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Jonah and the Whale
By Brian Pepper
We frequently hear the critics say that there are scores of
scientific errors in the Bible. When they are challenged to
enumerate a few of these scores, they invariably name at the most
five or six possible errors. And upon investigation even these fade
away and leave the Bible utterly unchallenged in its claim to
inspiration. Over and over, these five or six objections are repeated and
they are the stock in trade of the infidel. The most frequently used
argument against the scientific accuracy of the Bible is that of
Jonah and the whale. Some of the more witty of the critics have
"The greatest fish story in history."
Many men who have never
studied the narrative claim that it is the most outstanding weakness
of the entire Bible.
About the Book of Jonah
The Book of Jonah consists of 4
chapters, with a total number of only 48 verses. It can be
read easily in less than five minutes by the average reader.
And when Dr Harry Rimmer, the famous lecturer on Science and
the Bible, conducted a poll of how many people attending his
lectures had read the Book of Jonah, on an average he found
that the number was never more than ten per cent. The most
widely discussed book in the Bible and not ten per cent of
the Christian population ever invested 5 minutes to see what
the argument was about! Did you know that the entire Book of
Jonah would be accepted even by modern critics if we could
take out two verses.
God gives fair warning before
God gives fair warning before destruction
The Book of Jonah is an outstanding example of the fact that, "God is ever gracious and slow to anger." Also, that God gives fair warning before He brings destruction. He commissioned Jonah to bear a message of coming destruction unless Nineveh repented.
Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah found a ship that was going to Tarshish and he fled from the direction of Nineveh as fast as he could travel. But as Jonah was seeking to flee from God’s appointed task, a mighty storm arose, threatening the safety of the ship in which the prophet sailed. When the men of the ship learned that there was a Jonah aboard and that this storm came upon them because of Jonah, they threw him overboard.
And now this brings us to the first disputed text. Jonah 1:17 says, "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."
First of all, I want to call your attention on the phrase "that God prepared." The whole argument must turn upon these words. The question is raised, "Is God able to prepare a fish that would accommodate a man and keep him alive for as long as seventy-two hours?"
Well if God cannot do this, then He is indeed
tremendously inferior to man. Men with engineering skill built
an iron fish. Twenty men entered this iron fish and remained
under water for 12 days and 12 nights. At the end of that time
they came to the surface again to replenish their supplies of
food and oxygen. The iron fish sent them forth on the dry land
for a period of relaxation. Again twenty men entered this iron
fish and descended into the deep. Of course they called this man
made fish a submarine and nobody doubts the ability of men to
construct such a fish. They are common today.
If we would only stop to think
things through we would not doubt the ability of God. Again
we see that God prepared other things besides the fish. In
the story of Jonah there was a vine that was prepared. There
was a worm that was specifically sent. There was a strong
east wind that blew at an untimely season. The God who made
the heavens and the earth prepared a fish, a worm and a
The only objection of the infidel
that we have ever read is that there is no whale that has a
throat large enough to swallow a man. It is difficult to
understand how the whale crept into this story. The
Scripture in the original languages, nowhere says that
Jonah's host was a whale. In the Book of Jonah in the Hebrew
language, the word there translated 'fish' is the Hebrew
word 'dag'. This word appears in the Old Testament 19 times
and is translated on each occasion 'fish'. A whale is not a
fish for it is a mammal. It suckles its young and is a warm
blooded animal. It would be scientifically incorrect to
speak of a whale as a fish.
Was the creature a fish or monster of the deep?
In the King James Version of the New
Testament there is an incorrect translation that makes this
fish appear as a whale. Jesus did not say that Jonah was
three days and three nights in the whale’s belly. The
translators in dealing with this passage in the original
Greek used the word 'whale' because it was the only sea
creature they knew that was big enough to suit them. The
word however is 'Ketos' and simply means a monster of the
deep. The Hebrew word for whale is 'tannin'. The Old
Testament Scripture says that Jonah was swallowed by a great
'dag' or fish. The New Testament says that he was picked up
by a 'ketos', and nowhere does the original writing say that
this was a whale. But both the Old Testament and the New
Testament agree that a fish or a monster of the deep
received Jonah into its capacious maw, where he resided for
three days and three nights.
