A few weeks ago, I posted a few pictures of a sculpture I did of Jonah and the whale, that famous story from the Old Testament that recounts the journey of reluctant prophet and his mission to ancient Nineveh. Well, it goes without saying that, like so much elsewhere the Bible is concerned, there is far more to the story than may first be apparent…
The whole book of Jonah is one that follows the prophet of the same name as he goes out of his way to avoid delivering a message of redemption to a people that he hates in the city of Nineveh. Bypassing that place, Jonah boards a ship in the opposite direction, to essentially get as far away as he could possibly get. His destination: Tarshish.
Along the way, the reluctant prophet went below, and in the midst of his slumber a great storm welled up around them in the heart of the sea. The shiphands did what they could, rushing to and fro, casting their merchandise overboard in an effort to save the flagging ship, but it was too much; the storm, like a persistent beast, threatened to break their vessel to pieces.
Each man pleading with his gods, but their prayers fell upon deaf ears. The ship captain hurriedly went below, into the hold where Jonah lay, and woke him, begging him to petition his own God to still the winds. Above, the hands decided that they would cast lots (rolling the die, so to speak) to determine for whom this storm was troubling them. Of course, it declared that it was Jonah whom the storm was pursuing.
They asked him why he had brought the tempest to them, inquiring of his profession, of his country and people, and Jonah admitted all to them. He declared that he was a Hebrew, a follower of the true God, and that it was because he had ran from the task his Lord had given him that this storm threatened their lives.
He looked at them and said, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you (Jonah 1:12),” but they would not. Perhaps heavy-heartedly, they returned to their posts, taking up their oars and furiously attempted to steer the ship back to the coast, to the land. They tried, but facing the power of God and the thrashing winds, the crashing waves, they were left with no choice.
They declared together, “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. (Jonah 1:14)” With that they turned around to face the reluctant prophet, knowing what they must do. As they cast Jonah overboard, instantly the seas stilled and the winds calmed, and the sailors were left thankful for their spared lives. So thankful in fact, perhaps so awed by the miracle they had just witnessed, each man, we are told made vows in his heart to the Lord and made sacrifices to Him (verse 16). Jonah may not have ever realized it, but his boarding of that ship actually lead to a number of conversions in the same day!
This, you see, is where things get particularly interesting for me. This is where we read that intriguing verse 17, declaring “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.“
There has been speculation over this “great fish” by many for years. Was it truly a giant fish? A whale perhaps? Maybe something else entirely? While we cannot say for certain what it may have been, there are in fact some details that can help us make some good assumptions.
Looking at the original language that Jonah was written in, we find that the word truly does say “great fish,” denoted by the Hebrew phrase dag gadol (דג גדול). Modified by the inclusion of “great” here, something other than a straightforward interpretation of “fish” may be indicated. Furthermore, must also bear in mind that, particularly in the Old Testament, the Bible is not particular in specifying aquatic life in as thorough a manner as we may be accustomed to today. Consider the fact that some words, such as the tannin, תַּנִּין, (as mentioned in a previous post) can variously be used as sea monsters, great serpents, whales, etc, depending on usage.
Furthermore, some two centuries before Christ, the old Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, the Septuagint, and in them the phrase dag gadôl (“great fish”) was replaced with the Greek phrase kêtei megalô, meaning a “mega-sized ketos.”¹ What is a “ketos?” We will get to that shortly.
Some clarity on the whole matter comes later, in the New Testament, in the book of Matthew, Chapter 12:40, where it reads:
For as Jonas 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.
The word for whale here, like that of the Septuagint translation, takes the form of the Greek κήτους, or in English Ketos, a phrase that (like tanin) encompases many potential usages; among them are whale, giant fish, or sea monster. On the surface things may see just as confusing as its Hebrew precursor, but looking behind the Greek word and to the culture behind it, we may find an intriguing clue.
