Now that we know all the places existed. This leads to the next question of why would a profit have so much hate and so openly be willing to disobey what God told him to do?

To me this actually makes since that Jonah would react as he did.

Very often when reading the Bible we tend to forget that the people being written about were exactly that PEOPLE. People with all the same feelings and emotions that we have. Not simply two dimensional emotionless characters which have no free will, thought or feelings.

As we already said Nineveh was aggressive and expanding. Thus a lot of people had lost land, friends, and family because of the Assyrians. Most likely that included Jonah. Not that any war is ever clean, but in those days it was often up close and very personal. Remember in those days people used swords, spears, hand to hand combat, and when an army was attacking it rarely made any difference if the people they were killing were military or civilian. Of course any war is ugly but even more so when you have direct contact with the people trying to kill you.

Personally I think of the dilemma Jonah had this way, a group of people come into your home, tortured and killed several members of your family and friends, then burns down your home. Shortly after all that happened . . . you are told to go tell the very people that destroyed and stole your property, the people that attacked and killed your friends and family . . . you are told to go tell those very same people to repent. Can you really even imagine having to tell the people that did such a thing and still aggressively attacking others in your land/country to repent so that THEY will not be destroyed?

If you have never had someone actively attempting to shorten your life . . . If you have never had someone that was often being cruel to you simply for the sake of being cruel . . . it is impossible to truly understand just how difficult it is to forgive such a person, how long it takes and all the psychological stages we must go through in order to be able to truly forgive someone that has done such things to us.

There are a lot of psychological aspects of Jonah's actions and many levels about his attitudes towards the people of Nineveh that we could talk about but let's save that for another time. However, for the short version (strictly my opinion) if Jonah had not had the level of contempt in him that he did, if it had not been obvious that he was, for all practical purposes, dragged to Nineveh and forced to tell them to repent. I don't think anyone in Nineveh would have listened to him. But we can discuss that in another section.

Let's move on to how Jonah ended up in the water.

Jonah Chapter 1:(4-17)
Jon 1:4 But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was in danger of being broken.
Jon 1:5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man to his god, and cast the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah had gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
Jon 1:6 So the ship-master came to him, and said to him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, it may be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
Jon 1:7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
Jon 1:8 Then said they to him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thy occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?
Jon 1:9 And he said to them, I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who hath made the sea and the dry land.
Jon 1:10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said to him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
Jon 1:11 Then said they to him, What shall we do to thee, that the sea may be calm to us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
Jon 1:12 And he said to them, Take me, and cast me into the sea; so shall the sea be calm to you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
Jon 1:13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
Jon 1:14 Wherefore they cried to the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.
Jon 1:15 So they took Jonah, and cast him into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
Jon 1:16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD, and made vows.
Jon 1:17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The first thing most people point out is that the Old Testament says great fish Jon 1:17

Yet in Matthew 12:40 Jesus says that Jonah was in the whale's belly.

Mat 12:40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

At first this seems like a major contradiction, as obviously a whale is not a fish by today's terms.

However keep in mind that in those days all the sciences and zoology classifications that we have today did not exist. Thus when talking to the people of that time there was a very simple break down of animal classifications if it flew it was a bird, if it lived in the water it was a fish.

As the various sciences progressed people started better classifying and reorganizing classifications of everything on the planet. In the 19 th century the whale was often called a Whale-Fish. Even today as we learn more about various species science researchers are constantly re-classifying species attempting to make the classifications more accurate.

For instance Colin Groves, a professor of biological anthropology at the Australian National University as quoted by the Daily Telegraph of London (May 2005) while talking about the large increase in the number of primate classifications (just one tiny area of the planet's animal population): "...even without all the new discoveries that have happened over the past 15 or 20 years, the number of recognized species of primates probably has increased by about a third (33%) over that time - simply because of reclassification. ..."

However there are most likely even simpler explanations as to the differences.

One simple explanation could be a translation error when the original text was translated to English.

However another more likely explanation could be:

In the days the book of Jonah was written many of the people that the story was being told lived inland and had never seen a whale. Plus keeping in mind that most of the boats in those days did as much sinking as they did floating even people that lived on the coast probably did not go out to sea unless they absolutely had to. Thus perhaps had never seen a whale.

So I pose the question, how would you describe a whale to someone that has never seen one? The simplest description that many people use, even today, that it looks like a really big fish.

However, an even simpler explanation, picture yourself being in Jonah's position you are in the water, wind, rain, waves everywhere when suddenly something comes up from under you and swallows you whole. Assuming for the sake of argument, that it could happen, and you did live to tell the story later, what would you call the thing that swallowed you? Since you probably would not have seen what swallowed you, one second your in the water struggling to stay afloat, the next your inside some big critter.

So when someone asks, "What swallowed you?"

I suspect most of us would say: "I don't know. Some kind of big fish. What ever it was it was big."

Why then would Jesus call it a whale and not a fish? When Jesus made the statement there were two main differences:

1. Jesus had/has a "little" more insight to the event and knew/knows exactly what swallowed Jonah.
2. The people Jesus was talking to, most likely would know what a whale is by the name. Which means He would not need to explain the term whale.

