Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. (Jonah 1:17)
One of the strangest stories in the Bible is that of “Jonah and the whale.” In fact, the story is so incredible that even some Bible scholars have tried to invent alternative renditions to make the story more believable. Some suppose that the “great fish” that swallowed Jonah may have been something like a whale shark, or a sea monster like leviathan (thought by some to be a mosasaur), or a whale. The suggestion that the creature was a whale probably comes from the King James reference in Matthew 12:40 where it describes Jonah as being in “the whale’s belly.” However, the Greek word translated “whale” is kētos, which could be understood as “sea monster” as it is translated by the Revise Standard Version and the New American Standard Version Bibles. But kētos can also be translated as “a huge fish.” This understanding is more in keeping with the Hebrew of Jonah 1:17 which literally translates the Hebrew dâg gâdôl as “great fish.” What the great fish was, is up for speculation. It certainly could have been a whale shark, which is a “great fish,” but it certainly was not a whale or “sea monster,” otherwise the Hebrew word tannıyn would have been used (Job 7:12; Ezekiel 32:2).
Whether the “great fish” was a whale shark or some other variety of large fish is irrelevant. What should be noted is that “the LORD had prepared” the fish “to swallow up Jonah.” It is not impossible to understand this as a new creation miracle of God so that it was something totally new created just for this purpose. It is also reasonable to believe that God used a dâg gâdôl that was already in existence to be called upon do to the LORD’s bidding. God is not limited in His options.
The other point of contention in this story is that Jonah survives inside the belly of this great fish for three days. That is truly incredible! One would think that the digestive acids in the fish’s belly would have been enough to kill Jonah. Well, perhaps Jonah actually did die! Listen to Jonah’s words: “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2, emphasis added). The Hebrew word translated “hell” is she’ôl – the abode of the dead – translated “Hades” in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). He describes himself as going to the depths of the sea. “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God” (Jonah 2:6, emphasis added). That sounds dead. But some may challenge, “How can a dead man be aware of his condition?” Others may reasonably suggest: “This is Hebrew poetry; Jonah is speaking metaphorically.” For that, I would remind the reader of Jesus’ account of the death of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When the rich man died, he was aware of the flames of his new environment, he was aware of his thirst, he was aware of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, he was aware of the lost condition of his five brothers, and he was able to converse with Abraham. If this was true of the rich man – and Jesus relayed this as a factual account, not as one of His parables – then it certainly can be true of Jonah.
This understanding makes Jesus’ analogy in Matthew 12:40 even more poignant. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the [belly of the kētos]; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus died an actual death. He was in the “belly of Hades” for three days. “And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). In the same way, after three days in the tomb, God raised Jesus from the dead. For this reason, I believe Jonah actually died and was revived to accomplish the will of God. That is why Jesus could point to Jonah as the example of His death, burial and resurrection.