The Greeks, you see, had a myth about a great sea serpent that they called Kētos. The name of that great beast eventually descended to us, through an obligate latinization, as the word cetus, upon which we have established our scientific classification for whales (cetacea). Interestingly, it is the word ketos that makes up the basis for the word “whale” in that passage in Matthew. So, in a roundabout way, we come full circle back to Jonah’s great fish being a whale.
There are those who dispute this though, claiming that the whales large enough to swallow Jonah whole, such as blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) or sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), are not explicitly designed to ingest humans, having throats that often allow only narrow gulps of food at a time. There are exceptions though, to be sure. Regardless, the typicality of the situation presents a problem…but not one that is absolutely unavailable.
Going back to the myth of Kētos, we find that the details of that beast may reveal the identity of Jonah’s whale yet. According to the historian Bill Cooper, “The ketos—the dog-headed sea-dragon—appears in accounts from ca. 700 B.C. and all the way up to ca. A.D. 500.”²
Mosaic with a ketos found at Caulonia in the Casa del Drago, 3rd century BC, Monsters. Fantastic Creatures of Fear and Myth Exhibition, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome
What’s more is that fact that, while it is often associated with Greek culture, many ancient historians (including Homer, Euripides, Manilius, and others) have noted its existence over a wide range of territory, including Italy, North Africa, the Near East, and Asia. In many cases there remain more than just mouldering legends, but also physical renditions of the beast in the forms of art, all of which sharing the same suite of features: a long body, dog-like head, and fins.¹
Coming back around to the question at hand, i.e. the identity of the “whale,” we are left wondering if there is anything in nature that fits the model before us. The answer comes as resounding “yes!”
There is, in fact, a fossil whale that very neatly fits the characteristics of the mythological Kētos. Basilosaurus, the “king lizard” whale, was discovered in the 1830s, and due to some confusion over its size and structure, was originally thought to be a great reptilian sea serpent. We now know better, recognizing that, though it was a whale, it possess an eel-like body, small fins, and a long, low head filled with large teeth. By all accounts, it would have been a huge, effective predator, and one that would likely see no trouble or moral conflict in the consumption of a wave-borne prophet.
Now, though there will certainly be those who dispute this notion out of hand simply because the mainstream timeline doesn’t allow for man and basilosaurs to coexist, chronologically speaking, I, and those like me (being of the young-earth perspective) see no issue with the possibility. There is, as I have noted before, ample evidence to both have one question the assertions of mainstream deep-time while simultaneously finding good ground on the stance of a young creation, but that whole argument is well beyond the purview of this particular post. Another time then.
In any event, I am willing to accept that the creature that the Lord provided to consume Jonah was a basilosaur, perhaps a very old and very large specimen. After all, some whales are known to live for hundreds of years.³ Basilosaurus may have been able to claim a similar longevity.
In closing, as the story of Jonah continues, we read that he ended up spending three days within the beast, ultimately to be vomited up on the shore like a living bit of ambergris, now possessing a yielding heart. Given a second chance, he set forth for Nineveh, preaching his message of redemption and saving the entire city from sure destruction through their unanimous conversion to the faith of the True God, There are some amazing details going on during this bit that I’d love to go into, but unfortunately this post has become quite long enough already.
In any event, the moral here is abundantly obvious and immediately relevant to each of us, so to put it as plainly as possibly, God has a plan for each of us, and ultimately we will have to come around to it; we can either listen to Him and go when He tells us, or face our own trials, tribulation, and whales in the process of trying to avoid what we eventually will face anyway. Wouldn’t it just be easier to listen to Him in the first place?
- Thomas, B. 2013. What Really Swallowed Jonah? Acts & Facts. 42 (6): 16.
- Cooper, B. 2012. The Authenticity of the Book of Jonah. Amazon Digital Services, Inc
- “Bowhead Whales Live Over 200 Years,” ABC NEWS San Jose, Calif., Dec. 20
Thank you very much, and God bless!