The story of Jonah and the whale is often trotted out as a prime example of one of the most absurd stories in the entire Bible. Atheists in particular, when looking to point out the absurdity of believing events in the Bible to have really happened, are likely to pull out this story.
We all know the story of Jonah and the whale.
We all know that story, because that's Disney's Pinocchio.
That is not the story of Jonah and the whale.
The story of Jonah is missing most of these details. Almost all of them, actually. The Bible doesn't say Jonah was eaten by a whale specifically (the word could refer to any animal that lives in the ocean), it doesn't say that Jonah was swallowed whole, it doesn't say Jonah's entire boat was swallowed, it doesn't say Jonah lived mostly comfortably on his ship for the entire time, it doesn't say that Jonah lived at all the entire time.
The entire whale narrative consists of two framing sentences, and between these a prayer. This narrative is itself framed by two other narratives, Jonah's call and refusal to go to Ninevah, followed by Jonah's preaching to Ninevah.
The instance of being swallowed by the whale (and I'm just going to say "whale") is an act of punishment on Jonah for his earlier refusal to preach to Ninevah. Jonah won't obey God and tries to run away on a boat (Jonah 1:3), so God sends a storm to end Jonah's life (Jonah 1:4). To save his shipmates, Jonah asks them to throw him into the ocean to drown (Jonah 1:12). This ends the storm (Jonah 1:15), and this begins the whale narrative.
Here's how the Bible describes the entire event of Jonah being devoured by the whale:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
(Jonah 1:17, 2:10)
That's it. That's all the narrative description of the entire incident. Anything beyond him being swallowed, being inside the fish for three days and nights, and being vomited out later, are details being added from cultural osmosis, not from the Bible.
There are a few more non-narrative details, though. Sandwiched between these two verses is a song, said to be prayed by Jonah from within the whale (Jonah 2:1).
The song is a prayer of repentance. Jonah disobeyed God's command to preach to the Ninevites, and for his disobedience, God had Jonah die.
Most people assume Jonah survives being thrown into the sea and swallowed. But if you read it without assuming his survival, it reads much differently.
It is not clear if he drowned first, or if the whale ate him and then he drowned, but the song he prays is describing his death by drowning in poetic terms: He is hurled into the heart of the seas (2:3); The currents swirled around him and the breakers swept over him (2:3); The engulfing waters surrounded him (2:5); Seaweed wrapped around his head (2:5). This is all poetic wording for drowning at sea.
The song is being uttered by his drowned spirit, either as he dies or shortly after, asking God to remember him. That Jonah is dead is implied in the song. Jonah is calling from deep in the realm of the dead (2:2), beneath the roots of the mountains (2:6), where the earth has barred him in forever (2:6). He is calling for the Lord to bring his life up from the pit (2:6). Those are all common ways, in Hebrew, to refer to death and the realm of the dead.
The song ends with Jonah's affirmation that he will make his vow good and will proclaim (to Ninevah) that salvation comes from the Lord. This final affirmation is when the Lord restores Jonah and causes the whale to vomit Jonah back out. This last bit is pretty important. Jonah's refusal to go to Ninevah was because he hated the Ninevites, and did not want them to repent and find mercy. It is when Jonah finally repents of this, proclaiming that salvation comes from God, that God undoes the punishment and restores Jonah to life.
And that is the real point of this book. Jonah reluctantly coming to terms with God being merciful to the entire world outside of Israel, even to the wicked nation of Ninevah.
So while the narrative descriptions are not very detailed, from the song that Jonah prays we can deduce that Jonah has drowned and died.
Of course, there are supernatural elements in this story. The supernatural elements are:
- God causing a storm to target Jonah's ship
- God sending the fish close enough to shore to spit out Jonah's corpse
- God raising Jonah's partially digested, possibly chewed body back to life
All of those elements deal with God's direct intervention in nature.
There is also the fact that Jonah clearly has a spirit/soul that survives beyond the death of the body. I say clearly, because the song is being prayed after Jonah has drowned. This is only possible if some conscious part of Jonah lives on after death. This is also a supernatural element to the story.
However, the notion that large, carnivorous sea animals exist, and that they might consume an entire human body, is hardly supernatural or absurd. The idea that human remains could be recovered from within a sea animal a few days later is also not absurd; it's happened recently. It hardly strains credibility to the point of deserving to be the constant, go-to example of an absurd story in the Bible.
The story doesn't actually require Jonah be swallowed whole. But in fact, there do exist fish large enough to swallow a human whole. It wouldn't be like the inside of Disney's Monstro, a massive cavern with ribs exposed inside the stomach and patches of dry "land" to stand on. More like being eaten by a snake. You'd die from lack of breathable air, and that's what happened to Jonah. I'm not saying we know what animal ate Jonah, just that we know of fish that could fit a whole human down its gullet.
I'm not saying there are no supernatural elements to Jonah. If your objection is that Jonah is absurd because something supernatural occurs, and anything supernatural is automatically absurd, then this is a dumb conversation. Just say that the supernatural doesn't exist because it's supernatural. It's faster. (And remember to sign up for tautology club!)
There are more reasonable objections to the story of Jonah.
Many think the story is identical to Disney's Pinocchio, so that it is saying not only that the supernatural happens, but that also there exists a giant sea creature with a stomach so cavernous that a human could live inside of it. It is not only a supernatural assertion, but also a natural one. The natural assertion should have some evidence for it, in the form of known creatures that large, and there aren't any we know of.
Others might be willing to grant that Jonah could have been swallowed whole by some particularly enormous specimen of a large species of shark, and then squeezed down its gullet and crammed into its stomach, but that it is impossible for a human to survive in that kind of condition. In this interpretation, the story of Jonah and the whale again has a natural claim wrapped up in the other supernatural ones.
But it's not necessary to believe either of those natural ideas to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a large fish, stayed in its belly for three days and three nights, and then was vomited out onto dry land.
In summary, as it relates to the whale, there's nothing strictly absurd about Jonah being inside the whale three days and three nights. It's definitely not the most impossible story in the Bible. It's not even the most impossible part of the book of Jonah.