This brings us to what could have actually swallowed Jonah?

Basically from the Bible we know we are looking for some kind of very large creature that lives in the ocean AND can also be found in the Mediterranean Sea.

At this time the four largest creatures known to exist in the sea are the blue whale, the sperm whale, the whale shark, and the basking shark.

So that we can have an idea of each animal's size the images below are as close as I could get to being in proper scale proportions.

The Boeing 737-600 at the bottom and the diver in the middle of the image are included (in proper scale also) to put the sizes into prospective so we can get an idea of just how big these animals really are.

compairsize.jpg - 56761 Bytes

We have four very large animals that are possible candidates. Now we need to know where each is commonly found.

The Basking Shark
generally lives in cooler coastal waters around the planet. While found in The Mediterranean Sea, it generally doesn't travel much past Greece so while a possible candidate lets keep looking to see if we can find a better match.

basking.gif - 3971 Bytes

The Whale Shark
inhabits the warm oceans waters and seas of the planet. While it inhabits up to the Gibraltar Straight it generally does not venture into The Mediterranean Sea. Thus we can eliminate the whale shark as being a possible candidate.

whaleshark.gif - 3753 Bytes

The Sperm whale
in habits all but the very cold polar seas. Though not often near the coasts it does travel into all areas of The Mediterranean Sea this is a possible candidate to consider.

spermwhale.gif - 3723 Bytes

The Blue Whale
is also a very good candidate much like the Sperm Whale it travels though all areas of ocean except the very cold polar waters during winter.

bluewhale.gif - 3700 Bytes

At this point our two most likely candidates are The Blue Whale and The Sperm Whale.

So let us check the anatomy and feeding habits of these creatures.

Starting with the Blue Whale, the largest of all known living animals.

Blue Whale

Blue whales grow to be average about 80 feet (25 m) long, weighing about 120 tons (109 tonnes). The larger ones being about 100 feet (29 m) long weighing more 174 tons (158 tonnes). As with all baleen whales, the females are larger than males. The larger of the blue whales (150 tons) has a heart that weighs about 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and has 14,000 pounds (6,400 kg) of blood circulating in its body. The heart is about the size of a Volkswagen "bug" car. A human could crawl through the aorta (a major blood vessel).
Blue whales (like all baleen whales) are seasonal feeders and carnivores that filter feed tiny crustaceans (krill, copepods, etc.), plankton, and small fish from the water. They are gulpers, filter feeders that alternatively swim then gulp a mouthful of plankton or fish - they lunge into dense groups of small sea organisms (krill or tiny fish) with an open mouth. 50 to 70 throat pleats allow the throat to expand a great deal, forming a gular pouch. The water is then forced through the baleen plates hanging from the upper jaw. The baleen catches the food, acting like a sieve. The blue whale has about 320 pairs of black baleen plates with dark gray bristles in the blue whale's jaws. They are about 39 inches long (1 m), 21 inches wide (53 cm), and weigh 200 pounds (90 kg). The tongue weighs 4 tons (3.8 tonnes). An average-sized blue whale will eat 2,000-9,000 pounds (900-4100 kg) of plankton each day during the summer feeding season in cold, arctic waters (about 120 days).

Unfortunately because the Blue Whale is a baleen whale and eats only things that are fairly small and its esophagus is a little under a foot in width (about 10in. or 25.4cm). As a result all the people that say the largest animal in the sea could not have swallowed Jonah are correct. It could not have. Thus the Blue Whale is eliminated from the list of possible candidates.

So let us move on to the second largest the Sperm Whale.

The sperm whale was named for the valuable spermaceti oil (wax) that this whale produces in the spermaceti organ (located in its head).
The sperm whale is a toothed whale that lives in pods. It has a huge brain that weighs about 20 pounds (9 kg); it is the largest brain of any animal. The sperm whale has a single blowhole that is s-shaped and about 20 inches long. The blowhole is located on the left side of the front if its huge head. The sperm whale has a 4-12 inch thick layer of blubber.
Sperm whales produce ambergris, a dark, waxy substance (related to cholesterol) that is produced in the lower intestines, and is sometimes found containing squid beaks. Ambergris may help protect the sperm whale from the stings on the giant squid, its major food. Large lumps of ambergris may be regurgitated by the sperm whale.
The skin is usually dark gray to black, but is occasionally light gray. It has a distinctive, prune-like texture. Sperm whales have the largest head of any animal. It can be about 20 feet long (6 m), 10 feet high (3 m), and 7 feet (2.1 m) across, and is about one-third of the whale's body length. The head has a distinctive box-like shape. The heads are frequently covered with circular scars that are made by the suckers of the giant squid that they hunt and eat. It has 5-foot (1.5 m) long flippers that are about 3 feet (0.9 m) wide. There is no dorsal fin but there is a small hump two-thirds of the way down its back. There are also some ridges between the hump and the tail flukes.
Sperm whales are carnivores that mostly eat giant squid that live on the ocean bottom at great depths. They also eat fish, octopus, and skate. An adult Sperm Whale can eat about a ton of food each day.
Sperm whale teeth are uniform. The teeth in the upper jaw never erupt. The teeth in the long, thin lower jaw are conical and huge, about 7 inches (18 cm) long. These teeth weigh about 2 pounds (900 g) each. The lower jaw is about 16 feet (5 m) long and has about 50-60 teeth in it. When the whale's mouth is closed, the teeth fit into sockets in the upper jaw. Though large the teeth are designed for holding food and not chewing as the whale usually swallows its food whole or with the larger prey mostly whole.

