Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Was Jonah swallowed by a fish or a whale?

Children in Sunday school have debated this question for many years. Was the creature that swallowed Jonah a fish or a whale? The text of the book of Jonah reads,
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 ESV).
The aforementioned verse usually satisfies the curiosity of most students, and they are left with the conclusion that Jonah was swallowed by a fish, and not a whale. We are taught in school that fish are not mammals... but whales are. In modern biology there is a distinctive difference between a “fish”and a “whale”.

Skeptics, however, are quick to point out that in the King James Version of the Bible, Jesus does not call the creature a “fish” but a whale”. 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. (Matthew 12:40) (Note: Most other english translations use the word “fish and not “whale”).
What do the dictionaries say?
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Often times there is more than a one word translation of a term into English, and at times there is not even an equivalent term. 

The Hebrew word for “fish” in (Jonah 1:17) is the Hebrew term “dag” and according to the (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon), the word “fish” is an accurate translation. 

In Matthew, when Jesus speaks of this event, the word translated “whale” in the KJV is the Greek word “ketos” which according to (Thayer’s Lexicon) can mean “sea-monster, whale, huge fish”. 

Are we asking questions the text is not intended to answer?
Yes, the book of Jonah is not a book on the Animal Kingdom (nor is the book of Matthew). Our modern classification of animals was not around at that time. Although we make a big difference between a Whale Shark and Humpback Whale, they most likely would have not. When the book of Jonah uses the term “fish” (Hebrew - dag), we cannot definitively say that it would exclude aquatic mammals like a whale, and we cannot say with certainty whether or not the Greek word “ketos” that Jesus used, meant “whale” or “fish” 

We do not know for sure what swallowed Jonah. Did it have gills or a blowhole? We will most likely never know. All we know, is that a big creature in the ocean swallowed him...and later vomited him up on the shore (Jonah 2:10).

By Cliff Sabroe