Are any whales capable of swallowing a man?
However let us suppose that the creature of the deep was in very fact a whale. Did you know that it would still be reasonable and scientifically correct that a whale could have swallowed Jonah? There are two groups of whales. One of these groups is composed of whales that are armed with teeth. Most of this variety do not have teeth on both jaws but they have several strong, well defined teeth in their lower jaw. These they use for tearing loose their food and crushing squids and preparing them for the first steps of digestion.
It could not have been the 'Sperm whale' that swallowed Jonah for this whale has only a small throat, he chews his food and crushes it. But there is another whale known as the 'Bottled-nosed' or 'Beaked' whale. Its scientific name is Tiphide. This is a small whale not over 30ft long. Although this whale is only half the size of the Sperm whale, it has a throat big enough to swallow a man. However we have to exclude this whale from being Jonah's host because it is armed with teeth and chews its food.
But there is that other type of whale that has no teeth. In place of teeth they are equipped with whale bone plates, these plates form a sieve through which the food of the whale is strained. These plates vary from 18" in some cases to 12' in length. This kind of whale has a curious habit of feeding, they open their mouths, submerge their lower jaws and rush through the water at a terrific speed. When one of them has filled his gigantic mouth, he closes his jaws and curls back his lips. By a muscular pressure of the tongue, he forces the water out of his mouth, straining it through his plates. When the water is all excluded, the whale swallows whatever is left in his mouth. It is in this order of whales that the very largest types are found. There is the 'humped-back' whales being about 50 feet in length, their head forming about 1/3 of their entire length. The largest whale known is commonly called 'the sulphur bottom' belonging to a variety called fin-back. One of them has been measured that was 95' 6" in length. This particular type of whale would have no difficulty whatever in accommodating a man.
An expert, Charles Bell Emerson records this, "There is a record of a sulphur-bottom whale 95 feet in length and having a weight of 147 tonnes --- 294,000 pounds. This specimen, captured off the West Coast of North America, is the largest whale of which there is authentic record; this would mean that this one was the largest animal ever known to man, up to date."
The whale’s stomach is complex, having from four to six chambers or compartments, in any one of which a small colony of men could be readily accommodated. There are records that show the whale has proved itself host to various living creatures. The whale is an air breathing mammal and cannot live without oxygen. This oxygen it has to get somewhere above the water. As the whale has no gills, it can only submerge as long as its air supply will allow. So all whales have in their heads a wonderful air storage chamber, and in a very large whale this tank or compartment would measure 14 feet long, 7 feet high, 7 feet wide.
If the whale takes into its mouth
any object too big to swallow, it thrusts it into this air
chamber. If it finds that it has a large object in its head
it swims to the nearest land, lies in shallow water and
ejects it. A man would have no difficulty at all in
remaining alive for 3 days and 3 nights in an air chamber as
extensive as this, containing 686 cubit feet of space.
Could a fish swallow a man?
But we must not forget that we found that Jonah's host was not a whale but a great fish. There are sharks that swim the sea that would come under the restricted meaning of the Hebrew word 'dag', for these sharks are fish.
The late Dr Dixon stated that in a
museum at Beirut, there is the head of a shark big enough to
swallow the largest man that history records. Dr Dixon also
recounts instances where the 'white shark' of the
Mediterranean was known to have swallowed a whole horse.
Another one of these monsters of the deep swallowed a
reindeer, minus only its horns.
Whale Shark - The most likely candidate for Jonah's host
And now we come to the point of this
entire discussion. Is there a creature that swims the deep
sea whose natural feeding habits and structure of organisms
would make him a natural host for Jonah. As far as is known
there is one, only one, but the main thing there is one. It
is a shark called variously the 'bone shark', the
'Indo-Pacific shark' and the 'whale shark', by the latter
name it is most commonly known. This shark has no teeth, a
large one captured measured 70 feet.
