Jonah and the Whale Story (Jonah 1)

Was He Actually Swallowed By a Whale?

There seems to be some controversy surrounding whether or not Jonah was swallowed by an actual whale. There are excellent commentaries that present an in-depth study on the subject of the fish of Jonah as referred to in Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40.

Dr. Harold Willmington makes the following comments regarding Jonah 1:13-17 in his book entitled, WILLMINGTON’S GUIDE TO THE BIBLE, p. 173, at section C, heading D-3: “Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish, which God had previously arranged for …”

Can a Man Survive Being Swallowed by a Whale?


The question is often asked as to whether a whale could actually swallow a man. In the first place, it should be pointed out that nowhere in the original Old Testament or New Testament language does it say a whale swallowed Jonah. The word “whale” does not even appear in the King James Version in the book of Jonah. The Hebrew word for fish is “dag,” and refers to a great sea monster.

In Matthew 12:40 the word translated “whale” by the King James Version is the Greek word ketos, which again refers to a sea monster. In the second place, God could have used a whale, had he chosen to.” Dr. Willmington goes on to quote from Dr. Gleason Archer’s book entitled, A SURVEY OF OLD TESTAMENT INTRODUCTION, p. 302, as follows:

“Numerous cases have been reported in more recent times of men who have survived the ordeal of being swallowed by a whale. The PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW (Oct. 1927) tells of two incidents, one in 1758 and the other in 1771, in which a man was swallowed by a whale and vomited up shortly thereafter with only minor injuries.”

In LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Volume 1, pp. 1726, 1727, the following explanation of Jonah 1:17 is presented: “The Lord had prepared a great fish. Jewish tradition felt that the word ‘prepared’ (Hebrew manah) meant that God created this particular fish at creation and kept it in reserve until the day of Jonah when it fulfilled its particular mission. As it occurs in the text, the word means ‘to appoint, ordain, prepare, or order.’ The idea is one of commission rather than creation.

The fish then was not one that was created specially for a task, but rather was one already in existence and commissioned for a specific mission, the preservation of God’s prophet … The question has frequently been raised as to what kind of a fish this was. The Hebrew text merely says that it was a ‘great fish’ (Hebrew dag gadol). Jesus, in referring to this incident, says that it was, a sea monster (Greek ketos, Matthew 12-.40)….

The fish has commonly been thought of as being a whale. Some men have pointed out that a whale’s physical structure would not permit the swallowing of a man, though one sea captain testifies that the cavity in the throat of the sperm whale is large enough to hold a ship’s jolly-boat full of men.

Other commentators have suggested that the fish was a dogfish, which has a stomach so large that once the body of a man in armor was found in it. Still others suggest that the fish was a shark, some of which grow to a weight of 10,000 pounds and to a length of 30 to 40 feet, and in whose stomachs full-grown horses have been found.”

Matthew Henry

In the Matthew Henry COMMENTARY ON THE WHOLE BIBLE, Volume 4, page 1286, the following comments on Jonah .1:17 are given: “…prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, a whale our Savior calls it (Matthew 12:40), one of the largest sorts of whales that have wider throats than others, in the belly of which has sometimes been found the dead body of a man in armor.

Particular notice is taken, in the history of the creation, of God’s creating great whales and the leviathan in the waters made to play therein (Psalms 104:26). But God finds work for this leviathan, has prepared him, has numbered him (so the word is), has appointed him to be Jonah’s receiver and deliverer.”

Barnes Notes

In BARNES’ NOTES ON THE NEW TESTAMENT, page 134, an explanation of Matthew 12:40 is: “This event took place in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish…It is said that the whale seldom passes into that sea, and that its throat is too small to admit a man. It is probable, therefore, that a fish of the shark kind is intended.

Sharks have been known often to swallow a man entirely. The fish in the book of Jonah is described merely as a ‘great fish,’ without specifying the kind. It is well known that the Greek word translated ‘whale’ in the New Testament does not of necessity mean a whale, but may denote a large fish or sea-monster of any kind.”–Robinson, Lex.

In BARNES’ NOTES, MINOR PROPHETS — Introduction to Jonah, page 385, the following explanation concerning the fish of Jonah is presented: “Jonah speaks only of a ‘great fish.’ The Greek word ketos, by which the Septuagint translated it, and which our Lord used, is, (like our ‘cetacea’ which is taken from it) the name of a genus, not of any individual fish. It is the equivalent of the ‘great fish’ of Jonah. The Greeks (translators) use the adjective ketsde, as we do, but they also use the substantive which occurs in Matthew 12:40.

This designates a class which includes the whale, but is never used to designate the whale … It designates the whole class of sea creatures which are viviparous, as the dolphin, the seal, the whale, the shark and large tunas…The white shark, having teeth merely incisive, has no choice, except between swallowing its prey whole, or cutting off a portion of it.

It cannot hold its prey, or swallow it piecemeal … sometimes also, living men, which it finds in the sea…The white shark, or Canis carcharias, is found of the size of 10,000 pounds, and horses have been found whole in its stomach.”

Strong’s Concordance

There is much controversy over the subject of the fish of Jonah. A word study of the Greek word ketos in STRONG’S EXHAUSTIVE CONCORDANCE shows the Greek meaning as “a huge fish (as gaping for prey): — whale.” A further word study for the word “whale” is found in WILSON’S OLD TESTMENT WORD STUDIES, page 479: “Whale–…a great fish, sea monster, or rather, any reptile or animal of large dimensions, whether of the sea or land: Genesis 1:21, Job 7:12, Ezekiel 32:2.” In THAYER’S GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON, page 346, the Greek word ketos is listed as meaning: “a sea monster, whale, huge fish.”

Many Bible scholars say that the word in the Greek New Testament translated “whale” (ketos) could be just as accurately translated simply huge fish or sea monster. However, in defending God’s Word, it is not really necessary to rule out the possibility that this Greek word which may mean “whale” actually does mean “whale.

There are two reasons for this:

1) Some research scholars tell us there is a species of whale which not only has a mouth large enough for a man to get in, but also has a throat large enough for the whale to swallow the man.

2) Even if there is no species of whale today with a throat large enough for a man to pass through, God could have certainly prepared a whale with a mouth and throat large enough for Jonah to go right on down to the whale’s stomach, because the Bible tells us that the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah (Jonah 1:17). Thus, we should realize that it was no greater miracle to create or appoint a fish which could swallow Jonah than it was for God to preserve Jonah alive when swallowed by the great fish. For with God nothing shall be impossible (Luke 1:37).


In conclusion, we would quote Dr. J. Vernon McGee, who wrote as follows: “The fish here is not the hero of the story, neither is it its villain. The book is not even about a fish. The fish is among the props and does not occupy the star’s dressing room. Let us distinguish between the essentials and the incidentals. Incidentals are the fish, the gourd, the east wind, the boat, and Nineveh. The essentials are Jehovah and Jonah–God and man.”

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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