I was recently talking to a Chinese student who had questions about the reliability of the Bible. He mentioned he’d read an article debunking the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.
As he explained it, the article claimed Jonah’s undersea journey must have been a fable or myth (like Pinocchio’s in Carlo Collodi’s classic tall tale), since science has proven the majority of whales do not have throats big enough to swallow a human being whole. Even if there are whales (like the sperm whale) who can swallow a person whole, the environment inside the whale’s stomach is completely inhospitable to life. Jonah cold not have survived three days in the belly of a whale, even if one did manage to choke him down.
His comments reminded me of my childhood when I read an account of James Bartley who purportedly fell overboard during a whale hunt and was swallowed by a sperm whale. Not long after, the whale was captured and killed. When dressing it, the hunters cut open the whale’s stomach and discovered Bartley, unconscious, but alive inside. As the story goes, he eventually made a full recovery.
It sounds like a whale of a tale, and many have questioned its veracity. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but in the naïveté of my youth, Bartley’s account gave me some comfort and helped convince me that what happened to Jonah was somehow plausible since it might have happened to others.
What, then, could I say to this struggling student? I might have mentioned that some Christians believe the book of Jonah is indeed mythical and was never intended to be taken literally. There are exegetical and theological problems with this view and I strongly disagree, but genuine believers have embraced it from time to time in church history, mostly in the modern era.
I might have pointed out that the KJV translators mistakenly translated the Hebrew word, dag, as “whale,” when it should have been translated more generally as “fish.” There are, after all, fish (like large sharks) who can swallow a human whole.
I explained, however, that ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that the story, on its face, is wholly implausible. Science is right to question the possibility that someone could be swallowed by a large fish (or whale), spend three days in its stomach, and live to tell the tale.
But after admitting as much to this student, I then explained that the book of Jonah wasn’t created from some prior real-life event that was borrowed and embellished by an ancient Hebrew author to make into a good bedtime story for children. In fact, Jonah’s harrowing journey is recounted in full recognition that it was a once-in-the-course-of-all-time occurrence. Consequently, science could not explain how Jonah could be swallowed and then three days later regurgitated alive on land by a gigantic fish—precisely because it wasn’t a natural event. It was a supernatural act of God!
This is one of the points of the story: God did something only He could do. In short, Jonah’s story is one filled with divine interventions and usurpations of science. These were not natural events or myths, they were miracles!
Of course, appealing this way to a miracle is not some clever attempt to justify or explain the inexplicable. But it is the overt recognition that while miracles don’t happen very often (otherwise, they could hardly be classified as miracles!), the God of the universe does sometimes perform them for His purposes and glory. The fact is, we know and serve a God who can do the impossible whenever and wherever necessary.
Neither does it negate or invalidate the possibility of determining the reliability of scripture. As numerous apologists and biblical scholars have shown, there are many portions of scripture that directly enable us to test and examine historical and intertextual claims to discover if the Bible is telling the truth. Since these portions show the scriptures to be trustworthy, we have good reason to trust accounts where miracles are recorded.
But this is only true, of course, if we do not have a preconceived bias against the possibility of any supernatural intervention into the natural realm. If we are convinced that only scientific and naturalistic explanations for historical events are possible, then just like the skeptics in Jesus’ day, we will automatically rule out miracles, even when they occur right before our very eyes—consider, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, especially verses 45 and 46.
No other book has been more thoroughly examined (or more widely ridiculed and vilified) than the Bible. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time and continually demonstrates its reliability against any and all assaults. Because it truly is the word of God and comes from Him, it can be trusted because He can be trusted.
Jonah foolishly ignored this and paid a frightful (though ultimately miraculous) price for his willful disobedience. Thankfully, we, on the other hand, have the amazing opportunity to learn from Jonah’s whale of a tale and trust God fully at the start of His call upon our lives versus merely at the tail-end.
Maybe my favorite OT book. The power of the story gets robbed a bit when it turns into a story of a miracle. I suggest that if you want to defend the power of God to do the miraculous, you might find stories where the miraculous power of God is the point of the story.
Tim, of course you are right to point out that there’s a lot more to the story. And the miraculous aspect of it is admittedly only a small portion. The real point is God’s grace to those outside the Israelite community, and exactly why Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah, because he knew God was gracious and likely to show mercy to those who had been so troublesome and cruel to Israel (and many other nations around). Sure enough, God did just that and Jonah was mad about it and revealed his selfishness and lack of concern for human life (and even animals) in general–characteristics very unlike the God he claimed to speak for. But having said that, you missed an important part of my point here. The student was asking about this specific aspect of the story, namely how a man could be swallowed by a big fish/whale, be in it’s belly for three days, and yet survive? That aspect is real enough, unless, of course, you want to argue Jonah is not describing real-life events. You can take that line of defense (as I noted above), but I think it’s an unnecessary move, not to mention ill-advised on exegetical grounds. And yes, I could have overstated my case about the miraculous, but the more general point remains. I think many people reject the historicity of Jonah precisely because elements of it (the overnight growth of a shade-plant, for example) are fantastic and based on their naturalistic worldview presuppositions they are not comfortable with the miraculous. And as I also noted in the blog, there are bigger and more important miracles to concern ourselves with, like the resurrection of Lazarus–and implied with that, the resurrection of Jesus Himself. So I do think my general point remains valid, even if I used this specific interaction with this specific student about this specific aspect of this specific book as a foil to make this specific point. Finally, thanks, Tim, for taking time out of your life to actually read and analyze and respond to what I write. I deeply appreciate it!
Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on an amazing story, and your affirmation of God’s creativity and power!