Case of man being swallowed by a shark
This shark having no teeth feeds
like a whale straining its food through great plates in its
mouth. It can easily swallow a man. There are instances
where this has happened. The first record comes from the
Hawaiian Islands. A certain soldier from the Scofield
Barracks on the Island of Oahu, was reported missing without
leave. 30 days later a party of Japanese fishermen set out
to Hilo to spread their nets, and they found a 'whale shark'
basking in the vicinity where they intended to spread their
nets. Now they knew what that meant, for the feeding habits
of this monster was to charge at full speed through the
water and take in any thing that might be floating near the
surface. With a weight of many tons charging through the
water, woe to the flimsy nets that met this charging
monster. So the fishermen put back to port and procured
their harpoons and a high powered rifle. When the beast was
opened, lo and behold they found a six-foot skeleton of a
male in the stomach. After 30 days all that was left was the
bones of the frame but every bone was undamaged and
undisturbed, proving that the man had been swallowed whole.
A Jonah of the twentieth century
But we have another instance of an English man who was swallowed by a giant 'whale shark' in the English Channel. In an attempt to harpoon one of these monster sharks, this sailer fell overboard and before he could be picked up again, the shark feeding, turned and swallowed him. His friends made such an outcry that they frightened the fish so it dived and disappeared. The entire trawler fleet put out to hunt the fish down, and 48 hours after the accident occurred the fish was sighted and slain with a one pound deck gun. They towed the carcass to the shore and opened it up to give the body of their friend a Christian burial, but when the shark was opened they were amazed to find the man unconscious but alive! He was rushed to the hospital where he was found to be suffering from shock alone and a few hours later was discharged as being physically fit. The account of this event concluded by saying that the man was on exhibition in a London Museum at a shilling admittance fee, being advertised as the "Jonah of the Twentieth Century."
Dr Harry Rimmer, the famous Science and Bible exponent, personally met this man and he records for us that his physical appearance was odd, in that his entire body was devoid of hair and odd patches of yellowish brown colour covered his entire skin due to the action of the digestive juices. For 2 days and 2 nights he lived in a monster of the deep and this without any providential care expressively stated.
It would seem more than reasonable
that to suppose that if a man in the ordinary course of
nature can exist for two days and two nights inside a marine
monster, a prophet of God under his direct care and
protection could stand the experience a day and a night
Man swallowed by a whale
In 1891 during a whaling expedition, a small boat containing 2 men was overturned by a whale. One man was drowned, but the other one was missing. Finally the whale was caught. After 30 hours in cutting it up etc, the stomach was about to be pushed back into sea when an unusual movement was noticed inside of it. On opening it up, lo and behold they found the missing seaman, James Bartley. He was delirious. It took him three weeks to recover and his skin was dyed a permanent tan.
"I remember very well," said Bartley, "the moment when the whale threw me into the air. Then I was swallowed and found myself enclosed in a firm, slippery channel whose contractions forced me continually downward. Then I found myself in a very large sac. By feeling about I realised I had actually been swallowed by a whale and was in his stomach. I could still breathe, though with much difficultly. I had a feeling of insupportable heat, and it seemed I was being boiled alive." Bartley then lost consciousness until he was found.
The thing is this that there are
creatures which swim the seas which could have very easily
provide accommodation for Jonah. The heart of the matter is
that we read in the Book that God prepared a fish. But we
cannot say whether God prepared this fish in the natural
order of generation and birth or whether it was a special
Jonah prayed from the fish's belly
However we have the second text that causes the critics to fire their targets at the Book of Jonah. "Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly."
I think the amazing thing is that Jonah waited 3 days to begin praying. I am sure that if any one of us had been swallowed by the fish in less then 3 minutes the Lord would have heard our cry, "let me out, I want to go to Nineveh."