Just how big are the things the Sperm Whale eats?

The Octopus:
The word octopus means "eight feet." Octopuses are solitary, eight-armed animals that live on the ocean floor. There are over 100 different species of octopuses. The Giant Octopus is the biggest octopus. This huge mollusk is up to 23 ft (7 m) from arm tip to arm tip, weighing up to 400 pounds (182 kg). The smallest is the Californian octopus, which is only 3/8 inch (1 cm) long.
An octopus has a soft body and eight arms. Each arm has two rows of suction cups. If it loses an arm, it will eventually regrow another arm. It has blue blood. An octopus has an eye on each side of its head and has very good eyesight. An octopus cannot hear.
Octopuses eat small crabs and scallops, plus some snails, fish, turtles, crustaceans (like shrimp), and other octopuses. They catch prey with their arms, then kill it by biting it with their tough beak, paralyzing the prey with a nerve poison, and softening the flesh. They then suck out the flesh. Octopuses hunt mostly at night. Only the Australian Blue-ringed octopus has a poison strong enough to kill a person.
Giant Squid
The Giant Squid (Architeuthis) is one of the largest squids an invertebrate, (animal without a backbone). It swims the oceans at great depths.

These soft-bodied cephalopods are fast-moving carnivores that catch prey with their tentacles, then poison it with a bite from beak-like jaws. They move by squirting water from the mantle through the siphon, a type of jet propulsion. The Giant Squid's only known enemy is the sperm whale, who hunts it deep in the ocean.
The largest-known Architeuthis was 66 feet long. Weighing up to 2 tonnes. They have eight arms, two longer feeding tentacles, a beak, a large head, and two eyes, each the size of a basketball. They breathe using gills.
Giant squid are fast-moving carnivores (meat-eaters) that catch prey (probably large marine creatures) with their two feeding tentacles, then hold the prey with the eight arms and bite it into small pieces using a parrot-like beak. The esophagus runs through the brain, so the food must be in small pieces before swallowing.

While I found several documents listing contents found in Sperm Whale stomachs I did not find anyone giving an average size of the Sperm Whale's stomach. So my next statement will be an estimated deduction. From the size of known contents found in The Sperm Whale. This would make the size of a Sperm Whale stomach at least 10'x10'x10' (most likely larger) or about the size of a small room.

The Sperm Whale is looking like a very promising candidate to be the creature that Swallowed Jonah.

At this point with the Sperm Whale we have an animal that is:

But what about the stomach of the whale surly the stomach acids would have dissolved Jonah?

Let us take a look at a whales Stomach.

Stomach of whales:
Much like a cow's stomach the whale's stomach is multi chambered.

These chambers are as follows: non-glandular fore stomach, glandular fundic chamber, connecting chamber and pyloric chamber. Some groups combine the last two chambers thus saying the whale only has a three-chamber stomach. Other groups claim that the first chamber is really part of the esophagus. Personally, I will leave that debate for others. (Ultimately however they all agree that the whale's stomach does have multiple chambers.)
We are concerned with the first two chambers.
The first chamber in all whales is a dilatable, sac-like, extension of the esophagus with no digestive glands. This is the compartment that "chews" the food ' much like the gizzard does in birds. In baleen whales, the first compartment is quite small (little need to "chew" since their prey is so small), while in toothed whales the compartment is relatively large.

The second chamber is where digestive juices are released -- pepsin and hydrochloric acid have been found in this part of the stomach of some whales.

This seems to solve the acid problem that most people point out. As there is no acid produced in the first chamber. Thus the only acid Jonah would have been exposed to would be relatively small amounts (gases mostly I would suspect) from the second chamber.

Thus the sperm whale seems to be the most likely candidate.

With the Sperm whale we have:

The only thing left is how did Jonah breathe in the stomach. I have to admit probably not comfortably or very well. Unfortunately this is the spot where a little faith and a no proof assumption must to come into play.

Jonah 1:17 says in part:
Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. . . .

The LORD prepared a great fish. How it was prepared is not stated. However, if we assume that the animal was made sick. Then we can also assume that the animal would not be digesting food properly and likely 'gasping' at the surface thus getting air into the stomach. The 'gasping', breaking the surface with its mouth open, is very important because air is not be taken into the stomach via a whales normal airways.

Though it is a matter of faith as to if the events really happened or if the book of Jonah is just a story.

And I will even grant you that it is not likely for a sick whale to be just the right spot at just the right time.

The story does however seem, to me at least, to be at least hypothetically possible.

to Index

Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Allen Roach All Rights Reserved.
No part of this document may be reproduced, published, etc.,
without written permission from the author.
Updates: 2006, 2007, 2008,2011,2017
Page Last Updated: 9/22/2017