Unfortunately, even my own Christian sister thinks that the whale swallowing Jonah was only figurative. But so far, this is what I have found: A Great Fish Swallows Jonah 1:17 [c] And the Lord appointed[d] a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah's Prayer 2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. Footnotes: Jonah 1:17 Ch 2:1 in Hebrew Jonah 1:17 Or had appointed --ESV (English Standard Version) I take Jonah 1:17 literally and think it was a big, huge fish. It was big enough to swallow Jonah and keep him in its belly for 3 days and 3 nights. More contemporary examples of this actually happening to a man can be cited.

  • I agree with you. It's literal. It's a really big fish. It has happened to other people. I understand that (at least some) whales have a 'sieve-bone' which filters out plankton and some suggest that would prevent swallowing a human body. But there are plenty of sharks and squid can manage it.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 25, 2018 at 15:51
  • Good point, a Sperm Whale or a Whale or Basking Shark?
    – user26950
    Nov 25, 2018 at 16:53
  • My NIV Study Bible mentions that the genre of the book is generally considered parody or satire. I don't see why the possibly should be dismissed out of hand (though it can certainly be discussed). It also mentions that divine beasts of judgement are a theme in the literature of the surrounding culture and are understood to be supernatural. That wouldn't mean non-literal, but it would mean we shouldn't necessarily look at sperm whales and great white sharks. Nov 26, 2018 at 13:00

4 Answers 4


I believe that it’s impossible to tell what type of fish swallowed Jonah but my response would be does it really matter. Whether the story of Jonah is literal or not does not detract from the spiritual significance of the story. If the account actually happened, yes, there would be a fantastic event to go along with the story but God would be seen as going to extremes at the expense of one of His children. However, if the story of Jonah is an allegory, the story is not diminished in any way. In fact, the story is enhanced since God would not be seen as actually putting someone through that harrowing experience. The same thing can be said of Job.

The most important factor in the story of Jonah is the concept of grace and mercy. In Jonah Chapter 2, Jonah prays a prayer incredibly similar to that which Solomon prayed in 2 Chronicles 6. In that prayer, Solomon is asking for mercy. He asks the Lord to be merciful when Israel sins in the future. Note verses 36-39:

36 If they sin against thee, (for there is no man which sinneth not,) and thou be angry with them, and deliver them over before their enemies, and they carry them away captives unto a land far off or near; 37 Yet if they bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captive, and turn and pray unto thee in the land of their captivity, saying, We have sinned, we have done amiss, and have dealt wickedly; 38 If they return to thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their captivity, whither they have carried them captives, and pray toward their land, which thou gavest unto their fathers, and toward the city which thou hast chosen, and toward the house which I have built for thy name: 39 Then hear thou from the heavens, even from thy dwelling place, their prayer and their supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive thy people which have sinned against thee.

In these verses, Solomon requests that when Israel sins to such a degree that God will carry them away from Israel to a foreign land, that if the people would then turn toward the land and toward the temple and asks once again for mercy, then God forgive their sin.

In the next chapter (2 Chronicles 7): God tells Solomon that He has heard his prayer of mercy and now has selected the temple as a house of sacrifice; not animal sacrifice but a sacrifice of prayer. Here is 2 Chronicles 7:

12 And the Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice. 13 If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; 14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 15 Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attend unto the prayer that is made in this place;

Jonah is applying the same truth to himself. He is acknowledging his sin of disobedience of refusing to go to Ninevah and that he has now been carried off to a foreign place far from Israel. He acknowledges that God has made the temple a house of sacrifice, a sacrifice of prayer. Note Johan’s words in Jonah Chapter 2:

1Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, 2 And said, 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. 3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. 4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6 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. 7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. 8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. 9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. 10 And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

When God heard Jonah's prayer of mercy which he prayed symbolically “looking toward” (as Solomon requested) the temple, God responds by having the fish release Jonah from his bondage. I believe that when you see the incredible link between the two events (Solomon and Johah) you get an even more impactful story than if an actual fish swallowed Jonah.

  • Good answer +1. The Bible is full of "fantastic stories", visions, supernatural events and many more. If one does not believe these things, OK, but then the same person does not accept the Bible.
    – user25930
    Nov 25, 2018 at 20:13
  • I seem to recall the point made as well that water courses prevent the journey in the timelines described. You have to believe in more than one miracle to take the story literally. Nov 26, 2018 at 4:02

I agree with you that this Bible account must be taked in a literal way. Nothing in the text suggests it could be understood in a metaphoric, parabolic, or - anyway - symbolic talk.

However, your question revolves around the search for the kind of 'fish' swallowed Jonah. There were a number of 'fishes' responding to that task. I think the shark family included the more probable individual to perform the Jonah's swallowing. For some examples, search for (Google images and text) the Charcarocles megalodon, about 18 metres long, or, the Leedsichtys problematicus, about 22 metres long, both with a proportional width, capable to swallow more than one man.


The article in the link below presents evidence to link the biblical account of Jonah as a reality. Part of the article says this:

There are at least two species of Mediterranean marine life that are known to be able to swallow a man whole. These are the cachalot and the white shark. Both creatures are known to prowl the Mediterranean and have been known to Mediterranean sailors since antiquity. Aristotle described both species in his 4th-century B.C. Historia Animalium.

As for Jonah’s success in Nineveh, Orientalist Henry Clay Trumbull made a valid point when he wrote, “What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god [Dagon]was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very centre of worship” (H. Clay Trumbull, “Jonah in Nineveh.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 2, No.1, 1892, p. 56).

Jonah needed only to cause enough of a stir to gain himself admittance to the king who, upon believing Jonah’s message of imminent doom for himself, would have the power to proclaim a citywide day of fasting and penance. According to the biblical narrative that’s exactly what happened (Jonah 3:6-9). So we see that, given the caveat that Jonah was spewed upon the shore by a great fish, Nineveh’s repentance follows from a very logical progression.

The article also points out that Jesus spoke of Jonah’s ordeal as a real historical event. He used it as a typological metaphor for His own crucifixion and resurrection, itself a miraculous event. Matthew quoted Jesus as saying, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea creature, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, Someone greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:40-41; cf. Luke 11:29-30, 32).

Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/Jonah-whale.html


There have been cases of whales or big fish actually swallowing someone and the person coming back out. In one case the skin color was changed by the stomach acids.

I remember hearing this from D. James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church? Ft Lauderdale Fl.?) 20-30 years ago.


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