I don’t think that even the most
ardent critic would question the statement that Jonah prayed
from the depths of this sea monster.
Was there an actual Jonah?
Foolishly some have tried to deny the existence of an actual Jonah. Yes they have said that he was a legendary hero of Jewish folklore and fable, as was Hercules among the Greeks. However Jonah is as historical as was Napoleon Bonaparte or Rameses the second of Egypt. In all the historical records of any people there are none that are superior to the Books of Kings, which records were kept by the Hebrew people under the direction of God’s Spirit.
And the recent advancement of
archaeological learning has established the authenticity of
these Scriptures. In 2nd Kings
chapter 14 there
is an historical reference to the prophet Jonah that
authenticates his character and gives him an established
background. The father of Jonah is named, thus giving his
genealogy. The place of his residence is told. We also
learn the name of the king who ruled when Jonah was alive.
To complete the case and make the evidence perfect, there is one other source of testimony to the reality of Jonah that cannot be denied. We refer to the conclusive testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Son of God speaks upon any subject, that testimony is conclusive.
In the course of His ministry among men, Jesus made two references to Jonah as an historical character. In one, he gives the experience of Jonah as a type of His own burial and resurrection. When the scribes and the Pharisees demanded of Him proof of His deity, they asked that this proof be given in the form of a sign. Jesus replied to their demand, "A wicked and adulterous generation seek after a sign. There shall no sign be given you, save the sign of the prophet Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so must the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the depth of the earth."
The second reference Jesus made to the historical fact that there was a real Jonah, was the reference of Nineveh's repentance. Jesus had been meeting with opposition and coldness of heart and in some cases outright rejection. On one of these occasions Jesus said, "The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgement with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here." (Matthew 12:41)
So we have the authority of Jesus
that Jonah is as truly historical as is the person of Jesus
The fascinating character of Jonah
One of the most fascinating things about Jonah is the manner in which his character is displayed in this brief record. Jonah is perhaps one of the most honest writers in literature, for he writes boldly and bluntly of his own faults. He tells without any apology, the waywardness of his conduct as he fled from the call of God. He gives no explanation, offers no excuses. He is content to say just what he did. We can learn a lot from the Book of Jonah.
In Nineveh they worshipped the fish god 'dagon'. The top half of this image was that of a man’s head, shoulders, chest, then the rest was made up of a fish’s tail. It is quite possible that the news reached the men of Nineveh, that Jonah had been brought to that town by means of a great fish. This of course would give him great prestige. Just think of it, this strange fish man walking through the city calling out, "Forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed."
The 1st day went, Jonah called 39 days. The 2nd day went, Jonah cried out 38 days left. The first week went, Jonah warned 33 days left. Then the last days, 5 days, 4 days, 3 days, 2 days. But it was not unheeded.
Why, as far as we have record, it was the greatest revival in all history. Have your ever thought of it, the greatest thing in the Book of Jonah, was not the story of the great fish. It was the revival of Nineveh, a greater miracle than Jonah living inside the fish’s stomach.
If God could save Nineveh then He can saved you and He can save me. However there is another great lesson in the experience of Jonah. He ran away from God’s command. He took a ticket to Tarshish. He tried to evade what God wanted him to do. Is not this typical of many of us today? God calls us to follow Him and we endeavour to evade it- like foolish Jonah we take a ticket to Tarshish.
Whenever we neglect God’s command, whenever we resist God’s call, whenever we refuse to follow the light of truth, we are taking a ticket to Tarshish and trying to run away from God. This can only end in disaster to ourselves.
Whenever we put anything before our duty to God, we are following in the steps of Jonah. The ticket to Tarshish is the easy way, it is the convenient way, it is man’s way. Don’t run away from God, don’t try to get around the truth for He may have to make a storm in your life to save you. Don’t leave it until it is too late. It could be that tomorrow will be too late.